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P.'s Correspondence

From Mosses From An Old Manse


My unfortunate friend P. has lost the thread of his life by the
interposition of long intervals of partially disordered reason. The
past and present are jumbled together in his mind in a manner often
productive of curious results, and which will be better understood
after the perusal of the following letter than from any description
that I could give. The poor fellow, without once stirring from the
little whitewashed, iron-grated room to which he alludes in his
first paragraph, is nevertheless a great traveller, and meets in his
wanderings a variety of personages who have long ceased to be
visible to any eye save his own. In my opinion, all this is not so
much a delusion as a partly wilful and partly involuntary sport of
the imagination, to which his disease has imparted such morbid
energy that he beholds these spectral scenes and characters with no
less distinctness than a play upon the stage, and with somewhat more
of illusive credence. Many of his letters are in my possession, some
based upon the same vagary as the present one, and others upon
hypotheses not a whit short of it in absurdity. The whole form a
series of correspondence, which, should fate seasonably remove my
poor friend from what is to him a world of moonshine, I promise
myself a pious pleasure in editing for the public eye. P. had
always a hankering after literary reputation, and has made more than
one unsuccessful effort to achieve it. It would not be a little
odd, if, after missing his object while seeking it by the light of
reason, he should prove to have stumbled upon it in his misty
excursions beyond the limits of sanity.


LONDON, February 29, 1845.

MY DEAR FRIEND: Old associations cling to the mind with astonishing
tenacity. Daily custom grows up about us like a stone wall, and
consolidates itself into almost as material an entity as mankind's
strongest architecture. It is sometimes a serious question with me
whether ideas be not really visible and tangible, and endowed with
all the other qualities of matter. Sitting as I do at this moment in
my hired apartment, writing beside the hearth, over which hangs a
print of Queen Victoria, listening to the muffled roar of the
world's metropolis, and with a window at but five paces distant,
through which, whenever I please, I can gaze out on actual London,--
with all this positive certainty as to my whereabouts, what kind of
notion, do you think, is just now perplexing my brain? Why,--would
you believe it?--that all this time I am still an inhabitant of that
wearisome little chamber,--that whitewashed little chamber,--that
little chamber with its one small window, across which, from some
inscrutable reason of taste or convenience, my landlord had placed a
row of iron bars,--that same little chamber, in short, whither your
kindness has so often brought you to visit me! Will no length of
time or breadth of space enfranchise me from that unlovely abode? I
travel; but it seems to be like the snail, with my house upon my
head. Ah, well! I am verging, I suppose, on that period of life
when present scenes and events make but feeble impressions in
comparison with those of yore; so that I must reconcile myself to be
more and more the prisoner of Memory, who merely lets me hop about a
little with her chain around my leg.

My letters of introduction have been of the utmost service, enabling
me to make the acquaintance of several distinguished characters who,
until now, have seemed as remote from the sphere of my personal
intercourse as the wits of Queen Anne's time or Ben Jenson's
compotators at the Mermaid. One of the first of which I availed
myself was the letter to Lord Byron. I found his lordship looking
much older than I had anticipated, although, considering his former
irregularities of life and the various wear and tear of his
constitution, not older than a man on the verge of sixty reasonably
may look. But I had invested his earthly frame, in my imagination,
with the poet's spiritual immortality. He wears a brown wig, very
luxuriantly curled, and extending down over his forehead. The
expression of his eyes is concealed by spectacles. His early
tendency to obesity having increased, Lord Byron is now enormously
fat,--so fat as to give the impression of a person quite overladen
with his own flesh, and without sufficient vigor to diffuse his
personal life through the great mass of corporeal substance which
weighs upon him so cruelly. You gaze at the mortal heap; and, while
it fills your eye with what purports to be Byron, you murmur within
yourself, "For Heaven's sake, where is he?" Were I disposed to be
caustic, I might consider this mass of earthly matter as the symbol,
in a material shape, of those evil habits and carnal vices which
unspiritualize man's nature and clog up his avenues of communication
with the better life. But this would be too harsh; and, besides,
Lord Byron's morals have been improving while his outward man has
swollen to such unconscionable circumference. Would that he were
leaner; for, though he did me the honor to present his hand, yet it
was so puffed out with alien substance that I could not feel as if I
had touched the hand that wrote Childe Harold.

