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ELIZABETH BARRETT BARRETT. *
" A well-bred man,” says Sir James Puckle, in his “Gray Cap for a Green Head,"
," “ will never give himself the liberty to speak ill of women." We emphasize the “man.” Setting aside, for the present, certain rare commentators and compilers of the species creatures neither precisely men, women, nor Mary Wollstonecraft's—setting these aside as unclassifiable, we may observe that the race of critics are masculine—men. With the exception, perhaps, of Mrs. Anne Royal, we can call to mind no female who has occupied, even temporarily, the Zoilus throne. And this, the Salic law, is an evil; for the inherent chivalry of the critical man renders it not only an unpleasant task to him “ to speak ill of a woman,” (and a woman and her book are identical,) but an almost impossible task not to laud her ad nauseam. ral, therefore, it is the unhappy lot of the authoress to be subjected, time after time, to the downright degradation of mere puffery. On her own side of the Atlantic, Miss Barrett has indeed, in one instance at least, escaped the infliction of this lamentable contumely and wrong; but if she had been really solicitous of its infliction in America, she could not have adopted a more effectual plan than that of saying a few words about “ the great American people,” in an American edition of her work, published under the superintendence of an American author. Of the innumerable "native' notices of “ The Drama of Exile,” which have come under our
* The Drama of Exile, and other Poems: By Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Author of " The Seraphim," and other Poems.
+ We are sorry to notice, in the American edition, a multitude of typo. graphical errors, many of which affect the sense, and should therefore be corrected in a second impression, if called for. How far they are chargeable to the London copy, we are not prepared to say. “ Froze,” for instance, is printed" frore.” Foregone,” throughout, is printed “ forgone." “ Wordless is printed “worldless" — worldly," " wordly”—“spilt," “ split,” etc., etc., while transpositions, false accents, and mis-punctuations abound. We indicate a few pages on which such inadvertences are to be discovered. Vol. 1—23. 26, 37, 45, 53, 56, 80, 166, 174, 180, 185, 251. Vol. 2—109, 114, 240, 247, 253, 272.
observation, we can call to mind not one in which there is anything more remarkable than the critic's dogged determination to find nothing barren, from Beersheba to Dan. Another in the “Democratic Review” has proceeded so far, it is true, as to venture a very delicate insinuation to the effect that the poetess “ will not fail to speak her mind though it bring upon her a bad rhyme;" beyond this, nobody has proceeded : and as for the elaborate paper in the new Wbig Monthly, all that anybody can say or think, and all that Miss Barrett can feel respecting it is, that it is an eulogy as well written as it is an insult well intended. Now of all the friends of the fair author, we doubt whether one exists, with more profound—with more enthusiastic reverence and admiration of her genius, than the writer of these words. And it is for this very reason, beyond all others, that he intends to speak of her the truth. Our chief regret is, nevertheless, that the limits of this work will preclude the possibility of our speaking this truth so fully, and so much in detail, as we could wish. By far the most valuable criticism that we, or that any one could give, of the volumes now lying before us, would be the quotation of three-fourths of their contents. But we have this advantage—that the work has been long published, and almost universally read-and thus, in some measure,' we may proceed, concisely, as if the text of our context, were an understood thing.
In her preface to this, the “American edition" of her late poems, Miss Barrett, speaking of the Drama of Exile, says :-“I decided on publishing it, after considerable hesitation and doubt. Its subject rather fastened on me than was chosen ; and the form, approaching the model of the Greek tragedy, shaped itself under my hand rather by force of pleasure than of design. But when the compositional excitement had subsided, I felt afraid of my position. My own object was the new and strange experiment of the fallen Humanity, as it went forth from Paradise in the Wilderness, with a peculiar reference to Eve's allotted grief, which, considering that self-sacrifice belonged to her womanhood, and the consciouspess of being the organ of the Fall to her offence, appeared to me imperfectly apprehended hitherto, and more expressible by a woman than by a man.” In this abstract announcement of the theme, it is difficult to understand the ground of the poet's hesi
tation to publish ; for the theme in itself seems admirably adapted to the purposes of the closest drama. The poet, nevertheless, is, very properly, conscious of failure-a failure which occurs not in the general, but in the particular conception, and which must be placed to the account of “the model of the Greek tragedies.” The Greek tragedies had and even have high merits ; but we act wisely in now substituting for the external and typified human sympathy of the antique Chorus, a direct, internal, living and moving sympathy itself; and although Æschylus might have done service as “a model,” to either Euripides or Sophocles, yet were Sophocles and Euripides in London to-day, they would, perhaps, while granting a certain formless and shadowy grandeur, indulge a quiet smile at the shallowness and uncouthness of that Art, which, in the old amphitheatres, had beguiled them into applause of the Edipus at Colonos.
