Some New Books of Poetry
THOSE who have read A Woman’s Poems and A Voyage to the Fortunate Isles will think a new book from Mrs. Piatt amongst the best gifts of a year which has not been poor in verse, whatever else it has lacked. No woman now writing has a more characteristic style ; and in taking up a fresh collection of her poems you may be sure that no wavering or uncertain appeal will be made to your interest. If the range cf her poetry is narrow, it goes deep; it gains in poignancy for loss of breadth, and in the present volume 1 her peculiar intensity becomes an edge, a point of the keenest pathos. If so few words could justly dismiss it, we should content ourselves with saying that it was the most entire expression of Bereavement we know in literature, for that defines if it does not fully praise the book.
The first poem, That New World, with its sarcasm full of heart-ache,—
Those vague, wide lands in the foreign sky,
Reserving this world for ourselves instead,”
and the thrill of that sometimes intolerable longing, —
One, only one from that voyage divine,
With something, anything, sure for me —
. . . the scent of one lily to tell
That it grew outside of this world, at most ;
... or a Shell
That whispers of some unearthly coast,”
is the key-note to the rest, but it is not penetrated with the sharpest vibrations of the sorrow which inspires them. These one feels in a degree scarcely less than terrible in such a poem as this : —
COMFORT — BY A COFFIN.
The old enchanted story ! Oh,
I cannot hear a word !
Tell some poor child who loved a bird,
And knows he holds it stained and still,
“ It flies — in Fairyland !
Its nest is in a palm-tree, on a hill ;
Go, catch it—if you will ! ”
The music (which ear hath not heard ?)
At best wails from the skies,
Somehow, into our funeral cries !
The flowers (eye hath not seen ?) still fail
To hide the coffin lid ;
Against this face, so pitiless now and pale,
Can the high heavens avail ?
I think you mean — to mean it all !
But then an angel’s wing
Is a remote and subtle thing,
(If you could show me any such
In air that I can breathe !)
And surely Death’s cold hand has much, so much,
About it we can touch !
I know, I know — all you can know !
All you can say is — this :
“ It is the last time you can kiss
This only one of all the dead,
Knowing it is the last ;
These are the last tears you can ever shed
On this fair fallen head.”
Not one of these striking poems is without some sad and joyless grace which we do not know in any other touch than this poet’s. Read, for example, the mystical verses, Enchanted, and you must feel the spell, and recognize your own impulse — your own, however rare — in that of her who
In a wood where poisons grew ! ”
We sometimes still talk of Poe’s weird power, but here is a poem that surpasses his careful elaborations in its wild fascination as the thing surpasses the picture of the thing. Along with her ability to dramatize the most elusive moods of the soul, there are often simple passages in Mrs. Piatt’s work that move one inexpressibly with their far-reaching sense, as in the poem on Lady Franklin : —
We think of men who sail, the frozen-fated ;
Tears, if you will, for these.
But oh, the truest searcher of the seas
In the blown breath of English daisies Wailed.”
One of the tenderest poems is the fairy tale called The Gift of Empty Hands, and among the grimmest — quiet, cold in the irony that moans and weeps in others — is The King’s Memento Mori. We name these pieces without quoting them, because we expect the reader to go for them to the book, where there are many that we cannot give, like Her Cross and Mine, a whole drama in six stanzas ; Counting the Graves, one of those colloquies with a child in which the simple answers are darkened with a complex, melancholy meaning ; Answering a Child, another colloquy between mother and child concerning life and death ; and My Birthright, the saddest of the earth-bound poems ; Folded Hands, the tragedy of aspiration beyond the power of performance — a difficult something very thoroughly felt and triumphantly expressed. Certain of the poems strike one with awe for the fierce sincerity with which the cut - flowers of consolation are thrust aside, and the ineffable loss through death is confronted. Such a one is that called No Help, with its tremendous close : —
His own dark law — for my poor sorrow’s sake.”
We Two is another such poem, with that strain of tragic irony in it which is somewhere felt in nearly all the pieces, and which in the poem, Giving up the World, is so poignant : —
GIVING UP THE WORLD.
Can heaven be builded ? Oh,
What other temples must be overthrown,
Founded in sand or snow !
Then — from my own I wring
Glitter of gold, the gifts of many lands ;
The seas their pearls I fling.