On my entrance his lordship apologized for not rising to receive me,
on the sufficient plea that the gout for several years past had
taken up its constant residence in his right foot, which accordingly
was swathed in many rolls of flannel and deposited upon a cushion.
The other foot was hidden in the drapery of his chair. Do you
recollect whether Byron's right or left foot was the deformed one.

The noble poet's reconciliation with Lady Byron is now, as you are
aware, of ten years' standing; nor does it exhibit, I am assured,
any symptom of breach or fracture. They are said to be, if not a
happy, at least a contented, or at all events a quiet couple,
descending the slope of life with that tolerable degree of mutual
support which will enable them to come easily and comfortably to the
bottom. It is pleasant to reflect how entirely the poet has
redeemed his youthful errors in this particular. Her ladyship's
influence, it rejoices me to add, has been productive of the
happiest results upon Lord Byron in a religious point of view. He
now combines the most rigid tenets of Methodism with the ultra
doctrines of the Puseyites; the former being perhaps due to the
convictions wrought upon his mind by his noble consort, while the
latter are the embroidery and picturesque illumination demanded by
his imaginative character. Much of whatever expenditure his
increasing habits of thrift continue to allow him is bestowed in the
reparation or beautifying of places of worship; and this nobleman,
whose name was once considered a synonyme of the foul fiend, is now
all but canonized as a saint in many pulpits of the metropolis and
elsewhere. In politics, Lord Byron is an uncompromising
conservative, and loses no opportunity, whether in the House of
Lords or in private circles, of denouncing and repudiating the
mischievous and anarchical notions of his earlier day. Nor does he
fail to visit similar sins in other people with the sincerest
vengeance which his somewhat blunted pen is capable of inflicting.
Southey and he are on the most intimate terms. You are aware that,
some little time before the death of Moore, Byron caused that
brilliant but reprehensible man to be evicted from his house. Moore
took the insult so much to heart that, it is said to have been one
great cause of the fit of illness which brought him to the grave.
Others pretend that the lyrist died in a very happy state of mind,
singing one of his own sacred melodies, and expressing his belief
that it would be heard within the gate of paradise, and gain him
instant and honorable admittance. I wish he may have found it so.

I failed not, as you may suppose, in the course of conversation with
Lord Byron, to pay the weed of homage due to a mighty poet, by
allusions to passages in Childe Harold, and Manfred, and Don Juan,
which have made so large a portion of the music of my life. My
words, whether apt or otherwise, were at least warm with the
enthusiasm of one worthy to discourse of immortal poesy. It was
evident, however, that they did not go precisely to the right spot.
I could perceive that there was some mistake or other, and was not a
little angry with myself, and ashamed of my abortive attempt to
throw back, from my own heart to the gifted author's ear, the echo
of those strains that have resounded throughout the world. But by
and by the secret peeped quietly out. Byron,--I have the
information from his own lips, so that you need not hesitate to
repeat it in literary circles,--Byron is preparing a new edition of
his complete works, carefully corrected, expurgated, and amended, in
accordance with his present creed of taste, morals, politics, and
religion. It so happened that the very passages of highest
inspiration to which I had alluded were among the condemned and
rejected rubbish which it is his purpose to cast into the gulf of
oblivion. To whisper you the truth, it appears to me that his
passions having burned out, the extinction of their vivid and
riotous flame has deprived Lord Byron of the illumination by which
he not merely wrote, but was enabled to feel and comprehend what he
had written. Positively he no longer understands his own poetry.

