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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: HOME BALLADS AND POEMS
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The Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: HOME BALLADS AND POEMS Post by :tuppen Category :Essays Author :James Russell Lowell Date :April 2012 Read :2612

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The Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: HOME BALLADS AND POEMS

REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES: HOME BALLADS AND POEMS

The natural product of a creed which ignores the aesthetical part of man and reduces Nature to a uniform drab would seem to have been Bernard Barton. _His verse certainly infringed none of the superstitions of the sect; for from title-page to colophon there was no sin either in the way of music or color. There was, indeed, a frugal and housewifely Muse, that brewed a cup, neither cheering unduly nor inebriating, out of the emptyings of Wordsworth's teapot. How that little busy B. improved each shining hour, how neatly he laid his wax, it gives us a cold shiver to think of--_ancora ci raccappriccia! Against a copy of verses signed "B.B.," as we remember them in the hardy Annuals that went to seed so many years ago, we should warn our incautious offspring as an experienced duck might her brood against a charge of B.B. shot. It behooves men to be careful; for one may chance to suffer lifelong from these intrusions of cold lead in early life, as duellists sometimes carry about all their days a bullet from which no surgery can relieve them. Memory avenges our abuses of her, and, as an awful example, we mention the fact that we have never been able to forget certain stanzas of another B.B., who, under the title of "Boston Bard," whilom obtained from newspaper columns that concession which gods and men would unanimously have denied him.

George Fox, utterly ignoring the immense stress which Nature lays on established order and precedent, got hold of a half-truth which made him crazy, as half-truths are wont. But the inward light, whatever else it might be, was surely not of that kind "that never was on land or sea." There has been much that was poetical in the lives of Quakers, little in the men themselves. Poetry demands a richer and more various culture, and, however good we may find such men as John Woolman and Elias Boudinot, they make us feel painfully that the salt of the earth is something very different, to say the least, from the Attic variety of the same mineral. Let Armstrong and Whitworth and James experiment as they will, they shall never hit on a size of bore so precisely adequate for the waste of human life as the Journal of an average Quaker. Compared with it, the sandy intervals of Swedenborg gush with singing springs, and Cotton Mather is a very Lucian for liveliness.

Yet this dry Quaker stem has fairly blossomed at last, and Nature, who can never be long kept under, has made a poet of Mr. Whittier as she made a General of Greene. To make a New England poet, she had her choice between Puritan and Quaker, and she took the Quaker. He is, on the whole, the most representative poet that New England has produced. He sings her thoughts, her prejudices, her scenery. He has not forgiven the Puritans for hanging two or three of his co-sectaries, but he admires them for all that, calls on his countrymen as

Sons of men who sat in council with their Bibles round the board,
Answering Charles's royal mandate with a stern "Thus saith the Lord,"

and at heart, we suspect, has more sympathy with Miles Standish than with Mary Dyer. Indeed,

Sons of men who sat in meeting with their broadbrims o'er their brow,
Answering Charles's royal mandate with a _thee instead of _thou_,

would hardly do. Whatever Mr. Whittier may lack, he has the prime merit that he smacks of the soil. It is a New England heart he buttons his straight-breasted coat over, and it gives the buttons a sharp strain now and then. Even the native idiom crops out here and there in his verses. He makes _abroad rhyme with _God_, _law with _war_, _us with _curse_, _scorner with _honor_, _been with _men_, _beard with _shared_. For the last two we have a certain sympathy as archaisms, but with the rest we can make no terms whatever,--they must march out with no honors of war. The Yankee lingo is insoluble in poetry, and the accent would give a flavor of _essence-pennyr'y'l to the very Beatitudes. It differs from Lowland Scotch as a _patois from a dialect.

