Sunday, September 12, 2010
Poe On Elizabeth Barrett Barrett
“A well-bred man,” says Sir James Puckle, in his “Gray Cap for a Green Head,” “will never give himself the liberty to speak ill of women.” We emphasize the “man.” Setting aside, for the present, certain rare commentators and compilers of the species ——— creatures neither precisely men, women, nor Mary Wollstonecraft’s — setting these aside as unclassifiable, we may observe that the race of critics are masculine — men. With the exception, perhaps, of Mrs. Anne Royal, we can call to mind no female who has occupied, even temporarily, the Zoilus throne. And this, the Salic law, is an evil; for the inherent chivalry of the critical man renders it not only an unpleasant task to him “to speak ill of a woman,” (and a woman and her book are identical,) but an almost impossible task not to laud her ad nauseam. In general, therefore, it is the unhappy lot of the authoress to be subjected, time after time, to the downright degradation of mere puffery. On her own side of the Atlantic, Miss Barrett has indeed, in one instance at least, escaped the infliction of this lamentable contumely and wrong; but if she had been really solicitous of its infliction in America, she could not have adopted a more effectual plan than that of saying a few words about “the great American people,” in an American edition of her work, published under the superintendence of an American author. Of the innumerable “native” notices of “The Drama of Exile,” which have come under our observation, we can call to mind not one in which there is any thing more remarkable than the critic’s dogged determination to find nothing barren, from Beersheba to Dan. Another in the “Democratic Review” has proceeded so far, it is true, as to venture a very delicate insinuation to the effect that the poetess “will not fail to speak her mind though it bring upon her a bad rhyme;” beyond this, nobody has proceeded: and as for the elaborate paper in the new Whig Monthly, all that any body can say or think, and all that Miss Barrett can feel respecting it is, that it is an eulogy as well written as it is an insult well intended. Now of all the friends of the fair author, we doubt whether one exists, with more profound — with more enthusiastic reverence and admiration of her genius, than the writer of these words. And it is for this very reason, beyond all others, that he intends to speak of her the truth. Our chief regret is, nevertheless, that the limits of this “Journal” will preclude the possibility of our speaking this truth so fully, and so much in detail, as we could wish. By far the most valuable criticism that we, or that any one could give, of the volumes now lying before us, would be the quotation of three fourths of their contents. But we have this advantage — that the work has been long published, and almost universally read — and thus, in some measure, we may proceed, concisely, as if the text of our context, were an understood thing.
In her preface to this, the “American edition” of her late poems, Miss Barrett, speaking of the Drama of Exile, says: — “I decided on publishing it, after considerable hesitation and doubt. Its subject rather fastened on me than was chosen; and the form, approaching the model of the Greek tragedy, shaped itself under my hand rather by force of pleasure than of design. But when the compositional excitement had subsided, I felt afraid of my position. My own object was the new and strange experiment of the fallen Humanity, as it went forth from Paradise into the Wilderness, with a peculiar reference to Eve’s allotted grief, which, considering that self-sacrifice belonged to her womanhood, and the consciousness of being the organ of the Fall to her offence, appeared to me imperfectly apprehended hitherto, and more expressible by a woman than by a man.” In this abstract announcement of the theme, it is difficult to understand the ground of the poet’s hesitation to publish; for the theme in itself seems admirably adapted to the purposes of the closet dram. The poet, nevertheless very properly, conscious of failure — a failure which occurs not in the general, but in the particular conception, and which must be placed to the account of “the model of the Greek tragedies.” The Greek tragedies had and even hare high merits; but we act wisely in now substituting for the external and typified human sympathy of the antique Chorus, a direct, internal, living and moving sympathy itself; and although AEschylus might have done service as “a model,” to either Euripides or Sophocles, yet were Sophocles and Euripides in London to-day, they would, perhaps, while granting a certain formless and shadowy grandeur, indulge a quiet smile at the shallowness and uncouthness of that Art, which, in the old amphitheatres, had beguiled them into applause of the Œdipus at Colonos.
It would have been better for Miss Barrett if, throwing herself independently upon her own very extraordinary resources, and forgetting that a Greek had ever lived, she had involved her Eve in a series of adventures merely natural, or if not this, of adventures preternatural within the limits of at least a conceivable relation — a relation of matter to spirit and spirit to matter, that should have left room for something like palpable action and comprehensible emotion — that should not have utterly precluded the development of that womanly character which is admitted as the principal object of the poem. As the case actually stands, it is only in a few snatches of verbal intercommunication with Adam and Lucifer, that we behold her as a woman at all. For the rest, she is a mystical something or nothing, enwrapped in a fog of rhapsody about Transfiguration, and the Seed, and the Bruising of the Heel, and other talk of a nature that no man ever pretended to understand in plain prose, and which, when solar-microscoped into poetry “upon the model of the Greek drama,” is about as convincing as the Egyptian Lectures of Mr. Silk Buckingham — about as much to any purpose under the sun as the hi presto! conjurations of Signor Blitz. What are we to make, for example, of dramatic colloquy such as this? — the words are those of a Chorus of Invisible Angels addressing Adam:
Live, work on, O Earthy!
By the Actual’s tension
Speed the arrow worthy
Of a pure ascension.
From the low earth round you
Reach the heights above you;
From the stripes that wound you
Seek the loves that love you!
God’s divines” burneth plain
Through the crystal diaphane
Of our loves that love you.