This became very apparent on his favoring me so far as to read a few
specimens of Don Juan in the moralized version. Whatever is
licentious, whatever disrespectful to the sacred mysteries of our
faith, whatever morbidly melancholic or splenetically sportive,
whatever assails settled constitutions of government or systems of
society, whatever could wound the sensibility of any mortal, except
a pagan, a republican, or a dissenter, has been unrelentingly
blotted out, and its place supplied by unexceptionable verses in his
lordship's later style. You may judge how much of the poem remains
as hitherto published. The result is not so good as might be
wished; in plain terms, it is a very sad affair indeed; for, though
the torches kindled in Tophet have been extinguished, they leave an
abominably ill odor, and are succeeded by no glimpses of hallowed
fire. It is to be hoped, nevertheless, that this attempt on Lord
Byron's part to atone for his youthful errors will at length induce
the Dean of Westminster, or whatever churchman is concerned, to
allow Thorwaldsen's statue of the poet its due niche in the grand
old Abbey. His bones, you know, when brought from Greece, were
denied sepulture among those of his tuneful brethren there.

What a vile slip of the pen was that! How absurd in me to talk
about burying the bones of Byron, who, I have just seen alive, and
incased in a big, round bulk of flesh! But, to say the truth, a
prodigiously fat man always impresses me as a kind of hobgoblin; in
the very extravagance of his mortal system I find something akin to
the immateriality of a ghost. And then that ridiculous old story
darted into my mind, how that Byron died of fever at Missolonghi,
above twenty years ago. More and more I recognize that we dwell in
a world of shadows; and, for my part, I hold it hardly worth the
trouble to attempt a distinction between shadows in the mind and
shadows out of it. If there be any difference, the former are
rather the more substantial.

Only think of my good fortune! The venerable Robert Burns--now, if
I mistake not, in his eighty-seventh year--happens to be making a
visit to London, as if on purpose to afford me an opportunity of
grasping him by the hand. For upwards of twenty years past he has
hardly left his quiet cottage in Ayrshire for a single night, and
has only been drawn hither now by the irresistible persuasions of
all the distinguished men in England. They wish to celebrate the
patriarch's birthday by a festival. It will be the greatest literary
triumph on record. Pray Heaven the little spirit of life within the
aged bard's bosom may not be extinguished in the lustre of that
hour! I have already had the honor of an introduction to him at the
British Museum, where he was examining a collection of his own
unpublished letters, interspersed with songs, which have escaped the
notice of all his biographers.

Poh! Nonsense! What am I thinking of? How should Burns have been
embalmed in biography when he is still a hearty old man?

The figure of the bard is tall and in the highest degree reverend,
nor the less so that it is much bent by the burden of time. His
white hair floats like a snowdrift around his face, in which are
seen the furrows of intellect and passion, like the channels of
headlong torrents that have foamed themselves away. The old
gentleman is in excellent preservation, considering his time of
life. He has that crickety sort of liveliness,--I mean the
cricket's humor of chirping for any cause or none,--which is perhaps
the most favorable mood that can befall extreme old age. Our pride
forbids us to desire it for ourselves, although we perceive it to be
a beneficence of nature in the case of others. I was surprised to
find it in Burns. It seems as if his ardent heart and brilliant
imagination had both burned down to the last embers, leaving only a
little flickering flame in one corner, which keeps dancing upward
and laughing all by itself. He is no longer capable of pathos. At
the request of Allan Cunningham, he attempted to sing his own song
to Mary in Heaven; but it was evident that the feeling of those
verses, so profoundly true and so simply expressed, was entirely
beyond the scope of his present sensibilities; and, when a touch of
it did partially awaken him, the tears immediately gushed into his
eyes and his voice broke into a tremulous cackle. And yet he but
indistinctly knew wherefore he was weeping. Ah, he must not think
again of Mary in Heaven until he shake off the dull impediment of
time and ascend to meet her there.

Burns then began to repeat Tan O'Shanter; but was so tickled with
its wit and humor--of which, however, I suspect he had but a
traditionary sense--that he soon burst into a fit of chirruping
laughter, succeeded by a cough, which brought this not very
agreeable exhibition to a close. On the whole, I would rather not
have witnessed it. It is a satisfactory idea, however, that the
last forty years of the peasant poet's life have been passed in
competence and perfect comfort. Having been cured of his bardic
improvidence for many a day past, and grown as attentive to the main
chance as a canny Scotsman should be, he is now considered to he
quite well off as to pecuniary circumstances. This, I suppose, is
worth having lived so long for.

