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The other poems of the volume are, as entire compositions, nearer perfection, but, in general, have less of the true poetical element. “The Acorn” is perfect as regards its constructionalthough, to be sure, the design is so simple that it could scarcely be marred in its execution. The idea is the old one of detailing the progress of a plant from its germ to its maturity, with the uses and general vicissitudes to which it is subjected. In this case of the acorn the vicissitudes are well imagined, and the execution is more skilfully managed-is more definite, vigorous and pronounced, than in the longer poem. The chief of the minor objections is to the rhythm, which is imperfect, vacillating awkwardly between iambuses and anapæsts, after such fashion that it is impossible to decide whether the rhythm in itself--that is, whether the general intention is anapæstical or iambic. Anapæsts introduced, for the relief of monotone, into an iambic rhythm, are not only admissible but commendable, if not absolutely demanded; but in this case they prevail to such an extent as to overpower the iambic intention, thus rendering the whole versification difficult of comprehension. We give, by way of example, a stanza with the scanning divisions and quntities :
They came with gifts that should life | bestow; |
The dew | and the Ti | ving air- |
The lit | tle men had there ; 1
gray | moss cup / was the mil | dew brought, I
worm | in a rose- leaf rolled, I
That its doom | were quick | ly told. I Here iambuses and anapæsts are so nearly balanced that the ear hesitates to receive the rhythm as either anapæstic or iambic, that is, it hesitates to receive it as anything at all. A rhythm should always be distinctly marked by its first foot--that is to say, if the design is iambic, we should commence with an unmistakeable iambus, and proceed with this foot until the ear gets fairly accustomed to it before we attempt variation ; for which, indeed, there is no necessity unless for the relief of monotone. When the rhythm is in this manner thoroughly recognised, we may sparingly vary with anapæsts (or, if the rhythm be trochaic,
with dactyls). Spondees, still more sparingly, as absolute discords, may be also introduced either in an iambic or trochaic rhythm. In common with a very large majority of American, and, indeed, of European poets, Mrs. Smith seems to be totally unacquainted with the principles of versification-by which, of course, we mean its rationale. Of technical rules on the subject there are rather more than enough in our prosodies, and from these abundant rules are deduced the abundant blunders of our • poets. There is not a prosody in existence which is worth the paper on which it is printed.
Of the miscellaneous poems included in the volume before us, we greatly prefer “The Summons Answered.” It has more of power, more of genuine imagination than anything written by its author. It is a story of three " bacchanals,” who, on their way from the scene of their revelry, are arrested by the beckoning of a white hand from the partially unclosing door of a tomb. One of the party obeys the summons. It is the tomb of his wife. We quote the two concluding stanzas :
This restless life with its little fears,
Its hopes that fade so soon,
The sun gone down at noon-
Mindless of all beside
Well might the dead abide !
The hoar-frost coldly gleams,
From that long night of dreams.
And the fearful oath he swore-
That opened the old tomb door. With the quotation of these really noble passages-noble, because full of the truest poetic energy–we take leave of the fair authoress. She is entitled, beyond doubt, to all, and perhaps to much more than the commendation she has received. Her faults are among the peccadilloes, and her merits among the sterling ercellencies of the muse.
