Fitz-Greene Halleck

WHETHER or not the complacent induction be true, that the world’s judgment in literary matters never does injustice to what really merits remembrance, we cannot deny that the great stock-taker, Time, awards value to books in a way not easily foreseen. Rarely is an author’s intention allowed to put its impress on the sealed opinion of posterity. His own generation, also, is fertile in resources for baffling or mistaking him. Fame he may perhaps get hold of by waiting, as a woodsman traps indifferently a partridge or a rabbit with his artful noosed cord and bent, sapling ; but it may not be the fame he hoped for. And how perplexingly is the award made! Constant efforts in one direction will sometimes gain the prize; yet books thrown out at a venture succeed quite as often. Appreciation and depreciation, it would seem, travel around the halves of one circle; but as the secant is always changing direction, you can hardly tell just at what point these powers are going to meet when about to agree on a new celebrity. Lamb was more or less sanguine about his larger compositions; did he guess how well the Essays of Elia would hold their freshness in the restless heat of the last half century? Fielding’s fame — it is an old story—grew out of a take-off on Richardson; and Malebranche was drawn by a chance to write the works which gave him distinction. Unpremeditated triumphs of this sort occur less often in poetry; for it is both a virtue and a necessity in the singer to expect magnificent successes. Yet in the lighter kinds of verse, that nonchalance which so particularly recommends to favor would appear to be admissible. An assumed carelessness will not do. The easy indifference must be real; and — what is quite as important though it is never remembered by imitators, — this real indifference must be sustained by real merit. The combination is so infrequent that the order of thing may well be excused for liking it. It existed in Fitz-Greene Halleck, and he was liked, How far the latter fact depended on the former it is not worth while to inquire very minutely; but there was a mutual reaction in Halleck, of literary ability and literary languor, which it will be useful to keep in mind while we are discussing him. These qualities confront us suggestively in the so - called Croaker poems, written in company with his friend, Joseph Rodman Drake


It was in March, 1819, that Drake’s address To Ennui, the first of the Croaker series, appeared in the New York Evening Post. The Culprit Fay, commonly reported to have been composed in the same year, had been written three years before this time, but was not then published; and this brief newspaper ode was the first of the young poet’s pieces that attained notoriety. It was followed by several others equally successful; and then Halleck became a partner in the clandestine work. The two men had made acquaintance in the right poetic way: they were together in a group of idlers one day, just after a shower, and, remarking the beauty of the rainbow, “ I should like nothing better,” Drake exclaimed, “ than to he stretched on that rainbow with a copy of Tom Campbell in my hand! ” Upon this, Halleck grasped his arm cordially, and said, “ We must know each other.” This frank spontaneity formed a most desirable basis for the literary frolic upon which they soon after entered. It is amazing to read of the hubbub which their joint compositions caused. The furor heightened their spirits, and Drake, in an exhortation to his comrade as Croaker Junior, makes this cheerful prediction, which seems to show that after all they had something of the sanguineness of young poets: — “ The town ” buzzed delightful curiosity around them, and one can sympathize with Drake’s gratification when, one day, looking over with Halleck the printer’s proof of a forthcoming Croaker, he laid his cheek for a moment against the sheet, crying out, “ O Halleck, is n't this happiness? " It was a happiness, and one which probably no other man will ever enjoy in the same way and place. For some time the two jesters kept their personality entirely concealed from even Coleman, the editor of the Post; but, after repeated urgings printed in the paper, they finally presented themselves at his mansion in the honorable region of Hudson Street, — now given up to second-hand shops, saloons, and freightcars. When they made themselves known, Coleman could not conceal his astonishment. “ My God!” he burst forth: “ I had no idea we had such talents in America! ” Only in the infancy of American journalism could so ardent an expression have been wrested from a managing editor. Who is there at all literary by profession or sympathy that does not feel a certain tenderness for the memory of Coleman, on the strength of the honest enthusiasm here recorded? Yet it would be impossible to blame the editor of to-day should he fail to be impressed by the Croaker pieces, supposing them to be now written for the first time and offered to his paper. Standards have greatly altered since 1819; and not solely because of the growth of this country, but also because of complex refinements in the practice of verse-making introduced in Europe since then. Out of the twenty-five Croakers, as finally collected, one can choose but few lines or stanzas which will bear quotation. Let us examine a few of these. On one page appears A Loving Epistle to Mr. William Cobbett, of North Hempstead, Long Island, in which that active renegade is addressed as follows: —

“ Together we 'll range thro’ the regions of mirth,
A pair of bright Gemini dropt on the earth,
The Castor and Pollux of quizzers.”
“ Pride, boast, and glory of each hemisphere!
Well known, and lord in both, — great Cobbett, hail !
Hero of Botley there and Hempstead here, —
Of Newgate and a Pennsylvania hail.”

The best stanza is the last, which repeats the empty jest of Horace and James Smith against the larger Bradlaugh of that day, about unsold copies of the Weekly Register, — Cobbett’s organ,— which in reality was a most successful publication: —

“ In recompense that you ’ve designed to make
Choice of our soil above all other lands,
A purse we 'll raise to pay your debts, and take
Your unsold Registers all off your hands.
For this we ask that you, for once, will show
Some gratitude, and, if you can, be civil;
Burn all your books, sell all your pigs, and go —
No matter where — to England or the devil.”

