The Light of Asia, and Other Poetry

POSSIBLY it is due to a sense of its mass and antiquity, and its value to later ages as a record of the human mind, that primitive poetry gives the impression of weight and durability commonly attaching to it. But, whatever be the cause, it seems to share in the permanence of its themes — religion, the universe, war, love, and the other human passions. Modern poetry, on the other hand, illustrates, either consciously or unconsciously, the transient aspect of these things. The Vedas, the Hebraic poems, and the Iliad may be said to have been laid out on the scale of the solar system; as the sun itself was the centre of so many myths of faith subsequently entangled with actual events. Much of our poetry of the present is gauged to the scale of a single day. If the author of The Light of Asia 1 does not at once succumb to this charge, it will be largely because his subject comes freshly to readers of English, and because of the curious relation he has given it to the story of Jesus Christ, as well as the nobility of the human career ascribed to his hero. High merits of art must be acknowledged in Mr. Arnold’s arrangement and execution, and such acknowledgment is an easy duty to perform towards a writer so richly endowed with power of expression, with musical instinct, and with fullness of special knowledge as this

The position of Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, is by no means so well defined as the majority of Mr. Arnold’s readers would be led, from his presentation of this great figure, to suppose. What his precise doctrines were it has not been an easy matter for the erudite to determine. The scheme which Mr. Arnold sets forth will, we dare say, meet with much acceptance as a satisfactory statement of Gautama’s philosophy, because it appeals to the highest instincts and ideas of fitness ; but we cannot attempt to pronounce on its critical value, because this is a matter of which few among Mr. Arnold’s reviewers can be as competent to judge as himself.

The lines in which he sets forth the nature of Nirvana not only have a keen intellectual edge, but are also occasionally beautiful.

“ Only when life dies like a white flame spent,
Death dies along with it.
Life which ye prize is long-drawn agony:
Only its pains abide; its pleasures are
As birds which light and fly.
Yet onward lies the Third Stai/e ; purged and pure
Hath grown the stately spirit here, hath risen
To lore all living things in perfect peace.”

And of the man who has reached Nirvana it is said : —

“ Him the Gods envy from their lower seats;
Him the Three Worlds in ruin should not shake;
All life is lived for him, all deaths are dead;
Karma 2 will no more make
“New houses. Seeking nothing, he gains all;
Foregoing self, the Universe grows ‘ I: ’
If any teach Nirvana is to cease,
Say unto such they lie.
“ If any teach Nirvana is to live,
Say unto such they err; not knowing this,
Nor what light shines beyond their broken lamps,
Nor lifeless, timeless bliss.”

Here is certainly a wonderful apprehension of the mystic state which is neither life nor death. The attaining to it depends, as the teacher shows, wholly on human nature and its own voluntary choice of the good. Man’s deliverance is in himself.

But exegesis is not poetry, and, whatever may be said of the culminating sermon from which these excerpts are made, the chief pleasure to he had from The Light of Asia and its worth as a deep and touching poetic utterance are included in the superb narration of Gautama’s career, his gradual advance to a world-embracing wisdom and holiness. This is carried out with great mastery of detail. In description, the poem has a lustrous and finished texture ; it abounds in color and picturing force ; and there is a rich, slumbering under-current of sensuousness in it, which carries the reader along through many obstructions of local and special allusion. But Mr. Arnold has something better than these qualities, and something even better than art, when it is united with art; he has feeling, he embraces the race in a noble and intimate sympathy. By means of this lie invests the progress of Siddartha and the lot of his wife Yasodhara with a solemn tenderness, and excites in us a responsive sense of the mingled pathos and wretchedness and nobility of human existence, together with a moving appreciation of that universal love which Siddartha inculcates.

Uniting, as it does, so many excellences, it is not strange that the poem has been dwelt upon as to its beauties, and that its short-comings have been suppressed, with an effect of over-praise. It has, in fact, some distinct faults. It lacks the epic variety and swiftness of action which one insensibly demands in a performance of this scope ; the style, though vigorous and charming, is sown with Tennysonian and Miltonic suggestions ; and the blank verse, which is in general monotonously handled, exhibits many weak places that might easily have been improved by more polishing. In the interspersing of short scraps of Sanskrit verse, Mr. Arnold must be held to have committed a literary folly, which seriously injures the dignity of his book.