Now we do not mean to assert that, by excessive “tension” of the intellect, a reader accustomed to the cant of the transcendentalists (or of those who degrade an ennobling philosophy by styling themselves such) may not succeed in fitting from the passage quoted, and indeed from each of the thousand similar ones throughout the book, something that shall bear the aspect of an absolute idea — but we do mean to say first, that, in nine cases out of ten, the thought when dug out will be found very poorly to repay the labor of the digging; — for it is the nature of thought in general, as it is the nature of some ores in particular, to be richest when most superficial. And we do mean to say, secondly, that, in nineteen cases out of twenty, the reader will suffer the most valuable ore to remain unmined to all eternity, before he will be put to the trouble of digging for it one inch. And we do mean to assert, thirdly, that no reader is to be condemned for not putting himself to the trouble of digging even the one inch; for no writer has the right to impose any such necessity upon him. What is worth thinking is distinctly thought: what is distinctly thought, can and should be distinctly expressed, or should not be expressed at all. Nevertheless, there is no more appropriate opportunity than the present for admitting and maintaining, at once, what has never before been either maintained or admitted — that there is a justifiable exception to the rule for which we contend. It is where the design is to convey the fantastic — not the obscure. To give the idea of the latter we need, as in general, the most precise and definitive terms, and those who employ other terms but confound obscurity of expression with the expression of obscurity. The fantastic in itself, however, — phantasm — may be materially furthered in its development by the quaint in phraseology: — a proposition which any moralist may examine at his leisure for himself.
The “Drama of Exile” opens with a very palpable bull: — “Scene, the outer side of the gate of Eden, shut fast with clouds” — [a scene out of sight!] — “from the depth of which revolves the sword of fire, self-moved. A watch of innumerable angels rank above rank, slopes up from around it to the zenith: and the glare cast from their brightness and from the sword, extends many miles into the wilderness. Adam and Eve are seen in the distance, flying along the glare. The angel Gabriel and Lucifer are beside the gate.” — These are the “stage directions” which greet us on the threshold of the book. We complain first of the bull: secondly, of the blue-fire melo-dramatic aspect of the revolving sword; thirdly, of the duplicate nature of the sword, which, if steel, and sufficiently enflamed to do service in burning, would, perhaps, have been m no temper to cut; and on the other hand, if sufficiently cool to have an edge, would have accomplished little in the way of scorching a personage so well accustomed to fire and brimstone and all that, as we have very good reason to believe Lucifer was. We cannot help objecting, too, to the “innumerable angels,” as a force altogether disproportioned to the one enemy to be kept out: — either the self-moving sword itself, we think, or the angel Gabriel alone, or five or six of the “innumerable” angels, would have sufficed to keep the devil (or is it Adam?) outside of the gate — which, after all, he might not have been able to discover, on account of the clouds.
Far be it from us, however, to dwell irreverently on matters which have venerability in the faith or in the fancy of Miss Barrett. We allude to these niäiseries at all — found here in the very first paragraph of her poem, — simply by way of putting in the clearest light the mass of inconsistency and antagonism in which her subject has inextricably involved her. She has made allusion to Milton, and no doubt felt secure in her theme (as a theme merely) when she considered his “Paradise Lost.” But even in Milton’s own day, when men had the habit of believing all things, the more nonsensical the more readily, and of worshipping, in blind acquiescence, the most preposterous of impossibilities — even then. there were not wanting individuals who would have read the great epic with more: — , could it have been explained to their satisfaction, how ind why it was, not only that a snake quoted Aristotle’s ethics, and behaved otherwise pretty much as he pleased, but that bloody battles were continually being fought between bloodless “innumerable angels,” that found no inconvenience m losing a wing one minute and a head the next, and if pounded up into puff-paste late in the afternoon, were as good “innumerable angels” as new the next morning, in time to be at reveille roll-call: And now — at the present epoch — there are few people who do not occasionally think. This is emphatically the thinking age; — indeed it may very well be questioned whether mankind ever substantially thought before. The fact is, if the “Paradise Lost” were written to-day (assuming that it had never been written when it was), not even its eminent, although over-estimated merits, would counterbalance, either in the public view, or in the opinion of any critic at once intelligent and honest, the multitudinous incongruities which are part and parcel of its plot.
But in the plot of the drama of Miss Barrett it is something even worse than incongruity which affronts: — a continuous mystical strain of ill-fitting and exaggerated allegory — if, indeed, allegory is not much too respectable a term for it. We are called upon, for example, to sympathise in the whimsical woes of two Spirits, who, upspringing from the bowels of the earth, set immediately to bewailing their miseries in jargon such as this:
I am the spirit of the harmless earth;
God spake me softly out among the stars,
As softly as a blessing of much worth —
And then his smile did follow unawares,
That all things, fashioned, so, for use and duty,
Might shine anointed with his chrism of beauty —
Yet I wail!
I drave on with the worlds exultingly,
Obliquely down the Godlight’s gradual fall —
Individual aspect and complexity
Of gyratory orb and interval,
Lost in the fluent motion of delight
Toward the high ends of Being, beyond Sight —
Yet I wail!
Innumerable other spirits discourse successively after the same fashion, each ending every stanza of his lamentation with the “yet I wail!” When at length they have fairly made an end, Eve touches Adam upon the elbow, and hazards, also, the profound and pathetic observation — “Lo, Adam, they wail!” — which is nothing more than the simple truth — for they do — and God deliver us from any such wailing again!
