WE cannot see that the present time, when so few books of any sort are bought, is less abundant than the most prosperous season in books of verse. Possibly the publishers feel that one time is no worse than another for poetical ventures, and so launch themselves as fearlessly upon the flood-tide of adversity as If it led on to fortune. The poet’s own part in the risk, if he is quite a new name, it is always pathetic to consider; though why it should be more pathetic to consider the loss of hopes than the loss of money we are not ready to say; and our sympathy for the new poets may flow from an impression that it is commonly at their cost that the publisher makes his bold experiments. These generalities cannot apply to writers so well known as Mr. Trowbridge,1 Mrs. Moulton,2 and Mrs. Piatt,3 whose books come first upon our list, nor do we know that the opening generalities of critical papers are ever intended to apply to anything in them. We notice that their authors cut loose from them at the earliest practicable moment, and are careful not to refer to them afterwards if they can help it.
Mr. Trowbridge’s quality as a poet long since made itself felt, and he holds by virtue of several striking poems, or a certain striking kind of poem, a fairer place in literature than his prose would give him. Ide is so generally known as a writer for young people that the public does not always remember what good work he has done for their elders, though there are some short stories of his better for comic force, for observation of character, and for dramatic expression of character than the best on which greater reputations are based. In poetry his value is more fully recognized. He is known to do a sort of poem, like The Vagabonds (in which he first struck the key-note), One Day Solitary, and Sheriff Thorne, with an authoritative and unrivaled vigor; just as Mr. Stedman is known to do a New York kind of poem with exquisite feeling, and as Mr. Aldrich is known to do a kind of delicate, humor - touched love lyric with inapproachable grace. But we should lose a great deal that is very good in this world if we kept men strictly to their best, their second-best is often so admirable; and if we confined Mr. Trowbridge to the sort of poem in whith he is most creative, we should be doing him an injustice and ourselves a useless displeasure. In a great variety of other poems he shows the poet’s keen sympathy with nature, and the thinker’s serious sense of life; in yet others he charms us with some of the finest strokes of the story-teller’s skill. In the five poems which go to make up The Book of Gold he is always a story-teller, though the range from the gravity of the first to the gayety of the last is very wide. In the first he has imagined a very touching phase of that old story of the helplessness of one man to profit by the very means which he has furnished to save another. The physician cannot heal himself; the comedian, dying of melancholy, despairs when advised to go and see himself play; in The Book of Gold, a poet is discovered on the death-bed to which his vices have brought him by the man whom his poem had enabled to resist temptation, and who repeats to him the lines which saved him. The immense pathos, the sorrowful consolation of the situation, speaks in the poet’s cry: —
Enough, O friend ! But you are here to gain
A deeper lesson than its leaves contain ;
Since he whose words can save himself may be
Among the lost.”
The story is very well told, and the conscientiously modern character of the setting is managed with interesting skillfulness. It is a poem which will go to many hearts, and will be all the more effective for its quite unaffected simplicity. The poet grapples in it with artistic difficulties which seem to have beset realistic narration in heroic verse almost from its first use in that way. There is no good reason why this vehicle should not lend itself as readily to such a purpose as the swinging ballad metre which Mr. Trowbridge employs in this volume in the touching story of Aunt Hannah; but it does not, as any one who reads the two pieces may see, and it never has done so. It is not so reluctant where the subject is humorous, but this epic verse will not go willingly with a serious theme, if the theme is modern and realistic. Almost any other verse will go better; the hexameter goes best of all. Good as Mr. Trowbridge’s story is, we feel that it would have been better but for those loath decasyllabics; yet that it mated itself to them in the poet’s mind is a great reason in favor of them. We think he touches a higher poetic level in the ballad (if we may call it so) of Aunt Hannah, which we find very pathetic, and told with a tender grace which springs from sympathy with homely reality. It is fortunate, of course, in a strong and simple motive; so fortunate that one marvels, as one often must, that as life is full of such motives, literature should commonly go out of its way for artificial and feeble ones. It is not quite novel, — the girl forsaken on her wedding-day, and growing brave and good out of her despair, — but since we are so moved by it, we see that those old themes may be played again and again, and if the musician is himself sincere they will not weary. Tom ’s Come Home is a poem of still homelier material; it is nothing but the return of a young fellow to the farm homestead; what gives it hold upon the sympathies and imagination is the certainty with which the young fellow’s good-heartedness, and the tenderness with which the love and pride in the old hearts that welcome him back, are felt. The old father, whom the children run to call from the field, is almost a farm-worn presence to the eye:
