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The Poetic Principle
IN speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either
thorough or profound. While discussing, very much at random, the
essentiality of what we call Poetry, my principal purpose will be to cite
for consideration, some few of those minor English or American poems which
best suit my own taste, or which, upon my own fancy, have left the most
definite impression. By "minor poems" I mean, of course, poems of little
length. And here, in the beginning, permit me to say a few words in regard
to a somewhat peculiar principle, which, whether rightfully or wrongfully,
has always had its influence in my own critical estimate of the poem. I
hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, "a long
poem," is simply a flat contradiction in terms.
I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch
as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the
ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a
psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would
entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a
composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the
very utmost, it flags -- fails -- a revulsion ensues -- and then the poem
is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.
There are, no doubt, many who have found difficulty in reconciling the
critical dictum that the "Paradise Lost" is to be devoutly admired
throughout, with the absolute impossibility of maintaining for it, during
perusal, the amount of enthusiasm which that critical dictum would demand.
This great work, in fact, is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing
sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it
merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity -- its
totality of effect or impression -- we read it (as would be necessary) at
a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excitement
and depression. After a passage of what we feel to be true poetry, there
follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no critical prejudgment
can force us to admire; but if, upon completing the work, we read it
again, omitting the first book -- that is to say, commencing with the
second -- we shall be surprised at now finding that admirable which we
before condemned -- that damnable which we had previously so much admired.
It follows from all this that the ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect
of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity: -- and this is
precisely the fact.
In regard to the Iliad, we have, if not positive proof, at least very
good reason for believing it intended as a series of lyrics; but, granting
the epic intention, I can say only that the work is based in an imperfect
sense of art. The modem epic is, of the supposititious ancient model, but
an inconsiderate and blindfold imitation. But the day of these artistic
anomalies is over. If, at any time, any very long poem _were _popular in
reality, which I doubt, it is at least clear that no very long poem will
ever be popular again.
That the extent of a poetical work is, _ceteris paribus, _the measure
of its merit, seems undoubtedly, when we thus state it, a proposition
sufficiently absurd -- yet we are indebted for it to the Quarterly
Reviews. Surely there can be nothing in mere _size, _abstractly considered
-- there can be nothing in mere _bulk, so _far as a volume is concerned,
which has so continuously elicited admiration from these saturnine
pamphlets! A mountain, to be sure, by the mere sentiment of physical
magnitude which it conveys, _does _impress us with a sense of the sublime
-- but no man is impressed after _this _fashion by the material grandeur
of even "The Columbiad." Even the Quarterlies have not instructed us to be
so impressed by it. As _yet, _they have not _insisted _on our estimating
Lamar" tine by the cubic foot, or Pollock by the pound -- but what else
are we to _infer _from their continual plating about "sustained effort"?
If, by "sustained effort," any little gentleman has accomplished an epic,
1* us frankly commend him for the effort -- if this indeed be a thing conk
mendable--but let us forbear praising the epic on the effort's account. It
is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer
deciding upon a work of Art rather by the impression it makes -- by the
effect it produces -- than by the time it took to impress the effect, or
by the amount of "sustained effort" which had been found necessary in
effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and
genius quite another -- nor can all the Quarterlies in Christendom
confound them. By and by, this proposition, with many which I have been
just urging, will be received as self-evident. In the meantime, by being
generally condemned as falsities, they will not be essentially damaged as
On the other hand, it is clear that a poem may be improperly brief.
Undue brevity degenerates into mere epigrammatism. A very short poem,
while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a
profound or enduring effect. There must be the steady pressing down of the
stamp upon the wax. De Beranger has wrought innumerable things, pungent
and spirit-stirring, but in general they have been too imponderous to
stamp themselves deeply into the public attention, and thus, as so many
feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the
A remarkable instance of the effect of undue brevity in depressing a
poem, in keeping it out of the popular view, is afforded by the following
exquisite little Serenade--
I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright.
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Has led me -- who knows how? --
To thy chamber-window, sweet!
The wandering airs they faint
On the dark the silent stream --
The champak odors fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream;
The nightingale's complaint,
It dies upon her heart,
As I must die on shine,
O, beloved as thou art!
O, lift me from the grass!
I die, I faint, I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast:
O, press it close to shine again,
Where it will break at last.