A kinship not altogether fanciful may be traced between Mr. Arnold and Bayard Taylor, whose poetical works — leaving out The Prophet, The Masque of the Gods, Prince Deukalion, and the translation of Faust — have lately been reissued in a compact and agreeable form.3

“ And the Poet knew the Land of the East, —
His soul was native there.”

So Taylor wrote of himself long ago, in the Poems of the Orient, and in his warm responsiveness to the genius of the East it is that we detect a kinship with Mr. Arnold. Bayard Taylor was also, like Mr. Arnold, a busy journalist. To combine the functions of poet and journalist, however, must always remain an undertaking hazardous to the last degree. In looking over the crowded pages of this collection, one feels that the hazard sometimes went against the writer. His creations were so varied as to demand the sole devotion of a life to them ; wanting which, they suffered from the absence of that long, unforced maturing which imparts a nameless quality indispensable to the finest results, although their many beauties and nice workmanship may freely be acknowledged.

In reading the Eastern poems, too, one feels what one does not in Edwin Arnold, that the imagery and sentiments of the scene are borrowed, not spontaneous, and have something conventional about them ; always excepting the famous Bedouin Song, every line of which throbs artlessly and passionately with the fervor of a true Arabian dusk. Taylor, nevertheless, is at his best when he resumes the American. His California poems — early flowers from a then untrodden field — retain their freshness ; and the Pennsylvania ballads, which first appeared in The Atlantic, have hardly been surpassed in this country for realistic power and a homely truth suffused with genuine sentiment. A steady growth in strength and skill may be traced from The Poet’s Journal up to Lars, the Norway pastoral, and the later odes. Taylor’s cultivation of poetry under adverse circumstances sometimes ran the risk of becoming consciousness, and the taste which he always had for the academical style induced in these odes a species of dryness. But, taking his work as a whole, one has the satisfaction of discovering under all its merits or defects, and sustaining its numerous charms of feeling, or of thought and workmanship, a robust and candid personality, full of manliness and of a straightforward poetic vigor.

That diurnal scope of current poetry, which we began with noticing, is much more manifest in some half dozen other volumes, not long dropped from the press, than in the two just examined. Mrs. Dorr, however, has been fortunate in having for one of the subjects embraced in her new book 4 a native theme full of strength. We are a little surprised, indeed, that she should not have given this ode, written for the Vermont centennial celebration, the first place on her table of contents, thus associating the volume with her native State by its title. The initial piece, Friar Anselmo, is a pretty enough little incident of monkish life, pleasantly related, — the sort of thing which would have attracted Leigh Hunt or Adelaide Procter, But we see no very good reason why an American writer of verse, at this date, should concern herself with topics of this kind, unless, indeed, she be minded to put some fresh meaning into them. Mrs. Dorr’s ballad and narrative poems are chiefly founded on foreign suggestions ; but the poem called Christus is a notable exception. It tells how a dead Spanish sailor is found in a New England town, on a night of winter storm, with a parrot nestling in his breast, and repeating the sailor’s last-spoken word. This is a spirited and striking ballad, to which we could wish the authoress would give us some companion pieces. For the rest, there are many pretty lyrics within these covers, breathing true and gentle womanly sentiment and sorrow and hope ; and in the verses entitled What Need ? a warm plea for the singers of to-day is gracefully urged: —

“ What need, do you ask me ? Each day
Hath a song and a prayer of its own,
As each June hath its crown of fresh roses, each May
Its bright emerald throne! ”

In the second strophe of the Vermont ode, there is a curious correspondence with the refrain of Taylor’s Bedouin Song in the lines, —

“ Oh, let the Earth grow old,
And the burning stars grow cold !”

When writers of verse begin to talk about “ the Long Ago ” (with capitals), we suffer a slight depression, due to a conviction that we are descending to lower levels and a more commonplace atmosphere than should be associated with Parnassus. Mrs. Dorr does it, and so does Mrs. Mary Mapes Dodge in her generally pleasing volume of songs, new and old.5 An interesting and useful chapter might be written on what we shall call “ poetic slang ; ” under which heading “ the Long Ago,” “ birdies,” and many like phrases that presume upon the reader’s having seen them before, and that have no other point or merit, would be included. But this slang is far from being the chief characteristic of Mrs. Dodge’s productions. They are often exquisitely wrought, and so reverently and sweetly do they re-translate the lessons and the poetry of blossom, grass, sunlight, shower, and breeze that Along the Way might aptly be described as a collection of flower hymns. The poems are peaceful and simple, as the things of which they tell demand that they should be. There’s a Wedding in the Orchard is one of the freshest and most dulcet of these strains : —

“ The air is in a mist, I think,
And scarce knows which to be, —
Whether all fragrance, clinging close,
Or bird-song, wild and free.”