I took occasion to inquire of some of the countrymen of Burns in
regard to the health of Sir Walter Scott. His condition, I am sorry
to say, remains the same as for ten years past; it is that of a
hopeless paralytic, palsied not more in body than in those nobler
attributes of which the body is the instrument. And thus he
vegetates from day to day and from year to year at that splendid
fantasy of Abbotsford, which grew out of his brain, and became a
symbol of the great romancer's tastes, feelings, studies,
prejudices, and modes of intellect. Whether in verse, prose, or
architecture, he could achieve but one thing, although that one in
infinite variety. There he reclines, on a couch in his library, and
is said to spend whole hours of every day in dictating tales to an
amanuensis,--to an imaginary amanuensis; for it is not deemed worth
any one's trouble now to take down what flows from that once
brilliant fancy, every image of which was formerly worth gold and
capable of being coined. Yet Cunningham, who has lately seen him,
assures me that there is now and then a touch of the genius,--a
striking combination of incident, or a picturesque trait of
character, such as no other man alive could have bit off,--a glimmer
from that ruined mind, as if the sun had suddenly flashed on a half-
rusted helmet in the gloom of an ancient ball. But the plots of
these romances become inextricably confused; the characters melt
into one another; and the tale loses itself like the course of a
stream flowing through muddy and marshy ground.

For my part, I can hardly regret that Sir Walter Scott had lost his
consciousness of outward things before his works went out of vogue.
It was good that he should forget his fame rather than that fame
should first have forgotten him. Were he still a writer, and as
brilliant a one as ever, he could no longer maintain anything like
the same position in literature. The world, nowadays, requires a
more earnest purpose, a deeper moral, and a closer and homelier
truth than he was qualified to supply it with. Yet who can be to
the present generation even what Scott has been to the past? I had
expectations from a young man,--one Dickens,--who published a few
magazine articles, very rich in humor, and not without symptoms of
genuine pathos; but the poor fellow died shortly after commencing an
odd series of sketches, entitled, I think, the Pickwick Papers. Not
impossibly the world has lost more than it dreams of by the untimley
death of this Mr. Dickens.

Whom do you think I met in Pall Mall the other day? You would not
hit it in ten guesses. Why, no less a man than Napoleon Bonaparte,
or all that is now left of him,--that is to say, the skin, bones,
and corporeal substance, little cocked hat, green coat, white
breeches, and small sword, which are still known by his redoubtable
name. He was attended only by two policemen, who walked quietly
behind the phantasm of the old ex-emperor, appearing to have no duty
in regard to him except to see that none of the light-fingered
gentry should possess themselves of thee star of the Legion of
Honor. Nobody save myself so much as turned to look after him; nor,
it grieves me to confess, could even I contrive to muster up any
tolerable interest, even by all that the warlike spirit, formerly
manifested within that now decrepit shape, had wrought upon our
globe. There is no surer method of annihilating the magic influence
of a great renown than by exhibiting the possessor of it in the
decline, the overthrow, the utter degradation of his powers,--buried
beneath his own mortality,--and lacking even the qualities of sense
that enable the most ordinary men to bear themselves decently in the
eye of the world. This is the state to which disease, aggravated by
long endurance of a tropical climate, and assisted by old age,--for
he is now above seventy,--has reduced Bonaparte. The British
government has acted shrewdly in retransporting him from St. Helena
to England. They should now restore him to Paris, and there let him
once again review the relics of his armies. His eye is dull and
rheumy; his nether lip hung down upon his chin. While I was
observing him there chanced to be a little extra bustle in the
street; and he, the brother of Caesar and Hannibal,--the great
captain who had veiled the world in battle-smoke and tracked it
round with bloody footsteps,--was seized with a nervous trembling,
and claimed the protection of the two policemen by a cracked and
dolorous cry. The fellows winked at one another, laughed aside,
and, patting Napoleon on the back, took each an arm and led him
away.