It is not our purpose, however, to demonstrate what every reader of these volumes will have readily seen self-demonstrated — the utter indefensibility of “The Drama of Exile,” considered uniquely, as a work of art. We have none of us to be told that a medley of metaphysical recitatives sung out of tune, at Adam and Eve, by all manner of inconceivable abstractions, is not exactly the best material for a poem. Still it may very well happen that among this material there shall be individual passages of great beauty. But should any one doubt the possibility, let him be satisfied by a single extract such as follows:
On a mountain peak
Half sheathed in primal woods and glittering
In spasms of awful sunshine, at that hour
A lion couched, — part raised upon his paws,
With his calm massive face turned full on shine,
And his mane listening. When the ended curse
Left silence in the world, right suddenly
He sprang up rampant, and stood straight and stiff,
As if the new reality of death
Were dashed against his eyes, — and roared so fierce,
(Such thick carnivorous passion in his throat
Tearing a passage through the wrath and fear) —
And roared so wild, and smote from all the hills
Such fast keen echoes crumbling down the vales
To distant silence, — that the forest beasts,
One after one, did mutter a response
In savage and in sorrowful complaint
Which trailed along the gorges.
There is an Homeric force here — a vivid picturesqueness in all men will appreciate and admire. It is, however, the longest quotable passage in the drama, not disfigured with blemishes of importance; — although there are many — very many passages of a far loftier order of excellence, so disfigured, and which, therefore, it would not suit our immediate e to extract. The truth is, — and it may be as well mentioned at this point as elsewhere — that we are not to look in Miss Barrett’s works for any examples of what has been occasionally termed “sustained effort;” for neither are there, in any of her poems, any long commendable paragraphs, nor are there any individual compositions which will bear the slightest examination as consistent Art-products. Her wild and magnificent genius seems to have contented itself with points — to have exhausted itself in flashes; — but it is the profusion — the unparalleled number and close propinquity of these points and flashes which render her book one flame, and justify us in calling her, unhesitatingly, the greatest — the most glorious of her sex.
The “Drama of Exile” calls for little more, in the way of comment, than what we have generally said. Its finest particular feature is, perhaps, the rapture of Eve — rapture bursting through despair — upon discovering that she still possesses, in the unwavering love of Adam, an undreamed-of and priceless treasure. The poem ends, as it commences, with a bull. The last sentence gives us to understand that “there is a sound through the silence, as of the falling tears of an angel.” How there can be sound during silence, and how an audience are to distinguish, by such sound, angel tears from any other species of tears, it may be as well, perhaps, not too particularly to inquire.
Next, in length, to the Drama, is “The Vision of Poets.” We object to the didacticism of its design, which the poetess thus states: `’I have attempted to express here my view of the mission of the veritable poet — of the self-abnegation implied in it, of the uses of sorrow suffered in it, of the great work accomplished in it through suffering, and of the duty and glory of what Balzac has beautifully and truly called ‘la patience angelique du genie.’’’ This “view” may be correct, but neither its correctness nor its falsity has anything to do with a poem. If a thesis is to be demonstrated, we need prose for its demonstration. In this instance, so far as the allegorical instruction and argumentation are lost sight of, in the upper current — so far as the main admitted intention of the work is kept out of view — so far only is the work a poem, and so far only is the poem worth notice, or worthy of its author. Apart from its poetical character, the composition is thoughtful, vivid, epigrammatic, and abundant in just observation — although the critical opinions introduced are not always our own. A reviewer in “Blackwood’s Magazine,” quoting many of these critical portraits, takes occasion to find fault with the grammar of this tristich:
Here Æschylus — the women swooned
To see so awful when he frowned
As the Gods did — he standeth crowned.
“What on earth,” says the critic, “are we to make of the words ‘the women swooned to see so awful’? .... The syntax will punish future commentators as much as some of his own corrupt choruses.” In general, we are happy to agree with this reviewer, whose decisions respecting the book are, upon the whole, so nearly coincident with ours, that we hesitated, through fear of repetition, to undertake a critique at all, until we considered that we might say a very great deal in simply supplying his omissions; but he frequently errs through mere hurry, and never did he err more singularly than at the point now in question. He evidently supposes that “awful” has been misused as an adverb and made referrible to “ women.” But not so; and although the construction of the passage is unjustifiably involute, its grammar is intact. Disentangling the construction, we make this evident at once: “Here AEschylus (he) standeth crowned, (whom) the women swooned to see so awful, when he frowned as the Gods did.” The “he” is excessive, and the “whom” is understood. Respecting the lines,
Euripides, with close and mild
Scholastic lips, that could be wild,
And laugh or sob out like a child
the critic observes: — “ ‘Right in the classes’ throws our intellect completely upon its beam-ends.” But, if so, the fault possibly lies in the crankness of the intellect; for the words themselves mean merely that Sophocles laughed or cried like a school-boy — like a child right (or just) in his classes — one who had not yet left school. The phrase is affected, we grant, but quite intelligible. A still more remarkable misapprehension occurs in regard to the triplet,
And Goethe, with that reaching eye
His soul reached out from, far and high,
And fell from inner entity.
The reviewer’s remarks upon this are too preposterous not to be quoted in full; — we doubt if any commentator of equal dignity ever so egregiously committed himself before. “Goethe,” he says, “is a perfect enigma, what does the word ‘fell’ mean? we suppose — that is, ‘not to be trifled with.’ But surely it sounds very strange, although it may be true enough, to say that his ‘fellness’ is occasioned by ‘inner entity.’ But perhaps the line has some deeper meaning which we are unable to fathom.” Perhaps it has: and this is the criticism — the British criticism — the Blackwood criticism — to which we have so long implicitly bowed down! As before, Miss Barrett’s verses are needlessly involved, but their meaning requires no OEdipus. Their construction is thus intended: — “And Goethe, with that reaching eye from which his soul reached out, far and high, and (in so reaching) fell from inner entity.” The plain prose is this: — Goethe, (the poet would say), in involving himself too far and too profoundly in external speculations — speculations concerning the world without him — neglected, or made miscalculations concerning his inner entity, or being, — concerning the world within This idea is involved in the metaphor of a person leaning from a window so far that finally he falls from it — the person being the soul, the window the eye.