Shadow-Evidence and Emerson may be mentioned as exemplifying the poetess’s rare and delicate ingenuity in seizing vague, subtle moods and elusive fancies. Perhaps the most captivating of anything in this direction is the arch and musical conceit entitled Secrets, which is rife with a sentiment resembling that of Uhland and Heine in their cheerful moments, or of Goethe’s Heiden-Röslein. The contributions to this anthology, as we might call the book, by a stretch of the word, are so short as to present a fragmentary appearance ; none the less it is undeniable that the authoress has a distinct, if limited, vein of originality.

Mr. Latham C. Strong also has something to say about the “ long ago ” (without capitals, this time) and “ the days of long ago ” and “ the far beyond.” He has much to say about other things, as well, in his latest publication; 6 but, unfortunately, we discern in his effusions very little trace of a redeeming force or of unworn fancy. Poetic predisposition he undoubtedly has, and an alluring facility in the stringing of rhymes ; but beyond a gleam of observation like this, —

“ Under the garden-hedge the spider
Crosses his bridge with his rain-drop lamps,” —

and a dash, of mild collegiate humor in some lines describing Homer and Euripides as bewildered by the explanatory labors of commentators, there is almost nothing that is his own in this volume ; or that, being his own, is worth the having. The Children of Roxburghshire, Our Breton Bride, The Banshee, The Inquisition, and similar titles sufficiently disclose the source of his imaginative activity in exhausted materials. He substitutes for original perception and independent choice softly tinted but faded copies of something which has been done before.

All Quiet Along the Potomac is the name very properly bestowed by Ethel Lynn Beers on the collection of her poems,7 including the war lyric which bears that title and was long ago given the high place in popular estimation that it deserves. A lyric catching to perfection the tone of Campbell’s Soldier’s Dream, very aptly taking for its text the familiar head-line of newspapers eighteen years ago, it is full of pathos and a keen human interest, whicli will appeal to readers born since the war almost as strongly as it did to readers at that time. The note so fortunately struck at the right moment, and so warmly responded to by popular appreciation, was followed by the authoress with a few other songs of the war, by no means up to the level of her first effort; and it now appears, from this somewhat tardy gathering in of her poetic offspring, that she has written a large amount of fugitive verse of other kinds. It is questionable whether All Quiet Along the Potomac has floating capacity enough to keep the rest of the collection above water. Mrs. Beers has a decided predilection for the homely pathetic, as may be seen in some of the names given to these short pieces : such as Dinners and Darns, The Baggage-Wagon, John Gray Junior, Don’t Wake the Baby, and The Old Doorstone. She is not appalled by the most commonplace material. She tells us how “ from the ferry’s pulsing door” the summer baggage comes home, and enumerates its contents, concluding thus:—

“ But oh, there’s baggage coming home
In yonder jostled pile,
Packed outward bound, not long ago,
With jest and happy smile ;
“ Seeking out now a stricken heart,” etc.

The most remarkable example of mingled bathos and sincerity of this sort will be found in a composition called The Carpet of Life, wherein heaven is referred to as “ an upper room.” There is much sentimentality and not a little Moody and Sankey twang in the volume, but now and then — as in Floating, which is addressed to a porcelain sailor used as a mantel ornament — we are suddenly refreshed by well-balanced excellence.

Anna Maria Fay’s Idylls and Poems 8 take their place at the opposite pole of culture without strength, and of utterance frequently rounded and flowing, but unencumbered with ideas. The Pilgrim Fair, with which we begin, is a pale and spiritless allegory. Like most verse-makers of the time who have pretensions to knowledge of what is correct. Miss Fay indulges in a variety of measures, and follows the lead of Austin Dobson, and his co-disciples of old French balladists, with some rondeaus. In a song comprised in a series of these pieces occurs the following stanza, —

“I’d skirt the walls of Paradise;
The angels would look over,
But at the sight of her rare guise,
Their breath they’d scarce recover, ” —

which, it is useless to conceal, has a strong kinship with rural epitaphs.