Very few perhaps are familiar with these lines--yet no less a poet
than Shelley is their author. Their warm, yet delicate and ethereal
imagination will be appreciated by all, but by none so thoroughly as by
him who has himself arisen from sweet dreams of one beloved to bathe in
the aromatic air of a southern midsummer night.
One of the finest poems by Willis -- the very best in my opinion which
he has ever written--has no doubt, through this same defect of undue
brevity, been kept back from its proper position. not less in the
The shadows lay along Broadway,
'Twas near the twilight-tide--
And slowly there a lady fair
Was walking in her pride.
Alone walk'd she; but, viewlessly,
Walk'd spirits at her side.
Peace charm'd the street beneath her feet,
And Honor charm'd the air;
And all astir looked kind on her,
And called her good as fair--
For all God ever gave to her
She kept with chary care.
She kept with care her beauties rare
From lovers warm and true--
For heart was cold to all but gold,
And the rich came not to won,
But honor'd well her charms to sell.
If priests the selling do.
Now walking there was one more fair --
A slight girl, lily-pale;
And she had unseen company
To make the spirit quail--
'Twixt Want and Scorn she walk'd forlorn,
And nothing could avail.
No mercy now can clear her brow
From this world's peace to pray
For as love's wild prayer dissolved in air,
Her woman's heart gave way!--
But the sin forgiven by Christ in Heaven
By man is cursed alway!
In this composition we find it difficult to recognize the Willis who
has written so many mere "verses of society." The lines are not only
richly ideal, but full of energy, while they breathe an earnestness, an
evident sincerity of sentiment, for which we look in vain throughout all
the other works of this author.
While the epic mania, while the idea that to merit in poetry prolixity
is indispensable, has for some years past been gradually dying out of the
public mind, by mere dint of its own absurdity, we find it succeeded by a
heresy too palpably false to be long tolerated, but one which, in the
brief period it has already endured, may be said to have accomplished more
in the corruption of our Poetical Literature than all its other enemies
combined. I allude to the heresy of _The Didactic. _It has been assumed,
tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of
all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a morals and
by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We
Americans especially have patronized this happy idea, and we Bostonians
very especially have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads
that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake, and to acknowledge such
to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting
in the true poetic dignity and force:--but the simple fact is that would
we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately
there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor _can _exist any
work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem,
this poem _per se, _this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem
written solely for the poem's sake.
With as deep a reverence for the True as ever inspired the bosom of
man, I would nevertheless limit, in some measure, its modes of
inculcation. I would limit to enforce them. I would not enfeeble them by
dissipation. The demands of Truth are severe. She has no sympathy with the
myrtles. All _that _which is so indispensable in Song is precisely all
_that _with which _she _has nothing whatever to do. It is but making her a
flaunting paradox to wreathe her in gems and flowers. In enforcing a truth
we need severity rather than efflorescence of language. We must be simple,
precise, terse. We must be cool, calm, unimpassioned. In a word, we must
be in that mood which, as nearly as possible, is the exact converse of the
poetical. _He _must be blind indeed who does not perceive the radical and
chasmal difference between the truthful and the poetical modes of
inculcation. He must be theory-mad beyond redemption who, in spite of
these differences, shall still persist in attempting to reconcile the
obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth.
Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious
distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I
place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which in the
mind it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but
from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle
has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues
themselves. Nevertheless we find the _offices _of the trio marked with a
sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth,
so Taste informs us of the Beautiful, while the Moral Sense is regardful
of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and
Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms:
-- waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity -- her
disproportion -- her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the
harmonious -- in a word, to Beauty.
An immortal instinct deep within the spirit of man is thus plainly a
sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the
manifold forms, and sounds, and odors and sentiments amid which he exists.
And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in
the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and
sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments a duplicate source of de"
light. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing,
with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of
description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and
sentiments which greet _him _in common with all mankind -- he, I say, has
yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the
distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst
unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This
thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and
an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for
the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild
effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of
the glories beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among
the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that Loveliness
whose very elements perhaps appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by
Poetry, or when by Music, the most entrancing of the poetic moods, we find
ourselves melted into tears, we weep then, not as the Abbate Gravina
supposes, through excess of pleasure, but through a certain petulant,
impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at
once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys of which _through' _the
poem, or _through _the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate
The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness -- this struggle, on
the part of souls fittingly constituted -- has given to the world all
_that _which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand
and _to feel _as poetic.