Of the twenty-eight “Sonnets,” which immediately succeed the “Drama of Exile,” and which receive the especial commendation of Blackwood, we have no very enthusiastic opinion. The best sonnet is objectionable from its extreme artificiality; and, to be effective, this species of composition, requires a minute management — a well-controlled dexterity of touch — compatible neither with Miss Barrett’s deficient constructiveness, nor with the fervid rush and whirl of her genius. Of the particular instances here given, we prefer “the Prisoner,” of which the conclusion is particularly beautiful In general, the themes are obtrusively metaphysical, or didactic.
“The Romaunt of the Page,” an imitation of the old English ballad, is neither very original in subject, nor very skilfully put together. We speak comparatively, of course: — It is not very good — for Miss Barrett: — and what we have said of this poem will apply equally to a very similar production, “The Rhyme of the Dutchess May.” The “Poet and the Bird” — “A Child Asleep” — “Crowned and Wedded” — “Crowned and Buried” — “To Flush my Dog” — “The Four fold Aspect” — “A Flower in a Letter” — “A Lay of the early Rose” — “That Day” — “L. E. L’s Last Questio” — “Catarina to Camoens” — “Wine of Cyprus” — “The Dead Pan” — “Sleeping and Watching” — “A Portrait” — “The Mournful Mother” — and “A Valediction” — although all burning with divine fire, manifested only in scintillations, have nothing in them idiosyncratic. “The House of Clouds” and “The Last Bower” are superlatively lovely, and show the vast powers of the poet in the field best adapted to their legitimate display: — the themes, here, could not be improved. The former poem is purely imaginative; the latter is unobjectionably be cause unobtrusively suggestive of a moral, and is, perhaps, upon the whole, the most admirable composition in the two volumes: — or, if it is not, then “The Lay of the Brown Rosarie” is. In this last the ballad-character is elevated — the realized — and thus made to afford scope for an ideality at once the richest and most vigorous in the world. The peculiar foibles of the author are here too, dropped bodily, as a mantle, in the tumultuous movement and excitement of the narrative.
Miss Barrett has need only of real self-interest in her subjects, to do justice to her subjects and to herself. On the other hand, “A Rhapsody of Life’s Progress,” although gleaming with cold corruscations, is the least meritorious, because the most philosophical, effusion of the whole: — this, we say, in flat contradiction of the “spoudiotaton kai philosophikotaton genos” of Aristotle. “The Cry of the Human” is singularly effective, not more from the vigour and ghastly passion of its thought, than from the artistically-conceived arabesquerie of its rhythm. “The Cry of the Children,” similar, although superior in tone and handling, is full of a nervous unflinching energy — a horror sublime in its simplicity — of which a far greater than Dante might have been proud. “Bertha in the Lane,” a rich ballad, very singularly excepted from the wholesale commendation of the “Democratic Review,” as “perhaps not one of the best,” and designated by Blackwood, on the contrary, as “decidedly the finest poem of the collection,” is not the very best, we think, only because mere pathos, however exquisite, cannot be ranked with the loftiest exhibitions of the ideal. Of “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” the magazine last quoted observes that “some pith is put forth in its passionate parts.” We will not pause to examine the delicacy or lucidity of the metaphor embraced in the “putting forth of some pith;” but unless by “some pith” itself, is intended the utmost conceivable intensity and vigour, then the critic is merely damning with faint praise. With the exception of Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” we have never perused a poem combining so much of the fiercest passion with so much of the most ethereal fancy, as the “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” of Miss Barrett. We are forced to admit, however, that the latter work is a very palpable imitation of the former, which it surpasses in plot or rather in thesis, as much as it falls below it in artistical management, and a certain calm energy — lustrous and indomitable — such as we might imagine in a broad river of molten gold.
It is in the “Lady Geraldine” that the critic of Blackwood is again put at fault in the comprehension of a couple of passages. He confesses his inability “to make out the construction of the words, ‘all that spirits pure and ardent are cast out of love and reverence, because chancing not to hold.’ “ There are comparatively few American school-boys who could not parse it. The prosaic construction would run thus: — “all that (wealth understood) because chancing not to hold which, (or on account of not holding which) all pure and ardent spirits are cast out of love and reverence.” The “which” is involved in the relative pronoun “that” — the second word of the sentence. All that we know is, that Miss Barrett is right: — here is a parallel phrase, meaning — “all that (which) we know,” etc. The fact is, that the accusation of imperfect grammar would have been more safely, if more generally, urged: in descending to particular exceptions, the reviewer has been doing little more than exposing himself at all points.
Turning aside, however, from grammar, he declares his incapacity to fathom the meaning of
She has halls and she has castles, and the resonant steam-eagles
Follow far on the directing of her floating dove-like hand —
With a thunderous vapour trailing underneath the starry vigils,
So to mark upon the blasted heaven the measure of her land.
