Whittier's King's Missive, and Other Recent Poetry

ONE test for determining the precise quality of a poetic genius as respects endurance is to observe the choice of development that it makes in maturity, and especially in the latest years of life. Some poets, it is true, do not perceptibly alter their early bent in the matter of expression; but there is among others a tendency either towards increased complexity, or towards a more and more reserved simplicity. Longfellow and Whittier have always held to the clear and simple utterance which makes poetry the meek handmaid of daily life ; but in their latest work, as was observable in the Ultima Thule, and now appears in The King’s Missive,1 they seem to limit themselves more than ever, if that be possible, to a style so gentle, subdued, and transparent that one thinks involuntarily of some kindly patriarch addressing children in a strain of sweet and quiet reflection. Here, indeed, in Mr. Whittier’s new volume, is a charming poem which is exactly that, — the poem called A Name ; a pensive monologue on the poet’s Christian name of Greenleaf, inscribed to a young kinsman or namesake.

“ A life not void of pure intent,
With small desert of praise or blame,
The love I felt, the good I meant,
I leave thee with my name.”

Something of this touching gentleness and pensive retrospection pervades the whole of the little book. The Voyage of the Jettie — a pretty piece of improvisation — is made into an allegory of departing life, by one who at evening time recalls “ the morning gladness.”Abram Morrison is an old man’s boyish recollection ; The Minister’s Daughter brings sweetly before us the influence of a child’s love on her father’s stern doctrine. Then there is an echo of the antislavery crusade in the memorial lines on Garrison; and in three noble sonnets on Bayard Taylor the poet pays reverence to another departed friend. These lines on Taylor reach the sublime : —

“ Let the home voices greet him in the far,
Strange land that holds him ; let the messages
Of love pursue him o’er the chartless seas
And unmapped vastness of his unknown star!
Love’s language, heard beyond the loud discourse
Of perishable fame,
Shall reach our traveler, softening the surprise
Of his rapt gaze on unfamiliar skies! ”

Yet how simple, dependent, trustful a yearning of human love they embody ! The Dead Feast of the KolFolk reflects in another form, with its pathetic invocation of the dead, “ Come home,” return and rest, and warm yourselves and eat rice with us. The mind of deepest insight always looks forward, even when thinking of the past and the lost; and when age comes, that forward gaze penetrates more and more into the world beyond ours. Consonant with this mood are the religious sonnets and the brief inscriptions and Oriental maxims which Mr. Whittier has added to his collection. Perhaps the most artistic piece in the book is the Dead-Feast just referred to ; but The King’s Missive is certainly one of the most spirited of the author’s New England narratives, sung in that informal, lilting verse which he knows how to use with effect, and likely to endure a good deal longer than the memory of a recent controversy as to the historic value of the poem. In the elegy on Daniel Webster, The Lost Occasion, Mr. Whittier, bringing late mercy to the grave of the statesman, attains to a dignity of sympathy and mourning very impressive. Altogether, the volume, small as it is, illustrates peculiarly well the different motives of the poet’s life, continuing the various notes he has sounded hitherto ; and in reading it one is struck with the persistence of a poetic faculty, which, never straining itself to a painful subtlety, always avoiding overrichness of expression, preserves its early force along the accustomed range.

The contrast is sharp, and not wholly pleasing, when we turn from these soft cadences to the elaborate metres, the dazzling adjectives, the antithetic phrases and violent extremes, of Mr. Swinburne. His latest productions 2 display all the mannerisms of the work by which he first became known ; and these are, if anything, intensified, while the novelty of his tone and the appearance of passion which he once maintained are faded. In the long and verbose Song for the Centenary of Walter Savage Landor, there are sonorous lines, like these: —

“When with stretched clouds like wings
The god-like giant, softening, spread
A shadow of stormy shelter round the new-born head.”

But the eloquence of eulogy is exhausted, and if one may say so reëxhausted, in cloying superlatives. Landor is called

“ The mightiest heart since Milton’s leapt,
The gentlest since the gentlest heart of Shakespeare slept.”