The Poetic Sentiment, of course, may develop itself in various modes
--in Painting, in Sculpture, in Architecture, in the Dance -- very
especially in Music -- and very peculiarly, and with a wide field, in the
com position of the Landscape Garden. Our present theme, however, has
regard only to its manifestation in words. And here let me speak briefly
on the topic of rhythm. Contenting myself with the certainty that Music,
in its various modes of metre, rhythm, and rhyme, is of so vast a moment
in Poetry as never to be wisely rejected -- is so vitally important an
adjunct, that he is simply silly who declines its assistance, I will not
now pause to maintain its absolute essentiality. It is in Music perhaps
that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired
by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles -- the creation of supernal Beauty.
It _may _be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained
in _fact. _We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from
an earthly harp are stricken notes which _cannot _have been unfamiliar to
the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry
with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the
Poetic development. The old Bards and Minnesingers had advantages which we
do not possess -- and Thomas Moore, singing his own songs, was, in the
most legitimate manner, perfecting them as poems.
To recapitulate then: -- I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words
as _The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. _Its sole arbiter is Taste. With
the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations.
Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with
A few words, however, in explanation. _That _pleasure which is at once
the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I
maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of
Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or
excitement _of the soul, _which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and
which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of
the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the heart. I make
Beauty, therefore--using the word as inclusive of the sublime -- I make
Beauty the province of the poem, simply because it is an obvious rule of
Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from
their causes: -- no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the
peculiar elevation in question is at least _most readily _attainable in
the poem. It by no means follows, however, that the incitements of
Passion' or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be
introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve
incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work: but the
true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to
that _Beauty _which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.
I cannot better introduce the few poems which I shall present for your
consideration, than by the citation of the Proem to Longfellow's "Waif":
The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an Eagle in his flight.
I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o'er me,
That my soul cannot resist;
A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.
For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavor;
And to-night I long for rest.
Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;
Who through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.
Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.
Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
With no great range of imagination, these lines have been justly
admired for their delicacy of expression. Some of the images are very
effective. Nothing can be better than --
------------- the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Down the corridors of Time.
The idea of the last quatrain is also very effective. The poem on the
whole, however, is chiefly to be admired for the graceful _insouciance _of
its metre, so well in accordance with the character of the sentiments, and
especially for the _ease _of the general manner. This "ease" or
naturalness, in a literary style, it has long been the fashion to regard
as ease in appearance alone--as a point of really difficult attainment.
But not so:--a natural manner is difficult only to him who should never
meddle with it--to the unnatural. It is but the result of writing with the
understanding, or with the instinct, that _the tone, _in composition,
should always be that which the mass of mankind would adopt--and must
perpetually vary, of course, with the occasion. The author who, after the
fashion of "The North American Review," should be upon _all _occasions
merely "quiet," must necessarily upon _many _occasions be simply silly, or
stupid; and has no more right to be considered "easy" or "natural" than a
Cockney exquisite, or than the sleeping Beauty in the waxworks.
Among the minor poems of Bryant, none has so much impressed me as the one
which he entitles "June." I quote only a portion of it: --
There, through the long, long summer hours,
The golden light should lie,
And thick young herbs and groups of flowers
Stand in their beauty by.
The oriole should build and tell
His love-tale, close beside my cell;
The idle butterfly
Should rest him there, and there be heard
The housewife-bee and humming bird.
And what, if cheerful shouts at noon,
Come, from the village sent,
Or songs of maids, beneath the moon,
With fairy laughter blent?
And what if, in the evening light,
Betrothed lovers walk in sight
Of my low monument?
I would the lovely scene around
Might know no sadder sight nor sound.
I know, I know I should not see
The season's glorious show,
Nor would its brightness shine for me;
Nor its wild music flow;
But if, around my place of sleep,
The friends I love should come to weep,
They might not haste to go.
Soft airs and song, and the light and bloom,
Should keep them lingering by my tomb.
These to their soften'd hearts should bear
The thoughts of what has been,
And speak of one who cannot share
The gladness of the scene;
Whose part in all the pomp that fills
The circuit of the summer hills,
Is -- that his grave is green;
And deeply would their hearts rejoice
To hear again his living voice.
