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AMERICAN POETS, AND THEIR CRITICS.
This is some fellow,
The fact is as undeniable as it is generally acknowledged, that since the death of Lord Byron, the best fugitive poetry of the United States has been greatly superior to that of England. We have bards among us, whose productions would shine by the side of seven-tenths even of the authors collected in those ponderous tomes, entitled the “ British Classics,” or “ Select British Poets.” Let any reader of taste look over those collections, and see how much matter there is in them, of no superior merit, floating down the stream of time, like flies in amber, only because it is bound up with productions of acknowledged and enduring excellence. Let a reader glance, for example, at the volume of Aikin or even of Hazlitt—though that is less exceptionable—and he will find many effusions, whose authors, permissively, are almost sanctified to fame, that are yet greatly inferior to no small portion of American fugitive poetry. This may not at present be readily acknowledged-because it is a weakness of human nature, that men are apt to attach far less credit to the productions of contemporary writers, than each of those same writers and his productions receive, after the palsy of death has descended upon the hand that recorded, and the heart that indited.
We need not cite examples in favor of the foregoing declarations. Their truth, we believe, is familiar, both to the American public, and the tasteful readers of Europe. In speaking of American poetry, we mean that which has been produced by natives, born and bred; not the forlorn effusions of certain transplanted foreigners, who have labored so long and so unsuccessfully to be numbered among the bright train of native bards. We mean the writers and the products of " our own, our native land.” We feel a glow of honest pride in their array. In the works of HILLHOUSE, we have a strength, a finish, and a profoundness of knowledge, which strike the mind and heart like the page of a Milton; productions unsurpassed by any of recent origin, for their correctness, their grandeur, and beauty. In the effusions of BRYANT, the Thomson of America, we have those faithful pictures of natural life and human affection, fraught with the soundest philosophy, which cannot fail or die. They are destined to live with the Seasons; to appeal, with their pure truth and sweet fidelity, to the intellect and love of other generations. We may mark in HALLECK, the Byronic spirit and fire of song; the English undefiled; thrilling the bosom in his lyrics, and charming the taste in his lighter lays. In PerciVAL, may be seen the flowing diction,
and imagery of Moore; and in SPRAGUE, a pathos and harmony, which Pope himself has never exceeded.
Are not these allegations undeniable? What European tragedy, produced within the last thirty years, is superior to the Hadad of Hillhouse? What poet, in that time, has surpassed in ease and truth the best poems of Bryant? Who, during the same space, abroad or at home, has written a more soul-stirring lyric than Halleck's Marco Botzaris? Will the best productions of Percival suffer by a comparison with the latest, and of course the maturest, of Moore or Campbell? Will Byroir's Prize Address at Drury Lane compare with Sprague's at the Park Theatre ? Has not the latter been pronounced every way superior, even in England? We propose these questions with pride. They have already been triumphantly answered on both sides of the Atlantic.
But this is not all. There are other names, full of promise, growing yearly more lustrous in our literary annals, to which we have not time nor space at present to allude. They are names, borne by scholars and men of intellect, whose busy pursuits_may repress the influence of song within them, but cannot mar their power. From them, and their compeers, something elevated and lasting may in due time be confidently expected.
There is one cause which has perhaps operated somewhat against a proper appreciation of the writers we have mentioned. Their actual merits are in our opinion undervalued, on account of the complaints occasionally made of them by journalists, that no one of them has produced a long poem. This is very true ; but we do not conceive it necessary that a man should create a labored epic to substantiate a claim to the character of a first-rate poet. Gray has descended to posterity, and will go on to other ages, in his incomparable Elegy; Goldsmith is far more extensively known from his Hermit, than from his other productions; while Milton, and Pope, and numerous others whom we might name, are commended to the general world more by passages in their great works, than by the entire works themselves. Therefore we may say confidently, that all the native poets we have mentioned, have written matter which possesses all the elements of perpetuity; poems, which though short, are perfect; full of nature and life, without blemish or stain.
