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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: W.D. HOWELLS: VENETIAN LIFE
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The Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: W.D. HOWELLS: VENETIAN LIFE Post by :Roy_Chan Category :Essays Author :James Russell Lowell Date :April 2012 Read :2978

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The Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: W.D. HOWELLS: VENETIAN LIFE

REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: W.D. HOWELLS: VENETIAN LIFE

Those of our readers who watch with any interest the favorable omens of our literature from time to time, must have had their eyes drawn to short poems, remarkable for subtilty of sentiment and delicacy of expression, and bearing the hitherto unfamiliar name of Mr. Howells. Such verses are not common anywhere; as the work of a young man they are very uncommon. Youthful poets commonly begin by trying on various manners before they settle upon any single one that is prominently their own. But what especially interested us in Mr. Howells was, that his writings were from the very first not merely tentative and preliminary, but had somewhat of the conscious security of matured _style_. This is something which most poets arrive at through much tribulation. It is something which has nothing to do with the measure of their intellectual powers or of their moral insight, but is the one quality which essentially distinguishes the artist from the mere man of genius. Among the English poets of the last generation, Keats is the only one who early showed unmistakable signs of it, and developed it more and more fully until his untimely death. Wordsworth, though in most respects a far profounder man, attained it only now and then, indeed only once perfectly,--in his "Laodamia." Now, though it be undoubtedly true from one point of view that what a man has to say is of more importance than how he says it, and that modern criticism especially is more apt to be guided by its moral and even political sympathies than by aesthetic principles, it remains as true as ever that only those things have been said finally which have been said perfectly, and that this finished utterance is peculiarly the office of poetry, or of what, for want of some word as comprehensive as the German _Dichtung_, we are forced to call imaginative literature. Indeed, it may be said that, in whatever kind of writing, it is style alone that is able to hold the attention of the world long. Let a man be never so rich in thought, if he is clumsy in the expression of it, his sinking, like that of an old Spanish treasureship, will be hastened by the very weight of his bullion, and perhaps, after the lapse of a century, some lucky diver fishes up his ingots and makes a fortune out of him.

That Mr. Howells gave unequivocal indications of possessing this fine quality interested us in his modest preludings. Marked, as they no doubt were, by some uncertainty of aim and indefiniteness of thought, that "stinting," as Chaucer calls it, of the nightingale "ere he beginneth sing," there was nothing in them of the presumption and extravagance which young authors are so apt to mistake for originality and vigor. Sentiment predominated over reflection, as was fitting in youth; but there was a refinement, an instinctive reserve of phrase, and a felicity of epithet, only too rare in modern, and especially in American writing. He was evidently a man more eager to make something good than to make a sensation,--one of those authors more rare than ever in our day of hand-to-mouth cleverness, who has a conscious ideal of excellence, and, as we hope, the patience that will at length reach it. We made occasion to find out something about him, and what we learned served to increase our interest. This delicacy, it appeared, was a product of the rough-and-ready West, this finish the natural gift of a young man with no advantage of college-training, who, passing from the compositor's desk to the editorship of a local newspaper, had been his own faculty of the humanities. But there are some men who are born cultivated. A singular fruit, we thought, of our shaggy democracy,--as interesting a phenomenon in that regard as it has been our fortune to encounter. Where is the rudeness of a new community, the pushing vulgarity of an imperfect civilization, the licentious contempt of forms that marks our unchartered freedom, and all the other terrible things which have so long been the bugaboos of European refinement? Here was a natural product, as perfectly natural as the deliberate attempt of "Walt Whitman" to answer the demand of native and foreign misconception was perfectly artificial. Our institutions do not, then, irretrievably doom us to coarseness and to impatience of that restraining precedent which alone makes true culture possible and true art attainable. Unless we are mistaken, there is something in such an example as that of Mr. Howells which is a better argument for the American social and political system than any empirical theories that can be constructed against it.

We know of no single word which will so fitly characterize Mr. Howells's new volume about Venice as "delightful." The artist has studied his subject for four years, and at last presents us with a series of pictures having all the charm of tone and the minute fidelity to nature which were the praise of the Dutch school of painters, but with a higher sentiment, a more refined humor, and an airy elegance that recalls the better moods of Watteau. We do not remember any Italian studies so faithful or the result of such continuous opportunity, unless it be the "Roba di Roma" of Mr. Story, and what may be found scattered in the works of Henri Beyle. But Mr. Story's volumes recorded only the chance observations of a quick and familiar eye in the intervals of a profession to which one must be busily devoted who would rise to the acknowledged eminence occupied by their author; and Beyle's mind, though singularly acute and penetrating, had too much of the hardness of a man of the world and of Parisian cynicism to be altogether agreeable. Mr. Howells, during four years of that consular leisure which only Venice could make tolerable, devoted himself to the minute study of the superb prison to which he was doomed, and his book is his "Prigioni." Venice has been the university in which he has fairly earned the degree of Master. There is, perhaps, no European city, not even Bruges, not even Rome herself, which, not yet in ruins, is so wholly of the past, at once alive and turned to marble, like the Prince of the Black Islands in the story. And what gives it a peculiar fascination is that its antiquity, though venerable, is yet modern, and, so to speak, continuous; while that of Rome belongs half to a former world and half to this, and is broken irretrievably in two. The glory of Venice, too, was the achievement of her own genius, not an inheritance; and, great no longer, she is more truly than any other city the monument of her own greatness. She is something wholly apart, and the silence of her watery streets accords perfectly with the spiritual mood which makes us feel as if we were passing through a city of dream. Fancy now an imaginative young man from Ohio, where the log-hut was but yesterday turned to almost less enduring brick and mortar, set down suddenly in the midst of all this almost immemorial permanence of grandeur. We cannot think of any one on whom the impression would be so strangely deep, or whose eyes would be so quickened by the constantly recurring shock of unfamiliar objects. Most men are poor observers, because they are cheated into a delusion of intimacy with the things so long and so immediately about them; but surely we may hope for something like seeing from fresh eyes, and those too a poet's, when they open suddenly on a marvel so utterly alien to their daily vision and so perdurably novel as Venice. Nor does Mr. Howells disappoint our expectation. We have here something like a full-length portrait of the Lady of the Lagoons.

We have been struck in this volume, as elsewhere in writings of the same author, with the charm of _tone that pervades it. It is so constant as to bear witness, not only to a real gift, but to the thoughtful cultivation of it. Here and there Mr. Howells yields to the temptation of _execution_, to which persons specially felicitous in language are liable, and pushes his experiments of expression to the verge of being unidiomatic, in his desire to squeeze the last drop of significance from words; but this is seldom, and generally we receive that unconscious pleasure in reading him which comes of naturalness, the last and highest triumph of good writing. Mr. Howells, of all men, does not need to be told that, as wine of the highest flavor and most delicate _bouquet is made from juice pressed out by the unaided weight of the grapes, so in expression we are in danger of getting something like acridness if we crush in with the first sprightly runnings the skins and kernels of words in our vain hope to win more than we ought of their color and meaning. But, as we have said, this is rather a temptation to which he now and then shows himself liable, than a fault for which he can often be blamed. If a mind open to all poetic impressions, a sensibility too sincere ever to fall into maudlin sentimentality, a style flexible and sweet without weakness, and a humor which, like the bed of a stream, is the support of deep feeling, and shows waveringly through it in spots of full sunshine,--if such qualities can make a truly delightful book, then Mr. Howells has made one in the volume before us. And we give him warning that much will be expected of one who at his years has already shown himself capable of so much.

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