It would have been better for Miss Barrett if, throwing herself independently upon her own very extraordinary resources, and forgetting that a Greek had ever lived, she had involved her Eve in a series of adventures merely natural, or if not this, of adventures preternatural within the limits of at least a conceivable relation—a relation of matter to spirit and spirit to matter, that should have left room for something like palpable action and comprehensible emotion--that should not have utterly precluded the development of that womanly character which is admitted as the principal object of the poem. As the case actually stands, it is only in a few snatches of verbal intercommunication with Adam and Lucifer, that we behold her as a woman at all. For the rest, she is a mystical something or nothing, enwrapped in a fog of rhapsody about Transfiguration, and the Seed, and the Bruising of the Heel, and other talk of a nature that no man ever pretended to understand in plain prose, and which, when solar-microscoped into poetry“ upon the model of the Greek drama,” is about as convinc. ing as the Egyptian Lectures of Mr. Silk Buckingham-about as much to any purpose under the sun as the hi presto! conjuration: of Signor Blitz. What are we to make, for example, of dramatic colloquy such as this ?—the words are those of a Chorus of Invisi ble Angels addressing Adam:
Live, work on, O Earthy !
By the Actual's tension
Of a pure ascension.
Reach the heights above you;
Seek the loves that love you!
of our loves that love you. Now we do not mean to assert that, by excessive “tension" of the intellect, a reader accustomed to the cant of the transcendentalists (or of those who degrade an ennobling philosophy by styling themselves such) may not succeed in ferretting from the passage quoted, and indeed from each of the thousand similar ones throughout the book, something that shall bear the aspect of an absolute idea—but we do mean to say, first, that in nine cases out of ten, the thought when dug out will be found very poorly to repay the labor of the digging ;-for it is the nature of thought in general, as it is the nature of some ores in particular, to be richest when most superficial. And we do mean to say, secondly, that, in nineteen cases out of twenty, the reader will suffer the most valuable ore to remain unmined to all eternity, before he will be put to the trouble of digging for it one inch. And we do mean to assert, thirdly, that no reader is to be condemned for not putting himself to the trouble of digging even the one inch; for no writer has the right to impose any such necessity upon him. What is worth thinking is distinctly thought: what is distinctly thought, can and should be distinctly expressed, or should not be expressed at all. Nevertheless, there is no more appropriate opportunity than the present for admitting and maintaining, at once, what has never before been either maintained or admitted—that there is a justifiable exception to the rule for which we contend. It is where the design is to convey the fantastic-not the obscure. To give the idea of the latter we need, as in general, the most precise and definitive terms, and those who employ other terms but confound obscurity of expression with the expression of obscurity. The fantastic in itself, however,--phantasm-may be materially furthered in its development by the quaint in phraseology a
proposition which any moralist may examine at his leisure for himself.
The “ Drama of Exile” opens with a very palpaple bull :"Scene, the outer side of the gate of Eden, shut fast with clouds" -[a scene out of sight!]—“from the depth of which revolves the sword of fire, self-moved. A watch of innumerable angels rank above rank, slopes up from around it to the zenith ; and the glare cast from their brightness and from the sword, extends many miles into the wilderness. Adam and Eve are seen in the distance, flying along the glare. The angel Gabriel and Lucifer are beside the gate.”—These are the “ stage directions” which greet us on the threshold of the book. We complain first of the bull : secondly, of the blue-fire melo-dramatic aspect of the revolving sword; thirdly, of the duplicate nature of the sword, which, if steel, and sufficiently inflamed to do service in burning, would, perhaps, have been in no temper to cut; and on the other hand, if sufficiently cool to have an edge, would have accomplished little in the way of scorching a personage so well accustomed to fire and brimstone and all that, as we have very good reason to believe Lucifer was. We cannot help objecting, too, to the "innumerable angels," as a force altogether disproportioned to the one enemy to be kept out : either the self-moving sword itself, we think, or the angel Gabriel alone, or five or six of the “innumerable” angels, would have sufficed to keep the devil (or is it Adam ?) outside of the gatewhich, after all, he might not have been able to discover, on account of the clouds.
Far be it from us, however, to dwell irreverently on matters which have venerability in the faith or in the fancy of Miss Barrett. We allude to these niäiseries at all—found here in the very first paragraph of her poem,-simply by way of putting in the clearest light the mass of inconsistency and antagonism in which her subject has inextricably involved her. She has made allusion to Milton, and no doubt felt secure in her theme (as a theme merely) when she considered his “ Paradise Lost." But even in Milton's own day, when men had the habit of believing all things, the more nonsensical the more readily, and of worshipping, in blind acquiescence, the most preposterous of impossibilities—even then, there were not wanting individuals who would have read the