IN the tender, retrospective poem with which Mr. Richard Henry Stoddard ushers us into the presence of his collected poems 1 (now so worthily arrayed in a volume luxuriously printed and bound), he speaks of himself as content, now that he has “ done with them,” to believe
The laurel I have missed so many years.”
We are not so sure that he has missed it : rather, it has been set so unobtrusively in place, leaf by leaf, that he has not observed the process. Mr. Stoddard’s fame has expanded quietly, but it is something about which there is no doubt; and he is recognized by many readers and not a few of his fellowwriters as a poet of deep heart and exquisite feeling, who refines his thought with workmanship often very beautiful. There is a good deal in this volume which, so far as permanent claim upon the reader is concerned, it will occur to some critics might better have been omitted; but on the other hand it is well that the gathering-in should be as nearly complete as the writer himself will allow, both in justice to him and as a concession to the interest which lovers of Mr. Stoddard’s verse may naturally feel in observing its full compass, and comparing the work of different years. It is a peculiarity, however, with which one is struck in looking over his pages, that the poet has no “ periods.” He seems to have found his natural key at the beginning, and to have held steadily to it, striking now a louder chord or a longer strain, but always in the same reflective, measured spirit and with a prevailing gravity of mood.
In the first division of the book, devoted to early poems, there is more of elaborate effort and ornamental composition than in the maturer and most recent contributions ; exemplified in the Hymn to Flora, the old-fashioned typical poems on Spring and Autumn, The Witch’s Whelp, the Arcadian Idyl, the Hymn to the Beautiful, a Choric Hymn, and an isolated second book from a blankverse epic on The Search for Persephone, with an academical Christmas ode, Dies Natalis Christi. These classic fragments and the youthful Castle in the Air abound in sculptural beauty and are carefully wrought; but their author’s reputation rests on his songs, his Horatian ode upon Abraham Lincoln, and his tales, noble in sentiment, which are related with such masterly composure and in rhymed couplets of extraordinary dignity; as, The Children’s Prayer, The King’s Bell, and Wratislaw. In those three brief stanzas, The Flight of Youth, which stand at the head of the Songs of Summer, —
There are halms for all our pain:
But when youth, the dream, departs,
It takes something from our hearts,
And it never comes again,” —
there is an exquisite beauty, a pensiveness married to delicate harmony of sound, which characterizes many of the short pieces in the book. Over and over, too, the poet recurs to this sentiment of regret for youth, in many forms and with great ingenuity of imagination. He is perhaps more distinctively the elegist of lost youth than anything else ; and his latest expressions in this character, Two Kings, and The Flown Bird, with the beautiful pathos of its refrain, —
increase, instead of falling off, in power and melancholy charm. Yet Mr. Stoddard is too large in his tendency, too full of artistic sympathy, to harp monotonously on this string. I Iis briefer poems, songs, conceits, ballads, and “ dramatic lyrics,” touch us at a number of different points ; they are rife with color, fancy, and nimble feeling. The scattered stanzas given us from the Persian, Arabic, and Chinese, in the Book of the East, are the least satisfactory among these to the general reader; yet they have their peculiar merit. They resemble the separate petals of a flower, blown on the wind and caught at random. The poet has breathed upon the paper, and we discern that beauty has formed there under his breathing, but it is as intangible as hoar-frost; take it up and it vanishes. One of the songs as a whole may contain the delicate presence; but it is not strongly pervasive enough for analysis, and the individual lines scarcely reveal it when considered alone. To effect results so subtile as this, a minuteness of sensibility is necessary which is doomed to fail of popular appreciation. It may seem a contradiction, but is rather a direct consequence of this sensibility, that when Mr. Stoddard essays something in a more popular vein, as, for instance, The Ballad of Valley Forge, Without and Within, or On the Town, he stumbles almost into prose; for his genius is not suited to that vein, although it is true that in The Two Anchors he hits the mark very happily. The Children of Isis (a remarkable piece of construction in verse, gracefully carried out) and the lines, “ Why stand ye gazing into heaven ? ” turn towards us the author’s mystical and religious side; and the last-mentioned of these is a nobly earnest, spontaneous utterance, buoyed up on majestic and perfectly varied verse, albeit the conclusion at which it arrives is too vague, and unsatisfactory in its pantheism. Elsewhere we find him saying, —
Is sacrament enough for me ;
Enough the temple of the world,
The sky, the laud, the sea.”