Death and fury! Ha, villain, how came you hither? Avaunt! or I
fling my inkstand at your head. Tush, tusk; it is all a mistake.
Pray, my dear friend, pardon this little outbreak. The fact is, the
mention of those two policemen, and their custody of Bonaparte, had
called up the idea of that odious wretch--you remember him well--who
was pleased to take such gratuitous and impertinent care of my
person before I quitted New England. Forthwith up rose before my
mind's eye that same little whitewashed room, with the iron-grated
window,--strange that it should have been iron-grated!--where, in
too easy compliance with the absurd wishes of my relatives, I have
wasted several good years of my life. Positively it seemed to me
that I was still sitting there, and that the keeper--not that he
ever was my keeper neither, but only a kind of intrusive devil of a
body-servant--had just peeped in at the door. The rascal! I owe
him an old grudge, and will find a time to pay it yet. Fie! fie!
The mere thought of him has exceedingly discomposed me. Even now
that hateful chamber--the iron-grated window, which blasted the
blessed sunshine as it fell through the dusty panes and made it
poison to my soul-looks more distinct to my view than does this my
comfortable apartment in the heart of London. The reality--that
which I know to be such--hangs like remnants of tattered scenery
over the intolerably prominent illusion. Let us think of it no
more.

You will be anxious to hear of Shelley. I need not say, what is
known to all the world, that this celebrated poet has for many years
past been reconciled to the Church of England. In his more recent
works he has applied his fine powers to the vindication of the
Christian faith, with an especial view to that particular
development. Latterly, as you may not have heard, he has taken
orders, and been inducted to a small country living in the gift of
the Lord Chancellor. Just now, luckily for me, he has come to the
metropolis to superintend the publication of a volume of discourses
treating of the poetico-philosophical proofs of Christianity on the
basis of the Thirty-nine Articles. On my first introduction I felt
no little embarrassment as to the manner of combining what I had to
say to the author of _Queen Mali_, the _Revolt of Islam_, and
_Prometheus Unbound_ with such acknowledgments as might be
acceptable to a Christian minister and zealous upholder of the
Established Church. But Shelley soon placed me at my ease.
Standing where he now does, and reviewing all his successive
productions from a higher point, he assures me that there is a
harmony, an order, a regular procession, which enables him to lay
his hand upon any one of the earlier poems and say, "This is my
work," with precisely the same complacency of conscience wherewithal
he contemplates the volume of discourses above mentioned. They are
like the successive steps of a staircase, the lowest of which, in
the depth of chaos, is as essential to the support of the whole as
the highest and final one resting upon the threshold of the heavens.
I felt half inclined to ask him what would have been his fate had he
perished on the lower steps of his staircase, instead of building
his way aloft into the celestial brightness.

How all this may be I neither pretend to understand nor greatly
care, so long as Shelley has really climbed, as it seems he has,
from a lower region to a loftier one. Without touching upon their
religious merits, I consider the productions of his maturity
superior, as poems, to those of his youth. They are warmer with
human love, which has served as an interpreter between his mind and
the multitude. The author has learned to dip his pen oftener into
his heart, and has thereby avoided the faults into which a too
exclusive use of fancy and intellect are wont to betray him.
Formerly his page was often little other than a concrete arrangement
of crystallizations, or even of icicles, as cold as they were
brilliant. Now you take it to your heart, and are conscious of a
heart-warmth responsive to your own. In his private character
Shelley can hardly have grown more gentle, kind, and affectionate
than his friends always represented him to be up to that disastrous
night when he was drowned in the Mediterranean. Nonsense, again,--
sheer nonsense! What, am I babbling about? I was thinking of that
old figment of his being lost in the Bay of Spezzia, and washed
ashore near Via Reggio, and burned to ashes on a funeral pyre, with
wine, and spices, and frankincense; while Byron stood on the beach
and beheld a flame of marvellous beauty rise heavenward from the
dead poet's heart, and that his fire-purified relics were finally
buried near his child in Roman earth. If all this happened three-
and-twenty years ago, how could I have met the drowned and burned
and buried man here in London only yesterday?

