Bitter-Sweet. A Poem

By J. G. HOLLAND, Author of “The Bay Path,” “ Titcomb’s Letters ” etc. New York : Charles Scribner, 124 Grand Street. pp. 220. 1859.

UNEXPECTEDNESS is an essential element of wit,-perhaps, also, of pleasure; and it is the ill-fortune of professional reviewers, not only that surprise is necessarily something as rare with them as a June frost, but that loyalty to their extemporized omniscience should forbid them to acknowledge, even if they felt, so fallible an emotion.

Unexpectedness is also one of the prime components of that singular product called Poetry ; and, accordingly, the much-enduring man whose finger-ends have skimmed many volumes and many manners of verse may be pardoned the involuntary bull of not greatly expecting to stumble upon it in any such quarter. Shall we, then, be so untrue to our craft,-shall we, in short, be so unguardedly natural, as to confess that “ Bitter-Sweet ” has surprised us ?

It is truly an original poem,-as genuine a product of our soil as a golden-rod or an aster. It is as purely American,-nay, more than that,-as purely New-English,- as the poems of Burns are Scotch. We read ourselves gradually back to our boyhood in it, and were aware of a flavor in it deliciously local and familiar, - a kind of sour-sweet, as in a frozen-thaw apple. From the title to the last line, it is delightfully characteristic. The family-party met for Thanksgiving can hit on no better way to be jolly than in a discussion of the Origin of Evil, - and the Yankee husband (a shooting-star in the quiet heaven of village morals) about to run away from his wife can be content with no less comet-like vehicle than a balloon. The poem is Yankee, even to the questionable extent of substituting “ locality ” for “scene” in the stage-directions ; and we feel sure that none of the characters ever went to bed in their lives, but always sidled through the more decorous subterfuge of “retiring.”

We could easily show that “ Bitter-Sweet” was not this and that and t’other, but, after all said and done, it would remain an obstinately charming little book. It is not free from faults of taste, nor from a certain commonplaceness of metre; but Mr. Holland always saves himself in some expression so simply poetical, some image so fresh and natural, the harvest of his own heart and eye, that we are ready to forgive him all faults, in our thankfulness at finding the soul of Theocritus transmigrated into the body of a Yankee.

It would seem the simplest thing in the world to be able to help yourself to what lies all around you ready to your hand; but writers of verse commonly find it a difficult, if not impossible, thing to do. Conscious that a certain remoteness from ordinary life is essential in poetry, they aim at it by laying their scenes far away in time, and taking their images from far away in space,-thus contriving to be foreign at once to their century and their country. Such self-made exiles and aliens are never repatriated by posterity. It is only here and there that a man is found, like Hawthorne, Judd, and Mr. Holland, who discovers or instinctively feels that this remoteness is attained, and attainable only, by lifting up and transfiguring the ordinary and familiar with the mirage of the ideal. We mean it as very high praise, when we say that “Bitter-Sweet” is one of the few books that have found the secret of drawing up and assimilating the juices of this New World of ours.