In the dozy hours, and other papers/A Forgotten Poet
A FORGOTTEN POET.
There has been a vast deal of moralizing on the brevity of fame ever since that far-away day when mankind became sufficiently sophisticated to covet posthumous distinction. Yet, in reality, it is not so surprising that people should be forgotten as that they should be remembered, and remembered often for the sake of one swift, brave deed that cost no effort, or of a few lovely words thrown to the world in a moment of unconscious inspiration, when the writer little dreamed he was forging a chain strong enough to link him with the future. Occasionally, too, a species of immortality is conferred upon respectable mediocrity by the affection or the abhorrence it excites. The men whom Pope rhymed about because he hated them, the men to whom Lamb wrote so delightfully because he loved them, all live for us in the indestructible land of letters. It would be a hard matter to reckon up the sum of indebtedness which is thus innocently incurred by those who have no coin of their own for payment.
Not long ago a writer of distinction was idling his way pleasantly through a volume of Mrs. Browning's poetry, when his attention was arrested by a quotation which stood at the head of that rather nebulous effusion, "A Rhapsody of Life's Progress." It was but a single line,
"Fill all the stops of life with tuneful breath,"
and it was accredited to Cornelius Mathews, author of "Poems on Man." A foot-note,—people were more generous in the matter of foot-notes forty years ago than now—gave the additional and somewhat startling information that "Poems on Man" was "a small volume by an American poet, as remarkable in thought and manner for a vital sinewy vigour as the right arm of Pathfinder." This was stout praise. "The right arm of Pathfinder." We all know what sinewy vigor was there; but of Cornelius Mathews, it would seem, no man knew anything at all. Yet his poems had traveled far when they lay in Mrs. Browning's path, and of her admiration for them she had left us this unstinted proof. Moreover the one line,
"Fill all the stops of life with tuneful breath"
had in it enough of character and sweetness to provoke an intelligent curiosity. As a scholar and a man of letters, the reader felt his interest awakened. He replaced Mrs. Browning on the book shelf, and made up his mind with characteristic distinctness he would read the poems of this forgotten American author.
It was not an easy resolution to keep. A confident appeal to the public libraries of New York and Philadelphia brought to light the astonishing fact that no copy of the "Poems on Man" was to be found within their walls. The work had been published in several editions by Harper and Brothers between the years 1838 and 1843; but no forlorn and dust covered volume still lingered on their shelves. The firm, when interrogated, knew no more about Cornelius Mathews than did the rest of the reading world. The next step was to advertise for a second-hand copy; but for a long while it seemed as though even second-hand copies had disappeared from the face of the continent. The book was so exceedingly rare that it must have been a universal favorite for the lighting of household fires. In the end, however, persevering effort was crowned with its inevitable success. "The works of Cornelius Mathews" were unearthed from some dim corner of obscurity, and suffered to see the genial light of day.
They comprise a great deal of prose and a very little verse, all bound up together, after the thrifty fashion of our fathers, in one portly volume, with dull crimson sides, and double columns of distressingly fine print. The "Poems on Man" are but nineteen in number, and were originally published in a separate pamphlet. They are arranged systematically, and are designed to do honor to American citizenship under its most sober and commonplace aspect. The author is in no way discouraged by the grayness of his atmosphere, nor by the unheroic material with which he has to deal. On the contrary, he is at home with farmers, and mechanics, and merchants; and ill at ease with painters and soldiers, to whom it must be confessed he preaches a little too palpably. It is painful to consider what bad advice he gives to the sculptor in this one vicious line,
"Think not too much what other climes have done."
Yet, in truth, he is neither blind to the past, nor unduly elated with the present. He feels the splendid possibilities of a young nation with all its life before it; and earnestly, and with dignity, he pleads for the development of character, and for a higher system of morality. If his verse be uneven and mechanical, and the sinewy vigor of Pathfinder be not so apparent as might have been reasonably expected, I can still understand how these simple and manly sentiments should have awakened the enthusiasm of Mrs. Browning, who was herself no student of form, and who sincerely believed that poetry was a serious pursuit designed for the improvement of mankind.
In his narrower fashion, Mr. Cornelius Mathews shared this pious creed, and strove, within the limits of his meagre art, to awaken in the hearts of his countrymen a patriotism sober and sincere. He calls on the journalist to tell the truth, on the artisan to respect the interests of his employer, on the merchant to cherish an old-time honor and honesty, on the politician to efface himself for the good of his constituency.