Before quitting the subject, I may mention that Dr. Reginald Heber,
heretofore Bishop of Calcutta, but recently translated to a see in
England, called on Shelley while I was with him. They appeared to
be on terms of very cordial intimacy, and are said to have a joint
poem in contemplation. What a strange, incongruous dream is the
life of man!

Coleridge has at last finished his poem of Christabel. It will be
issued entire by old John Murray in the course of the present
publishing season. The poet, I hear, is visited with a troublesome
affection of the tongue, which has put a period, or some lesser
stop, to the life-long discourse that has hitherto been flowing from
his lips. He will not survive it above a month, unless his
accumulation of ideas be sluiced off in some other way. Wordsworth
died only a week or two ago. Heaven rest his soul, and grant that
he may not have completed _The Excursion_! Methinks I am sick of
everything he wrote, except his _Laodamia_. It is very sad, this
inconstancy of the mind to the poets whom it once worshipped.
Southey is as hale as ever, and writes with his usual diligence.
Old Gifford is still alive, in the extremity of age, and with most
pitiable decay of what little sharp and narrow intellect the Devil
had gifted him withal. One hates to allow such a man the privilege
of growing old and infirm. It takes away our speculative license of
kicking him.

Keats? No; I have not seen him except across a crowded street, with
coaches, drays, horsemen, cabs, omnibuses, foot-passengers, and
divers other sensual obstructions intervening betwixt his small and
slender figure and my eager glance. I would fain have met him on
the sea-shore, or beneath a natural arch of forest trees, or the
Gothic arch of an old cathedral, or among Grecian ruins, or at a
glimmering fireside on the verge of evening, or at the twilight
entrance of a cave, into the dreamy depths of which he would have
led me by the hand; anywhere, in short, save at Temple Bar, where
his presence was blotted out by the porter-swollen bulks of these
gross Englishmen. I stood and watched him fading away, fading away
along the pavement, and could hardly tell whether he were an actual
man or a thought that had slipped out of my mind and clothed itself
in human form and habiliments merely to beguile me. At one moment
he put his handkerchief to his lips, and withdrew it, I am almost
certain, stained with blood. You never saw anything so fragile as
his person. The truth is, Keats has all his life felt the effects
of that terrible bleeding at the lungs caused by the article on his
Endymion in the Quarterly Review, and which so nearly brought him to
the grave. Ever since he has glided about the world like a ghost,
sighing a melancholy tone in the ear of here and there a friend, but
never sending forth his voice to greet the multitude. I can hardly
think him a great poet. The burden of a mighty genius would never
have been imposed upon shoulders so physically frail and a spirit so
infirmly sensitive. Great poets should have iron sinews.

Yet Keats, though for so many years he has given nothing to the
world, is understood to have devoted himself to the composition of
an epic poem. Some passages of it have been communicated to the
inner circle of his admirers, and impressed them as the loftiest
strains that have been audible on earth since Milton's days. If I
can obtain copies of these specimens, I will ask you to present them
to James Russell Lowell, who seems to be one of the poet's most
fervent and worthiest worshippers. The information took me by
surprise. I had supposed that all Keats's poetic incense, without
being embodied in human language, floated up to heaven and mingled
with the songs of the immortal choristers, who perhaps were
conscious of an unknown voice among them, and thought their melody
the sweeter for it. But it is not so; he has positively written a
poem on the subject of _Paradise Regained_, though in another sense
than that which presented itself to the mind of Milton. In
compliance, it may be imagined, with the dogma of those who pretend
that all epic possibilities in the past history of the world are
exhausted, Keats has thrown his poem forward into an indefinitely
remote futurity. He pictures mankind amid the closing circumstances
of the time-long warfare between good and evil. Our race is on the
eve of its final triumph. Man is within the last stride of
perfection; Woman, redeemed from the thraldom against which our
sibyl uplifts so powerful and so sad a remonstrance, stands equal by
his side or communes for herself with angels; the Earth,
sympathizing with her children's happier state, has clothed herself
in such luxuriant and loving beauty as no eye ever witnessed since
our first parents saw the sun rise over dewy Eden. Nor then indeed;
for this is the fulfilment of what was then but a golden promise.
But the picture has its shadows. There remains to mankind another
peril,--a last encounter with the evil principle. Should the battle
go against us, we sink back into the slime and misery of ages. If
we triumph--But it demands a poet's eye to contemplate the splendor
of such a consummation and not to be dazzled.

