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enhanced by the publication of his first compositions “ of length," and attained its climax, we believe, upon the public recitation, by himself, of a tragic drama, in five acts, entitled “ Athenia of Da.. mascus,” to a large assembly of admiring and applauding friends, gathered together for the occasion in one of the halls of the University of New York.
This popular decision, so frequent and so public, in regard to the poetical ability of Mr. Dawes, might be received as evidence of his actual merit (and by thousands it is so received) were it not too scandalously at variance with a species of criticism which will not be resisted—with the perfectly simple precepts of the very commonest common sense. The peculiarity of Mr. Griswold's observation has induced us to make inquiry into the true character of the volume to which we have before alluded, and which embraces, we believe, the chief portion of the published verse-compositions of its author.* This inquiry has but resulted in the confirmation of our previous opinion; and we now hesitate not to say, that no man in America has been more shamefully over-estimated than the one who forms the subject of this article. We say shamefully; for, though a better day is now dawning upon our literary interests, and a laudation so indiscriminate will never be sanctioned again—the laudation in this instance, as it stands upon record, must be regarded as a laughable although bitter satire upon the general zeal, accuracy and independence of that critical spirit which, but a few years ago, pervaded and degraded the land.
In what we shall say we have no intention of being profound. Here is a case in which anything like analysis would be utterly thrown away. Our purpose (which is truth) will be more fully answered by an unvarnished exposition of fact. It appears to us, indeed, that in excessive generalization lies one of the leading errors of a criticism employed upon a poetical literature so immature as our own. We rhapsodize rather than discriminate; delighting more in the dictation or discussion of a principle, than in its particular and methodical application. The wildest and most
*“ Geraldine,” “ Athenia of Damascus,” and Miscellaneous Poems. By Rufus Dawes, Published by Samuel Colman, New-York.
erratic effusion of the Muse, not utterly worthless, will be found more or less indebted to method for whatever of value it embodies; and we shall discover, conversely, that, in any analysis of even the wildest effusion, we labor without method only to labor without end. There is little reason for that vagueness of comment which, of late, we so pertinaciously affect, and which has been brought into fashion, no doubt, through the proverbial facility and security of merely general remark. In regard to the leading principles of true poesy, these, we think, stand not at all in need of the elucidation hourly wasted upon them. Founded in the unerring instincts of our nature, they are enduring and immutable. In a rigid scrutiny of any number of directly conflicting opinions upon a poetical topic, we will not fail to perceive that principles identical in every important point have been, in each opinion, either asserted, or intimated, or unwittingly allowed an influence. The differences of decision arose simply from those of application; and from such variety in the applied, rather than in the conceived idea, sprang, undoubtedly, the absurd distinctions of the “ schools."
“ Geraldine” is the title of the first and longest poem in the volume before us. It embraces some three hundred and fifty stanzas—the whole being a most servile imitation of the “Don Juan" of Lord Byron. The outrageous absurdity of the systematic digression in the British original, was so managed as to form not a little portion of its infinite interest and humor; and the fine discrimination of the writer pointed out to him a limit beyond which he never ventured with this tantalizing species of drollery. “Geraldine” may be regarded, however, as a simple embodiment of the whole soul of digression. It is a mere mass of irrelevancy, amid the mad farrago of which we detect with difficulty even tho faintest vestige of a narrative, and where the continuous lapse from impertinence to impertinence is seldom justified by any shadow of appositeness or even of the commonest relation.
To afford the reader any proper conception of the story, is of course a matter of difficulty; we must content ourselves with a mere outline of the general conduct. This we shall endeavor to give without indulgence in those feelings of risibility stirred up in us by the primitive perusal. We shall rigorously avoid every species of exaggeration, and confine ourselves, with perfect honesty, to the conveyance of a distinct image.
“Geraldine," then, opens with some four or five stanzas descriptive of a sylvan scene in America. We could, perhaps, render Mr. Dawes' poetical reputation no greater service than by the quotation of these simple verses in full.