J. G. C. BRAINARD.
Among all the pioneers of American literature, whether prose or poetical, there is not one whose productions have not been much overrated by his countrymen. But this fact is more especially obvious in respect to such of these pioneers as are no longer living,—nor is it a fact of so deeply transcendental a nature as only to be accounted for by the Emersons and Alcotts. In the first place, we have but to consider that gratitude, surprise, and a species of hyper-patriotic triumph have been blended, and finally confounded with mere admiration, or appreciation, in respect to the labors of our earlier writers; and, in the second place, that Death has thrown his customary veil of the sacred over these commingled feelings, forbidding them, in a measure, to be now separated or subjected to analysis. “In speaking of the deceased,” says that excellent old English Moralist, James Puckle, in his “Gray Cap for a Green Head,” “ so fold up your discourse that their virtues may be outwardly shown, while their vices are wrapped up in silence.” And with somewhat too inconsiderate a promptitude have we followed the spirit of this quaint advice. The mass of American readers have been, hitherto, in no frame of mind to view with calmness, and to discuss with discrimination, the true claims of the few who were first in convincing the mother country that her sons were not all brainless, as, in the plenitude of her arrogance, she, at one period, half affected and half wished to believe; and where any of these few have departed from among us, the difficulty of bringing their pretensions to the test of a proper criticism has been enhanced in a very remarkable degree. But even as concerns the living: is there any one so blind as not to see that Mr. Cooper, for example, owes much, and that Mr. Paulding owes all of his reputation as a novelist, to his early occupation of the field ? Is there any one so dull as not to know that fictions which neither Mr. Paulding nor Mr. Cooper could have written, are daily published by native authors without attracting more of commendation than can be crammed into a hack newspaper paragraph ? And, again, is there any one so prejudiced as not to acknowledge that all this is because there is no longer either reason or wit in the query,—“Who reads an American book ?" It is not because we lack the talent in which the days of Mr. Paulding exulted, but because such talent has shown itself to be common. It is not because we have no Mr. Coopers; but because it has been demonstrated that we might, at any moment, have as many Mr. Coopers as we please. In fact we are now strong in our own resources. We have, at length, arrived at that epoch when our literature may and must stand on its own merits, or fall through its own defects. We have snapped asunder the leading-strings of our British Grandmamma, and, better still, we have survived the first hours of our novel freedom, -the first licentious hours of a hobbledehoy braggadocio and swagger. At last, then, we are in a condition to be criticised even more, to be neglected; and the journalist is no longer in danger of being impeached for lese majesté of the Democratic Spirit, who shall assert, with sufficient humility, that we have committed an error in mistaking “Kettell's Specimens" for the Pentateuch, or Joseph Rodman Drake for Apollo.
The case of this latter gentleman is one which well illustrates what we have been saying. We believe it was about 1835 that Mr. Dearborn republished the “Culprit Fay," which then, as at the period of its original issue, was belauded by the universal American press, in a manner which must have appeared ludicrous —not to speak very plainly—in the eyes of all unprejadiced observers. With a curiosity much excited by comments at once so grandiloquent and so general, we procured and read the poem. What we found it we ventured to express distinctly, and at some length, in the pages of the “Southern Messenger.” It is a wellversified and sufficiently fluent composition, without high merit of any kind. Its defects are gross and superabundant. Its plot and conduct, considered in reference to its scene, are absurd. Its originality is none at all. Its imagination (and this was the great feature insisted upon by its admirers,) is but a “counterfeit presentment,”—but the shadow of the shade of that lofty quality which is, in fact, the soul of the Poetic Sentiment--but a drivelling effort to be fanciful--an effort resulting in a species of hopskip-and-go-merry rhodomontade, which the uninitiated feel it a duty to call ideality, and to admire as such, while lost in surprise at the impossibility of performing at least the latter half of the duty with any thing like satisfaction to themselves. And all this we not only asserted, but without difficulty proved. Dr. Drake has written some beautiful poems, but the “Culprit Fay,” is not of them. We neither expected to hear any dissent from our opinions, nor did we hear any. On the contrary, the approving voice of every critic in the country whose dictum we had been accustomed to respect, was to us a sufficient assurance that we had not been very grossly in the wrong. In fact the public taste was then approaching the right. The truth indeed had not, as yet, made itself heard ; but we had reached a point at which it had but to be plainly and boldly put, to be, at least tacitly admitted.
This habit of apotheosising our literary pioneers was a most indiscriminating one. Upon all who wrote, the applause was plastered with an impartiality really refreshing. Of course, the system favored the dunces at the expense of true merit! and, since there existed a certain fixed standard of exaggerated commendation to which all were adapted after the fashion of Procrustes, it is clear that the most meritorious required the least stretching, in other words, that although all were much overrated, the deserving were overrated in a less degree than the unworthy. Thus with Brainard :-a man of indisputable genius, who, in any more discriminate system of panegyric, would have been long ago bepuffed into Demi-Deism; for if "M'Fingal,” for example, is in reality what we have been told, the commentators upon Trumbull, as a matter of the simplest consistency, should have exalted into the seventh heaven of poetical dominion the author of the many graceful and vigorous effusions which are now lying, in a very neat little volume, before us.*
Yet we maintain that even these effusions have been overpraised, and materially so. It is not that Brainard has not written poems which may rank with those of any American, with the single exception of Longfellow-but that the general merit of our
* The Poems of John G. C. Brainard. A New and Authentic Collection, with an original Memoir of his Life. Hartford : Edward Hopkins.