This is a fair sample of the wit employed in the Croakers. It would be tiresome to copy much of it. The Ode to the Surveyor-General, on another page, is dimly and remotely amusing in its scorn at his choice of new names for new towns in the west of New York, — Homer, Milton, Hampden, Galen, Livy, Ulysses. Then we find some laughing lines to Captain Seaman Weeks, Chairman of the Tenth Ward Independent Electors. They give us a glimpse of the local politics of the time. The writer pretends a gushing gladness at having found at last a thoroughly independent politician, and complains of “ Clintonians, Coodies, and Feds” as far below the mark of Captain Seaman Weeks: —

“ In vain I endeavor to give ’em a hint on
Sense, reason, or temper, — they laugh at it all:
For sense is nonsense when it makes against Clinton,
And reason is treason at Tammany Hall.”

Tammany and canals, it would seem, were as fruitful of scandal, chicane, and satire then as now. Political records tell us of the bitter fight over the proposed canal system in those years, and the verses To Ennui refer to it : —

“ I ’m sick of General Jackson’s toast,
Canals are nought to me ;
Nor do I care who rules the roast,
Clinton or John Targee.”

There is, by the way, a song in Halleck’s Fanny which represents beer as the moving force of Tammany politics. If we substitute whisky for beer, we shall have a very good notion of the advance which a certain kind of state-craft in New York has made since that time. Although Drake’s and Halleck’s squibs are very much restricted in their interest by their local allusions, it will be found that a slight familiarity with the affairs of the Empire State in the present throws a comic light back upon these early satires. The very fact that the story has now become too well worn to excite more than a fatigued smile gives to the energy of these satirists a surprising freshness. Clintonians, Coodies, Federalists, Bucktails, Democrats, Republicans, — these were the names on which the fortunes of the State then hung. We were ever an inventive people. The variety of party titles in America seems to bear some affinity to our national fertility in mixed drinks.

Besides the political matter in this pamphlet of verses there is little local quizzing that is other than dull. Ode to Fortune makes perhaps as much as could be made out of the life of a well-to-do idler in the metropolis at a time when its population was about one tenth of what it is to-day : —


“ Fair lady with the bandag'd eye !
I ‘ll pardon all thy scurvy tricks,
So thou wilt cut me and deny
Alike thy kisses and thy kicks :
“ My station is the middle rank,
My fortune, just a competence, —
Ten thousand in the Franklin bank
And twenty in the six per cents :
“ The horse that twice a year I ride
At mother Dawson’s eats his fill;
My books at Goodrich’s abide ;
My country-seat is Weehawk Hill;
My morning lounge is Eastburn’s shop ;
At Poppleton’s I take my lunch ;
Niblo prepares my mutton-chop ;
And Jennings makes my whisky punch.
“ When merry, I the hours amuse
By squibbing llurktails, Guards, and Balls ;
And when I'm troubled with the blues,
Damn Clinton and abuse canals :
Then, Fortune, since I ask no prize,
At least preserve me from thy frown ;
The man who don't attempt to rise
’Twere cruelty to tumble down.”

The brief extracts just given show for what sparing outlay of art or idea the authors received their large return of distinction. They rhymed as easily as Peter Pindar, whom they were thought to rival. Perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say, they imitated. Something of their free-hand drawing they probably learned from that too industrious doctor; but they had wit enough of their own to give all the flavor of originality. At least they deserve great respect for not emulating the English satirist in the tenacity with which he maintained the habit of doggerel through a long life-time. Moreover, one’s attention is seriously challenged by the implied air of superiority, the unexpressed value of these estrays: even when you know that they are by Drake and Halleck you may expect very little from them, and yet on reading them fairly through you will be inclined to wonder what it is that makes them seem so much better than they are. This, possibly, is a fancy of my own; but it seems to me a noteworthy instance of finer quality in the men making itself felt in work that is but little above mediocrity. Twice or thrice, also, the Croakers broached sentiment : Drake wrote The American Flag, and his friend a meditation evidently inspired by Campbell’s Pleasures of Hope, beginning, “ There is an evening twilight of the heart,” together with this song: —

“ The world is bright before thee,
Its summer flowers are thine,
Its calm blue sky is o'er thee,
Thy bosom Pleasure’s shrine,”etc.