A weak rhyme, by the way, this conjunction of “’s leapt ” and “ slept; ” the syllables being virtually identical. So, in the outburst called After Nine Years, Mazzini is thus apostrophized : —

“ Thou wast as very Christ, — not he
Degraded into Deity,
But the man crowned with suffering days.
God only,” etc.

Nor can Mr. Swinburne contemplate the glory of the sun without becoming a pagan, a fire-worshiper. Off Shore is purely a hymn in abject praise of the supreme luminary, which Mr. Swinburne, to use his own phrase, “ degrades into Deity,” calling it —

“The Saviour and healer and singer, the living
and visible God; ”

and the conclusion of By the North Sea sounds the same chord. All this is in keeping with the extravagance which leads him, in the prefatory note to the Grand Chorus of Birds from Aristophanes, to call that comedian “ the halfdivine humorist, in whose incomparable genius ” were fused the highest qualities of Rabelais and Shelley. (This translation, by the way, following the original metre, whatever its merits as an approximate reproduction, is not a successful English poem.) What most impresses us, throughout, is Mr. Swinburne’s straining for effect ; his desire to astound by excess; and the melancholy result, as of a man who, feeling his powers limited or failing, breaks into furies of mouthing and gesticulation, to prove that he is still efficient. A certain music there is in these poems, largely mechanical and jingling though it be, and traces of beauty here and there appear; but surely, in the pride of his technical resources, the author grows careless when he writes so dry and bald a measure as this : —

“ Could love make worthy things of worthless,
My song were worth an ear.”

It occurs in Six Years Old, which just misses being a sweet and flower-like poem, and misses it by Mr. Swinburne’s mournful inability to be pure, unaffected, and child-like, even when writing to a child.

Mr. Charles De Kay is a writer distinctly of another school than that in which our older poets rank. Without being an imitator, by any means, he seems naturally to ally himself with Swinburne and Morris, and to some extent with Browning also ; though he certainly is not like them. It is partly in the choice of theme, partly in his eager and full response to sensuous beauty, that he recalls the first two ; and in occasional turns of phrase or uncouth constructions that he makes one think, at instants, of Browning.

“ The good old times were blester ” is a rather cumbrous device for supplying a rhyme to “ Esther,” in a preceding line ; one of those after-thoughts, careless expedients, in which Browning indulges so often. But these remarks, intended merely to suggest points in which Mr. De Kay stands quite apart from the traditions of Bryant and Longfellow and Whittier, for instance, do him injustice if taken to imply a want of originality. His Vision of Nimrod3 warrants quite a different conclusion. Indeed, it shows him to be original, forcible, and eloquent, with strong qualities of passion, and a gift for beautiful description. Here is a fine incidental burst of enthusiasm, a description of spring, which is full of feeling, and in quality fresh and vigorous : —

“Know you how Spring ascends the mountainvalleys
In fragrant dances on the line of snows,
Enrobed in wind half-cool, half-warm, that dallies
With vineyards now, and now by snow peak
When vernal hills are green with dainty guesses,
With hope, with promise of delicious pain,
And sun from udders of the glacier presses
The foamy milk, life to the thirsty plain, — Know you the zest that fills
Spring in the hills ? ”

The legend which Mr. De Kay has woven about Nimrod is a singular and powerful one, — a curious study in imagination. As the author says, the kernel of the tale is not to be found in books. He has attempted to penetrate into and describe the condition of the ancient monarch, to depict him amid the gorgeousness of his triumphant reign, and then to show the half-deified king as one of the actors in a struggle of passion and intellect centring upon Esther, a priestess of the sun. The situation is set forth with much detail ; clearly, richly, and with a firm hold that moves the story finely to its climax. The imagination shown is abundant, and the book contains passages of great beauty. It is very questionable, however, whether the deed of Nimrod in overcoming the chastity of the priestess forms a fit culmination — judged by the canons of the truest art (which also involves moral meaning, a sequence and conclusion of ideas) —for so elaborate a study. The story really ends at that point; there being an introduction and conclusion which have little to do with it, and the object of which it is not easy to. discover. Mr. De Kay hints that there is more to come; but his poem is already too long for its theme, and the incompletion of the design gives the whole the look of a bulky fragment. Diffuseness is one of the grave faults of The Vision of Nimrod, and with this, related to it, there are lapses into inadequate and prosaie phraseology, in parts.

