The New and the Old/Up and Down the Irawaddi

1. or California and India in Romantic Aspects. By J. W. PALMER, M. 13. New York: Rudd & Carleton. 1859.

2. being Passages of Adventure in the Burman Empire. By the Same.

IT has passed into a scornful proverb, that it needs good optics to see what is not to be seen ; and yet we should be inclined to say that the first essential of a good traveller was to be gifted with eyesight of precisely that kind. All his senses should be as delicate as eyes; and, above all, he should be able to see with the fine eye of imagination, compared with which all the other organs with which the mind grasps and the memory holds are as clumsy as thumbs. The demand for this kind of traveller and the opportunity for him increase as we learn more and more minutely the dry facts and figures of the most inaccessible corners of the earth’s surface. There is no hope of another Ferdinand Mendez Pinto, with his statistics of Dreamland, who makes no difficulty of impressing “ fourscore thousand rlnnoeerots ” to draw the wagons of the King of Tartary’s army, or of killing eight hundred and fifty thousand men with a flourish of his quill, — for what were a few ciphers to him, when his inkhora was full and all Christendom to be astonished ? — but there is all the more need of voyagers who give us something better than a census of population, and who know of other exports from, strange countries than can be expressed by $-. Give us the traveller who makes us feel the mystery of the Figure at SaÏs, whose veil has a new meaning for every beholder, rather than him who brings back a photograph of the uncovered countenance, with its one unvarying granite story for all. There is one glory of the Gazetteer with his fixed facts, and another of the Poet with his variable quantities of fancy. The fixed fact may be unfixed next year, like an almanac, but the hasty sketch of the true artist is good forever.

Critics have a good-natured way of stigmatizing, for the initiated, all poetry that is not poetry, by saying that it is “elegant,” “ harmonious,” or, worse than all, “ descriptive.” This last commonly means that the author has done for his readers precisely what they could do for themselves,— that he has made a catalogue of the natural objects to be found in a certain number of acres, which differs from the literary efforts of an auctioneer only in this, that each line begins with a capital and contains the same number of syllables. He counts the number of cabbages in a field, of cows in a pasture, and tells us how many times a squirrel ran up (or down) a given tree in a given time. He informs us that the bark of the shagbark is shaggy, that the sleep-at-noon slumbers at mid-day, that moss is apt to grow on fallen treetrunks in damp places, — treats us as the old alchemists do, who give us a list of the materials out of which gold (if it had any moral sense) would at once consent to be made, but somehow won’t, — and leaves us impressed with that very dead certainty, that things are so-and-so, which is the result of verses that are only so-so.

Readers of the “Atlantic ” need not be told that Dr. Palmer is not a descriptive poet of this fashion. They have known how to appreciate his sketches of East Indian life, so vivid, picturesque, and imaginative that they could make “Griffins ” feel twinges of liver-complaint, and so true that we have heard them pronounced “ incomparable ” by men familiar with India. Dr. Palmer is no mere describer; he sees with the eye of a poet, touches only what is characteristic, and, while he seems to surrender himself wholly to the Circe Imagination, retains the polished coolness of the man of the world, and the brownness of the man of the nineteenth century. He not only knows how to observe, but how to write, — both of them accomplishments rare enough in an age when everybody is ready to contract for their display by the column. His style is nervous and original, not hurassingly pointed like a chestnut-burr, but full of esprit or wit diffused, — that Gallic leaven which pervades whole sentences and paragraphs with an indefinable lightness and palatableness. It is a thoroughly American style, too, a little over-indifferent to tradition and convention, but quite free of the sic-semper-tyrannis swagger. Uncle Bull, who is just like his nephew in thinking that he has a divine right to the world’s oyster, cannot swallow it properly till he has donned a white choker, and refuses to be comforted when Jonathan disposes of it in his rapid way with the shell for a platter. We confess that we prefer the free-and-easy manner in its proper place to the diplomatic way ot always treating the reader with sentiments of the highest consideration, and like a book all the more for having an Occidental flavor.

But it is not merely or chiefly as being among the cleverest and liveliest of modern light literature that we value Dr. Palmer’s books. They have a true poetic value, and instruct as much as they entertain. While he is telling us a San Francisco story, the truth of the accessories and the skill with which they are grouped bring the California of 1849 before us with unmatched vividness. We have been getting knowledge and learning a deep moral without suspecting it, as if by our own observation and experience. In the same way “ Asirvadam the Brahmin ” is a prose poem that lets us into the secret of the Indian revolt. It is seldom that we meet with volumes of more real power than these, or whose force is so artistically masked under case and playfulness. W e prefer the “ Old ” part of the book to the “New.” It seems to us to show a better style of handling. There is something of melodrama in the style of the California stories,—a flavor of blue lights and burnt cork. At the same time, we must admit that there is a melodramatic taint in our American life :— witness the Sickles vulgarity. Young America is b'hoyish rather than "boyish, and perhaps the “New” may he all the truer to Nature for what we dislike in it.

“The New and the Old” is fittingly dedicated to tile Autocrat of all the Breakfast-Tables. than whom no man has done more to demonstrate that wit and mirth are not incompatible with seriousness of purpose and incisiveness ot thought.