But so soon as we come to consider the sentimental poetry, we find ourselves at a point where the Castor and Pollux of quizzers diverge. The Croakers were penned in the antechamber of life. Two or three years after they had come to light, Drake died. Halleck lived nearly fifty years longer. His later career — both by the fame it secured and the taciturnity that fell upon his genius — shows the futility of telling what a man might have done if he had lived. “ I cannot help thinking,” Mr. Bryant has written,1 “ that if his death had happened forty years earlier, his life would have been regarded as a bright morning prematurely overcast. Yet Halleck’s career may be said to have ended then,” that is, about 1830. “ All that will hand down his name to future years had already been produced.” Notwithstanding this example, it is difficult not to speculate as to what would have been the maturer development of Halleck’s friend and literary partner, Drake. Had his voice not passed away so soon, borne out of hearing on the seaward wind of death, it might have enriched us with strains as cherished as some from the other poet’s lyre that echo still. Fragmentary and unfinished as we find Drake’s scroll, which he himself condemned to the flames, there are passages to be detected in it that assuredly promise a more ethereal poesy than any which came to fruition in Halleck’s longer and much-correcting leisure. Drake, as represented in what he has left, is jejune and too fanciful; a curtain of thin but perhaps impassable dreamery intervenes between him and the domain of more cordial sympathies in which most of our poets have unfolded their hearts. I think he must have liked best to lay his mind open, like a leaf, to the impersonal influence of nature, to reflect the shining of his Bronx’s quiet waters, and let the sounds of wild things creep into his fibres. In places, one can imagine that ferns and sylvan flowers have been laid between the pages and have stamped their delicate outlines into His verse. In his failure to get hold of humanity, Drake might have turned out to he a smaller-sized Shelley without the sting. The Culprit Fay, a tour de force, executed in two or three days, to prove the feasibility of colonizing legends along the banks of the Hudson, is ingeniously based on the plan of Paradise and the Peri; yet it is wrought out with a graceful imagination and a substantial originality. If he could do so much on such slight occasion, it seems not unreasonable to suppose that with fuller power and longer deliberation he might have imparted his dainty excellence to some conception of deeper root. But alongside of his airier energies, Drake seems to have entertained commonplace moods in which he was satisfied to write “ Croaker pieces" and lines like those To Sarah. The manner of these seems to have been caught from surface contact with what people were once taught to consider good poetry. That the poet took so much pleasure in his anonymous verses probably indicates a want of discrimination, a failure to grasp consciously his best inspiration; and this he might have outgrown. The Croaker compositions I take to have been a somewhat factitious business with him. It happens curiously that, although Drake was the initiator of them, they appear to have been much more directly in the line of Halleck’s development.

If we must abate a good deal from the first reputation of these merry squibs, we may still heartily acknowledge that they showed a masculine touch which it is stimulating to look back to now, that quality being hopelessly absent from a great deal of youthful poetry at present. Even at the time of their freshness, no one could rival the Croakers in their own department. Hundreds of unsuccessful imitations were daily received and mostly rejected by the New York journals. The vigor and simplicity of the originals taken with our conclusion that the Croakers were especially in accord with Halleck’s taste may recall a remark of Poe’s. “ There is something,” he says, “ in the bonhomie of certain of his [Halleck’s] compositions — something altogether distinct from poetic merit— which has aided to establish him.” Perhaps it was with slightly malicious relish that Poe threw in the clause, “ altogether distinct from poetic merit; ” yet it is true that Halleck’s sketchy descriptiveness, his knack of hitting off in verse affairs of current interest, and his wit would often — but for the jingle — have been just as acceptable in prose. These traits are exemplified in the Epistle to the Recorder and in Fanny. The latter production put Halleck in the position of being the only American besides Irving for whom Irving’s publisher would print; and in a few years copies had become so scarce that they brought twenty times the original price. I confess, to me it is the flattest, tamest, dreariest of comic poems that have won any note. It was thought by some to have been inspired by Don Juan; but the fine distinction has latterly been made that it resulted from a perusal of Byron’s Beppo, a poem in the same style and stanza. Beppo, however, has a plot, and therefore finishes itself; and Halleck failed to imitate it in this advantageous particular. The second part which he afterward provided does not remedy the defect. A more serious objection is that the wit is thin and scattered. Then the poem is so much taken up with wandering that it has no time for poetry. I find the intercalated song of the Horse-Boat a total enigma, when considered in the light of the praise it has received. Neither does the description of New York as seen from Wechawken appear to sustain the honors which have been bestowed upon it. For example: —

“ The city bright below ; and far away,
Sparkling in golden light, his own romantic bay.
Tall spire and glittering roof and battlement,
And banners floating in the sunny air;
And white sails o’er the calm blue waters bent.
Green isle and circling shore are blended there In wild reality.”

We can hardly be convicted of arrogance if we pronounce this passage unmistakably feeble. The hints of social existence, also, in Fanny are so vague that there is little to be got from them in any way, and in the whole chain of verses there are hardly more than a half dozen brief bits worth repeating. It was probably the surprise which people felt at seeing provincial Manhattan treated in verse of any sort that captivated the early readers of Fanny. Halleck’s wit and humor appear under much more characteristic guise in the Epistle to * * * and in The Recorder. The former and shorter of these gives us a sketch of the summer vacation in New York, which though shaded with a pleasant antiquity presents the city under much the same aspect that it now wears in the hot months. The rhymer refers to the tourist at his diverse employments: —

“ Or sketching Niagara, pencil on knee
(The giant of waters, our country’s pet lion),
Or dipp’d at Long Branch in the real salt sea,
With a cork for a dolphin, a cockney Arion;
Yet as most of “ the fashion " are journeying now,
With the brown hues of summer on cheek and on brow,
The few gens comme il faut who are lingering
Are, like fruits out of season, more welcome and dear.
One meets them in groups that Canova might fancy,
At our new lounge at evening, the Opdra Francals,
In nines like the Muses, in threes like the Graces,
Green spots in a desert of commonplace faces.
The queen, Mrs. Adams, goes there sweetly dress’d
In a beautiful bonnet all golden and flowery;
While the king, Mr. Bonaparte, smiles on Celeste,
Helotse, and Hutin from his bos at the Bowcry.”