Their blush, the wind their breath ?
After the utter silence of the frost
Has made them white with death ?
In that divinest nest
Thither must waver, wounded in the wing
And wounded in the breast ?
Of moon, and star, and sun ?
Ah me ! since these have made the earth too bright,
Let the dark Will be done !
To say of Mrs. Piatt’s poems that they are morbid is criticism quite too easy not to be contemptible. That is so plain that we have not to inquire about it ; but it is no selfish or egotistic morbidness. In the rush of these hopeless tears, this heart-broken scorn of comfort, this unreconciled patience of grief, is the drama of the race’s affliction ; in the utter desolation of one woman’s sorrow the universal anguish of mortality is expressed. It is not pessimism ; it does not assume to be any sort of philosophy or system; it is simply the latter truth to a phase of human experience through which all men must pass ; and the reader need not be told that such poems were lived before they were written.
There is, of course, a monotony in the book, but it is like a rhythmical repetition — not the monotony that wearies ; and even this repetition of the same theme is less frequent than it seems at first. For compensation, if any is needed, we have an elevation — a rapture — away from all commonness and pettiness of thought. In an increasing clearness, more perhaps than in anything else, the book shows growth of artistic faculty ; we have heretofore had to blame the author for obscurity, of which we still find traces ; and we could have wished, for the sake of the sad unity which we feel in the first two groups of poems, that those entitled With Children had not been included. They have their charm, their quaint, life-like grace, but it is a lapse to come to them from the others, and one feels a painful crudeness, almost, in their realistic humor after reading, for instance, so striking a poem as this : —
THE ALTAR AT ATHENS.
“ TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.”
As old as - death : beca use my eyes were dry
As the fierce tropics after months of rain :
Because my restless voice said “Why ?” and
“ Why ? ”
As blind as darkness — Praying ? And to Whom !
When yon cold crescent cut my folded sight,
And showed a phantom Altar in my room.
The Greek bowed there, but not the Greek alone ;
The ghosts of nations gathered, wan with awe,
And laid their offerings on that shadowy stone
There they of Nineveh the bull with wings ;
The Persian there, with swart sun-lifted smile,
Felt in his soul the writhing fire’s bright stings
There for the scorched son of the sand, coiled bright,
The torrid snake was hissing sharp and low ;
And there the Western savage paid his rite.
“ Brahma ! " the jeweled Indies of the East
Sighed through their spices, with a languid prayer ;
“Christ ? " faintly questioned many a paler priest.
On all religions — evermore the same.
What tears shall wash its sad inscription out ?
What Hand shall write thereon his other name ?
It is a pleasure for every one loving literature to find, in this new book of Mrs. Piatt’s, the development of her genius rather than of her mannerisms. Our geniuses are not so many that we can afford to have any of them fall a prey to eccentricity or self-conceit — which way madness and Browningism lie.
The same sort of symmetrical growth which delights the critical sense in Mrs. Piatt’s book is a source of satisfaction in Mr. Aldrich’s new volume.2 Whatever was good — whatever formed the not easily namable charm — in his poetry from the first, remains here; after much experimenting with exotics in times past, he now gives us at last a flower whose airy grace and whose perfume — not too richly nor yet too delicately sweet — are quite its own. The garden-ground in which it grows is not vast, but then you are not asked to enjoy any waste land; in those charming parterres, with their outlook over a lovely country, every inch is jealously tended and made delightful. It seems to us that Mr. Aldrich’s work in prose during the several years when he was writing little verse has been of as good use to him as pleasure to his readers. It has mellowed that side of his talent without whose maturity we are sure we should have lacked one of the finest graces of the poetry here offered us; and we are ready to say that his humor has saved alive a poet who seemed doomed at first by his too great daintiness and sensuous sentiment. We do not mean that it appears otherwise than sparingly in these poems; it is a light, a color at most, but where it falls we are not sure but it bestows the very finest effect of his fine art. It is not the humor, quite, of vers de société, and the reader will understand it better when we recall a passage from The Old Castle, printed among the Interludes in our November number. Musing upon the ruin about him the poet asks, —
Who, in steel or hose,
Held revel here and made them gay ?