In the same place where these words occur (the Carmen Triumphale) there are some sonorous passages illustrating eloquently the higher pantheism, combined with a creed of love, —a generous faith which declares that
And deeper than the kingdoms of the dead.”
These and similar strains, the diapason of which cannot be reproduced in fragmentary citation, excite a reverence for Mr. Stoddard’s profounder moods and his own faithfulness to them, which he may justly suppose establish his claim to consideration as one of the sincerest and most eloquent of our poets. He writes of nature with, it is true, the generality of a man chiefly accustomed to cities, but with a pure fervor richer than that of Bryant, whom it strikes us he imitates in the final Hymn to the Sea, by no means to his own advantage. When from these phases we turn back to polished gems like “ The sky is a drinking cup,” or Under the Rose, or the gay and brilliant Wedding under the Directory, we begin to get an adequate view of the writer’s breadth and versatility, as well as art.
It is possibly to he regretted that Mr. Stoddard has not allied himself more, in his work, with American thought and American events ; for his search after the remotely picturesque in Lapland, Sicily, the East, and that private mediæval world which he has made for himself in The King’s Bell has conspired with the Ilerrick-like turn of his minor effusions, to make him seem more distant from the day than he really is. The solemn stanzas on Lincoln, though modeled on Marvell’s ode to Cromwell, have a strength inherent in the poet and his theme, and remind us how deeply he could respond to a strong national feeling and to a character peculiarly native to this country : —
Their curious epitome:
To share yet rise above
Their shifting hate and love.
His thoughts the thoughts of other men.
Plain were his words and poor,
But now they will endure!
But prudent, cautious, pliant still;
Who, since his work was good,
Would do it as he could,
And, loving both sides, angered both.
Was not, like Justice, blind,
But watchful, element, kind.
Not like our stately sires of old:
Perhaps he was not great,
But he preserved the state!
O tender heart, but known to few!
O wonder of the age,
Cut off by tragic rage ! ”
Nobler lines have never been written about any American, nor any truer or worthier of their theme. They will last as long as the fame of Lincoln, partially by association with his name, but also because of their fitness, for association without that would be little.
Here and there in Mr. Stoddard’s volume we find echoes of older poets, and even phrases borrowed from them. Whether the author uses these unconsciously or on a theory that the use justifies the loan, the fact none the less casts a blur upon an impression of originality, otherwise clear, which his poems produce.
There is a point to consider, in the case of inferior verse-makers, and that is whether the pleasure of hearing themselves sing is sufficient justification for adding another to the unhealthily enormous list of American books of verse. Dr. F. O. Ticknor’s posthumous collection,2 however, is due to the wish of surviving friends to save his spark of genius from total literary extinction. Dr. Ticknor was a Georgian, of New Jersey parentage and Connecticut ancestry; a busy physician, with a taste for writing, who died six years ago at the age of fifty-two, unknown to fame. There is one vigorous, pathetic, masterly poem in the slender memorial volume, the only one worth preserving, — Little Giffen, — which tells the story of a brave Southern lad wounded near to death in the war, yet refusing to die inactive, and going forth once more to battle, where he finds the eternal silence.
Another Southern verse-mater, of greater copiousness, is Father Ryan, who has been induced — as his redundantly apologetic preface, declares — to throw together his productions,3 “ written at random ” and “ always in a hurry.” They are placed before us with the confiding title, Father Ryan’s Poems. We confess to some ignorance (not a very disturbing thing, however) as to who Father Ryan is ; we had been under the impression that there was more than one father of that name. The most noticeable things in the book, besides the steel engraving of the author and another of the “conquered banner,” are several rebel war songs and peace songs, “ published in this volume not for harmsake nor for hate-sake, but simply because the author wrote them.” One stanza is interesting for its frank statement of the insincerity of certain professions by certain Southerners, which we are sorry to see : —
Whatever lips may plight,
The Blue is Blue, but Gray is Gray,
Wrong never accords with right.”
A genuine Confederate drama,4 is also among the new productions with which the world has been favored. It is called, agreeably to the Southern taste for high-sounding diction, The Maid of Northumberland; but Confederate Bonds would have been an apter title, since the point of the whole structure, blank verse and prose alike (a euphemistic distinction), seems to be that the happy lovers receive in dowry oue half the heroine’s father’s long-date bonds,
And with Confederate sovereign ensigns sealed.”