The Recorder is still racy and delightful in its quick, free humor; for the author hit precisely the. right chord in this, and made it a brilliant summary of one phase of American minor politics. It cannot lose its relish so long as we take an interest in analyzing the condition of things that called it forth, How witty is this sharply drawn contrast between the real and the pinchbeck Cæsarism!—

“ The Cæsar pass’d the Rubicon
With helm and shield and breastplate on,
Bashing his war-horse through the waters ;
The Riker 2 would have built a barge
Or steamboat at the city’s charge,
And pass’d it with his wife and daughters.”

The reflex of fancy here, which presents the idea of Cœsar making up a little family party for a free trip across the Rubicon, the expenses to be arranged at the City Hall of Rome, is an inspiration exquisite of its kind. The comparative neglect into which our once much-sought author has relapsed makes it safe to quote what few now read. And because it throws light on the genius which we are considering, I will introduce another passage from The Recorder, which suddenly varies the prevalent tone of banter with a strain of unpremeditated, pathetic sentiment. Garcia, it should be said, was the maiden name of Mme. Malibran, who had sung in New York in 1825, at the first performance of Italian opera in the United States, — three years before The Recorder appeared: —

“ For me,
I rhyme not for posterity,
Though pleasant to my heirs might be
The incense of its praise,
When I, their ancestor, am gone,
And paid the debt, the only one
A poet ever pays.
“ But many are my years, and few
Are left me, ere night’s holy dew
And sorrow’s holier tears will keep
The grass green where in death I sleep.
And when that grass is green above me,
And those who bless me now and love me
Are sleeping by my side,
Will it avail me aught that men
Tell to the world with lip and pen
That once I lived and died ?
“ No ; if a garland for my brow
Is growing, let me have it now,
While I 'm alive to wear it;
And if, in whispering my name,
There’s music in the voice of Fame
Like Garcia’s, let me hear it! !!

The impulsive grace of this unlooked-for compliment to the great songstress could hardly he surpassed. The momentary pensiveness that precedes it has precisely the effect of that involuntary tremor of grief sometimes seen in a lip which gives shape, the next instant, to a seemingly careless jest. It follows a laughing fling at the poverty of poets; and then, the emptiness of renown after death giving him a sudden pang, the poet seems instinctively thrown upon the thought of woman, and all the pathos he has just caught sight of goes to enlarge and beautify his praise of this one woman greatly gifted.

The Recorder goes so far beyond anything else of Halleck’s in the humorous vein that it is impossible not to regret that he gave it no companions. But what Halleck has left, of this sort, only indicates how much more he might have done. I am not so sure that the same can be said of his serious poetry.

The transition from one mood to the other, the connection between them, is interesting to watch for and follow. Perhaps the most perfect of Halleck’s poems, excepting the two that have made him famous—his Marco Bozzaris and Robert Burns — is the one called Woman, “ Written in the Album of an Unknown Lady:” —

“ Lady, although wo have not met,
And may not meet, beneath the sky ;
And whether thine are eyes of jet,
Gray’, or dark bine, or violet,
Or hazel, — Heaven knows, not I;
“ Whether around thy cheek of rose
A maiden’s glowing locks are curled,
And to some thousand kneeling beaux
Thy frown is cold as winter’s snows,
Thy smile is worth a world ;
“ Or whether, past youth’s joyous strife,
The calm of thought is on thy brow,
And thou art in the noon of life,
Loving and loved, a happy wife,
And happier mother now,
“ I know not: but, whate'er thou art,
Whoe'er thou art, were mine the spell
To call Fate’s joys or blunt his dart,
There should not he one hand or heart
But served or wished thee well.
“ For thou art Woman.”

There is something in that train of feeling which recalls Carew and Herrick; and the rest of the poem, enlarging on the influence of woman over man, is nearly up to the mark set by the beginning. In the penultimate stanza we find the substance of that compliment to Malibran which we have so much admired. Here it is said of the poet, —

“ If to his song the echo rings
Of Fame, — 't is woman’s voice he hears.”