The rhythmical flow here is even voluptuous--nothing could be more
melodious. The poem has always affected me in a remarkable manner. The
intense melancholy which seems to well up, perforce, to the surface of all
the poet's cheerful sayings about his grave, we find thrilling us to the
soul--while there is the truest poetic elevation in the thrill. The
impression left is one of a pleasurable sadness. And if, in the remaining
compositions which I shall introduce to you, there be more or less of a
similar tone always apparent, let me remind you that (how or why we know
not) this certain taint of sadness is inseparably connected with all the
higher manifestations of true Beauty. It is, nevertheless,
A feeling of sadness and longing
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
The taint of which I speak is clearly perceptible even in a poem so full
of brilliancy and spirit as "The Health" of Edward Coate Pinckney: --
I fill this cup to one made up
Of loveliness alone,
A woman, of her gentle sex
The seeming paragon;
To whom the better elements
And kindly stars have given
A form so fair that, like the air,
'Tis less of earth than heaven.
Her every tone is music's own,
Like those of morning birds,
And something more than melody
Dwells ever in her words;
The coinage of her heart are they,
And from her lips each flows
As one may see the burden'd bee
Forth issue from the rose.
Affections are as thoughts to her,
The measures of her hours;
Her feelings have the flagrancy,
The freshness of young flowers;
And lovely passions, changing oft,
So fill her, she appears
The image of themselves by turns, --
The idol of past years!
Of her bright face one glance will trace
A picture on the brain,
And of her voice in echoing hearts
A sound must long remain;
But memory, such as mine of her,
So very much endears,
When death is nigh my latest sigh
Will not be life's, but hers.
I fill'd this cup to one made up
Of loveliness alone,
A woman, of her gentle sex
The seeming paragon --
Her health! and would on earth there stood,
Some more of such a frame,
That life might be all poetry,
And weariness a name.
It was the misfortune of Mr. Pinckney to have been born too far south.
Had he been a New Englander, it is probable that he would have been ranked
as the first of American lyrists by that magnanimous cabal which has so
long controlled the destinies of American Letters, in conducting the thing
called "The North American Review." The poem just cited is especially
beautiful; but the poetic elevation which it induces we must refer chiefly
to our sympathy in the poet's enthusiasm. We pardon his hyperboles for the
evident earnestness with which they are uttered.
It was by no means my design, however, to expatiate upon the _merits
_of what I should read you. These will necessarily speak for themselves.
Boccalini, in his "Advertisements from Parnassus," tells us that Zoilus
once presented Apollo a very caustic criticism upon a very admirable book:
-- whereupon the god asked him for the beauties of the work. He replied
that he only busied himself about the errors. On hearing this, Apollo,
handing him a sack of unwinnowed wheat, bade him pick out _all the chaff
_for his reward.
Now this fable answers very well as a hit at the critics--but I am by
no means sure that the god was in the right. I am by no means certain that
the true limits of the critical duty are not grossly misunderstood.
Excellence, in a poem especially, may be considered in the light of an
axiom, which need only be properly _put, _to become self-evident. It is
_not _excellence if it require to be demonstrated as such:--and thus to
point out too particularly the merits of a work of Art, is to admit that
they are _not _merits altogether.
Among the "Melodies" of Thomas Moore is one whose distinguished
character as a poem proper seems to have been singularly left out of view.
I allude to his lines beginning -- "Come, rest in this bosom." The intense
energy of their expression is not surpassed by anything in Byron. There
are two of the lines in which a sentiment is conveyed that embodies the
_all in all _of the divine passion of Love -- a sentiment which, perhaps,
has found its echo in more, and in more passionate, human hearts than any
other single sentiment ever embodied in words: --
Come, rest in this bosom, my own stricken deer
Though the herd have fled from thee, thy home is still here;
Here still is the smile, that no cloud can o'ercast,
And a heart and a hand all thy own to the last.
Oh! what was love made for, if 'tis not the same
Through joy and through torment, through glory and shame?
I know not, I ask not, if guilt's in that heart,
I but know that I love thee, whatever thou art.
Thou hast call'd me thy Angel in moments of bliss,
And thy Angel I'll be, 'mid the horrors of this, --
Through the furnace, unshrinking, thy steps to pursue,
And shield thee, and save thee, --or perish there too!