The poems of Robert K. Weeks, both those published before his death and those issued posthumously, have been collected in a single volume,4 bound with some originality, and delightfully printed. They are without question worthy of this friendly care. Few men have attained so early as Mr. Weeks a purity of style, a chaste, lovely, and reserved beauty of verse, like those which meet us in these pages. He was not a writer of marked originality, in general ; but there is one poem in his book very striking in its fresh imagination ; we mean Medusa.

“No sound was in the frosty air,
No light below the skies;
I looked above, and unaware
Looked in Medusa’s eyes:

“ The eyes that neither laugh nor weep,
That neither hope nor fear;
That neither watch, nor dream, nor sleep,
Nor sympathize nor sneer.

“ O love that will not be forgot!
O love that leaves alone!
O love that blinds, and blesses not!
O love that turns to stone! ”

His affection for nature manifests itself in numerous pieces devoted to the silent play of her beauties and changes, — short pieces, dreamy in feeling, and not always sufficing as to purport, but containing exquisite touches; and in his ballad of Gudrun and Song for Lexington he revealed a singular firmness of line, as one may say, together with much skill in suggestion. So far as he went, he was a master ; he seldom attempted anything without giving it a certain completeness and reposeful grace. In this way he becomes an interesting study to lovers of poetry, who will find it curious to compare his gray tone, his conservative dignity, with the more opulent coloring, the rolling chords and ingenious novelties, of Mr. De Kay.

When a popular novelist is able to send forth a book containing some two hundred and seventy rhymed effusions, no one of which enjoys very high reputation, it is safe to conclude that verse is not the author’s fittest vehicle. This is precisely what we conclude, in looking over the collection of her metrical pieces, which the author of John Halifax has made.5 Nevertheless, there will be found, among these, some evidences of a poetic tendency, and many more evidences of a nature that has been peculiarly open to the varied events and emotions of a lifetime, and has responded to them with natural eloquence, some passion, and much piety. The most graceful thing in the book — a brief, musical lyric, dewy with sunlit tears — is prosaically entitled, A Silly Song; and this accords with a certain comfortable English-matronly common-sense pervading the pages. A number of the contributions are meant for children ; and others concern family and personal matters known only to the author. Sometimes they are mere playful rhymes, of no great value ; for she has not been self-critical in her selection. But as the general public is not composed of literary artists, what may be called “the law of average appreciation ” will make this volume of Mrs. Mulock-Craik’s welcome in many households where Whittier’s poetry is also read. The planes of art on which the two writers stand are by no means the same, and the basis of varied interests in Whittier is of course much broader, — not so personal ; but people will be content with the sincerity and heart in Thirty Years, and will hardly notice the difference.

“ In this lyric I\X have endeavored to represent the very stupid and comfortless doctrine of the Greeks with regard to the state of human souls after death.” Such is the cheerfully self-confident, but not very inviting explanation, which Prof. John Stuart Blackie appends to his verses on The Wail of an Idol, in a newly issued second edition of some of his poems.6 These Lays and Legends are a part of an earlier volume, now weeded in such manner as to make the group consist of seventeen ballads and other compositions interpreting Greek myths or philosophies. To each the author prefixes one or more quotations in Greek, and he furnishes, besides, brief scholarly notes referring to his own and other prose writings on the subjects treated. Professor Blackie never loses the erudite point of view in the poetic. These labored stanzas are little more than rhymed commentaries on special points in the Greek mythology. What inspiration can be found in lines like those at the close of his Prometheus?