But let it be noticed how comparatively trite the sentiment appears, in this form. There is an air of premeditation in the statement, which gives it a falling accent instead of that upward inflection of surprise which captivates us in the longer poem. At the time of writing Woman, the poet sought this idea with some pains, most probably; but when he came to The Recorder, it had matured so that he could easily give it a shaping even better than the thought itself. Besides, there is great advantage in the unexpectedness with which the burst of feeling comes upon us in The Recorder. This observation will explain in part the dim coloring, the dry, disappointing property of many among Halleck’s serious poetic compositions. So fragile was the constitution of his genius, it seemed questionable whether he could nourish any given inspiration into stalwart life. The mere stopping to measure his strength would discourage him. If, then, he could always have begun writing in the gay mood, and from that have thrown himself without forethought upon the current of some fresh, hurrying emotion, he would always have given us his best. I think the generalization will not do him injustice. Particularizing, we might take this very poem, Woman, as an example. The writer plays with his theme in the lightest way, for two stanzas, merely inhaling its first piquant suggestion; then the larger associations take unexpected hold of him, he passes into a phase of earnest homage, and so is carried to his solemn close. In A Poet’s Daughter he balances the two moods in a more prolonged manner; a little more consciously, too. He talks about what he shall write, and argues with a supposed suppliant for his verse, until the sensation one has is like that of seeing a man execute some feat of balancing a plate or a hat on the point of his stick. He has time to be coy, retrospective, pensive, cynical; at last he is impressed by hearing that he is asked to write for a poet’s daughter; and then he catches at one of those charming compliments, for delivering which his genius appears to have been accorded him as a special messenger: —

“ A poet’s daughter ? Could I claim
The consanguinity of fame,
Veins of my intellectual frame !
Your blood would glow
Proudly to sing that gentlest name
Of aught below.
My spirit’s wings are weak ; the fire
Poetic comes but to expire ;
Her name needs not iuy humble lyre
To bid it live ;
She hath already from her sire
All bard can give.”

Red Jacket is a performance less good of its order. There is, admittedly, strong characterization in it, but what it has of poetry, although at moments solemnly eloquent, is uneven. It is to the purpose to notice, also, how Red Jacket offers in a duller, more obscure state, the contrast between two phases of the author’s mind, which we have just been noticing. After a deal of prefatory rhyming in which the poet treats his best reflections with exceeding shabbiness, he grants us a few periods of eloquence: —

“ The monarch mind, the mystery of commanding,
The birth-hour gift, the art, Napoleon,
Of winning, fettering, molding, wielding, banding
The hearts of millions till they move as one ;
“ Thou hast it. At thy bidding men have crowded
The road to death as to a festival;
And minstrels, at their sepulchres, have shrouded
In banner-folds of glory the dark pall.”

The rest has the same kind of power, except that twice more the chanter allows himself to be jostled into jocularity. Again in Alnwick Castle it is dismal to see the poet throw away his lyre and break his harmonies in mere downheartedness at the unpoeticalness of things. The Alnwick Castle is an instance of a sober poem ending in the bitterness of desecrating humor; a reversal of the process in the other cases, where gayety blends itself with a gathering seriousness, as the last daylight melts into russetpurpling dusk.

These various examples which we have reviewed all force us to the conclusion that Halleck instinctively sought, in one way or another, a break in the tune, an abrupt alternation of mood. It was in this clashing of diverse inclinations thathe struck out his liveliest sparks of fancy. He sought a certain tantalizing sweetness that floated in the midst of discord. How significant this peculiarity was, how essential a part of his genius, we shall see better after glancing over some facts of the poet’s origin and life.


Halleck traced his lineage through his father to a Puritan settler of Connecticut, and on his mother’s side was fifth in descent from John Eliot, the “ Indian apostle.” He was born in 1790 at Guilford, Connecticut, and went to school under Dr. Samuel Johnson, the memorable divine of that State. He invariably knew his lessons, and at the age of seven years spoke in the school exhibition. He had, on the other hand, no taste for sports, but wandered much along the shores of Long Island Sound, and even as a boy held Campbell dearest among the poets. The town library of Guilford was supplied with standard books which he read. The missionary Eliot had, as we know, indulged in versification ; and Halleck began to write rhymes at considerable length, while studying his geography. They refer in great part to emotions aroused by the map of the United States. At fifteen he was placed with a kinsman, to serve as clerk in a country store. For the next forty-four years his life was a commercial one. In his new situation the verse-writing went on from time to time, the young poet having now found a wider range of topics than the atlas afforded. His biographer, James Grant Wilson, has related how he sat in his employer’s kitchen during the evenings, reading, or else reciting his latest effusions to the serving-woman, Leah Norton. When he came of age he went to New York to take a place in a banking business there. Eight years afterward the Croakers appeared, and in 1819, also, Fanny was published anonymously. Three years later Haiieck made a short tour in Europe; and he published in 1827 a volume containing Alnwick Castle, Marco Bozzaris, Robert Burns, and the Elegy on Drake. The last three gained very wide favor; but Halleck’s name had not been appended to them when they were first issued in magazines, and he did not place it on the title-page of his book until 1839. Marco Bozzaris had become familiar to the poet’s sister through its popular fame; yet, although she was in constant correspondence with Halleck, she did not know who had written the piece until six years after it first came out. It was in 1828 that The Recorder was published over the pseudonym of Thomas Castaly; and then for thirty-seven years Halleck maintained an almost unbroken silence. The only other book which he produced (excepting an edition of Byron and Selections from the British poets) was Young America, given to the world in his seventyfifth year; a weak performance in which it is hard to discern any purpose, artistic or otherwise. Fanny and Bozzaris and Burns, though for a long time not openly claimed by him, gradually became known as the work of Halleck, and won him an enviable reputation. He became the most popular of American poets. Rogers, speaking of his great martial poem, said, “ We can do nothing like it on this side of the Atlantic; ” men, women, publishers, and versifiers besought him to write more; but nothing could make the current flow again.

