Poems in Sunshine and Firelight

By JOHN JAMES PIATT. Cincinnati: R. W. Carroll & Co. 1866.
AMONG the best poems of the earlier days of the Atlantic was Mr. Piatt’s “ Morning Street,” which we think some of our readers may remember even at this remote period, after so much immortality in all walks of literature has flourished and passed away. Mr. Piatt later published a little volume of verses together with another writer of the West; and yet later, “The Nests at Washington,” — a book made up of poems from his own pen and from that of Mrs. Piatt. He now at last appears in a volume wholly his, which we may regard as the work of a mind in some degree confirmed in its habits of perception and expression.
We must allow to the author as great originality as belongs to any of our younger poets. It is true that the presence of the all-pervading Tennyson is more sensibly felt here than in the first poems of Mr. Piatt; but even here it is very faint, and if the diction occasionally reminds of him, Mr. Piatt’s poems are undoubtedly conceived in a spirit entirely his own. This spirit, however, is one to which its proper sense of the beautiful is often so nearly sufficient, that the effort to impart it is made with apparent indifference. The poet’s ideal so wins him and delights him, in that intangible and airy form which it first wore to his vision, that he seems to think, if he shall put down certain words by virtue of which he can remember its loveliness, he shall also have perfectly realized its beauty to another. We do not know one poem by Mr. Piatt in which a full and clear sense of his whole meaning is at once given to the reader; and he is obscure at times, we fear, because he has not himself a distinct perception of that which he wishes to say, though far oftener his obscurity seems to result from impatience, or the flattery of those hollow and alluring words which beset the dreams of poets, and must be harshly snubbed before they can be finally banished. There are many noble lines in his poems, but not much unity of effect or coherence of sentiment; and it happens now and then that the idea which the reader painfully and laboriously evolves from them is, after all, not a great truth or beauty, but some curious intellectual toy, some plaything of the singer’s fancy, some idle stroke of antithesis.
In the poem called “At Evening,” in which the poet can be so preposterous as to say,
“ Twilight steals
Great stealthy veils of silence over all,”
occur the following lines, full of the tranquil sweetness and tire delicacy of feeling characteristic of Mr. Piatt’s best mood : —
“ O, dear to me the coming forth of stars !
After the trivial tumults of the day
They fill the heavens, they hush tire earth with awe,
And when my life is fretted pettily
With transient nothings, it is good, I deem.
From darkling windows to look forth and gaze
At this new blossoming of Eternity,
'Twixt each To-morrow, and each dead To-day ;
Or else, with solemn footsteps modulate
To spheral music, wander forth and know
Their radiant individualities,
And feel their presence newly, hear again
The silence that is God’s voice speaking, slow
In starry syllables, forevermore.’’
Such thoughts as these are themselves like the star-rise described, and shine out distinctly above the prevailing twilight of the book, everywhere haunted by breaths of fragrance, and glimpses of beautiful things, which cannot be determined as any certain scent or shape. For example, who can guess this riddle ?
“ Come from my dreaming to my waking heart!
Awake, within my soul there stands alone
Thy marble soul ; in lonely dreams apart,
Thy sweet heart fills the stone !”
It is altogether probable that here the poet had some meaning, though it is entirely eclipsed in its expression. At other times his meaning is trot to be detached from the words by any violence of utterance ; and if, speaking of the winged steed, he says,
“ When in the unbridled fields he flew,”
we understand perfectly that the steed flew unbridled in the limitless fields. But no thanks to the poet!
Among the poems Of Mr. Piatt which we understand best and like most, “ Riding the Horse to Market” —or the poet’s experience of offering his divine faculty to the world’s rude uses — is in a spirit of fine and original allegory ; “ September ” and “ Travellers ” are very noble sonnets ; “ Fires in Illinois,” though a little thin in thought, is subtly and beautifully descriptive, and so is “ Sundown,” with the exception of a few such unmeaning lines as
“ Where the still waters glean
The melancholy scene.”
“ The Ballad of a Rose ” is lovely and pathetic; and in “ Riding to Vote ” the poet approaches the excellent naturalness and reality of “ The Mower in Ohio,” which is so simple and touching, so full of homelike, genuine feeling, unclouded by the poet’s unhappy mannerism, that we are tempted to call it his best poem, as a whole, and have little hesitation in calling it one of the few good poems which the war has yet suggested, “ The Pioneer’s Chimney,” which is the first thing in the present book, is almost as free from Mr. Piatt’s peculiar defects as “The Mower in Ohio,” and it is a very charming idyl. We observe in it no strife for remote effect, while there is visible, here and there, as in the lines below, a delicate and finely tempered power of expression, which can only come from the patient industry of true art, and from which we gather more hope for the poet’s future than from, anything else in the present book: —
“ The old man took the blow, but did not fall, —
Its weight had been before. The land was sold,
The mortgage elosed. The winter, cold and long,
(Permitted by the hand that grasped his all,
That winter passed he here,! beside his fire,
He talked of moving in the spring. . . . .
“In the spring,
When the first warmth had brooded everywhere,
He sat beside his doorway in that warmth,
Watching the wagons On the highway pass,
With something' of the memory of his dread
In the last autumn.'’