That we have such poets in our country, and that there are those who, by patient thought, unobtrusive study, and the untiring pursuit of knowledge in aid of their natural genius, are desirous to emulate such examples, until they themselves may deserve approbation and success, is, we believe, a source of gratification to the mind of every American critic. The course of our highest authorities in literature—the North American Review and the Christian Examiner-exhibits a patronizing and discriminating spirit in this matter, which is worthy of all praise, since it will conduce in an eminent degree to the advancement of polite letters in our country. The editors of these eminent journals in no instance permit their pages to be made the conduits of private bile, and individual spleen. They judge with justice, and in kindness they condemn. They permit no scribe who is scouted by the public, and whose name, when
known, is an antidote to his adverse opinions, to sully their leaves with the suggestions of envious and revengeful sentiment—the results of disappointed authorship, and a galling sense of personal obscurity. They look to the promise of native works, and exhibit that good sense and feeling by whose guidance they escape the mortification of seeing themselves the objects of ridicule, and their opinions utterly reversed both in Europe and America. They are regarded with respect, as men above the reach or the persuasion of contemptible motives; and with the law of courteous impartiality guiding their pens, they perform, with honest impulses, their duty to the literary efforts of their countrymen.
It is a matter of praise, also, that these are gentlemen, the merits of whose productions entitle them to sit in judgment upon the works of others. Theirs are the benefits of an unbroken education; the enlarged views and information acquired by travel; the proper sentiments inspired by a love of the land of their birth; and the honest desire to increase rather than diminish the reputation of their fellow-laborers in kindred pursuits. This course inspires in their contemporaries throughout the country, a feeling of respectful confidence, which is the parent and prompter of every intellectual undertaking.
We sincerely wish that we might pursue this just tribute to other quarters of similar pretensions—but we find it impossible. Two quarterlies remain—the United States and the American Reviews, both of Philadelphia. The former has as yet put forth but one number, which is highly national and liberal in its character, and promises well for those which are to succeed; but the work has not existed long enough to merit the praise which we do not doubt it will deserve and receive. The American Quarterly has struggled along in the hands of different publishers, until the present time. The conductor of the work, very properly, has always refrained from laying any claim to consideration in the matter of poetry. It has never interested his mind, nor occupied his attention; he professes to experience none of its soul; and while the other departments of his periodical are sustained with a very laudable degree of talent, that of poetical criticism has been usually consigned to a person so utterly unfit for the office as to excite surprise and derision wherever his agency in this division of the Review is known.
In discussing the merits of this individual—which we shall do with all possible gentleness, consistent with the evils we are to expose—we disclaim every sentiment of unkindness or sinister partiality. We know that in literature, as in politics, he who undertakes to lead or guide, should be able satisfactorily to answer two questions that may be asked concerning him : “Is he honest ?-Is he capable?” We know that poetry is an important part of belles lettres; and we desire to see no misleading of the general mind, in relation to its state and progress in our republic. We would invest this high department of art, with a divine and holy atmosphere, into whose magic circle no motives of envy, of chagrin, of policy or revenge, should be permitted to live. If we succeed in proving that these incitements have hitherto defiled the oracles of criticism, and poisoned the rich flow of song, among us, then we shall be amply repaid for the use of the facts we have gathered, and the lash we wield.
It is difficult to describe a live critic, without some particulars. Johnson and Gifford, gave these, each for himself. In the present case we shall eschew all personality, which we condemn ;--and in giving a few points of an author, shall avoid touching the man.
Imprimis—there is, in the city of Brotherly Love, on the corner of one of its rectangular thoroughfares, a small store, or shop, in which is sold Irish linen—whether ready made or not, we cannot tell. It is the mart of a Quarterly Critic—once a practiser of the Galenian art, and as we have learned, with a success equalling the Asclepidæ of yore. In Hibernia, he was “raised;" to America he came-in Philadelphia he pitched his tent; and rejecting physic, took to trade, in which he now transacts a decent business, in a small way. We mention these biographical items in the outset, as arguments that his profession is neither literary, nor akin to it; and that he is consequently quite unable to serve both Mercury and Apollo at once.
Speculation, however, is the spirit of the age; and our Censor determined not to be entirely occupied in the linen line. Accordingly he came the evil eye over an unfortunate publisher, who consented to issue a monthly magazine and Review of Literature under his supervision. Previous to this, we should remark, he put forth a poem entitled “ The Pleasures of Friendship,” a mediocre volume, containing, we venture to assert, more palpable plagiarisms than can be found in any book of its size in Christendom. The magazine was begun-and with it began the criticisms of the editor. Beside these operations, he had other irons in the fire—he had novels in embryo. Before alluding to these, we will show the gradations by which our critic rose to the acquisition of his present acumen as a quarterly reviewer.
