« PreviousContinue »
Beneath the showery sky and sunshine mild,
And peace was on the earth and in the air,
The warrior lit the pile, and bound his captive there." These are very well-constructed and poetical verses, and indicate a latent power which wants only to be nursed and cherished to effect a great purpose,--not in a month or a year, perhaps, but in the matured life of the poet, when his fancies are ripened into high imaginings, and he has trained his spirit to dwell on the noble ends of his art and the high destinies which he may make for himself.
We confess that we dwell with much inore complacency upon a series of stanzas like “The Ages,” than upon Mr. Bryant's , specimens of blank verse. We were born at a period when no person aspired to the title of a poet, unless he could "build the lofty rhyme.” It was not enough that some scores of balanced lines could be produced, with arbitrary pauses, preserving no characteristic of poetry save the proper number of feet and the regular cæsura and cadence. Particularly was the attenuated, untoned blank verse, so affected by our poetasters, wholly unknown. Let the reader compare even so good a specimen of it as Mr. Bryant's “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood,” with Shakspeare's, Milton's, or even Thomson's unrhymed versification, and he will understand us. One is confused, and bewildered, and entangled, in the profusion of luxuriant imagery and soft sounds by which he is, in our day, surrounded : he cannot find his way out of the labyrinth. Even the simplicity and excellent taste of Rogers cannot always enable him to escape this difficulty; and with Mrs. Hemans (a true poetess, perhaps second to none of her sex save Sappho) it is often very irksome. In the hands of inferior geniuses, such as Miss Landon and Mr. Willis, it is occasionally intolerable. The truth is, that vigorous, manly, English blank verse has never been adequately written, save by those poets who could use rhyme most successfully. In secondary hands it has never made a reputation. The three poets, whose names we used for the purpose of contrast just now, are instances of this. The sonnets of Shakspeare are wonderful poems, of more difficult imitation, perhaps, so far as mere construction is concerned, than any other in the language. Ireland could counterfeit the dramatic
idiom, but he never attempted the sonnets. Some of Milton's minor poems show an accuracy of construction, and a knowledge of metrical harmony, never surpassed; and Thomson abundantly exhibited his control over the difficulties of rhyme in “ The Castle of Indolence," a most exquisite poem, worth, in our opinion, in the exhibition of the inventive power, half a dozen “Seasons."
We are sorry to see the poetic faculty attempting to escape so far and so often from the laws of rhyme. It is the easiest thing in nature to choose a romantic and affecting theme, and.. “go about it and about it,” until comparisons and metaphors are exhausted in a circle of epithets." But this is not poetry, any more than separate sketches tied together with pack-thread are a painting. Rhymes, says a capital authority, “are the rudders of verses ;" they are, moreover, the great condensers of thought, which young poets should very cautiously attempt to do without. Mr. Bryant is not, however, a great offender in this regard, either in kind or quantity. The greater number of his pieces are rhymed, and the few which are not so have fewer, by far, of the faults which pervade the modern school than those of most of his contemporaries. They have more vigour and tone, and fewer expletives, conjunctives, and other particles—the usual auxiliaries and allies of effeminacy of thought and poverty of language. “The Knight's Epitaph,” at page 61, is a fair example. It reminds one strongly of Rogers, save that it wants that inimitable simplicity of his, over which you are sure to shed tears.
He whose forgotten dust for centuries
He was not born to brook the stranger's yoke,
“ He lived, the impersonation of an age
And love, and music, his inglorious life.” We happen to have before us a copy of verses, (not wanting in poetical delicacy, though pointedly wanting in originality and directness,) which will illustrate a little what we have been saying relative to recent blank verse. They purport to be the production of a young lady, (by the by, young ladies very much affect this slipshod style of wooing the muses,) and are entitled “The Forest Vine.” They might as well be called by the name of any one of the forty other objects of which they treat, but their authoress had, no doubt, heard of “The Forest Sanctuary," and liked the title. Eight lines are all that have any relation to the vine, and three of these are devoted to Italy, France, and Spain, although the vine is an American vine, growing in the wilderness of our own West. The remaining sixty lines are appropriated to wild flowers, old oaks, deer, and wolves, the perils of Indian war, and the sepulchres of Indian chiefs, and at length to the immortality of the soul, and almost to the metempsychosis. The writer permitted her associations to hurry her along under the impression that she was writing poetry upon a grape-vine, instead of merely dreaming aloud upon all the romance of the prairies. She could not easily have strayed so far from her allegiance in rhyme, or, if she had, she would have committed her efforts to the flames instead of printing them. But she shall speak for herself:
(6 THE FOREST VINE.
