Thomas William Parsons
THE greatest achievements in poetry have been made by men who lived close to their times, and who responded easily to their environment. Not that Taine was altogether right in his climatic theory. The individual counts for much, and his output is really the result of the combined action of two influences, his personality and his surroundings,— a sort of intellectual parallelogram of forces. Nor is great poetic accomplishment necessarily a sympathetic expression of contemporary tendencies. On the contrary, it may often antagonize them. But whether it antagonize or approve, it is apt to be vitally related to them. No man ever set his face more strenuously against the trend of his age than Dante, nor denounced its manners and morals more severely ; yet Dante was directly concerned in the practical affairs of his day, and his epoch is epitomized in his poems. Of course, great poetry bases itself below the shifting surfaces of eras and nationalities upon the immovable bed-rock of our common humanity; and so the greatest poets, the poets who express life most fundamentally, come to have a certain likeness to one another, even though they be as widely separated in time and space as Homer and Shakespeare. But the poet must learn his human lesson at first hand ; he must find the essential realities of life where he can see them with his own eyes, under the transitory garments which they wear in his day; and to do this he must be interested in his day.
There have been now and again, however, certain poets who seem to have been born out of due time. They have not been opposed to their age so much as apart from it. The Hamlets of verse, for them the time has been out of joint, and they have not had the intensity or the resolution to strive to set it right. Thrown back upon themselves by an environment which was distasteful to them, but which they lacked either the force or the inclination to wrestle with and overcome, they have necessarily had little to say. But on that very account they have frequently given more thought to the purely artistic side of their work than more copious writers. Such men were Collins and Gray, and afterwards Landor. men whom we admire more for the classic beauty of their style and for other technical qualities than for the scope of their imagination or the penetration of their insight. Of this class of poets, and with no mean rank among them, was Thomas William Parsons.
Beginning to write contemporaneously with the earliest American poets, at a time when only the veriest doggerel had yet been perpetrated in this country, he felt keenly the sense of isolation which it was the lot of men of letters in those days to experience, — an isolation the reality of which the younger generation finds it difficult to appreciate. This is the excuse, though it is certainly not a justification, for the deprecatory and provincial tone which characterizes what are probably the earliest of his poems that have been preserved, the Letters which stand at the beginning of his first volume. Not Dickens himself was more flippantly scornful of America and the Americans than is Parsons in these Letters; and though in the preface to them he attributes the sentiments they contain to an imaginary “ wandering Englishman,” thus disclaiming them as personal, he shows even in doing so something more than a dramatic sympathy with the attitude they portray. This provincialism Parsons soon outgrew, but he never came to be in perfect touch with his country, nor to have that sense of easy security with regard to her which should mark the citizen of a nationality fully mature.
Yet even in these presumably juvenile verses there is much vigorous writing and some genuine humor. This on Boston, for example: —
A famous nest of Puritans became :
Sad, rigid souls, who hated as they ought
The carnal arms wherewith the devil fought;
Dancing and dicing-, music, and whate’er
Spreads for humanity the pleasing snare.
Stage-plays, especially, their hearts abhorred,
Holding the muses hateful to the Lord,
Save when old Sternhold and his brother bard
Oped their hoarse throats, and strained an anthem hard.
From that angelic race of perfect men
(Sure, seraphs never trod the world till then !)
Descends the race to whom the sway is given
Of the world’s morals by confiding Heaven.”
There was always a strain of true religious feeling in Parsons, which deepened at the last into something rapt and intense ; but Puritanism never ceased to be hateful to him, and this antagonism contributed to make him feel that his footsteps were on alien soil. An artist first of all, he was drawn more toward the services of the ancient Church, for whose adornment art has so bountifully poured out its treasures, than to any balder form of worship. To him the world was a problem in beauty and emotion. He was not incommoded with a message, as so many of his contemporaries were. This has been, perhaps, to the detriment of his reputation in the past; it may be to its advantage in the future.
The man who speaks too consciously a message to his own time is apt to have none for any other. Parsons wrought from first to last in the true artistic spirit, and it is not unlikely that his chief claims to the recognition of the future will be found in qualities of form and style.