Now it must be understood that he is profoundly serious in his declaration — he really does not apprehend the thought designed — and he is even more than profoundly serious, too in intending these his own comments upon his own stolidity for wit: — “We thought that steam-coaches generally followed the directing of no hand except the stoker’s, but it, certainly, is always much liker [[sic]] a raven than a dove.” After this, who shall question the infallibility of Christopher North? We presume there are very few of our readers who will not easily appreciate the richly imaginative conception of the poetess: — The Lady Geraldine is supposed to be standing in her own door, (positively not on the top of an engine), and thence pointing, “with her floating dove-like hand,” to the lines of vapour, from the “resonant steam-eagles,” that designate upon the “blasted heaven,” the remote boundaries of her domain. — But, perhaps, we are guilty of a very gross absurdity ourselves, in commenting at all upon the whimsicalities of a reviewer who can deliberately select for special animadversion the second of the four verses we here copy:
Eyes, he said, now throbbing through me! are ye eyes that did undo me?
Shining eyes like antique jewels set in Parian statue-stone!
Underneath that calm white forehead are ye ever burning torrid
O’er the desolate sand desert of my heart and life undone?”
The ghost of the Great Frederic might, to be sure, quote at us, in his own Latin, his favorite adage, “De gustibus non est disputandus;” — but, when we take into consideration the moral designed, the weirdness of effect intended, and the historical adaptation of the fact alluded to, in the line italicized, (a fact of which it is by no means impossible that the critic is ignorant), we cannot refrain from expressing our conviction — and we here express it in the teeth of the whole horde of the Ambrosianians — that from the entire range of poetical literature there shall not, in a century, be produced a more sonorous — a more vigorous verse — a juster — a nobler — a more ideal — a more magnificent image — than this very image, in this very verse, which the most noted magazine of Europe has so especially and so contemptuously condemned.
“The Lady Geraldine” is, we think, the only poem of its author which is not deficient, considered as an artistical whole. Her constructive ability, as we have already suggested, is either not very remarkable, or has never been properly brought into play: — in truth, her genius is too impetuous for the minuter technicalities of that elaborate Art so needful in the building up of pyramids for immortality. This deficiency, then — if there be any such — is her chief weakness. Her other foibles, although some of them are, in fact, glaring, glare, nevertheless, to no very material ill purpose. There are none which she will not readily dismiss in her future works. She retains them now, perhaps, because unaware of their existence.
Her affectations are unquestionably many, and generally inexcusable. We may, perhaps, tolerate such words as “ble,” “chrysm,” “nympholeptic,” “oenomel,” and “chrysopras” — they have at least the merit either of distinct meaning, or of terse and sonorous expression; — but what can be well said in defence of the unnecessary nonsense of “‘ware” for “aware,” — of “bide,” for “abide” — of “ ‘gins,” for “begins” — of “ ‘las,” for “alas” — of “oftly,” “ofter,” and “oftest,” for “often,” “more often,” and “most often” — or of “erelong” in the sense of “long ago”? That there is authority for the mere words proves nothing; those who employed them in their day would not employ them if writing nom. Although we grant, too, that the poetess is very usually Homeric in her compounds, there is no intelligibility of construction, and therefore no force of meaning in “dew-pallid,” “pale-passioned,” and “silver-solemn.” Neither have we any partiality for “crave” or “supreme,” or “lament”; and while upon this topic, we may as well observe that there are few readers who do anything but laugh or stare, at such phrases as “L. E. L.’s Last Questio” — “The Cry of the Human” — “Leaning from my Human” — “Heaven assist the human” — “the full sense of your mortal” — “a grave for your divine” — “falling off from our created” — “he sends this gage for thy pity’s counting” — they could not press their futures on the present of her courtesy — or “could another fairer lack to thee, lack to thee?” There are few, at the same time, who do not feel disposed to weep outright, when they hear of such things as “Hope withdrawing her peradventure” — “spirits dealing in pathos of antithesis” — “angels in antagonism to God and his reflex beatitudes” — “songs of glories ruffling down doorways” — God’s possibles” — and “rules of Mandom.”
We have already said, however, that mere quaintness within reasonable limit, is not only not to be regarded as affectation, but has its proper artistic uses in aiding a fantastic effect. We quote, from the lines “To my dog Flush,” amplification:
Leap! thy broad tail waves a light!
Leap! thy slender feet are bright,
Canopied in fringes!
Leap! those tasselled ears of shine
Flicker strangely, fair and fine,
Down their golden inches!
And again — from the song of a tree-spirit, in the “Drama of Exile:”
The Divine impulsion cleaves
In dim movements to the leaves
Dropt and lifted, drops and lifted,
In the sun-light greenly sifted, —
In the sun-light and the moon-light
Greenly sifted through the trees.
Ever wave the Eden trees,
In the night-light and the noon-light,
With a ruffling of green branches,
Shaded off to resonances,
Never stirred by rain or breeze.
The thoughts, here, belong to the highest order of poetry, it they could not have been wrought into effective expression, without the instrumentality of those repetitions — those unusual phrases — in a word, those quaintnesses, which it has been too long the fashion to censure, indiscriminately, under the one general head of “affectation.” No true poet will fail to be enraptured with the two extracts above quoted — but we believe there are few who would not find a difficulty m reconciling the psychal impossibility of refraining from admiration, with the too-hastily attained mental conviction that, critically, there is nothing to admire.
Occasionally, we meet in Miss Barrett’s poems a certain far-fetchedness of imagery, which is reprehensible m the extreme. What, for example, are we to think of
Now he hears the angel voices
Folding silence in the room? —
undoubtedly, that it is nonsense, and no more; or of
How the silence round you shivers
While our voices through it go? —
again, unquestionably, that it is nonsense, and nothing beyond.
