The Masquerade and Other Poems

The Masquerade and Other Poems. By JOHN GODFREY SAXE. Boston : Ticknor and Fields.
IT was remarked lately by an ingenious writer, that “ it never seems to occur to some people, who deliver upon the books they read very unhesitating judgments, that they may be wanting, either by congenital defect, or defect of experience, or defect of reproductive memory, in the qualifications which are necessary for judging fairly of any particular book.” To poetry this remark applies with especial force.
By poetry we do not understand mere verse, but any form of literary composition which reproduces in the mind certain emotions which, in the absence of an epithet less vague, we shall call poetical. These emotions may be a compound of the sensuous and the purely intellectual, or they may partake much more of the one than of the other. (The rigorous metaphysician will please not begin to carp at our definition.) These emotions may be excited by an odor, the state of the atmosphere, a strain of music, a form of words, or by a single word ; and, as they result largely from association, it is obvious that what may be poetry to some minds may not be poetry to others, — may not be poetry to the same mind at different periods of life or in different moods. The most sympathetic, most catholic, most receptive mind will always be the best qualified to detect and appreciate poetry under all its various forms, and would as soon think of denying the devotional faculty to a man of differing creed, as of denying the poetical to one whose theory or habit of expression may chance to differ from its own. Goethe was so apt to discover something good in poems which others dismissed as wholly worthless, that it was said of him, “ his commendation is a brevet of mediocrity.” Perhaps it was his “many-sidedness” that made him so accurate a “ detective ” in criticism.
According to Wordsworth, “ poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” A good definition so far as it goes. But Wordsworth could see only one side of the shield. He was notoriously so deficient in the faculty of humor, that even Sydney Smith was unintelligible to him. Few specimens of what can be called wit can be found in his writings. He could not see that there is a poetry of wit as well as of sentiment,—of the intellect as well as of the emotions. No wonder he could not enjoy Pope, and had little relish for Horace. And yet how grand is Wordsworth in his own peculiar sphere !
Those narrow views of the province of poetry, which roused the indignation of Byron, and which would exclude such writers as Goldsmith, Pope, Campbell, Scott, Praed, Moore, and Saxe from the rank of poets, are not unfrequently reproduced in our own day. We do not perceive that they spring front a liberal or philosophical consideration of the subject. Poetry, πoίησις, or “making,” creation, or re-creation, does not address itself to any single group of those faculties of our complex nature, the gratification of which brings a sense of the agreeable, the exhilarating, or the elevating. As well might we deny to didactic verse the name of poetry, as to those vers de société in which a profound truth may be found in a comic mask, or the foibles which scolding could not reach may be reflected in the mirror held up in gayety of heart. As well might we deny that a waltz is music, and claim the name of music only for a funeral march or a nocturne, as deny that Shakespeare’s description of Queen Mab is as much poetry as the stately words in which Prospero compares the vanishing of his insubstantial pageant to that of
“The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself.”
The new volume of poems by Mr. Saxe is, in many respects, an improvement on all that he has given us hitherto. There is more versatility in the style, a freer and firmer touch in the handling. Like our best humorists, he shows that the founts of tears and of laughter lie close together ; for his power of pathos is almost as marked as that of fun. As good specimens of what he has accomplished in the minor key, we may instance “ The Expected Ship,” “ The Story of Life,” and “ Pan Immortal." But it is in his faculty of turning upon us the whimsical and humorous side of a fact or a character that Saxe especially excels. The lines entitled “ The Superfluous Man " are an illustration of what we mean. In some learned treatise the author stumbles on the following somewhat startling reflection : “ It is ascertained by inspection of the registers of many countries, that the uniform proportion of male to female births is as 21 to 20 : accordingly, in respect to marriage, every 21st man is naturally superfluous.” Here is hint enough to set Saxe’s bright vein of humor flowing, The Superfluous Man becomes a concrete embodiment, and sings his discovery of the cause of his forlorn single lot and his hopeless predicament. It flashes upon him that he is that 21st man alluded to by the profound statistician. He is under a natural ban, — for he ’s a superfluous man. There’s no use fighting 'gainst nature’s inflexible plan. There's never a woman for him, — for he ’s a superfluous man. The whole conception and execution of the poem afford a fine example of the manner in which a genuine artist may inform a subtile and an extravagant whim with life, humor, and consistency.
“ The Mourner à la Mode ” contains some good instances of the neatness and felicity with which the author floods a whole stanza with humor by a single epithet.
“What tears of vicarious woe,
That else might have sullied her face,
Were kindly permitted to flow
In ripples of ebony lace !
White even her fan, in its play,
Had quite a lugubrious scope,
And seemed to be waving away
The ghost of the angel of Hope ! "
The sentiments of a young lover on finding that the object of his adoration had an excellent appetite, and was always punctual at lunch and dinner, are expressed with a Sheridan-like sparkle in the concluding stanza of “ The Beauty of Ballston."
“ Ah me ! of so much loveliness
It had been sweet to be the winner;
I know she loved me only less —
The merest fraction — than her dinner :
'T was hard to lose so fair a prize,
But then (I thought) ’t were vastly harder
To have before my jealous eyes
A constant rival in my larder ! ”
There is one practical consideration in regard to the poetry of Saxe, which may excite the distrust of those critics who, with Horace, hate the profane multitude. Fortunately or unfortunately for his reputation, Saxe’s poems are popular, and — not to put too fine a point of it — sell. His books have it regular market value, and this value increases rather than diminishes with years. This is, we confess, rather a suspicious circumstance. Did Milton sell ? Did Wordsworth sell ? Must not the fame that is instantaneous prove hollow and ephemeral ? Are we not acquainted with a certain volume of poems that shall be nameless, the whole edition of which lies untouched and unclaimed on the publisher's shelves ? And are we not perfectly well aware that those poems — well, we can wait. If Mr. Saxe would only put forth a volume that should prove, in a mercantile sense, a failure, we think he would be surprised to find how happily he would hit certain critics who can now see little in his writings to justify their success. Let him once join the fraternity of unappreciated geniuses, and he will find compensation, — though not, perhaps, in the form of what some vulgar fellow has called “solid pudding.”