Not the least among these qualities will be that sturdy literary independence which, amid the widespread aesthetic revival of this century, achieved a success of a purely aesthetic nature on lines entirely unaffected by the contemporary fashion. In a time of metrical experiment and of the new and strange harmonies of Rossetti and Swinburne, he alone of the artistic school of poets, uninfluenced even by Coleridge or Shelley, worked in the severe methods of an earlier day. Dryden and Pope seem to have been his earliest masters, but not for long. The versification of Dryden, which Keats learned to appreciate at its true value, remained always to some extent a factor in Parsons’s art, but he soon threw over the jingle of Pope’s measure for the fuller, statelier, and in truth simpler manner of Collins and Gray. Yet his matured style is neither that of Collins, with whom he had close resemblances, personal and poetical, nor that of Gray, though unquestionably akin to both. Parsons had, besides, a certain bent for plain words and homely images that, sometimes became Dantesque. Indeed, the lifelong study which he gave to Dante could not be without its influence on his own expression, — an influence potent for strength and directness.
Parsons was probably Gray’s inferior in point of taste, for otherwise we can hardly understand how he could put forth in the same volume, and sometimes in the same poem, such inequalities as he permitted himself. Yet it must be said, as an offset to this, that he seldom made himself responsible for a poem by publishing it. He occasionally had verses in the magazines, and even, if the whim took him, in the newspapers ; but only twice in his life did he bring the question of his critical judgment fairly within the scope cf comment by issuing a volume to the public. The first of these volumes, which contains the famous Lines on a Bust of Dante, may perhaps rely upon the youth of its author as an explanation of its unevenness. The other, Circum Præcordia, published in the year of his death, and consisting of a versification of the collects of the Church together with a few original poems of a religious character, is of even and Sustained excellence, though vising to the level of his best work only in its concluding poem, Paradisi Gloria. Mrs. Parsons had several other volumes printed for private circulation only, but of these the author frequently knew nothing until the bound copies were placed in his hands. What he would himself now select to give to the world no one can tell; possibly as carefully edited a volume as even that of Gray.
Such a volume would, I believe, be one of the treasures of American verse, — a book that lovers of poetry would carry with them as they would similar thin volumes of Herrick, Marvell, Collins, or Landor. The lyrics addressed to Francesca are true Herrick for grace and daintiness, and there is nothing in Landor finer than such passages as this:
Torn out from Plutarch, with majestic names; ”
or these, from Francesca di Rimini: —
Lord of the lay, — I need not speak his name, —
Was one who felt; whose life was love or hate.
Born for extremes, he scorned the middle state,
And well he knew that, since the world began,
The heart was master in the world of man.”
I have referred to the Paradisi Gloria. This poem, with one unwisely altered line restored to its original reading, is one of the few faultless lyrics in the language ; and the following stanza, with which it begins, is I submit, as felicitous as anything Gray ever wrote, and more imaginative: —
And unapproachable by sea or shore,
And unassailable by any band
Of storming soldiery forevermore.”
Less fine, perhaps, but still very beautiful is the touching Dirge : —
Or say or write, that shall express the half ?
What can we do but pillow that fair head,
And let the springtime write her epitaph ? ”
Each of these poems is marked by that simple and straightforward style which was the glory of Parsons at his best. But he could also handle more involved periods and a more complex cæsural music with equal skill; witness the opening lines of La Pineta Distrutta : —
For aye through coming centuries to the sound,
Over blue Adria, of the lyric pines
And Chiassi’s bird - song keeping burden sweet
To their low moan as once to Dante’s lines, Which when my step first felt Italian ground I strove to follow, carried by the spell Of that sad Florentine whose native street (At morn and midnight) where he used to dwell
From poems like these to The Feud of the Flute-Players is a far cry, but it argues well for the humanity of our poet that he could be merry when he would. The line.
is as jolly a bit of Bohemianism as I know, and the entire story is told with much spirit and humor. St. Peray, another bacchanalian lyric, has found its way, like the Lines on a Bust of Dante, into the anthologies, and may be passed by here with a mere reference.
Count Ernst von Mansfeldt the Protestant, if three rather weak and quite unnecessary stanzas could be removed from it, would be, perhaps, the strongest poem Parsons ever wrote. It. is certainly the most objective, and one of the most manly and vigorous.
His greedy eyes are on me ;
My chance is not one throw in three;
Ere night he will have won me.
“ Summon my kin ! — come steed — come coach —
Let me not stay, commanding;
If the last enemy approach,
They shall see me armed and standing.
For I will fall in iron.”
This, with the stirring Martial Ode, which begins,
Declared Thee also Lord of war;
And sacred chroniclers have told
Of kings whom Thou didst battle for,”
proves that Parsons knew how to put into practice that strenuous counsel of his own:
Should with the sweetness of the soul combine
‘T is only strength makes gentleness divine.”