“ It grew in the old wilderness—The vine
Is linked with thoughts of sunny Italy,
And moulder'd on the earth, the silent growth
« We stood beside A fallen oak; its aged limbs were spread Prone to the earth, uptorn by the rude wind, And perishing on the soil that once had fed Their giant strength : clinging around its roots And its decaying trunk, a grape vine wreathed Its fresh green foliage, draping the still grave With its luxuriance-meet garniture For such a sepulchre! a sepulchre most meet To wrap the bones of the old forest race ! For we had checked our idle wanderings, To gaze upon the relics of the deadThe dead of other ages! they who trodWhen that fallen tree was fresh in its green primeThe earth that it now cumber'd; they who once In savage freedom bounded through the wild, And quaffed the limpid spring, or shot along The swift canoe upon yon rushing wave, Or yell’d the fierce and horrid war-whoop round, Or gathered to the council fire, or sprang With proud firm step to mingle in the dance, And vaunt of their own triumphs ;—there they lie, Brittle and time-blanch'd fragments ! bones—dry bones! Prison'd for lingering years beneath the sod, And now that the strong wind hath torn away The bars of their dark cell, restored again To the clear sunshine. It seems strange to think That those wan relics once were clothed with life Breathing and living flesh-and sprang away O’er the green hills at morning, and at eve, Return'd again to the low cabin home, And found its shadows happiness.
« That dust-
« So let them rest! That faith, erring and dark as it might be,'
Was yet not wholly vain. We may not know
Is in the hands of One most merciful." This young lady has fallen into the sin of a very bad school, in believing that pretty epithets, and romantic allusions, strung together in flowing language, constitute poetry. She is not alone, by any means, in that belief. Half the writers in England for magazines and annuals are of the same opinion. Here they have all imbibed it, and practise accordingly. We are constantly smothered in insipid sweets. Poetry with these new Della Cruscans has come to be deemed a bunch of violets tied to a broken lute, or like Moore's oriental paradise,
“ 'Tis but black eyes and lemonade.” We have already said that Mr. Bryant is not a great offender in this regard, but he sometimes does fall into the errors of a class of writers far below him. An acute critic said of Bayle's great work, that “its plan was most successfully conceived to enable him to empty the numerous repositories, in which he had laid up his extensive reading, inasmuch as it permitted him every thing and committed him to nothing.” The little poems in Mr. Bryant's collection, entitled " Thanatopsis," "The Forest Hymn," “ The Prairies,” and one or two others, are subject to a similar remark. There is not sufficient directness of aim or accuracy of painting in them to enable the reader to decide upon their main point and purpose. They are redundant because the facility of the versification tempted the poet out of his way. They are not deficient in thought, but it is thought suffused and unconcentrated. They are not Doric but Corinthian, where the simplicity and appropriateness of the proportions are weakened and frittered away by minuteness and superfluity of ornament. They lack, in some measure, a beginning, a middle, and an end-a commencement, an advance, and a conclusion. They are descriptive monologues, where the writer is busy with his subject and himself, and scarcely meets his reader upon any common ground. They have "the golden exhalations of the dawn,” but they want the “ palpable and the familiar." We could quote passages in justification of these remarks, but there is so much beauty and delicacy, and even strength pervading them all, that we prefer to indicate rather than demonstrate faults, and to justify our good opinions rather than go farther for qualifications of them.
That we have said so much in no spirit of unfriendliness, we shall show by such quotations, of an opposite quality, as our limits still allow. We only wish that the volume was larger, and our space more ample. In almost all Mr. Bryant's rhymed