Sometimes we are startled by knotty paradoxes; and it is nat acquitting their perpetrator of all blame on their account to admit that, in some instances, they are susceptible of solution It is really difficult to discover anything for approbation, in enigmas such as
That bright impassive, passive angel-hood,
The silence of my heart is full of sound.
At long intervals, we are annoyed by specimens of repulsive imagery, as where the children cry:
How long, O cruel nation,
Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart —
Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation? etc.
Now and then, too, we are confounded by a pure platitude as when Eve exclaims:
Leave us not
In agony beyond what we can bear,
And in abasement below thunder mark!
or, when the Saviour is made to say:
So, at last,
He shall look round on you with lids too straight
To hold the grateful tears.
“Strait” was, no doubt, intended, but does not materially elevate, although it slightly elucidates, the thought. A very remarkable passage is that, also, wherein Eve bids the infant voices
Hear the steep generations, how they fall
Adown the visionary stairs of Time,
Like supernatural thunders — far yet near,
Sowing their fiery echoes through the hills!
Here, saying nothing of the affectation in “adown;” not alluding to the insoluble paradox of “far yet near;” not mentioning the inconsistent metaphor involved in the “sowing of fiery echoes;” adverting but slightly to the misusage of “like,” in place of “as,” and to the impropriety of making any thing like thunder, which has never been known to fall at all; merely hinting, too, at the misapplication of “steep,” to the nations,’’ instead of to the “stairs” — a perversion in no degree to be justified by the fact that so preposterous a figure synecdoche exists in the school books; — letting these things is, for the present, we shall still find it difficult to understand how Miss Barrett should have been led to think the principal idea itself — the abstract idea — the idea of tumbling down stairs in any shape, or under any circumstances, — either a poetical or a decorous conception. And yet we have seen this very passage quoted as “sublime,” by a critic who seems to take it for granted, as a general rule, that Nat-Leeism is the loftiest order of literary merit. That the lines very narrowly missed sublimity, we grant; that they came within a step of it, we admit; — but, unhappily, the step is that one step which, time out of mind, has intervened between the sublime and the ridiculous. So true is this, that any person — that even with a very partial modification of the imagery — a modification that shall not interfere with its richly spiritual tone — may elevate the quotation into unexceptionability. For example: and we offer it with profound deference —
Hear the far generations — how they crash,
From crag to crag, down the precipitous Time,
In multitudinous thunders that upstartle,
Aghast, the echoes from their cavernous lairs
In the visionary hills!
We have no doubt that our version has its faults — but it has, at least, the merit of consistency. Not only is a mountain mote poetical than a pair of stairs; but echoes are more appropriately typified as wild beasts than as seeds; and echoes and wild beasts agree better with a mountain than does a pair of stairs with the sowing of seeds — even admitting that these seeds be seeds of fire, and be sown broadcast “among the hills,’’ by a steep generation while in the act of tumbling down the stairs — that is to say, of coming down the stairs in too violent a hurry to be capable of sowing the seeds as accurately as all seeds should be sown; nor is the matter rendered any better for Miss Barrett, even if the construction of her sentence is to be understood as implying that the fiery seeds were sown, not immediately by the steep generations that tumbled down the stairs, but immediately, through the intervention of the “supernatural thunders” that were occasioned by the “steep generations” that tumbled down the stairs.
The poetess is not unfrequently guilty of repeating herself. The “thunder cloud veined by lightning” appears, for instance, on pages 34 of the first, and 228 of the second volume The “silver clash of wings” is heard at pages 53 of the first, and 269 of the second; and angel tears are discovered to be falling as well at page 17, as at the conclusion of “The Drama of Exile.” Steam, too, in the shape of Death’s White Horse, comes upon the ground, both at page 244 of the first and 179 of the second volume — and there are multitudinous other repetitions both of phrase and idea — but it is the excessive reiteration of pet words which is, perhaps, the most obtrusive of the minor errors of the poet. “Chrystalline,” “Apocalypse,” “foregone,” “evangel,” “ ‘ware,” “throb,” “level,” “loss,” and the musical term “minor,” are forever upon her lips. The chief favorites, however, are “down” and “leaning,” which are echoed and re-echoed not only ad infinitum, but in every whimsical variation of import. As Miss Barrett certainly cannot be aware of the extent of this mannerism, we will venture to call her attention to a few — comparatively a very few examples.
Pealing down the depths of Godhead —
And smiling down the stars —
Smiling down, as Venus down the waves —
Smiling down the steep world very purely —
Down the purple of this chamber —
Moving down the hidden depths of loving —
Cold the sun shines down the door —
Which brought angels down our talk —
Let your souls behind you lean gently moved —
But angels leaning from the golden seats —
And melancholy leaning out of heaven —
And I know the heavens are leaning down —
Then over the casement she leaneth —
Forbear that dream, too near to heaven it leaned
Thou, O sapient angel, leanest o’er —
Shapes of brightness overleap thee —
They are leaning their young heads —
Out of heaven shall o’er you lean —
While my spirit leans and reaches —
Leaning from my human —
When it leans out on the air —
etc. etc. etc.
In the matter of grammar, upon which the Edinburgh critic insists so pertinaciously, the author of “The Drama of Exile” seems to us even peculiarly without fault. The nature of her studies has, no doubt, imbued her with a very delicate instinct of constructive accuracy. The occasional use of phrases so questionable as “from whence” and the far-fetchedness and involution of which we have already spoken, are the only noticeable blemishes of an exceedingly chaste, vigorous and comprehensive style.