When this monthly was in its maturity, the reputation of Lord BYRON was at its height. They who once blamed, had become eulogists; the best intelligences of both hemispheres were warmed by his genius, and vocal in his praise. But our profound reviewer cared for none of these things. He expressed great commiseration for the noble poet. He speaks of him in his work, as a man “ whose heavy volumes of stanzas have pestered the world—a mere titled rhymester—the author of a mass of hobbling, teeth-grinding poetry; the major portions of whose writings possess not the smallest particle of the soul of poetry;" and after an assortment of criticisms, quite equal to the foregoing, he lumps the merits of Byron in the following summary passage : “ That in the multiplicity of his Lordship's writings we should, by dint of industrious research, discover some easy flowing passages and brilliant ideas, is not much to his credit--for we can find the same things in the dull heroics of Sir Richard Blackmore.” Finally, Byron is advised by our Aristarchus, in 1824, to quit poetry, wherein he is so deficient, and turn his attention to prose, in which he might hope for decent success.
Nothing seems to have yielded this critic more unqualified delight than the death of Lord Byron. It gave a clearer field for his publications—it "left the world for him to bustle in.” His ecstasies on hearing of that sad event, were irrepressible. He came forth with a Te Deum in his Review, from which we make a few extracts : “Wo, now,”
saith he, “ to these witlings (the admirers of Byron)—who have neither ears to discover harmony, nor skill to count numbers—who mistake rhymes for wit;—the Great Dagon of their idolatry is no more! Well may they raise the ul-ul-loo; he who bullied the crowd into the reading of bad English, who inflicted upon men of good taste the penance of perusing hobbling numbers and false rhymes, has withdrawn from the scene of his exploits! Bellow forth, ye rugged verse lovers, till ye split your lungs with lamentations ! Stiff
, unwieldy couplets, or barbarous Spenserians, made the vehicles of unnatural quaintness or affected originality of ideas, have no longer a sprig of nobility to dignify them, or give them attraction to the unreflecting multitude !"
Our Reviewer's opinions of Sir WALTER Scott, (a gentleman of Abbotsford, North Britain, who wrote some novels and poetry,) are kindred with those he entertained of Lord Byron. He speaks of him as “an unknown Scotchman;" and of certain Waverly novels—that received by far the most praise on their appearance, and continue to be cherished with fond admiration by every reader of taste-as " slovenly and insipid productions—abounding with affected sentimentality, blackguards and scoundrels, common as thistles in a Scotch glen; with sheepish heroes, foot-balls to every one that might choose to kick them.” These "blundering works,"* he condemns in toto ; calls them “disgraceful literary manufactures, common-place, and stupidly constructed.” 'In conclusion, he gave it as his candid opinion, that “the sooner Sir Walter Scott ceased to write, the better for himself and the public.” This, reader, was when the author of Waverly was covered with renown, and after he had produced some of his most immortal productions !
It is well known that Sir Walter Scott was a fervent admirer and friend of WashinGTON IRVING. His letter, warmly commending the efforts of our celebrated countryman, published last year in a daily journal of high authority,f expressed the ardor of the Baronet's esteem and respect for the author of Knickerbocker. He also applauded him, publicly, in Peveril of the Peak. We regret to say, that our critic has as contemptuous an idea of Sir Walter's opinions, as of his works. We can best show how widely he differs from the author of Waverly, respecting Irving, by quoting his opinions of that writer, as contained in the Philadelphia Monthly Review. In that periodical he speaks of Geoffery Crayon as a scribbler of "skip-along, trim-the-hop, popinjay prose; whose Sketch Book abounds with heavy, disagreeable matter, betraying throughout little merit but imitation.” Those portions which the world has decided to be the best and most graphic, are pronounced "absolutely silly, fit only for the pages of two-penny primers, to amuse children.” The utmost credit conceded to Geoffery, is, that his productions may possibly beguile a dull hour, or please a blue stock
*Şo unbounded is the popularity of one of these very novels so strong the hold which it has taken upon the general reverence-that a large and flourishing town has arisen where tho scene was laid. Its crowded streets are rife with bustle and animation, and its hotels thronged continually with visitors. Had it not been for the genius of Scott, the place would be at this moment a rural waste.
The New-York American.