I know a spot where poets fain would dwell,
To gather flowers and food for after thought,
To hive among the treasures they have wrought;
The elm trees whispered with the summer air,
But happy birds that caroled wildly there,
And Multa-flora spread her countless roses,
Romantic scene where happiness reposes,
Beneath the mountain's brow the cottage stood,
Hard by a shelving lake whose pebbled bed
That hung its festoon foliage over head,
While moonlight threw their shadows from the brink.
Where, through the mountain vista, one vast height
With gorgeous clouds, at times of changeful light,
Slept with his glorious picture on her breast. Here is an air of quietude in good keeping with the theme; the “ giant waves" in the last stanzas redeem it from much exception otherwise ; and perhaps we need say nothing at all of the suspicious-looking compound “multa-flora.” Had Mr. Dawes always written even nearly so well, we should have been spared to-day the painful task imposed upon us by a stern sense of our critical duty. These passages are followed immediately by an address or in vocation to “Peerless America," including apostrophes to Allston and Claude Lorraine.
We now learn the name of the tenant of the cottage, which is Wilton, and ascertain that he has an only daughter. A single stanza quoted at this juncture will aid the reader's conception of the queer tone of philosophical rhapsody with which the poem teems, and some specimen of which is invariably made to follow each little modicum of incident.
How like the heart is to an instrument
A touch can wake to gladness or to wo!
The spirit with its undulating flow!
This universal bond of sympathy. After two pages much in this manner, we are told that Geral dine is the name of the maiden, and are informed, with comparatively little circumlocution, of her character. She is beautiful, and kind-hearted, and somewhat romantic, and "some thought her reason touched”—for which we have little disposition to blame them. There is now much about Kant and Fichte ; about Schelling, Hegel and Cousin; (which latter is made to rhyme with gang ;) about Milton, Byron, Homer, Spinoza, David Hume, and Mirabeau; and a good deal, too, about the scribendi cacoëthes, in which an evident misunderstanding of the quantity of cacoëthes brings, again, into very disagreeable suspicion the writer's cognizance of the Latin tongue. At this point we may refer, also, to such absurdities as
Truth with her thousand-folded rohe of error
Close shut in her sarcophagi of terrorAnd
Where candelabri silver the white halls. Now, no one is presupposed to be cognizant of any language beyond his own; to be ignorant of Latin is no crime; to pretend a knowledge is beneath contempt; and the pretender will attempt in rain to utter or to write two consecutive phrases of a foreign idiom, without betraying his deficiency to those who are conversant.
At page 39, there is some prospect of a progress in the story.
Here we are introduced to a Mr. Acus and his fair daughter, Miss
Acus had been a dashing Bond-street tailor
He sunk the goose and straightway crossed the waters. His residence is in the immediate vicinity of Wilton. The daughter, Miss Alice, who is said to be quite a belle, is enamored of one Waldron, a foreigner, a lion, and a gentleman of questionable reputation. His character (which for our life and soul we cannot comprehend) is given within the space of some forty or fifty stanzas, made to include, at the same time, an essay on motives, deduced from the text “whatever is must be," and illuminated by a long note at the end of the poem, wherein the systime (quere systéme ?) de la Nature is sturdily attacked. Let us speak the truth : this note (and the whole of them, for there are many,) may be regarded as a glorious specimen of the concentrated essence of rigmarole, and, to say nothing of their utter absurdity per se, are so ludicrously uncalled for, and grotesquely out of place, that we found it impossible to refrain, during their perusal, from a most unbecoming and uproarious guffaw. We will be pardoned for giving a specimen--selecting it for its brevity.
Reason, he deemed, could measure everything,
And reason told him that there was a law
A death-bolt at all faith, and this he saw
Was Transference. (14) Turning to Note 14, we read thus
“If any one has a curiosity to look into this subject, (does Mr. Dawes really think any one so great a fool ?) and wishes to see how far the force of reasoning and analysis may carry him, independently of revelation, I would suggest (thank you, sir,) such inquiries as the following:
“Whether the first Philosophy, considered in relation to Physics, was first in time?
“ How far our moral perceptions have been influenced by natural phenomena!
" How far our metaphysical notions of cause and effect are