With the masterly technical power and equipment that Parsons undoubtedly had, why did he not do more ? Why is his permanent original contribution to English literature limited to a few lyrics ? For this I can find no better reason than that which I have already suggested, that, being out of sympathy with his time, he found no theme for his song. The achievements of this age he admired, when at all, as an outsider, and frequently his attitude was the reverse of admiration. Homers must have their Agamemnons as well as Agamemnons their Homers ; and to-day was not heroic to Parsons. To him the railway suggested nothing but
“ The dead sleepers of the vulgar track,” and commercial greatness smacked ever of the Philistine. He would probably have been as uncomfortable in Athens as in Boston ; and while he could love Venice dead, Venice living (where, as so often in history, Trade and Art went out hand in hand, conquering and to conquer) would have been as distasteful as Chicago. It is true that the traders of Athens and the Adriatic braved great personal dangers, and brought back from
their voyages strange and gorgeous fabrics, “ barbaric pearl and gold,” and taLes of incredible adventure in the unknown world. Our modern conquests, in commerce as in science, with some notable exceptions, are of a more impalpable kind, and make no such sensuous appeal to the imagination. And so, for some, the circumnavigation of the globe has ended all romance, even though the unknown he still as mysteriously present in New York as in the “ shining vales of Har.”
The risk and the imagination involved in modern achievement are enormous, and even the element of personal danger is by no means eliminated ; and if there were vulgar things in the conquest of California, I doubt not there were also vulgar things, more nearly of the same kind than we are apt to think, in the conquest of Gaul. But anybody can see the vulgarity. It is the poet’s function to show that this is a mere accident, and that the essential reality still throbs as ever with a lyric rapture ; that
There’s something ever, ever sings.”
Few poets, indeed, have been completely catholic of insight, nor do they necessarily lose their title of interpreters because they are not universal interpreters, and limit themselves to the field or fields for which they have a spontaneous sympathy. Parsons, even when he rationally approved, had no spontaneous sympathy for the present, its attitude or its tendencies. To sing of it, or to sing of the past with the voice of the present, his fine æsthetic instinct felt would be but a tour de force, and seldom and reluctantly was he persuaded to attempt it. Occasionally he poured his fine rhetoric into denunciation, written from the heart; but here, too, his artistic feeling stepped in and restrained him to brief utterance, for he knew well that scolding is not great nor dignified.
One thing there was that he saw clearly his way to do, — to reproduce for this age the voice of the age which he did love, and of the poet for whom, even from boyhood, he cherished a devotion almost personal. In making this choice and following his instinct, I believe he was right, and that we have obtained a greater poem than we should have done had he forced himself into attempting a sustained work of his own. Nor is this a derogation in any way from Parsons’s unquestioned poetic power, as any one who knows anything about the almost insuperable difficulties of translation is well aware. In fact, it may be said with perfect truth that a good translation is rarer than a good original poem. The successful transfer of even the briefest lyric from one language to another is an achievement so unusual as to demand the most unreserved commendation, while even the partly successful renderings of the great masters, in all languages, are so few that their names may be spoken in one breath.
Parsons’s translation of the Divine Comedy is far from being a mere paraphrase of the original, but yet it makes no pretense to absolute literalness. Indeed, a truly literal translation is a linguistic impossibility. Over and above the merely metrical difficulties of such an undertaking, there must always be two classes of phenomena in which the two poems, the original and the version, will differ, and often very materially, from each other. The metrical scheme may he preserved, but the rhythmical filling in of this scheme must necessarily vary ; for the syllables of the corresponding words in different languages will almost certainly have different time values. In one they may have many consonants, and be perforce slow in articulation ; in the other they may consist entirely of short vowels and tripping liquids. The predominance of short syllables in Italian enabled Dante to use feet of three or more syllables in an iambic measure with much greater frequency than would be possible in English, and this fact alters wholly the character of a measure of which the metrical scheme is the same in both languages. It is, of course, so evident as hardly to warrant allusion that the sounds themselves cannot be the same ; and yet their expression as mere sounds is a very vital factor in their poetic force.