To this great work Keats is said to have brought so deep and tender
a spirit of humanity that the poem has all the sweet and warm
interest of a village tale no less than the grandeur which befits so
high a theme. Such, at least, is the perhaps partial representation
of his friends; for I have not read or heard even a single line of
the performance in question. Keats, I am told, withholds it from
the press, under an idea that the age has not enough of spiritual
insight to receive it worthily. I do not like this distrust; it
makes me distrust the poet. The universe is waiting to respond to
the highest word that the best child of time and immortality can
utter. If it refuse to listen, it is because he mumbles and
stammers, or discourses things unseasonable and foreign to the
purpose.

I visited the House of Lords the other day to hear Canning, who, you
know, is now a peer, with I forget what title. He disappointed me.
Time blunts both point and edge, and does great mischief to men of
his order of intellect. Then I stepped into the lower House and
listened to a few words from Cobbett, who looked as earthy as a real
clodhopper, or rather as if he had lain a dozen years beneath the
clods. The men whom I meet nowadays often impress me thus; probably
because my spirits are not very good, and lead me to think much
about graves, with the long grass upon them, and weather-worn
epitaphs, and dry bones of people who made noise enough in their
day, but now can only clatter, clatter, clatter, when the sexton's
spade disturbs them. Were it only possible to find out who are alive
and who dead, it would contribute infinitely to my peace of mind.
Every day of my life somebody comes and stares me in the face whom I
had quietly blotted out of the tablet of living men, and trusted
nevermore to be pestered with the sight or sound of him. For
instance, going to Drury Lane Theatre a few evenings since, up rose
before me, in the ghost of Hamlet's father, the bodily presence of
the elder Kean, who did die, or ought to have died, in some drunken
fit or other, so long ago that his fame is scarcely traditionary
now. His powers are quite gone; he was rather the ghost of himself
than the ghost of the Danish king.

In the stage-box sat several elderly and decrepit people, and among
them a stately ruin of a woman on a very large scale, with a
profile--for I did not see her front face--that stamped itself into
my brain as a seal impresses hot wax. By the tragic gesture with
which she took a pinch of snuff, I was sure it must be Mrs. Siddons.
Her brother, John Kemble, sat behind,--a brokendown figure, but
still with a kingly majesty about him. In lieu of all former
achievements, Nature enables him to look the part of Lear far better
than in the meridian of his genius. Charles Matthews was likewise
there; but a paralytic affection has distorted his once mobile
countenance into a most disagreeable one-sidedness, from which he
could no more wrench it into proper form than he could rearrange the
face of the great globe itself. It looks as if, for the joke's sake,
the poor man had twisted his features into an expression at once the
most ludicrous and horrible that he could contrive, and at that very
moment, as a judgment for making himself so hideous, an avenging
Providence had seen fit to petrify him. Since it is out of his own
power, I would gladly assist him to change countenance, for his ugly
visage haunts me both at noontide and night-time. Some other
players of the past generation were present, but none that greatly
interested me. It behooves actors, more than all other men of
publicity, to vanish from the scene betimes. Being at best but
painted shadows flickering on the wall and empty sounds that echo
anther's thought, it is a sad disenchantment when the colors begin
to fade and the voice to croak with age.