Coat on arm, half in alarm,
Striding over the stony farm,
The good news clears his cloudy face,
And he cries, as he quickens his anxious pace,
‘ Tom ? Tom come home? ’ ”
There is a whole situation in a touch like this. But Mr. Trowbridge does not merely trust to touches. There is an honest equality in his work that comes from a firm grip of his subject, and a thorough knowledge of it and feeling for it. We will not contrast his poetry with that of Mrs. Moulton; what is to be found of good in her volume may be found by its own light. We like best A Painted Fan, Question, and Annie’s Daughter, which the constant reader of Atlantic poetry may recall. These seem to us, in their several ways, to mark the highest point to which the poet’s feeling and fancy have risen. The first is a pretty and tender regret, gracefully expressed: the second is a serious thought, which makes its appeal to serious thought in the reader, to his serious hope and trust; the idea is not perhaps new, but it is newly felt: the last poem is a bit of love history, sweetly imagined and freshly said. As a whole, the little book is too full of the desolation that comes of reading other desolate little books of poetry: one cannot, for pity’s sake, believe that all that regret, all those melodious laments for darkly intimated loss, are anything but the dramatization of certain literary preferences. It. is well enough; it is not a thing to make criticism beat the breast; but we feel sure that the author might have done much better if she had consented to be somewhat lighter-hearted, — to indulge a gift we find in a few pieces here for that rarer kind of poetry in which the pensive mood is touched with archness. There is no lack of graceful and apt phrasing in the poems, though there is some awkwardness, too; the art is often brilliant, but we must blame what seems to us a want of real occasion in many of them. Besides those we have mentioned as the best, we think we must not close the book without speaking of another called Through a Window. Womanly feeling is the truth and life of the whole book, but there is a beautiful peacefulness and patience in this poem which is quite unmarred by the factitiousness that is apt to offend elsewhere.
We have already spoken several times of Mrs, Piatt’s poetry, and always with a sense of the genius which inspires it. Sometimes we have felt also a certain want of taste, as we must call it, though that is not quite the word for fancy and observation that have overmuch to do with death and the grave. In these Poems in Company with Children this characteristic offends again. We shall not call it false to fact. Nothing is more noticeable in children than their propensity to play at funerals and grave-digging and dissolutions; but when they are caught at these dismal dramas, they are very properly and very promptly stopped, with more or less abhorrence on the part of the spectator; and it is not good art, however true, to celebrate in verse for children the caprices and fancies of these infantile undertakers. In this volume, which is otherwise so wonderfully good, there are pieces which the author could doubtless excuse as reports of fact, but we think this would not be a valid excuse. In art, one must not only report fact, but must choose the right kind of fact to be reported. We have no other fault to find with the book, and we wish distinctly to assure the reader that this censure applies to but a very small proportion of the poems. The melancholy which tinges nearly all will not be felt by children, and will be felt by others as a lesson, a significance which is true to experience. In spite of much pretense to the contrary, it is but sad business talking with children. In their earnest, crucial questions; in their hopeless appeals to the artificiality in which the world has wrapped the hearts of their elders; in their perfect faith in the beautiful things which we have taught them, and which we only half or not at all believe; in their strange, deep replies to our shallow play with them, what is there for us but the pain, the reproach, the sorrowful self-search, that floats and hovers in all these poems, — so simple in one light, so subtle, so complex, in another? The dramatic power with which each little scene and situation is realized is of rare quality; the mental attitude of childhood is perfectly caught; and in reading the poems you hear the solemn voices, you see the wide, serious eyes, you feel the clinging, detaining little hands. The form of very many is like that of those now somewhat old-fashioned musical “ variations:” the mother’s answers stray off into comment and illustration, while the child’s questions, as the origin and basis of the poem, drop constantly and persistently in like the notes of the original “ variationed ” air. Poems in Company with Children is not, perhaps, a book for children; we doubt if they would understand it, or care for it; but all who care for them must feel what a beautiful and unique study of childhood it is, — of childhood unconscious and in its truest and most winged moods and poses.