There appears to be a satirical intention in this, and in the sketch of one of the personages, “Caleb Jones, a financier;” but if the author has a joke, he has so adroitly set upon it the seal of privacy that no one will be likely to intrude upon it.
Carlotta,5 a tragedy founded on the French invasion of Mexico, is even bolder in its realism than Mr. Lucas’s hermetic play. Napoleon III.,— who, by the way, says A revoir, messieurs, — Juarez, Maximilian, Bazaine, and various other recent or still living persons are introduced, who speak an extraordinary half-rhythmical style, as Juarez shall witness. “ What means this sluggish song ? ” he says. “ In vain it seeks to fascinate my soul with fervent words, which once my heart enchained.” A subtle fragment of dialogue between two of Maximilian’s servants may suffice for a final taste of the author’s quality : —
“ Gardener. I cannot see what food can have to do with character.
“ Fritz. More than thou dream’s t. Go to the States of North America, where everybody gets his full square meal, and there is spunk and lively enterprise, while the poor Mexican remains in lethargy. And pulque they drink, made of agave juice.”
The Legend of St. Olaf’s Kirk 6 is a heroic idyl in several parts, Tennysonian in manner, reproducing in verse the tragedy of Axel Tordsen and Yalborg, for the most part sonorous and excellent, if deficient in those musical changes and flexible variations of movement that belong only to the masters of that most difficult form, the unrhymed pentameter. Appreciation of its difficulties and its resources is slack among the novices who nowadays so eagerly plunge into it; but Mr. Houghton succeeds at least in handling it with force, and his whole poem is plastic, spirited, and, after its echoing fashion, genuine.
Mr. Robert Morris is a writer of wider reputation, but his loose-strung dithyrambic chants, gathered into one under the name of The Ode of Life,7 are quite unworthy of that reputation, and cannot for a moment be compared, either as to substance or execution, with Mr. Houghton’s modest work. Here are four lines from the Ode of Evil: —
Are horn of strife.
There were no day were there no night,
Nor, without dying, life.”
The man who can cover a hundred and fifty pages with mere vacancy, barren sententiousness, like this,—devoid of music, of imagery, and of originality, — yet who can still conceive that he has written a mature poem, must be the victim of a deplorable delusion.
That Mr. John Addington Symonds possessed some of the capabilities of poetic expression was evident from those volumes on art and Italy and Greek poetry which have won such high favor. He now definitely assumes the singingrobes, in a volume lately reprinted in this country;8 albeit in the stanzas called An Undertone he speaks of his own verse as a “ little earthly music, faint yet clear,” and denies himself any place among the laureled crowd. The book is a noticeable one, and contains some delicate and delicious things, with traces on every page of a refined sense of form and an eager eye for beauty. Those pieces which have Greek themes are suffused with the clear yet soft light of the land and the literature that suggested them ; and in particular we may cite a fragment called The Sacrifice. A number of the poems betray a purely literary origin, or are translations in part and sometimes in whole. An al-
lusion to “ sweet Ionian vowels ” in one place, and to a cry that leaped forth “ fledged with Greek word-wings ” in another, gives perhaps too strong a hint of the grammarian. But in his two narrative poems, The Love Tale of Odatis and Prince Zariadres and Imelda Lambertazzi, Mr. Symonds, if he inevitably falls somewhat under the shadow of William Morris, also reveals skill in story and an abundant sense of color. Of the reflective pieces, with some exceptions, the effect is not so good. The author has taken his personal woes on the usual Continental tour, and keeps with valetudinarian care a rhymed notebook of their condition at divers points. Making all abatements, however, we find here a collection marked by indubitable intellectual value. With the intellectual strain is blended one of sensuous enjoyment that is half pain, and, savoring of the affectations of the new English school, finds imitative expression in lines like these : —
While passionate petals, shaken by her strain,
From the frail boughs around her whiteness rain,
Pearling with shells of rose the dewy lea.”
It would be hard to say which predominates in Mr. Symonds, the intellectual or the sensuous, for as we turn his pages they change like the two sides of a willow tree, olive-green and silver, in a ruffling wind.