What is there new in the literary way on your side of the water?
Nothing of the kind has come under any inspection, except a volume
of poems published above a year ago by Dr. Channing. I did not
before know that this eminent writer is a poet; nor does the volume
alluded to exhibit any of the characteristics of the author's mind
as displayed in his prose works; although some of the poems have a
richness that is not merely of the surface, but glows still the
brighter the deeper and more faithfully you look into then. They
seem carelessly wrought, however, like those rings and ornaments of
the very purest gold, but of rude, native manufacture, which are
found among the gold-dust from Africa. I doubt whether the American
public will accept them; it looks less to the assay of metal than to
the neat and cunning manufacture. How slowly our literature grows
up! Most of our writers of promise have come to untimely ends.
There was that wild fellow, John Neal, who almost turned my boyish
brain with his romances; he surely has long been dead, else he never
could keep himself so quiet. Bryant has gone to his last sleep,
with the _Thanatopsis_ gleaming over him like a sculptured marble
sepulchre by moonlight. Halleck, who used to write queer verses in
the newspapers and published a Don Juanic poem called _Fanny_, is
defunct as a poet, though averred to be exemplifying the
metempsychosis as a man of business. Somewhat later there was
Whittier, a fiery Quaker youth, to whom the muse had perversely
assigned a battle-trumpet, and who got himself lynched, ten years
agone, in South Carolina. I remember, too, a lad just from college,
Longfellow by name, who scattered some delicate verses to the winds,
and went to Germany, and perished, I think, of intense application,
at the University of Gottingen. Willis--what a pity!--was lost, if
I recollect rightly, in 1833, on his voyage to Europe, whither he
was going to give us sketches of the world's sunny face. If these
had lived, they might, one or all of them, have grown to be famous
men.

And yet there is no telling: it may be as well that they have died.
I was myself a young man of promise. O shattered brain, O broken
spirit, where is the fulfilment of that promise? The sad truth is,
that, when fate would gently disappoint the world, it takes away the
hopefulest mortals in their youth; when it would laugh the world's
hopes to scorn, it lets them live. Let me die upon this apothegm,
for I shall never make a truer one.

What a strange substance is the human brain! Or rather,--for there
is no need of generalizing the remark,--what an odd brain is mine!
Would you believe it? Daily and nightly there come scraps of poetry
humming in my intellectual ear--some as airy as birdnotes, and some
as delicately neat as parlor-music, and a few as grand as organ-
peals--that seem just such verses as those departed poets would have
written had not an inexorable destiny snatched them from their
inkstands. They visit me in spirit, perhaps desiring to engage my
services as the amanuensis of their posthumous productions, and thus
secure the endless renown that they have forfeited by going hence
too early. But I have my own business to attend to; and besides, a
medical gentleman, who interests himself in some little ailments of
mine, advises me not to make too free use of pen and ink. There are
clerks enough out of employment who would be glad of such a job.

Good by! Are you alive or dead? and what are you about? Still
scribbling for the Democratic? And do those infernal compositors
and proof-readers misprint your unfortunate productions as vilely as
ever? It is too bad. Let every man manufacture his own nonsense,
say I. Expect me home soon, and--to whisper you a secret--in
company with the poet Campbell, who purposes to visit Wyoming and
enjoy the shadow of the laurels that he planted there. Campbell is
now an old man. He calls himself well, better than ever in his
life, but looks strangely pale, and so shadow-like that one might
almost poke a finger through his densest material. I tell him, by
way of joke, that he is as dim and forlorn as Memory, though as
unsubstantial as Hope.


Your true friend, P.

P. S.--Pray present my most respectful regards to our venerable and
revered friend Mr. Brockden Brown.


It gratifies me to learn that a complete edition of his works, in a
double-columned octavo volume, is shortly to issue from the press at
Philadelphia. Tell him that no American writer enjoys a more
classic reputation on this side of the water. Is old Joel Barlow
yet alive? Unconscionable man! Why, he must have nearly fulfilled
his century. And does he meditate an epic on the war between Mexico
and Texas with machinery contrived on the principle of the steam-
engine, as being the nearest to celestial agency that our epoch can
boast? How can he expect ever to rise again, if, while just sinking
into his grave, he persists in burdening himself with such a
ponderosity of leaden verses?


Nathaniel Hawthorne


Non-Fiction
Short Stories
Poetry