It has been the fashion of late days to deny Moore Imagination, while
granting him Fancy--a distinction originating with Coleridge--than whom no
man more fully comprehended the great powers of Moore. The fact is, that
the fancy of this poet so far predominates over all his other faculties,
and over the fancy of all other men, as to have induced, very naturally,
the idea that he is fanciful _only. _But never was there a greater
mistake. Never was a grosser wrong done the fame of a true poet. In the
compass of the English language I can call to mind no poem more pro.
foundry--more weirdly _imaginative, _in the best sense, than the lines
commencing--"I would I were by that dim lake"--which are the com. position
of Thomas Moore. I regret that I am unable to remember them.
One of the noblest--and, speaking of Fancy--one of the most singularly
fanciful of modern poets, was Thomas Hood. His "Fair Ines" had always for
me an inexpressible charm: --
O saw ye not fair Ines?
She's gone into the West,
To dazzle when the sun is down,
And rob the world of rest;
She took our daylight with her,
The smiles that we love best,
With morning blushes on her cheek,
And pearls upon her breast.
O turn again, fair Ines,
Before the fall of night,
For fear the moon should shine alone,
And stars unrivalltd bright;
And blessed will the lover be
That walks beneath their light,
And breathes the love against thy cheek
I dare not even write!
Would I had been, fair Ines,
That gallant cavalier,
Who rode so gaily by thy side,
And whisper'd thee so near!
Were there no bonny dames at home
Or no true lovers here,
That he should cross the seas to win
The dearest of the dear?
I saw thee, lovely Ines,
Descend along the shore,
With bands of noble gentlemen,
And banners waved before;
And gentle youth and maidens gay,
And snowy plumes they wore;
It would have been a beauteous dream,
If it had been no more!
Alas, alas, fair Ines,
She went away with song,
With music waiting on her steps,
And shootings of the throng;
But some were sad and felt no mirth,
But only Music's wrong,
In sounds that sang Farewell, Farewell,
To her you've loved so long.
Farewell, farewell, fair Ines,
That vessel never bore
So fair a lady on its deck,
Nor danced so light before,--
Alas for pleasure on the sea,
And sorrow on the shorel
The smile that blest one lover's heart
Has broken many more!
"The Haunted House," by the same author, is one of the truest poems ever
written,--one of the truest, one of the most unexceptionable, one of the
most thoroughly artistic, both in its theme and in its execution. It is,
moreover, powerfully ideal--imaginative. I regret that its length renders
it unsuitable for the purposes of this lecture. In place of it permit me
to offer the universally appreciated "Bridge of Sighs":--
One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Gone to her death!
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;--
Fashion'd so slenderly,
Young and so fair!
Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving not loathing.
Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.
Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful;
Past all dishonor,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.
Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.
The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver,
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life's history,
Glad to death's mystery,
Swift to be hurl'd--
Out of the world!
In she plunged boldly,
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran,--
Over the brink of it,
Picture it,--think of it,
Lave in it, drink of it
Then, if you can!
Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve's family--
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily,
Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?
Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?
Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
Oh! it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God's providence
Take her up tenderly;
Lift her with care;
Fashion'd so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!
Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, -- kindly, --
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!
Through muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fixed on futurity.
Spurred by contumely,
Into her rest, --
Cross her hands humbly,
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!
Owning her weakness,
Her evil behavior,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to her Saviour!
The vigor of this poem is no less remarkable than its pathos. The
versification although carrying the fanciful to the very verge of the
fantastic, is nevertheless admirably adapted to the wild insanity which is
the thesis of the poem.
Among the minor poems of Lord Byron is one which has never received
from the critics the praise which it undoubtedly deserves:--
Though the day of my destiny's over,
And the star of my fate bath declined
Thy soft heart refused to discover
The faults which so many could find;
Though thy soul with my grief was acquainted,
It shrunk not to share it with me,
And the love which my spirit bath painted
It never bath found but in _thee._
Then when nature around me is smiling,
The last smile which answers to mine,
I do not believe it beguiling,
Because it reminds me of shine;
And when winds are at war with the ocean,
As the breasts I believed in with me,
If their billows excite an emotion,
It is that they bear me from _thee._
Though the rock of my last hope is shivered,
And its fragments are sunk in the wave,
Though I feel that my soul is delivered
To pain--it shall not be its slave.
There is many a pang to pursue me:
They may crush, but they shall not contemn--
They may torture, but shall not subdue me--
'Tis of _thee _that I think--not of them.