Perhaps the popular applause alarmed more than it could encourage him. Literary labor, too, at that time was poorly compensated, and Halleck’s energies were mainly absorbed in mercantile drudgery. But, judging from his choice of themes when most successful, and the uninspired quietude of sixteen years after his retirement from business, we may assume that one of the most serious obstacles to further production was the want of a subject. His strong attachment to Campbell’s poetry once caused him to write thus to a friend: “ Can you repeat without a book six lines of the Course of Time? If so. you have a very good memory badly employed. Can you not repeat without book every line which Tom Campbell has published? Then you have never been as happy a man as you ought to have been.” This attachment it partly was, no doubt, which led Halleck to expend his finest powers on material offered by Europe. Probably, too, it blinded him to the great superiority of his own flights over those of his master where they bent their courses in the same direction. Campbell also wrote of Burns and of the Greek struggle for independence, but his pieces are neglected and never had any noticeable triumph. But the situation is oddly reversed when Campbell abstracts the legend of Wyoming from between the very fingers of our native bards. Then his admirer Halleck makes a little excursion to Pennsylvania, and goes over the historic ground in a mood so discomforted by realities that his meditative stanzas on the occasion assume almost (he tone of scouting Campbell’s romantic invention. As Campbell plucked from the banks of an American stream blossoms that exhaled for him a grateful incense of fame, so Halleck, when he could get far enough away from home, let his voice carol forth music that could make a many-voiced echo. But he could not pitch the note very high or steady when standing on his native heath. He several times attempted this; but Red Jacket is disturbed and vulgarized by a forced wit, and the verses on Connecticut are fragmentary and poor. The Field of the Grounded Arms, founded on the battle of Saratoga, was the outcome of a resolve (conscious or not) to conquer this inability. It must, however, be confessed a failure. It is not poetic, it is not even eloquent. Written in a Horatian measure, it becomes a tedious prosaic monologue, lacking the deep cadences of Marvell’s ode on Cromwell and the undulant musical underflow of Collins’s Evening, — two poems which the author must have had in his mind when composing his own. Alnwick Castle, too, broke down because an allusion suddenly recalled the writer’s mind to America. In naming over the different Percys, he was obliged to mention

“ him who, when a younger son,
Fought for king George at Lexington,
A major of dragoons.”

Straightway he had recourse to asterisks and wrote: —

“ That last half-stanza — it has dashed
From my warm lip the sparkling cup ;
The light that o’er my eyebeam flashed,
The power that bore my spirit up
Above this bank-note world, is gone.”

The same disgust for things modern and American appears in A Poet’s Daughter: —

“ 'T is a new world, — no more to maid,
Warrior, or bard is homage paid ;
The bay-tree’s, laurel’s, myrtle’s shade
Men’s thoughts resign;
Heaven placed us here to vote and trade,
Twin tasks divine ! ”

From one point of view, this scorn appears to merit our decided admiration, for it indicates a sensitive poetic organization, which would not let the man forget what higher aims he was really born for. But, equally, we are impelled by it to ask, Why then did he not obey the call of his genius? Why did he not quit trade and, if need were, society, and bring his mind face to face with what struck him as the contradiction between life and poetry, until he should discover how to reconcile them? Then he might have gained for his creative faculty a noble and sustaining confidence. The inevitable conclusion is that his inspiration was not ardent enough, his temperament too much averse to the risk and the effort involved,— in a word, that his genius was secondary, and had not the instinct of discovery, which overrules tradition and makes worlds where it was thought none could be.

“ My spirit’s wings are weak ; the fire
Poetic comes but to expire.”

His own words sum up the situation. In 1832 he was asked to write an address for a theatre, and declined, saying of himself (in the third person): “ He has been estranged for so long a time from the habit of writing and rhyming as to find it utterly impossible,” and that he “ is broad awake with both eyes from the morning dream of poetry.” But he had always, I conceive, been awake with one eye, and that was fixed too carefully on the schedule of ways and means. He was hardly ready to make great sacrifices, or to tread the laborious path that some of his brother poets chose. To open the way to a great career in the arts, it is sometimes indispensable to risk everything.