Where is the laughter
That shook the rafter —
Where is the rafter, by the way ? ”
Here the last line is not merely a stroke of such picturesque force that you lift your head with a start to stare into the hollow where the roof was; but the light, electric rush of the after-thought in it, coming upon the quasi-conventional pensiveness of the preceding verses, curiously and greatly enriches them. It is a spirit which diffuses itself through the whole poem in question, and is the life-breath of what seem to us the best pieces in the book : The Flight of the Goddess, On an Intaglio Head of Minerva, In an Atelier, Latakia, and others whose winning lightness is known to the readers of the magazine and all the widely-copying newspapers. It is found in its last refinement in a little poem not before printed.
A slight wire trellis goes,
And up this Romeo’s ladder
Clambers a bold white rose.
I see the lady lean,
Unclasping her silken girdle,
The curtain’s folds between.
She reaches out her hand
And helps him in at the window —
I see it where I stand !
And kisses him many a time —
Ah, me! it Was he that won her
Because he dared to climb !
In this the delicate luxury of the fancy is just touched — no more — with the gayety which gives its charm to the pieces mentioned, and to several others yet. It becomes very graceful and amusing satire in Tita’s Tears, one of the new pieces, with that quality of surprise of which Mr. Aldrich has made himself master in some of his sketches. Across the Street is still another poem of the same mood as the Nocturne, but the last is the most artistic in conceit and perfect in expression.
Of the workmanship of the various poems in the book you can only say that in one it is more exquisite than in another; less than exquisite it never is. We suppose that the group of sonnets at the close of the volume show the cunning of the artist’s hand more than the rest. Their patient — not too patient — finish is from a conscience about the sonnet which will not suffer the faintest slight of it. We find them all good, but there are three that particularly please us : Even This will Pass Away, Barberries, and Sleep. In the last there is a strain of feeling as high and serious as it is sweet, which springs from the universal experience and will prolong itself in every heart : —
And in a dream as in a fairy bark
Drift on and on through the enchanted dark
To purple day-break — little thought we pay
To that sweet bitter world we know by day.
We are clean quit of it, as is a lark
So high in heaven no human eye may mark
The thin swift pinion cleaving through the gray.
Till we awake ill fate can do no ill,
The resting heart shall not take up again
The heavy load that yet must make it bleed ;
For this brief space the loud world’s voice is still,
No faintest echo of it brings us pain.
How will it be when we shall sleep indeed ?”
Another order of pieces in the present volume seems almost as characteristic of the author as those we first mentioned. To this belong An Untimely Thought, Rencontre, Identity, and Destiny. They recall Heine in their unlabored suggestiveness, but in sentiment, tone, and manner they are entirely remote from that poet. Indeed, Mr. Aldrich’s charm is French and classic, as distinguishable from German and Romantic ; or it is even better to say that it is American and his own.
There are a score of epigrammatic quatrains in the book, showing the same sensitive, artistic conscience in their finish as the sonnets; they are all neat, and some are very clever and lovely. The best, to our thinking, is this : —
GRACE AND STRENGTH.
Tumbling the temple down upon his foes,
Did no such feat as yonder delicate vine
That day by day untired holds up a rose.
It would not have been the best, however, if the strong effect in the last line of the following had not been weakened by what seems to us the mistaken colloquiality : —
And shows you laughing lips and roguish eyes ;
But when, unmasked, gay Comedy appears,
'T is ten to one you find the girl in tears.
Our saying that the two longest poems in the book — Spring in Now England and The Legend of Ara-Cœli — are not so fine nor so characteristic as the shorter ones will be felt by those who read them, we hope, to be chiefly praise of the latter. The Spring in New England has taken its place among the poems to be read and reprinted on every Decoration Day ; and there is no fault in the skill with which the legend is handled. Nevertheless our greater pleasure is in other pieces, and in these too, we think, is more largely the evidence of that increased mastery in the poet which we so gladly recognize.