The other class of phenomena in which an original and its translation must always differ is not acoustic, but linguistic. As I have had occasion to say elsewhere,
•• words differ in what, for lack of a better word, we must call color. With the possible exception of Volapük, in which, for this very reason, no one but a statistician would ever think of writing poetry, there is no language in existence in which the words are merely conventional symbols of the ideas for which they stand. Every word we speak has a pedigree that goes back to Adam. It has been developing into what it now is, through uncounted accretions and curtailments and transformations, ever since man was, and, since Professor Garner’s experiments with monkeys, we may suspect even a little longer ; and in the course of that long, eventful history it has gathered to itself a multitude of little associations which, without presenting themselves directly to the understanding, modify, enrich, and color the effect of the primary meaning, like the overtones of a musical note. Without this colorific value of words, we could express little more by speech than by the symbols of algebra. This is the chief difficulty of the translator, and one that he can never surmount.”
Prose translations of what in the original was verse vary, of course, from that original in even more respects, since they deliberately sacrifice an entire group of expressional devices which formed an important part of the poet’s intention. An argument may be made for the use of prose in translating the poetry of the ancients, for their versification differed from ours in a radical manner. But there can be no excuse for an English prose version of a poem written in any modern European language, if it be intended for more than an assistance in the study of the original. Admirable as the workmanship in some of our prose versions of Dante has been, I cannot but think that, except for some such scholarly purpose, the labor and the skill expended upon them have been misapplied.
At the opposite extreme from the prose versions are those that have been made into terza rima. It cannot be denied that the use of Dante’s own arrangement of rhymes is an advantage, nor that Dante himself laid much stress upon it. But he had mystical reasons for doing so that are not of great consequence to us now, and Parsons’s translation, while preserving, in common with the versions in terza rima and with those in blank verse, the metre of the original (the iambic pentameter), loses but little of the effect of the rhyme structure. His quatrains, by the liberal use of runon lines and the occasional introduction of a third rhyme, achieve that effect of continuity which is the most distinguishing characteristic of the original. I venture to think that almost no one, even among poets, would be able to tell whether the complex rhyme system of the terza rima were exactly carried out in any poem to the reading aloud of which he should listen for pure enjoyment, and without special effort to observe that particular phenomenon. Still, however slight the advantage be, it is nevertheless an advantage to have preserved the terza rima; but this gain is more than overcome by the Dantesque quality of the style in Parsons’s version. The manner of the others often suggests the contemporaries of Dante, rather than Dante himself.
There remain for consideration and comparison the two renderings into blank verse. These are the most widely known of the various translations, and one of them, Cary’s, is the form in which Dante is most generally read by Englishspeaking readers. Longfellow’s version, though occasionally it transfers a line more successfully than any of the others, is in the main perfunctory, and its literalness is carried so far that it frequently degenerates into a " crib ” pure and simple. There is a story that Longfellow used to translate eighty lines every morning before breakfast. I do not know how true this may be, but the internal evidence seems to support it. The product of his labor is a caput mortuum; the categorical statements are all there, but somehow the poetry has evaporated. The result is tedious and uninteresting. Now, the one quality Dante never had is dullness, and that is also the one quality the public will never forgive.
Cary’s translation has the merit of being tolerably readable. But in it the great Italian poet suffers a strange transformation. The words are the words of Dante, but the voice is the voice of Milton ; or rather of a weaker-lunged man trying to month the mighty periods and cæsuras of Milton, and getting somewhat cracked of voice and broken of wind in the effort. Nevertheless, it is, on the whole, a creditable performance ; only it is not Dante.
Each of the translators has his felicitous moments, and succeeds in rendering certain passages with more skill than his competitors. But the relative merit of the translations must be estimated, not by passages, but by the general impression of the whole work. Parsons is inferior to some of the other translators in certain obvious verbal and prosodical accuracies. But his poem probably gives a more correct impression of Dante in his entirety than any of the others. His versification has the continuity of Dante’s, and something of its music. His diction, like Dante’s, has that supreme refinement that knows no disdain for homely words and phrases. His style, with more inversions than Dante’s, has much of the master’s severity and swiftness, though it falls short of the masterfulness and supple power of the Italian. Altogether there is more Dante in it than in any translation that has yet been made.
It has been difficult for me to write critically of a man for whom I had a warm affection, and who honored me with his friendship and esteem. If I have erred on the side of severity, it has been from a fear lest my personal regard for the man should unduly influence my judgment of the poet; and if I have erred in his praise, it will be easily forgiven. But I do not think that I mistake in assigning to him, as a translator a station with the highest, and as an original poet a niche with Collins in the temple of English song.