The Picture of St. John

By BAYARD TAYLOR. Boston : Ticknor and Fields.
THIS poem has the prime virtue of narrative fiction,— coherence and easy movement. The poet has endowed his work with that charm which makes the reader lenient to its errors, and which is so often wanting in blameless works, — probably because they have no need to appeal to clemency, — it is very interesting, and it classes itself with the far briefer poems which can be read at a sitting ; for it is hard to rise and leave it unfinished. It must please even in an age shy of long poems, for it has the fascination of a novel ; and if the reader at the end finds himself merely pleased, and does not feel so profoundly instructed as the Application would have him believe, that is no doubt his own fault. For this reader, however, we confess we have some sympathy, and we are willing to join him in forgetting everything but the beautiful and pathetic tale. To tell the truth, we cared rather to learn how, in the course of certain adventures, the picture of St. John happened to be painted, than how, by certain psychological experiences, the artist fitted himself to paint it ; and if that work of art had never been produced at all, we should still have been charmed by the story of the lovers and their flight from Florence; of that wild, lonely life in Bavaria ; of the poor lady’s death ; of the mournful return of the bereaved father with his son to Italy ; of the boy’s cruel fate at the hand of his grandsire, and of the pitiless desolation of the two men that clung to one another above his clay, — two fathers fatally avenged, each upon the other, for the loss of his only child. All this is told, not merely with an art that holds the reader’s interest, hut with a sensibility that imparts itself to his feeling, with strength and beauty of diction, and with an ever-varying harmony of smoothest rhyme. Mr. Taylor’s invention of an irregularly rhymed stanza of eight lines so far answers its purpose as to be (but for his Introduction) a matter of unconsciousness with his reader, and is no doubt, therefore, successful. But even in the regular ottava rima we should scarcely have found his poem monotonous.
Throughout the tale there is a true and fine feeling for Italy ; and the poet is so happy in his expression of that beautiful life which belongs to the fragrant land of summer, that one is loath to let the scene take him beyond Alps, and longs for his return to Tuscany. Sometimes, indeed, in the warmth of his fancy, he seems to forget the subtle difference between a sensuous and a sensual picture, as well as the fact that sentiment is better than either sensuousness or sensuality, — as in his opulence of diction he forgets that lavish coloring is not rich or vivid coloring. Yet the character and the passion of Clelia are most delicately and tenderly painted. She is a true woman and true Italian ; and from the glow of the love-making at Florence to the home-sick, uncomplaining days in a strange land, and into the shadow of death, the imagination is led with a strong and real pathos which leaves little to be desired. Some of the finest lines of the poem occur in the description of the events here hinted, though there are passages of great nobility in the opening stanzas of the first book ; while in the third — recounting the incidents of the artist’s return to Italy and life by Lago di Garda, and the catastrophe of the boy’s death — there is a certain sorrowful and fantastic grace and lightness of touch which will remind the reader very gratefully of the best of Mr. Taylor’s minor poems.