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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: TALES OF A WAYSIDE INN
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The Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: TALES OF A WAYSIDE INN Post by :emersond Category :Essays Author :James Russell Lowell Date :April 2012 Read :1602

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The Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: TALES OF A WAYSIDE INN

REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: TALES OF A WAYSIDE INN

It is no wonder that Mr. Longfellow should be the most popular of American, we might say, of contemporary poets. The fine humanity of his nature, the wise simplicity of his thought, the picturesqueness of his images, and the deliciously limpid flow of his style, entirely justify the public verdict, and give assurance that his present reputation will settle into fame. That he has not _this of Tennyson, nor _that of Browning, may be cheerfully admitted, while he has so many other things that are his own. There may be none of those flashes of lightning in his verse that make day for a moment in this dim cavern of consciousness where we grope; but there is an equable sunshine that touches the landscape of life with a new charm, and lures us out into healthier air. If he fall short of the highest reaches of imagination, he is none the less a master within his own sphere--all the more so, indeed, that he is conscious of his own limitations, and wastes no strength in striving to be other than himself. Genial, natural, and original, as much as in these latter days it is given to be, he holds a place among our poets like that of Irving among our prose-writers. Make whatever deductions and qualifications, and they still keep their place in the hearts and minds of men. In point of time he is our Chaucer--the first who imported a finer foreign culture into our poetry.

His present volume shows a greater ripeness than any of its predecessors. We find a mellowness of early autumn in it. There is the old sweetness native to the man, with greater variety of character and experience. The personages are all drawn from the life, and sketched with the light firmness of a practised art. They have no more individuality than is necessary to the purpose of the poem, which consists of a series of narratives told by a party of travellers gathered in Sudbury Inn, and each suited, either by its scene or its sentiment, to the speaker who recites it. In this also there is a natural reminiscence of Chaucer; and if we miss the rich minuteness of his Van Eyck painting, or the depth of his thoughtful humor, we find the same airy grace, tenderness, simple strength, and exquisite felicities of description. Nor are twinkles of sly humor wanting. The Interludes, and above all the Prelude, are masterly examples of that perfect ease of style which is, of all things, the hardest to attain. The verse flows clear and sweet as honey, and with a faint fragrance that tells, but not too plainly, of flowers that grew in many fields. We are made to feel that, however tedious the processes of culture may be, the ripe result in facile power and scope of fancy is purely delightful. We confess that we are so heartily weary of those cataclysms of passion and sentiment with which literature has been convulsed of late,--as if the main object were, not to move the reader, but to shake the house about his ears,--that the homelike quiet and beauty of such poems as these is like an escape from noise to nature.

As regards the structure of the work looked at as a whole, it strikes us as a decided fault, that the Saga of King Olaf is so disproportionately long, especially as many of the pieces which compose it are by no means so well done as the more strictly original ones. We have no quarrel with the foreign nature of the subject as such,--for any good matter is American enough for a truly American poet; but we cannot help thinking that Mr. Longfellow has sometimes mistaken mere strangeness for freshness, and has failed to make his readers feel the charm he himself felt. Put into English, the Saga seems _too Norse; and there is often a hitchiness in the verse that suggests translation with overmuch heed for literal closeness. It is possible to assume alien forms of verse, but hardly to enter into forms of thought alien both in time and in the ethics from which they are derived. "The Building of the Long Serpent" is not to be named with Mr. Longfellow's "Building of the Ship," which he learned from no Heimskringla, but from the dockyards of Portland, where he played as a boy. We are willing, however, to pardon the parts which we find somewhat ineffectual, in favor of the "Nun of Nidaros," which concludes, and in its gracious piety more than redeems, them all.

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