But criticism is not a game of jerk-straws, and Mr. Whittier has other and better claims on us than as a stylist. There is true fire in the heart of the man, and his eye is the eye of a poet. A more juicy soil might have made him a Burns or a Béranger for us. New England is dry and hard, though she have a warm nook in her, here and there, where the magnolia grows after a fashion. It is all very nice to say to our poets, "You have sky and wood and waterfall and men and women--in short, the entire outfit of Shakespeare; Nature is the same here as elsewhere"; and when the popular lecturer says it, the popular audience gives a stir of approval. But it is all _bosh_, nevertheless. Nature is _not the same here, and perhaps never will be, as in lands where man has mingled his being with hers for countless centuries, where every field is steeped in history, every crag is ivied with legend, and the whole atmosphere of thought is hazy with the Indian summer of tradition. Nature without an ideal background is nothing. We may claim whatever merits we like (and our orators are not too bashful), we may be as free and enlightened as we choose, but we are certainly not interesting or picturesque. We may be as beautiful to the statistician as a column of figures, and dear to the political economist as a social phenomenon; but our hive has little of that marvellous bee-bread that can transmute the brain to finer issues than a gregarious activity in hoarding. The Puritans left us a fine estate in conscience, energy, and respect for learning; but they disinherited us of the past. Not a single stage-property of poetry did they bring with them but the good old Devil, with his graminivorous attributes, and even he could not stand the climate. Neither horn nor hoof nor tail of him has been seen for a century. He is as dead as the goat-footed Pan, whom he succeeded, and we tenderly regret him.

Mr. Whittier himself complains somewhere of

The rigor of our frozen sky,

and he seems to have been thinking of our clear, thin, intellectual atmosphere, the counterpart of our physical one, of which artists complain that it rounds no edges. We have sometimes thought that his verses suffered from a New England taint in a too great tendency to metaphysics and morals, which may be the bases on which poetry rests, but should not be carried too high above-ground. Without this, however, he would not have been the typical New England poet that he is. In the present volume there is little of it. It is more purely objective than any of its forerunners, and is full of the most charming rural pictures and glimpses, in which every sight and sound, every flower, bird, and tree, is neighborly and homely. He makes us see

the old swallow-haunted barns,
Brown-gabled, long, and full of seams
Through which the moted sunlight streams.
And winds blow freshly in to shake
The red plumes of the roosted cocks
And the loose hay-mow's scented locks,--

the cattle-yard
With the white horns tossing above the wall,

the spring-blossoms that drooped over the river,

Lighting up the swarming shad,--

and

the bulged nets sweeping shoreward
With their silver-sided haul.

Every picture is full of color, and shows that true eye for Nature which sees only what it ought, and that artistic memory which brings home compositions and not catalogues. There is hardly a hill, rock, stream, or sea-fronting headland in the neighborhood of his home that he has not fondly remembered. Sometimes, we think, there is too much description, the besetting sin of modern verse, which has substituted what should be called wordy-painting for the old art of painting in a single word. The essential character of Mr. Whittier's poetry is lyrical, and the rush of the lyric, like that of a brook, allows few pictures. Now and then there may be an eddy where the feeling lingers and reflects a bit of scenery, but for the most part it can only catch gleams of color that mingle with the prevailing tone and enrich without usurping on it. This volume contains some of the best of Mr. Whittier's productions in this kind. "Skipper Ireson's Ride" we hold to be by long odds the best of modern ballads. There are others nearly as good in their way, and all, with a single exception, embodying native legends. In "Telling the Bees," Mr. Whittier has enshrined a country superstition in a poem of exquisite grace and feeling. "The Garrison of Cape Ann" would have been a fine poem, but it has too much of the author in it, and to put a moral at the end of a ballad is like sticking a cork on the point of a sword. It is pleasant to see how much our Quaker is indebted for his themes to Cotton Mather, who belabored his un-Friends of former days with so much bad English and worse Latin. With all his faults, that conceited old pedant contrived to make one of the most entertaining books ever written on this side the water, and we wonder that no one should take the trouble to give us a tolerably correct edition of it. Absurdity is common enough, but such a genius for it as Mather had is a rare and delightful gift.

This last volume has given us a higher conception of Mr. Whittier's powers. We already valued as they deserved his force of faith, his earnestness, the glow and hurry of his thought, and the (if every third stump-speaker among us were not a Demosthenes, we should have said Demosthenean) eloquence of his verse; but here we meet him in a softer and more meditative mood. He seems a Berserker turned Carthusian. The half-mystic tone of "The Shadow and the Light" contrasts strangely, and, we think, pleasantly, with the warlike clang of "From Perugia." The years deal kindly with good men, and we find a clearer and richer quality in these verses where the ferment is over and the _rile has quietly settled. We have had no more purely American poet than Mr. Whittier, none in whom the popular thought found such ready and vigorous expression. The future will not fail to do justice to a man who has been so true to the present.

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