In her inattention to rhythm, Mrs. Barrett is guilty of an error that might have been fatal to her fame — that would have been fatal to any reputation less solidly founded than her own. We do not allude, so particularly, to her multiplicity of inadmissible rhymes. We would wish, to be sure, that she had not thought proper to couple Eden and succeeding — glories and floorwise — burning and morning — thither and aether — enclose me and across me — misdoers and flowers — centre and winter — guerdon and pardon — conquer and anchor — desert and unmeasured — atoms and fathoms — opal and people — glory and doorway — trumpet and accompted — taming and overcame him — coming and woman — is and trees — off and sun-proof — eagles and vigils — nature and satire — poems and interflowings — certes and virtues — pardon and burden — thereat and great — children and bewildering — mortal and turtle — moonshine and sunshine. It would have been better, we say, if such apologies for rhymes as these had been rejected. But deficiencies of rhythm are more serious. In some cases it is nearly impossible to determine what metre is intended. “The Cry of the Children” cannot be scanned: we never saw so poor a specimen of verse. In imitating the rhythm of “Locksley Hall,” the poetess has preserved with accuracy (so far as mere syllables are concerned) the forcible line of seven trochees with a final caesura. The’’double rhymes” have only the force of a single long syllable ca sure; but the natural rhythmical division, occurring at the close of the fourth trochee, should never be forced to occur, as Miss Barrett constantly forces it, in the middle of a word, or of an indivisible phrase. If it do so occur, we must sacrifice, in perusal, either the sense or the rhythm. If she will consider, too, that this line of seven trochees and a ca sure, is nothing more than two lines written in one — a line of four trochees succeeded by one of three trochees and a caesura — she will at once see how unwise she has been in composing her poem in quatrains of the long line with alternate rhymes, instead immediate ones, as in the case of “Locksley Hall.” The result is, that the ear, expecting the rhymes before they occur, does not appreciate them when they do. These points, however, will be best exemplified by transcribing one of the quatrains in its natural arrangement. That actually employed is addressed only to the eye.
Oh, she fluttered like a tame bird
In among its forest brothers
Far too strong for it, then, drooping,
Bowed her face upon her hands —
And I spake out wildly, fiercely,
Brutal truths of her and others!
I, she planted in the desert,
Swathed her ‘wind-like, with my sands.
Here it will be seen that there is a paucity of rhyme, and that it is expected at closes where it does not occur. In fact, we consider the eight lines as two independent quatrains, (which they are), then we find them entirely rhymeless. Now so unhappy are these metrical defects — of so much importance do we take them to be, that we do not hesitate in declaring the general inferiority of the poem to its prototype to be altogether chargeable to them. With equal rhythm “Lady Geraldine” had been far — very far the superior poem. Inefficient rhythm is inefficient poetical expression; and expression, in poetry, — what is ti? — what is it not? No one living can better answer these queries than Miss Barrett.
We conclude our comments upon her versification, by quoting (we will not say whence — from what one of her poems) — a few verses without the linear division as it appears ai the book. There are many readers who would never suspect the passage to be intended for metre at all. — “Ay! — and sometimes, on the hill-side, while we sat down on the gowans, with the forest green behind us, and its shadow cast before, and the river running under, and, across it from the rowens a partridge whirring near us till we felt the air it bore — there, obedient to her praying, did I read aloud the poems made by Tuscan flutes, or instruments more various of our own — read the pastoral parts of Spenser — or the subtle interflowings found in Petrarch’s sonnets; — here’s the book! — the leaf is folded down!”
With this extract we make an end of our fault-finding — end now, shall we speak, equally in detail, of the beauties of this book? Alas! here, indeed, do we feel the impotence of the pen. We have already said that the supreme excellence of the poetess whose works we review, is made up of the multitudinous sums of a world of lofty merits. It is the multiplicity — it is the aggregation — which excites our most profound enthusiasm, and enforces our most earnest respect. But unless we had space to extract three fourths of the volumes, how could we convey this aggregation by specimens? We might quote, to be sure, an example of keen insight into our psychal nature, such as this:
I fell flooded with a Dark,
In the silence of a swoon —
When I rose, still cold and stark,
There was night, — I saw the moon:
And the stars, each in its place,
And the May-blooms on the grass,
Seemed to wonder what I was.
And I walked as if apart
From myself when I could stand —
And I pitied my own heart,
As if I held it in my hand
Somewhat coldly, — with a sense
Of fulfilled benevolence.
Or we might copy an instance of the purest and most imagination, such as this:
So, young muser, I sat listening
To my Fancy’s wildest word —
On a sudden, through the glistening
Leaves around, a little stirred,
Came a sound, a sense of music, which was rather felt than heard.
Softly, finely, it inwound me —
From the world it shut me in —
Like a fountain falling round me
Which with silver waters thin,
Holds a little marble Naiad sitting smilingly within.
Or, again, we might extract a specimen of wild Dantesque vigor, such as this — in combination with a pathos never excelled:
Ay! be silent — let them hear each other breathing
For a moment, mouth to mouth —
Let them touch each others’ hands in a fresh wreathing
Of their tender human youth!
Let them feel that this cold metallic motion
Is not all the life God fashions or reveals —
Let them prove their inward souls against the notion
That they live in you, or under you, O wheels!
Or, still again, we might give a passage embodying the most elevated sentiment, most tersely and musically thus expressed:
And since, Prince Albert, men have called thy spirit high and rare,
And true to truth, and brave for truth, as some at Augsburg were —
We charge thee by thy lofty thoughts and by thy poet mind.