Though human, thou didst not deceive me,
Though woman, thou didst not forsake,
Though loved, thou forborest to grieve me,
Though slandered, thou never couldst shake, --
Though trusted, thou didst not disclaim me,
Though parted, it was not to fly,
Though watchful, 'twas not to defame me,
Nor mute, that the world might belie.
Yet I blame not the world, nor despise it,
Nor the war of the many with one--
If my soul was not fitted to prize it,
'Twas folly not sooner to shun:
And if dearly that error bath cost me,
And more than I once could foresee,
I have found that whatever it lost me,
It could not deprive me of _thee._
From the wreck of the past, which bath perished,
Thus much I at least may recall,
It bath taught me that which I most cherished
Deserved to be dearest of all:
In the desert a fountain is springing,
In the wide waste there still is a tree,
And a bird in the solitude singing,
Which speaks to my spirit of _thee._
Although the rhythm here is one of the most difficult, the
versification could scarcely be improved. No nobler _theme _ever engaged
the pen of poet. It is the soul-elevating idea that no man can consider
himself entitled to complain of Fate while in his adversity he still
retains the unwavering love of woman.
From Alfred Tennyson, although in perfect sincerity I regard him as
the noblest poet that ever lived, I have left myself time to cite only a
very brief specimen. I call him, and _think _him the noblest of poets,
_not _because the impressions he produces are at _all _times the most
profound-- _not _because the poetical excitement which he induces is at
_all _times the most intense--but because it is at all times the most
ethereal--in other words, the most elevating and most pure. No poet is so
little of the earth, earthy. What I am about to read is from his last long
poem, "The Princess":--
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.
Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken'd birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.
Dear as remember'd kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign'd
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more.
Thus, although in a very cursory and imperfect manner, I have
endeavored to convey to you my conception of the Poetic Principle. It has
been my purpose to suggest that, while this principle itself is strictly
and simply the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty, the manifestation of
the Principle is always found in _an elevating excitement of the soul,
_quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart,
or of that truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason. For in regard to
passion, alas! its tendency is to degrade rather than to elevate the Soul.
Love, on the contrary--Love--the true, the divine Eros--the Uranian as
distinguished from the Diona~an Venus--is unquestionably the purest and
truest of all poetical themes. And in regard to Truth, if, to be sure,
through the attainment of a truth we are led to perceive a harmony where
none was apparent before, we experience at once the true poetical effect;
but this effect is referable to the harmony alone, and not in the least
degree to the truth which merely served to render the harmony manifest.
We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of
what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements
which induce in the Poet himself the poetical effect He recognizes the
ambrosia which nourishes his soul in the bright orbs that shine in
Heaven--in the volutes of the flower--in the clustering of low
shrubberies--in the waving of the grain-fields--in the slanting of tall
eastern trees -- in the blue distance of mountains -- in the grouping of
clouds-- in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks--in the gleaming of silver
rivers --in the repose of sequestered lakes--in the star-mirroring depths
of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds--in the harp of
Bolos --in the sighing of the night-wind--in the repining voice of the
forest-- in the surf that complains to the shore--in the fresh breath of
the woods --in the scent of the violet--in the voluptuous perfume of the
hyacinth--in the suggestive odour that comes to him at eventide from far
distant undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored.
He owns it in all noble thoughts--in all unworldly motives--in all holy
impulses--in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He
feels it in the beauty of woman--in the grace of her step--in the lustre
of her eye--in the melody of her voice--in her soft laughter, in her
sigh--in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in
her winning endearments--in her burning enthusiasms--in her gentle
charities--in her meek and devotional endurances--but above all--ah, far
above all, he kneels to it--he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in
the strength, in the altogether divine majesty--of her love.
Let me conclude by -- the recitation of yet another brief poem -- one
very different in character from any that I have before quoted. It is by
Motherwell, and is called "The Song of the Cavalier." With our modern and
altogether rational ideas of the absurdity and impiety of warfare, we are
not precisely in that frame of mind best adapted to sympathize with the
sentiments, and thus to appreciate the real excellence of the poem. To do
this fully we must identify ourselves in fancy with the soul of the old
Then mounte! then mounte, brave gallants all,
And don your helmes amaine:
Deathe's couriers. Fame and Honor call
No shrewish teares shall fill your eye
When the sword-hilt's in our hand, --
Heart-whole we'll part, and no whit sighe
For the fayrest of the land;
Let piping swaine, and craven wight,
Thus weepe and poling crye,
Our business is like men to fight.
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