In his general disposition there was undoubtedly a certain degree of cynicism too ready to lay hold upon him. It might give a tone of pleasant resistance and sharpness to the geniality which his friends have so much commended, but it must have recoiled morosely upon himself at times. It developed in him, or else proceeded from, a singular coldness, indifference, rigidity, a few instances of which may be cited here. His reserve on the subject of his poems was excessive, and he had a maxim that a man is famous when he has been once quoted. This specious dictum reminds one of Thoreau’s decision that when he could make a single good lead-pencil he need never make another. There is a glimpse of truth in each conclusion, more applicable to pencils than to poetry; but at best it is a very slight glimpse. Yet Halleck was apparently satisfied with his reasoning, and with it steeled himself against all appeals for further exercise of his gift. Mr. William Gilmore Simms has recorded Halleck’s “sovereign contempt ” for the popular judgment ; yet it is clear that he relished its decision in his favor. He hated trade, too, we are informed. But liking city life, and being a good dinerout and conversationist, he adhered to business. Vet his attitude as a poet professing a mercantile character probably constrained him. A man of genius may be unfortunate in treating extraneous social forces without due respect; but he is no less in danger, sometimes, from paying them too great a deference. I am inclined to think that Halleck vitiated his inborn artistic quality by bowing too long and too low in the presence of commercial dignity. But if sundry of his short-comings may be charged to his surroundings, it is certainly a radical distaste for life that crops out in this confession to his sister, written after the suicide of a friend in New York, when the poet was only twenty-seven: “ We had often conversed on suicide; and I joined him in the opinion that the world contained nothing worth living for, and he was the most fortunate whose task was soonest ended.” Then, too, if Halleck’s stanzas on Love are to be taken seriously, they reveal a saturnine chilliness of resolution fatal to the free and graceful expansion of poesy. Halleck’s friends, who have borne strong testimony to his capacity for genial good-fellowship, have also mentioned with emphasis the taste for raillery often shown by him. He would launch into disputation on divers themes with a vehemence which at first impressed recent acquaintances as being absolutely hostile. But the hostility was only assumed, and soon melted into the mere fun of holding an opposition view for the sake of picturesqueness and variety. Nevertheless I suspect that a radical tendency to sarcasm and discontent underlay these ebullitions. They appear to be connected with a captiousness and an eccentricity of judgment of which several instances are on record. For example, a hobby of his in favor of limited monarchy aroused in the poet what seems an unreasonable dissatisfaction on his hearing Thackeray lecture upon George IV. Before the reading was finished he quitted the hall, remarking to a friend, “ I can’t listen any longer to this abuse of a man better than himself” (meaning better than Thackeray). Leigh Hunt’s Story of Rimni he pronounced “ silly ” as to incident: it is not set down what opinion he held of Dante. Tennyson and Mrs. Browning he declared had written nothing worth remembering; and it gives a curious notion of the complacence lurking under Halleck’s extreme outward modesty to read his complaint in a letter to a lady, written after Young America appeared, in 1865. He calls the book merely “ verses,” but continues: “ In these ' sensation times I cannot expect them to be liked or even tolerated. There is, I am aware, nothing in them resembling Miss Braddon’s exciting themes in prose, or Enoch Arden’s story of polygamy (so decent, delicate, and decorous) in verse.” He failed to see that neither was there anything in the lines at all corresponding to the strength and harmony of a greater poet than himself, and one who was in sympathy with his time. He had been content to enjoy his popularity, thirtyfive years earlier, with a quiet scorn for the public judgment which accorded it; and then — having let slip the begging opportunity that attended him lustre after lustre — he allowed himself to feel bitter because, on sending a belated halloo after the moving generation, he found that he was not listened to.

I have dwelt upon this colder, crotchety side of Halleck’s personality only because it helps us to understand that clashing of moods which we have already noticed in his poetry. It is obvious that the tincture of melancholy in his temperament was continually depriving his dainty poetic sensibility of its zest for beauty, and arresting his sweetest strains with a sudden, prosaic self-consciousness. He was proud and reserved, yet genial; he was prudent to the point of lavishing all his best energies upon book-keeping, yet full of enthusiasm for certain kinds of poetry. This conflict of temperament and genius was heightened and complicated by the difficult circumstances of birth in a new country, and the absence of a highly developed society which could stimulate instead of limiting and repressing him. He was indubitably hurt by his surroundings, and had not the strength to modify them. This he might in some degree have done had he clearly comprehended his situation. That he did not comprehend it, and did not struggle away somewhither to find a less vexatious atmosphere, I have already suggested as a reason for holding his endowment to be secondary and defective. Genius which does not carry with it the self-preserving power, and the instinct of experimenting with conditions until the adverse forces are reduced to a minimum, is necessarily more exposed to mannings or extinction than genius which is provided with those defenses. This conclusion, however, relates only to the constitution of Halleck’s genius; it accounts for his failures, but it cannot throw the least discredit on his successes. In fact it makes these all the more remarkable; it is a marvel that a man so apathetic as Halleck, and so hampered by his other occupations, should have written what he did. But the height to which he several times attained makes it the greater pity that his productions should have been at other times so ruinously flawed.

When we have left out parts of The Recorder, we may dismiss the rest of Halleck’s comic poetry as of no intrinsic worth. There is a tremulous beauty about several of the slighter lyrics that will bestow refreshment from time to time upon the few who may come upon them in the nooks of libraries. Three pieces remain which have secured a wide renown likely to last for that indefinite period which is practically an immortality; these pieces being, of course, the monody upon Drake’s death, the meditation on Burns, and the Marco Bozzaris. But are we to rate the author of this splendid martial ode as a second-rate genius ?