Edward King’s Echoes from the Orient 9 is one of those little books which make the reader wonder whether they would ever have been written had inborn gift and the inspiration of native scenes been the author’s sole dependence. The Sorrow of Manol, which takes up one half of the book, is merely an old Roumanian legend set in verse, but skillfully and sympathetically. The Danubian Gypsy’s Song, is really novel as well as melodious, and comes to us like a rich blossom blown on some tropic gale of stifled passion. For the most part, his diction is somewhat barren, and many of the lines suffer in structure from having been apparently tossed off in the intervals of newspaper work. We suspect that the author has not done full justice to the best that is in him.
In Mr. DeKay, on the contrary, we have a singer of the Western world, as the title of his first book of verse 10 expressly intimates, and one who has apparently taken pains to do justice to himself. It cannot be said that the result of his labors is other than disappointing. The volume is cobwebbed with affectations, which appear hopelessly to entangle the author’s talent; and, worse than this, it is in great part heavy and spiritless, with some incredible instances of the banal. Hesperus is indeed a poem of great natural grandeur, with a march in the lines worthy of their theme, — the westward instinct of mankind. This instinct the poet, connecting it with the sunset, traces agreeably to scientific theory in its growth through many generations. In it, too, he finds at last a hint of Providence ; and finds also a similitude for the passage from real to ideal. But in the other long pieces, Indian Clove, The Seer, and The Two Giants, — the last an elephantine piece of fancy play carried on with the map of North and South America, — there is little to redeem their lack of interest, either human or divine ; for they are both unpleasant and unmelodious. Mr. DeKay has a surprising ingenuity iu discovering the disagreeable. In Nef in Ireland he tells the hideous story of an old chieftain of the eighth century, who discovers his wife’s amours by the circumstance of her lover’s having left the mark of his tooth on her lip, in kissing her. Nef himself then takes vengeance upon her by biting her throat open. Again, in a little performance called Goats, after heaping abusive epithets on the goat, Mr. DeKay observes that he might have been the sweetest lamb, so far as his skeleton is concerned. This may be true, but it certainly is not poetry. There is very little of human life, either, in the volume ; and when the author does introduce it we are not led to wish that he would do it again. Men, women, youth, beauty, love, all appear to show him their least attractive side ; and we are inclined to think him more a cynic than poet. Even nature is presented by him in mysteriously morbid aspects ; though here it should be said that the Invocation, beginning,
Breath of the new-ploughed field and verdurous sigh
From copses budding! ”
and the poem called Arcana Sylvarum show an exquisite touch, and contain a singular beauty derived from no secondary source.
Poetry obscures as well as reveals the personality of those who write it; and in the case of unknown authors, like the three Southern women who have produced Three Friends’ Fancies,2 speculation as to the lives hidden behind the lines forms the chief interest of a book to the general reader. There is an air of genuineness about many of these artless verses, which is agreeable. E. W. B., J. C., and E. A. G. C., as the authors are designated, were evidently very earnest in their poetizing ; and that is a thing not to be despised. But the meed of success we can grant to only two lines in their joint work. They are these, in which J. C., whose fatherland is Scotland, speaking to that country of what she imagines its twilights, says, —
As laughter in a fair child’s sleepy eyes.”
It is a long step from these shy blossoms of the South to the large-papered and luxurious volume in which the poems of Sir Samuel Ferguson have been issued at Dublin;11 and it is also an uncommon event to receive a book of poems from Dublin at all. Sir Samuel is known, in spite of some very eccentric rhymes, as one of the foremost among Irish poets of the century ; and although the present publication contains a number of pieces on miscellaneous subjects, — including one on the sinking of the monitor, — it is to those which deal with passages from Irish heroic legends that one looks for the chief merit of his activity as a poet. These are Mesgedra, The Twins of Macha, The Naming of Cuchullin Conary, and Deirdre. The last mentioned is a “ monodrame, ” as the author describes it, founded on the same old tale which gave Dr. Joyce the suggestion for his epic romance bearing the same title. It must be said frankly that Sir Samuel by no means equals his countryman on our side of the Atlantic, either for power of poetic treatment or for insight into the spirit of the early period of which he writes. The following reflection, put into the mouth of Deirdre, is better suited to a gentleman of historic tastes in our day than to the heroine of that rude age : —
Each natural scene with graceful tales of love,
While the strong castles and the towns of men
Are hy the poets and historians
Stuck full of tragedies and woes of war.”