The Fantasy and Passion 4 of Mr. Fawcett is better named as to the Fantasy than as to the Passion. He is, to our thinking, eminently the poet of Fancy. In that he is a master, and seems first among American poets; we do not know why we should stop short of saying among all the English-writing poets of our time. Possibly Leigh Hunt alone surpasses him in our literature; we shall not try to establish his place too definitely, for criticism must not leave time with nothing to do. He is fanciful in that high degree in which a poet, starting with some very slight and simple theme, carries it so far and develops it with such fine art that it stirs the imagination of his reader; and it would be difficult to say how he differs from the imaginative poet, except in his startingpoint and his process, since the end achieved is so very nearly the same. At the most a poet can but move his reader, and whether he does this by one approach or by another does not much matter. It can happen that what we call fancy shall go as deep as what we call imagination; but this does not generally happen, and doubtless it is well enough to keep in our minds some hazy sense of a difference between the two qualities.
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form ;
Then have I reason to be fond of Grief,”
says Constance; and this is the saddest flowering of fancy from a profoundly imagined sorrow. Possibly it is in fancies that the great passions always speak. At any rate, we believe that it need not lessen Mr. Fawcett in his own respect or that of any one else to be called a poet of fancy. We rather think we like him because he is so, and we forgive him his failures because he is eminently so.
This is his first book of verse, but he is by no means a new name in verse. Probably no poet of his generation has been more constantly before the public, in the magazines and newspapers. If you take up almost any publication of respectable character for any week or month of the past ten years, there is one chance to three that it contains a poem by Mr. Fawcett. The average is not so great ? But it is very great, — great enough to suggest that Mr. Fawcett must have written a large amount of indifferent rhyme. We will frankly own that he has; we will go further and own that much of it is worse than indifferent, and that the present little book is not so uncandid as to represent him only at his best. Yet, when all this is said, his best is so good that the book which assembles it ought to be very welcome to lovers of poetry.
It is not in technical matters that Mr. Fawcett falls below himself, if we may so phrase it. His verse has a lovely, sinuous grace that is quite its own, and he has studied the stops that give sweetness or volume to its music till they obey his will without his apparent effort. There is real mastery in his management of verse. But at times his mastery degenerates into luxury, and the rich fullness of his flexible lines becomes a wanton redundancy. He knows so well how to give effect to a decasyllabic verse with a superabounding syllable that he cannot deny himself the pleasure of it, and it recurs line after line, till it becomes an offense. Yet this is a vice of willfulness, and not of helplessness, while his lapses in higher matters are not willful, apparently, but helpless; and a man of fine nerves and keen appreciations sometimes shows himself obtuse and tasteless in strange degree. We are confident that there will come a time when Mr. Fawcett will himself correct these faults, and would rather dwell now upon passages and traits of his that have given us pleasure, and pleasure of a fresh and singular kind. Our sense of his charm has already been many times tacitly shown in these pages, but that is only another reason why we should explicitly recognize it. What this charm is it is not of course easy to say. If it were quite definable, it would not be charm. But every sympathetic reader has felt it, and knows the pleasant art by which the poet’s fancy has touched this or that aspect or object of nature and left a light upon it which must hereafter be known for his. He sees outside things with a new eye for color and form, and with vivid instinct for their relations to the realities within; and he sees too what need be merely a picture and a delight. It is in the first poem of his ever printed in The Atlantic that be speaks of the sea-gulls:—
Till faint they gleam as a blossom’s petals,
Blown through the spacious morn,” —
an image whose truth comes home with joyous sensation. His observations of nature abound in like appeals to the reader’s mental and sensuous appreciation, as where he describes a late autumn day when the
And fleet airs rushing cold ; ”
and he can apply this exquisite perception of his to any sort of beauty with rich effect, as in this beautiful sonnet:
Of this bright sensitive texture, nor the sheen
On sunny wings that wandering sea-birds preen ;
And sweet, of all fair draperies that I know,
To mark the smooth tranquillity of its flow,
Where shades of tremulous dimness intervene,
Shine out with mutable splendors, mild, serene,
In some voluminous raiment, white as snow.