I take it we may not inaccurately mark three grades of genius in poetry, —master, workman, and amateur. The master will accomplish great things and minor things, but he will leave always the imprint of largeness on his handiwork. The workman may be more perfect in finish than the master cares to be; he, too, may make the emotions bow to him at times, though scarcely with the sure and continued sovereignty of the higher-ranked poet; and he stands good chance of covering his failures with the veil of dexterity. The amateur boggles his way through bathos and beatitude, but can touch far and deep in an unforeseen, lucky moment; there are also misleading scintillations of workmanship, and even of mastery, in the quartz he brings to light. Halleck was so much an amateur that if he had not been so much more a real workman, he would have fallen into the third rank. It was amateurish, his failure to know at once, on finishing Marco Bozzaris, that he had written a great poem. He handed it to a business companion, asking, “ Will that do? ” But when we read it, we say, “ Cannot this man do everything? ” There is brilliant, perfect workmanship in it; there is splendid command of the sympathies. Is not the writer a master? One hour’s crowned session on the throne makes a king; but I do not think that one effort of power, even so impressive as this, gives a right to the title of master, in poetry. Halleck gives us too many blurred pages and broken staves.

He himself laid no claim to high rank. “ I have published very little,” he wrote, near the close of his life, “ and that little almost always anonymously, and have ever been but an amateur in the literary orchestra, playing only upon a pocket flute, and never aspiring, even in dream, to the dignity of the bâton.”. . . No; the master cannot fully breathe unless he sing; everywhere as he walks through the world, flowered lanes of poetry open out before him, and others as they tread that place know that his passing made its beauty; his voice does not shrivel in his throat when life is but half over; things do not go entirely by chance with him. But Halleck was for the most part so conscientious — whatever his practice, his creed in song was so strict — that he deserves for his great accident of Bozzaris a credit similar to that which a complete master should receive for a burst of power as grand. Still, we must remember that it was the work of an intellectual dependent. Halleck, in answer to solicitations, refused to write anything about our civil war, because, as he said, it was “ a monster mutiny.” His silence does not appear to have been that of an anguished sorrow too deep for words, but merely the silence of indifference. There is no knowing how the Greek insurrection would have affected him had it not been approved by Byron and Campbell. And again it will not do to forget that Halleck’s confessed idol, Campbell, had shown him how to write war poems, in Hohenlinden and The Battle of the Baltic. Halleck’s greater power has been mentioned in a previous part of this paper; but, though the comparison by no means covers the case, there is something in his superiority to Campbell which suggests the finer skill of a musical virtuoso contrasted with the original impulse of the composer.

Halleck’s place in our literature has been said to resemble that of Horace in the literature of Rome. The suggestion may have been intended more as a compliment, a friendly fancy, than as a critical summary of his merits. But the tendency in this country toward an American Literature Made Easy may excuse a wish that this sort of parallel might be avoided. It is true that

“ parvus operosa
Carmina, fingo ”

will apply to the Connecticut as well as to the Venusian poet; both writers also dealt with the municipal life around them, parading it in the form of satire; but beyond this it is hardly necessary to go, in considering them together. Halleck’s satires do not live, nor do his lyrics by any means form a compact body of song representative of the national life. On the contrary, it is particularly and regrettably noticeable that the national life does not enter at all into his best pieces. I find it perfectly possible to enjoy his poetry keenly, and to read patiently what I do not enjoy in it, without losing sight of the fact that Halleck, like so many another cherished poet, is only a brilliant amateur. There have been few of his degree so charming and so changeful. At one moment he is a nimble lampoon writer; but suddenly his glee escapes, his page darkens, his lids grow heavy; he mourns the death of a brother poet. That elegy on Drake is like a funeral torch held out at night, dropping its reflection across each stanza as if upon the slow incoming waves of a dark Stygian stream. As another phase of the same poet we may take the arch earnestness of Woman, or A Poet’s Daughter, among vers de société of the same scope not easy to match. But while we are still lingering over their evanescent charm, the resonant tones of Bozzaris — pæan and requiem blended in one — shall burst upon us, and rouse to impassioned sympathy. From one point of view, how versatile and susceptible was this man! from another, how chilly and limited! But his self-divided genius causes him to stand forward as a peculiarly apt representative of that large class of minds that are potentially poetminds, but never find means of expression. He has the semi-discouragement, the sensitiveness, the occasional bursts of clear energy characteristic of them. And though he did not translate the national life into verse, his mood as traced in his poems corresponds closely to the general tone of a community and period still crude and but half developed on the artistic side. This adds another to the reasons why he will not be forgotten. He would not have been forgotten, even had the city that he loved failed to honor his memory with the first statue erected to an American poet; a statue also honoring the city’s loyalty to the poet of her earlier days. Neither overstated nor unduly stinted praise can shake Halleck’s claim to what he has called

“ That frailer thing than leaf or flower,
A poet’s immortality.”

George Parsons Lathrop.

  1. Some Notices of the Life and Writings of FitzGreene Halleck, read before the New York Historical Society, 1869.
  2. Mr. Riker was the new Recorder.