The genuine poetic quality of Mr. Weeks 3 we were prompt to acknowledge in a notice of his first volume, printed some five years ago. This quality there asserted itself in spite of the strong infusion of Tennyson, and gave us hopes of something more distinctly good from the author — hopes which the present volume, but for the poet’s untimely death, must strongly encourage. Because it is the last of his work, it is an achievement the more interesting, and sympathetic criticism will find it full of the pathos of arrested processes and intentions. The poet has passed beyond the imitative stage, and for good or ill, whatever is here is his. Whether he would have given us hereafter something of stronger clutch is a question which can now never be settled, but that he could have given us poems increasingly lovely, with clear, original thought and direction in them, there is no doubt. The whole book has an oddly experimental character, even in its most finished pieces. The author seems, in the short miscellaneous poems which form a good half of it, to be inquiring whether there is not some untried region of literature lying closer to the arts of design than any yet explored. Almost all of them have the character of paintings or etchings, and seem to be occupied with the presentation of a scene or an attitude rather than an idea. The reader will instantly feel this in such a poem as this, called A Hill-Top : —
Rough with lichens gray-green, and a line
Of pale-yellow grass, here and there,
A few daisies, a tree, and a vine.
Like a cloud that the sunsetting fires,
And star-like the still daisies gleam,
And Rame-like the cedar aspires.”
This is very realistic, unmistakable nature ; you have the spot actually before you, as if some American student of the French school had painted it for you; and the poem has no more explicit thought than many a French landscape has ; you put into it whatever sentiment you will.
The dramatic poem of Andromeda’s Escape is avowedly tentative, the old fable being used to hold the new wine of strictly modern feeling. The result is sometimes almost that of intentional burlesque, but the frankness of the artist and our interest in his attempt will not let us laugh. Yet no degree of respectful tenderness can prevent our seeing that the dramatic effects slip through his fingers like clews of sand. This is not the case in the two ballads, How Roland blew the Horn, and Gudrun. In the latter especially there is a bold use of the simplest phrase and the most naïve forms, which not only strongly serves the purpose but offers an interesting study of a fresh and pleasing achievement, and makes one wish that Mr. Weeks could have applied his fearless art in balladry to some theme of our own life. More than in his other work, we feel in the Gudrun that his death is a loss to literature.
We never thought the machinery of The Echo Club 4 a very fortunate conception. It was hard, beyond accomplishment almost, to keep at its due lightness the dialogue of four supposed characters who meet to write parodies of the modern poets, and we cannot say that Mr. Taylor has triumphed in the difficult task. The comment is well enough, but the critical analysis of the authors parodied is not of unusual fineness, and too much of the talk consists of needless apology for taking the liberty to travesty, and of protest that no harm is meant. A parody is really a tribute to a certain quality and manner in a poet so individual that they cannot be mistaken for those of another writer ; and when it is simply and purely a parody, as these of Mr. Taylor are, and not an ill-mannered, ill - tempered satire of the author, it is obviously a service and not a slight. It assembles and refreshes the reader’s impressions, and gives the author a more distinct and tangible form. It is, to a certain extent, the finest sort of criticism, while it does not assume to describe or limit the genius upon which it plays. Mr. Taylor is not an admirer of all the people he burlesques, but of most he is, and he is generally very good-natured. Even his severity with Mr. Joaquin Miller is quite as much in sorrow as in anger. As to the parodies themselves, which are of the prominent modern English and American poets, they seem to us the best parodies ever written. They are not merely imitations of particular poems, but of a distinguishing mood and aim of each poet’s art, and in indicating this they are deliciously done nearly always. Our readers must remember the miraculous likeness of the burlesques of Browning, and we promise them that they shall not have less than their original pleasure in reperusing those matchless pieces of fun ; Mr. Taylor seems, in fact, to have a special gift for mocking a poet who has not waited for the parodist to make him ridiculous, but has hastened himself to “join the choir invisible ” of his deriders ; and at the end of the volume, here, there is a most ingenious review of The Inn Album, written in such Inn-Albuminous blank verse that one half suspects it to be the result of a plot between Mr. Taylor and Mr. Browning to palm off some genuine Browning upon us in place of the imitation. Mr. Swinburne’s peculiar treble is also caught with a mocking-bird’s felicity, and there is an extremely good reflection of Tennyson’s idyllic manner ; there is just a bit, but very exquisite, of Mr. William Morris ; and the parody of Mr. Dante Rossetti might have been painted alternately from that gentleman’s own palette and inkhorn.
In crescent curves above the light
Of eyes whose dim uncertain dawn
Becomes not day : a forehead white
Beneath long yellow heaps of hair :
She is so strange she must be fair.