Forth at some faint and half-mysterious call,
Even like a bird that breaks from clasping bars ;
And lighted vaguely by the Italian dawn,
I see rash Romeo scale the garden-wall,
While Juliet dreams below the dying stars !
What a delicate sense is this, and how vivid every impression upon it makes pictures,—pictures which breathe the freshness and sweet of nature!
A writer in the Contributors’ Club last year, who expressed the hope that some publisher might give us such a little volume of Mr. Fawcett’s verse as we now owe to the taste of Messrs. Roberts Brothers, praised very highly, but not more highly than it merited, Mr. Fawcett’s remarkable instinct for the right word; luck he called it, but we think it something better than luck. It appeared first in his first Atlantic poems, but most strikingly in the group of Fancies mentioned by that writer, which in the book here we are sorry to find broken up and scattered; the several pieces lose indefinitely in associated value by the separation, but their intrinsic beauty of course remains for the delight of those who did not see them in their first setting. There are many others of as great occasional felicity, hut none so perfect, on the whole. What strikes one most in them is the pictorial sense; not the painter’s technique, as in things of Mr. Rossetti’s, but the painter’s feeling, as in Keats. Here is a butterfly, and it seems to hover from the page_ —
Wear each the blendings of such hues
As lurk in some Old tapestry’s
Dim turmoil of golds, crimsons, blues ;
Wings where dull smoldering color lies,
Lit richly with two peacock-eyes ! ”
This picture is done with purely poetic art. There are other pictures in which there is the thrill of suggestion; which are beautiful pictures, but lovelier for what they hint and what they recall than for what they tell. Here is one: —
That wide old woodland echo clear,
While forth they spread, in breezy shade,
Their plethoric hamperfuls of cheer.
My way in dreamy mood I took,
And crossed, from balmy bank to bank,
The impetuous silver of the brook.
A shadowy, tranquil, gladelike place,
Full of mellifluous leafy sound,
While midmost of its grassy space
A tawny-lichened ledge of gray,
And up among the boughs there beamed
One blue delicious glimpse of day !
The picnic’s lightsome laughter fell,
And softly while I lingered here,
Sweet fancy bound me with a spell!
Those merry tones I seem to mark,
While dame and gallant roamed at ease
The pathways of some stately park.
I seemed to watch, with musing eye,
The rich blue fragment, fresh and fair,
Of some dead summer’s morning sky !
From graceless outlines gently waned, And took the sculptured shape and hue
Of dull old marble, deeply stained.
Strown o'er its mottled slab lay low
A glove, a lute, a silken shawl,
A vellum-bound Boccaccio ! ”
He ought to have left the Boccaccio out, — it is too literary a touch; but it cannot spoil the charming whole, and it does not hurt it very much. The poem is one of many through which runs a kind of feeling new to descriptive verse. it is not always of this lightly sympathetic sort; it is sometimes very serious and even tragic, as one may see in the little poem called Waste: —
On fragrant sward the slanted sunlight weaves,
Rich - flickering through the dusk of plenteous leaves,
Its ever-tremulous arabesques of gold!
The apples greaten under halcyon sky,
Green, russet, ruddy, or deep-red of dye,
Or yellow as the girdle of a bee !
Small blighted fruits he stroxvn in dull array,
Augmenting silently from day to day,
Gnarled and misshapen, worm-gnawed and decayed.
To fair perfection will those others grow,
In mellow hardihood maturing slow, —
While these will shrivel into viewlessness !
What dark elective secret, undescried,
Lives in this dreary failure, side by side
With opulence of full-orbed accomplishment!
The bathed reason gropes and cannot see J
If made at all, why only nude to be
In irony for that which might have been ?