Which not by glory or degree takes measure of mankind,
Esteem that wedded hand less dear for sceptre than for ring
And hold her uncrowned womanhood to be the royal thing!
These passages, we say, and a hundred similar ones, exemplifying particular excellences, might be displayed, and we should still fail, as lamentably as the skolastikos with his brick, in conveying an idea of the vast totality. By no individual stars can we present the constellatory radiance of the book. — To the book, then, with implicit confidence we appeal.
That Miss Barrett has done more, in poetry, than any woman, living or dead, will scarcely be questioned: — that she has surpassed all her poetical contemporaries of either sex (with a single exception) is our deliberate opinion — not idly entertained, we think, nor founded on any visionary basis. It may not be uninteresting, therefore, in closing this examination of her claims, to determine in what manner she holds poetical relation with these contemporaries, or with her immediate predecessors, and especially with the great exception Which we have alluded, — if at all.
If ever mortal “wreaked his thoughts upon expression” it was Shelley. If ever poet sang (as a bird sings) — impulsively — earnestly — with utter abandonment — to himself solely — and for the mere joy of his own song — that poet was the author of the Sensitive Plant. Of Art — beyond that which is the inalienable instinct of Genius — he either had little or disdained all. He really disdained that Rule which is the emation from Law, because his own soul was law in itself. His rhapsodies are but the rough notes — the stenographic memoranda of poems — memoranda which, because they were all-sufficient for his own intelligence, he cared not to be at the trouble of transcribing in full for mankind. In his whole life he wrought not thoroughly out a single conception. For this reason it is that he is the most fatiguing of poets. Yet he wearies in having done too little, rather than too much; what is in him the diffuseness of one idea, is the conglomerate concision of many; — and this concision it is which renders obscure. With such a man, to imitate was out of the question; it would have answered no purpose — for he spoke to his own alone , which would have comprehended no alien tongue; — he was, therefore, profoundly original. His quaintness arose from intuitive perception of that truth to which Lord Verulam alone has given distinct voice: — “There is no exquisite beauty which has not some strangeness in its proportion.” But whether obscure, original, or quaint, he was at all times sincere. He had no affectations.
From the ruins of Shelley there sprang into existence, affronting the Heavens, a tottering and fantastic pagoda, in which the salient angles, tipped with mad jangling bells, were the idiosyncratic faults of the great original — faults which cannot be called such in view of his purposes, but which are monstrous when we regard his works as addressed to mankind. A “school” arose — if that absurd term must still be employed — a school — a system of rules — upon the basis of the Shelley who had none. Young men innumerable, dazzled with the glare and bewildered with the bizarrerie of the divine lightning that flickered through the clouds of the Prometheus, had no trouble whatever in heaping up imitative vapors, but, for the lightning, were content, perforce, with its spectrum, in which the bizarrerie appeared without the fire. Nor were great and mature minds unimpressed by the contemplation of a greater and more mature; and thus gradually were interwoven into this school of all Lawlessness — of obscurity, quaintness, exaggeration — the misplaced didacticism of Wordsworth, and the even more preposterously anomalous metaphysicianism of Coleridge. Matters were now fast verging to their worst, and at length, in Tennyson, poetic inconsistency attained its extreme. But it was precisely this extreme (for the greatest error and the greatest truth are scarcely two points in a circle) — it was this extreme which, following the law of all extremes, wrought in him — in Tennyson — a natural and inevitable revulsion, leading him first to contemn and secondly to investigate his early manner, and, finally, to win now from its magnificent elements the truest and purest of all poetical styles. But not even yet is the process complete; and for this reason in part, but chiefly on account of the mere fortuitousness of that mental and moral combination which shall unite in one person (if ever it shall) the Shelleyan abandon, the Tennysonian poetic sense, the most profound instinct of Art, and the sternest Will properly to blend and vigorously to control all; — chiefly, we say, because such combination of antagonisms must be purely fortuitous, has the world never in the noblest of the poems of which it is possible that it may be put in possession.
And yet Miss Barrett has narrowly missed the fulfilment of these conditions. Her poetic inspiration is the highest — we can conceive nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure itself, but has been contaminated by pedantic study of false models — a study which has the more easily led her astray, because she placed an undue value upon it as rare — as alien to her character of woman. The accident of having been long secluded by ill health from the world has effected, moreover, in her behalf, what an innate recklessness did for Shelley — has imparted to her, if not precisely that abandon to which I have referred, at least a something that stands well in its stead — a comparative independence of men and opinions with which she did not come personally in contact — a happy audacity of thought and expression never before known in one of her sex. It is, however, this same accident of ill health, perhaps, which has invalidated her original Will — diverted her from proper individuality of purpose — and seduced her in the sin of imitation. Thus, what she might have done we cannot altogether determine. What she has actually accomplished is before us. With Tennyson’s works beside her, and a keen appreciation of them in her soul — appreciation too keen to be discriminative; — with an imagination even more vigorous than his, although somewhat less ethereally delicate; with inferior art and more feeble volition; she has written poems such as he could not write, but such as he, under her conditions of ill health and seclusion, would have written during the epoch of his pupildom in that school which arose out of Shelley, and from which, over a disgustful gulf of utter incongruity and absurdity, lit only by miasmatic flashes, into the broad open meadows of Natural Art and Divine Genius, he — Tennyson — is at once the bridge and the transition.
* The Drama of Exile, and other Poems: By Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Author of “The Seraphim,” and other Poems.