"Accursed who on the Mount of Rulers sits,
Nor gains some glimpses of a fairer day;
Who knows not there, what there his soul befits,—
Thoughts that leap up and kindle far away
The coming time! Who rather dulls the ear
With brawling discord and a cloud of words;
Owning no hopeful object, far or near,
Save what the universal self affords."
This is not heroic verse, but it shows an heroic temper. The writer has evidently some knowledge of things as they are, and some faith in things as they ought to be, and these twin sources of grace save him from bombast and from cynicism. Never in all the earnest and appealing lines does he indulge himself or his readers in that exultant self-glorification which is so gratifying and so inexpensive. His patriotism is not of the shouting and hat-flourishing order, but has its roots in an anxious and loving regard for the welfare of his fatherland. Occasionally he strikes a poetic note, and has moments of brief but genuine inspiration.
"The elder forms, the antique mighty faces,"
which lend their calm and shadowy presence to the farmer's toil, bring with them swift glimpses of a strong pastoral world. Not a blithe world by any means. No Pan pipes in the rushes. No shaggy herdsmen sing in rude mirthful harmony. No sun-burnt girls laugh in the harvest-field. Rusticity has lost its native grace, and the cares of earth sit at the fireside of the husbandman. Yet to him belong moments of deep content, and to his clean and arduous life are given pleasures which the artisan has never known.
"Better to watch the live-long day
The clouds that come and go,
Wearying the heaven they idle through,
And fretting out its everlasting blue.
Though sadness on the woods may often lie,
And wither to a waste the meadowy land,
Pure blows the air, and purer shines the sky,
For nearer always to Heaven's gate you stand."
The most curious characteristic of Mr. Mathew's work is the easy and absolute fashion in which it ignores the influence, and indeed the very existence of woman. The word "man" must here be taken in its literal significance. It is not of the human race that the author sings, but of one half of it alone. No troublesome flutter of petticoats disturbs his serene meditations; no echo of passion haunts his placid verse. Even in his opening stanzas on "The Child," there is no allusion to any mother. The infant appears to have come into life after the fashion of Pallas Athene, and upon the father only depends its future weal or woe. The teacher apparently confines his labors to little boys; the preacher has a congregation of men; the reformer, the scholar, the citizen, the friend, all dwell in a cool masculine world, where the seductive voice of womankind never insinuates itself to the endangering of sober and sensible behavior. This enforced absence of "The Eternal Feminine" is more striking when we approach the realms of art. Does the painter desire subjects for his brush?
"The mountain and the sea, the setting sun,
The storm, the face of men, and the calm moon,"
are considered amply sufficient for his needs. Does the sculptor ask for models? They are presented him in generous abundance.
"Crowned heroes of the early age,
Chieftain and soldier, senator and sage;
The tawny ancient of the warrior race,
With dusky limb and kindling face."
Or, should he prefer less conventional types—
"Colossal and resigned, the gloomy gods
Eying at large their lost abodes,
Towering and swart, and knit in every limb;
With brows on which the tempest lives,
With eyes wherein the past survives,
Gloomy, and battailous, and grim."
With all these legitimate subjects at his command, why indeed should the artist turn aside after that beguiling beauty which Eve saw reflected in the clear waters of Paradise, and which she loved with unconscious vanity or ever Adam met her amorous gaze. Only to the poet is permitted the smallest glimpse into the feminine world. In one brief half-line, Mr. Mathews coldly and chastely allows that "young Love" may whisper something—we are not told what—which is best fitted for the poetic ear.
What an old-fashioned bundle of verse it is, though written a bare half century ago! How far removed fron the delicate conceits, the inarticulate sadness of our modern versifiers; from the rondeaux, and ballades, and pastels, and impressions, and nocturnes, with which we have grown bewilderingly familiar. How these titles alone would have puzzled the sober citizen who wrote the "Poems on Man," and who endeavored with rigid honesty to make his meaning as clear as English words would permit. There is no more chance to speculate over these stanzas than there is to speculate over Hogarth's pictures. What is meant is told, not vividly, but with steadfast purpose, and with an innocent hope that it may be of some service to the world. The world, indeed, has forgotten the message, and forgotten the messenger as well. Only in a brief foot-note of Mrs. Browning's there lingers still the faint echo of what once was life. For such modest merit there is no second sunrise; and yet a quiet reader may find an hour well spent in the staid company of these serious verses, whose best eloquence is their sincerity.