Another volunteer in verse says in his preface, “ I now commit my little book, with mingled feelings of hope and fear, to the critics and the public.” We doubt whether the public concerns itself much about either the hopes or the fears ; but the honest critic, unless he be very young, and caparisoned in that ferociousness with which young critics conceal their own tremulous ignorance, experiences a sharp twinge in thinking of the effect his words may have in such a case. Accordingly, he approaches Mr. Johnes’s occasional poems 9 with more than common apprehension, and a vain wish that Mr. Johnes had not prejudiced his case by dedicating these leaves to Mr. Longfellow, and publishing his own letter in which permission was asked for the dedication. This conscientious melancholy is rewarded by the discovery of sundry gleams of talent in the “ briefs ” here collected. They do not come to light in the serious attempts, the most ambitious of which are The Masquerade and Fountain Abbey, nor in those reduplicated studies which the author makes of sentiment at evening parties. Where he is serious, he tells us things which neither he nor we can believe : for example, that God gives to every one at birth a star. He talks about Phœbus, and says that on a certain night brownies and fays were dancing about him in the moonlight, and stopped to observe how sadly he gazed, and so on. Such statements are of the kind which Mr. Carlyle tersely denominates the lies of modern poetry. But Mr. Johnes appends some college verses, among which is a Geological Romance, that is clever and witty ; and in this and one or two album stanzas we detect a latent capacity for light and bright composition, with an epigrammatic turn, which might have yielded a very readable book, had the author understood his talent better.

If this necessity for understanding one’s own talent were more generally appreciated, we should never be called upon to mention so dismally worthless a publication as a little book by one Mrs. Prindle,10 which contains outpourings of this sort: —

“ Don’t forget me, O mv Saviour:
Call me early from my clay.”

It need not be even mentioned here, except as a wholesome reminder of the dreadful depths into which the graduated scale of human expression in verse can descend. Southey, in prefacing the collected edition of his poetical works, speaks of having, during the revision, passed in review “ the feelings whereto I had given that free utterance which by the usages of this world is permitted to us in poetry, and in poetry alone.” One is tempted to say that it is a very injurious usage, — as injurious as it is illogical. To express sentiment and emotion with much fervor in social intercourse is held to make a person ridiculous ; but no matter how vapid or inherently absurd the substance of miscellaneous versification, it is admitted to be quite right that it should take on the permanence of print.

From the Himalayan heights of Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia to the modest dingles or modern drawing-rooms occupied by the other writers whom we have noticed (excepting Bayard Taylor) is a huge distance ; and there could hardly be a better discipline for each one of these writers than to go over the ground with a careful measure, reading the productions of the rest, and drawing conclusions as sincere and impartial as the critic must.

  1. The Light of Asia; or, The Great Renunciation. Being the Life and Teaching of Gautama, Prince of India and Founder of India, as told in hitherto but little known author appears to be. More than all these, too, Mr. Arnold is possessed of a strong and persuasive enthusiasm, which easily carries conviction of his right to a hearing and commands one’s allegiance. But that omnipresent, accusing hastiness which to-day confronts the critic upon every hand is here, also, and compels us to regret that the man who was capable of composing so noble a book within a single year, while editing the London Daily Telegraph, should not have matured his work before giving it to the world. verse by an Indian Buddhist. By EDWIN ARNOLD, M. A. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1879.
  2. Transmigration.
  3. The Poetical Works of Bayard Taylor. Household Edition. Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co. 1880.
  4. Friar Anselmo, and other Poems. By JULIA C. R.DORR. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1879.
  5. Along the Way. By MART MAPES DODGE. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1879.
  6. Midsummer Dreams. By LATHAM C. STRONG, Author of Castle Windows, and Poke o’ Moonshine. ” New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1879.
  7. All Quiet Along the Potomac, and other Poems. By ETHEL LYNN BEERS. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates.
  8. Idylls and Poems. By ANNA MARIA FAY. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1879.
  9. Briefs by a Barrister. Occasional Verses by EDWARD R. JOHNES. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1879.