But in Conary, Sir Samuel Ferguson relates with impressive force and dignified simplicity, in blank verse which has unusual merits, a strong and affecting story of a king done to death by treachery and witchcraft. It is one of the few poems of this kind which wall repay reading, and it deserves to be better known.
Latest among the new volumes of song come those which Mr. Longfellow12 and Dr. Holmes13 have made up from their occasional publications during the past year or two. Most of them have already become familiar to the public, and it is not necessary to speak of them at much length here. But it is not superfluous to dwell for a moment on the art, the feeling, the exquisite modulations of sound and choice of word, which in these verses, as in so many others from the same hands, recall one to the virtues of a full-orbed and healthy art. It is not to be denied that some of the younger generation conceive themselves able to detect inadequacies in the method of the older masters ; and for each generation, no doubt, something of its own method is desirable and a benefit. But the belief in new methods must be qualified by the observation that Longfellow, for example, in Ultima Thule, appeals directly to the heart with means as unforced as ever, and with skill hardly touched by age or use, while Swinburne’s charm has already passed. When the children of a busy American city present to a poet a chair made from a tree which he once celebrated, we have proof of his hold on his time; and there are few of Mr. Longfellow’s strains more tender and beautiful than those, in the new volume, with which he answered their gift. The same peace and simplicity that breathe through these lines inform the other contributions to the hook ; among which the brief elegy on Bayard Taylor and the noble sonnet on Richard Dana stand prominent for their grace and mellowness. Among the “ folk-songs ” is one called The Windmill, which might aptly be supposed the translation of a child’s thought, so naïf and unaffected is it. But throughout the too brief collection it is this utmost refinement of simplicity which impresses the reader as the natural and ripe result of a genius that has never allowed itself to be forced from the path of nature. In Dr. Holmes’s volume, too, there is simplicity; but it is simplicity nerved and winged by a restless wit that sees the different sides, the contradictions, and cannot forbear to flash upon the eye all the various angles of the truth, while never ceasing to take the view of the poet, who knows the angles can be resolved into a circle, and the circle made the circumference of a sphere. Here, as always of old, it appears how often Dr. Holmes’s ready word is in demand at festivals ; for all but two or three of the poems are occasional. Indeed, The Iron Gate, which gives the book its title, would never have been but for the occasion of all occasions which marked his seventieth birthday. Never were the writer’s qualities more admirably lent to verse than in this poem. The pathos, the wit, the imagination, which have made him famous, are all present in it, fused in the emotion of the hour. What music and what feeling in those stanzas where he says of old age, —
And now my lifted door-latch shows him here;
I take his shrivelled hand without resistance,
And find him smiling as his step draws near.
Passion’s uneasy nurslings rocked asleep,
Hope’s anchor faster, wild desire less vagrant,
Life’s flow less noisy, but the stream how deep! ”
Everywhere a picture, a thought, a melodious or witty line ; these are the things that make Dr. Holmes’s poetry still youthful, and worth writing about as well as reading. Would that the same could be said of much other verse that comes to us !
- The Poems of Richard Henry Stoddard. Complete Edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1880.↩
- Poems of Frank O. Ticknor, M. D. Edited by K. M. K. With an Introductory Notice of the author by PAUL H. HAYNE. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1879.↩
- Father Ryan’s Poems. Mobile: John L. Rapier & Co. 1879.↩
- The Maid of Northumberland. A Dramatic Poem. By DANIEL BEDINGER LUCAS. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1879.↩
- Carlotta. A Tragedy in Five Acts. By ROBERT ROSKOTEN, M. D. Peoria, Illinois. 1880.↩
- The Legend of St. Olaf’s Kirk. By GEORGE HOUGIITOX, Author of Christmas Booklet, etc. Boston: Estes and Lauriat. 1880.↩
- The Ode of Life. By the Author of The Epic of Hades and Gwen. Boston: Roberta Brothers. 1880.↩
- Old and New. A Volume of Verse. By JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1880.↩
- Echoes from, the Orient. With Miscellaneous Poems. By EDWARD KING. London: C. Kegan. Paul. 1880.↩
- Hesperus and Other Poems. By CHARLES DEKAY. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1880.↩
- Three Friends' Fancies. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1880.↩
- Poems. By SIR SAMUEL FERGUSON. Dublin: William McGee. London: George Bell and Sons. 1880.↩
- Ultima Thule. By HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1880.↩
- The Iron Gate and Other Poems. By OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1880.↩