Her crimson lips no thing express ;
And never dread of saintly blame
Held down her heavy eyelashes.
Sprinkled with scarlet spots, I laid
Before her straight, cool feet unshod :
But she nor sound nor movement made
For that she spoke not, neither kissed,
But stared right past me. Lo ! behind
Me stood, in pink and amethyst,
Sword-girt and velvet-habited,
A tall, gaunt youth with frowzy head,
Thick lips that simpered, but, ah me '
I saw with most forlorn surprise,
He was the Thirteenth Century,
I but the Nineteenth.”
Whoever has felt the stalwart strength, the broad movement, and the full, wholesome life of Mr. Lowell’s poetry will receive a fresh and vigorous impression of these traits, as well as his more delicate qualities, from the volume in which his poems are now presented complete.5 Such a reader will hardly fail, either, of making his reflections, as he meets the older and the newer friends in the book, upon the fact that here is a man who has himself been part of all that he has sung, not only in the sense in which all poets are so, but in the special way in which a robust, courageous, and positive personality identifies itself with the feelings and events of its time. Any political history of the years since the great moral revolt against slavery began to ennoble our politics would be incomplete without notice of the share taken by literature in the struggle, and we know not what author could so well stand for the selfrighting national instinct in regard to it as Lowell. He is not one whom you class merely as antislavery ; he is not partisan or sectarian; he is humane, and too full of the clear light of humor to be humanitarian. Not scorning the wrong too fiercely to remember that there are men in it. he has never, on the other hand, sentimentalized political sinners, and his blows were delivered from a hand that was kinder to the oppressed than to the oppressors. This volume witnesses how strong and many they were both when he spoke for himself and when he let the true New England heart speak in the homely New England tongue for him; and here, too, you see perhaps more clearly than before how in the thick of the strife he was inventing types of Cervantean character, adding to poetry a new strain, and creating in literature an American kind. As you go through the book, you perceive with an increasing sense how this poet has always been and is ours. When you come to the warpoems — that mighty group beginning with The Washers of the Shroud and ending with the Commemorative Ode and the last of the Biglow Papers — you see that they represent the literature of the war. Other things remain, too, beautiful, touching, and grand, but without these the war would have no literature which could stand monumentally distinct and solid. In the contemplative poems which he has printed since is almost the sole recognition which the misgivings of patriotism during the last six years have received in literature proper. We do not mean to go into any extended consideration of his poetry here ; we have been noting a very obvious side of it, and as concerns art a superficial aspect. What treasures of sweetness, of tenderness, of wise humor and wise pathos underlie this, no one need be told. The characteristics of his poetry are now part of a cultivated American’s literary consciousness. The wit that always championed the wronged weak — not the merely weak — against the strong, the sense of beauty so high and fine as scarcely to have left the verse sensuous enough, the keen passion for Nature and the intimate knowledge of all her moods, the music native and fresh as the rhythms of his own June, the imagery drawn fragrant and living from the familiar fields and skies, the clear and joyous inspirations, — one knows these as one knows the strong thought that drives dangerously near the borders of prose, the hard-packed metaphors pushed one upon another, the humor that sometimes escapes into fun, the lofty psalm that loses itself in the echoes of the soundingboard, the whole noble art which now and then too generously forgets that it is equally noble with truth and duty. The Biglow Papers, the poems of the war, the group of pieces represented by The Cathedral, the totally different group which we shall recall by Auf Wiedersehen, the still different strain of The Vision of Sir Launfal and its order, were sufficient witnesses of a many-sidedness in which the same genius was felt so potently that six lines of any one of the poems declared its authorship ; yet the volume that sets them all compactly before us is rich in novel suggestion ; and one somehow feels as never before how vast is the range of the poet’s achievement, how great and many and various are the things he has done.
W. D. H.
- That New World, and Other Poems, By MRA S. M. B. PIATT. Boston : J. R. Osgood & Co. 1876↩
- Flower and Thorn. Later Poems. By THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH. Boston : J. R. Osgood & Co. 1877↩
- Twenty Poems, By R. K. WEEKS. New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1876.↩
- The Echo Club, and other Literary Diversions. By BAYARD TAYLOR. Boston : James R. Osgood & Co. 1876.↩
- The Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell. Household Edition. Boston : J. R. Osgood & Co. 1876.↩