“And whoso rests
From labor let him rest from life.
To live’s to strive; and in the strife
To move the rock, to stir the clod,
Man makes himself a god.”

Yet they give a fair example of Mr. Blackie’s work ; mechanical, unmelodious, and based on dogmatism as it is throughout. “ Stupid and comfortless ” — the words which he applies to the Greek doctrine referred to above — recur as befitting his own effusions. But all that it suffices our present purpose to note is the danger which a man who is not a poet runs, in adopting the plain vocabulary and straightforward style which, in hands like Whittier’s and Longfellow’s, yields such happy results. Mr. Blackie might have been less tedious (though not substantially better) had he surrendered to the influences of what his Scotch school terms “ spasmodic” poetry. William Gibson, “Commander, United States Navy,” has done this to some extent, in a little volume recently issued ;7 and although his talent is essentially feeble, he conceals the fact partially under an occasional richness of verbiage and a flow of harmonious lines.

It would be hard to say just what direction Mr. John Boyle O’Reilly’s development is taking. In his latest volume,8 the closing poem — The Mutiny of the Chains — continues the strain of those wild Australian legends which gave such novel interest to this poet’s first publications ; but the force of the strain is here somewhat diminished. The title poem, on the other hand, is an elaborate study in blank verse, —verse at times so melodious as to have the effect of rhyme, — the scope of which, for want of a better word, we might define as “ psychological.” But even here, where finish is sought, the fourth line from the beginning is redundant: —

“ Inert amid a million stones, responds to this.”

In many of the pieces will be found similar evidences of hasty work. But Mr. O’Reilly deliberately adopts formlessness in Muley Malek, From the Earth, a Cry, and A Song for the Soldiers. The second of these — which is the voice of the mob, of the suffering millions who

“ Grind forever in gloom, that the privileged few may live ” —

is more fittingly cast in such rough mould ; but no good end is served by its adoption in the other cases. Moreover, Mr. O’Reilly, while plainly following in the wake of Walt Whitman, does not convey through his irregular lines the sense of along billow-like rhythm which Whitman manages to get into his best fragments. His attempts in this direction are rough draughts of poems, and have not that inner harmony controlling apparent lawlessness which alone can give to any piece of writing high poetic worth. Of underlying passion and intense, though not always deep, conception there is an uncommon stock in these pages. On the other hand, Mr. O’Reilly gives us a few charming lyrics and lays, like Jacqueminots, which is throbbing with lover’s ardor, or the amusing fable which he calls The Temple of Friendship; and scattered through the book are sundry bright and brief ebullitions of wit, or fancy, or reflection, which disclose in the author a singular talent for minute perfection of statement.

“ The Infinite always is silent ;
It is only the Finite speaks.
Our words are the idle wave-caps
On the deep that never breaks.”

This volume, then, presents Mr. O’Reilly in two lights, and it is scarcely possible to say which shows him most truly. A man of strong feeling and possessing the poetic talent he appears, in either, though not always doing his gift justice. But the present volume marks a transitional state in his progress, which, unless he should allow his productions to mature more deeply hereafter, will not lead to increased merit of achievement.

  1. The King’s Missive and Other Poems. By JOHN GKEENLEAF WHITTIER. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1881.
  2. Studies in Song. By ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE. New York: R. Worthington. 1880.
  3. The Vision of Nimrod. By CHARLES DE KAY. New York: D. Appleton & Co. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington. 1881.
  4. Poems. By ROBERT K. WEEKS. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1881.
  5. Thirty Years: Poems New and Old. By the Author of John Halifax, Gentleman, etc. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1881.
  6. Lays and Legends of Ancient Greece. By JOHN STUART BLACKIE, Professor of Greek in the University of Edinburgh. William Blackwood and Sons : Edinburgh and London. 1880.
  7. Poems of Many Years and Many Places. By WILLIAM GIBSON, Commander, United States Navy. Boston: Lee and Shepard. 1881.
  8. The Statues in the Block, and Other Poems. By JOHN BOYLE O’REILLY. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1881.