There, plucking white moon-daisies, one by one,
Through youdi$ meadow comes my little son.
My pale-browed hunchbaek, with the wistful eyes!
Is not this very touching? It shows a side of Mr. Fawcett’s poetic nature without which he might be accused of being a mere sensuous intellectualist, but this tender pity saves him to something better than our admiration; it wins him our regard. To do full justice to this quality we will quote one other poem, which seems to us one of very unusual touch and penetration: —
Vague yearnings as of suppliant viewless hands,
The first full note of Spring’s aerial laughter
Was wavering o'er the winter-wearied lands.
For all that frost so bitterly enslaves,
And, tended as with unseen ministrations,
The sward grew fresh about the village graves !
To watch the tranquil churchyard, brightening fast,
My friend and his young wife rode by together, —
Rode by and gave me greeting as they past.
Of favoring fortune at their love’s control,
Yet, as I looked upon their fleeting faces,
A chill of recollection touched my soul!
Since here among these graves, it then befell,
A grave was wrought beneath whose slab now slumbered
The woman whom my friend had loved so well!
Whose darkness held tile spirit from escape.
I saw my friend within a dim room, kneeling
In haggard anguish by a sheeted shape !
Making the timorous night-light wax and wane,
And wearily on the roof above were uttered
The low persistent requiems of the rain!
His moans of agony and his wild-eyed stare,
And how the assuaging words I would have spoken
Died at my lips before his deep despair !
His tears, his pangs, and all the grief he gave,
When, tended as with unseen ministrations,
The sward grows green round her forgotten grave ? ”
Of cheerful change in all its ample glow,
Touched me with tender, yet with potent chidings,
And softly murmured, “ It is better so ! ”
To win suave healing from the fluctuant years ;
To snap the bond of grief’s tyrannic fetter :
To let new hopes arch rainbows among tears ! ”
Laughed out : “ Oh, better all regret were brief!
Better the opulence of another summer
Than last year’s empty nest and shriveled leaf ! ”
But turned sad eyes to one green turfy wave,
Where, tended as with unseen ministrations,
The sward grew fresh round that forgotten grave !
Necks bowed with sorrow, as they droop forlorn !
But ah ! the imperishable pathos breathing
About those dead whom we no longer mourn !
How badly Mr. Fawcett can write in a more passionate strain we will spare the reader so far as not to show. It appears to us that he mistakes himself when he goes about to write of love, and the correlated and resulting glooms and despairs. It appears to us that he is a poet of singular — almost unique — pictorial power, and of valuable reflective moods; that he can be sensuous and that he can be serious, but that ho cannot be passionate — to advantage. He is so good otherwise that we do not ask this of him, but we shall be glad at any time to make public confession and reparation when he proves us wrong. Even in matters where he is apt to excel he sometimes simply exceeds, and wreaks himself upon expression with a license painfully surprising in one who can hold himself so well in hand; and we note with regret that in some of his later poems he has pushed his exquisite gift of fancy, by which he clothes inanimate things with such charming associations, so far as to make these things speak and say of themselves what he thinks of them. This is bad; but in a poet whose promise is largely in the very fact that a good half of what he has written is bad, it is by no means a fault to make criticism hopelessly sad. We shall be very far from identifying ourselves with people whose censures Mr. Fawcett has happily satirized in a poem whose excellence signally avenges all the sufferers from unjust, critics: —
‘ Sham passion and sham power to turn one sick:
Pin-wheels of verse that sputtered as we read, —
Rockets of rhyme that showed the falling stick.'
‘ A book you scarce can love, howe'er you praise.
We missed the old careless grandeur as we read, —
The power and passion of his younger days ! ‘” ”
W. D. Howells.
- The Book of Gold, and other Poems. By J. T. TROWBRIDGE. New York: Harper and Brothers 1878.↩
- Poems. By LOUISE CHANDLER MOULTON. Boston : Roberts Brothers. 1878.↩
- Poems in Company with Children. By MRS, S, M. B. PIATT. Boston : D. Lothrop & Co.↩
- Fantasy and Passion. By EDGAR FAWCETT Boston : Roberts Brothers, 1878.↩