Genius, and other essays/Julia Ward Howe

MRS. HOWE long since won from the popular heart a tribute, rendered to her ardent human sympathies, her inborn love of freedom, and her patriotism, sustained and unfaltering through the nation's darkest hour. The critics also have delighted to honor one who looks in her heart and writes; and whose writings, though woman-like utterances of inner life and thought, have little subjectivity of a morbid or sentimental kind.

A poet of such achievements and intent has passed beyond the period of gentle appreciation and tender, nursing regard. She has earned the right to fair and independent criticism. We may now estimate her merits and defects. If she has left undone those things which she ought to have done, they who tell her so will, perhaps, inspire her with motives for new and better methods in her chosen work.

It is thought that in music, literature, the arts of painting and sculpture, as well as in all mechanical processes, women, with their swift, natural facility, arrive at a certain excellence much more rapidly than men, but that beyond this point they often lack the patience or faculty to proceed; while their brothers always feel some inward sense impelling them to greater mastery of their professions. The foremost men are those who include woman's intuition with their own strengthening purpose; the noblest women acquire a masculine conscientiousness of treatment in whatever work they undertake. Has Mrs. Howe thus enhanced her womanly endowments? Between her Passion Flowers, published in 1854, and these Later Lyrics, we fail to discover much artistic advance or gain in intellectual clearness. The former volume was noticeable for great merits and great faults; but the faults are equally conspicuous, if not exaggerated, in the collection under review.

What is Mrs. Howe's standard of excellence? Let us repeat it from her own lips. The first among her Poems of Study and Experience reveals it plainly, and is, we observe, one of the most incisive and finished pieces in the volume:


TO THE CRITIC

Of all my verses, say that one is good,
So shalt thou give more praise than Hope might claim;
And from my poet-grave, to vex thy soul,
No ghost shall rise, whose deeds demand a name.

A thousand loves, and only one shall stand
To show us what its counterfeits should be;
The blossoms of a spring-tide, and but one
Bears the world's fruit—the seed of History.

A thousand rhymes shall pass, and only one
Show, crystal-shod, the Muse's twinkling feet;
A thousand pearls the haughty Ethiop spurned
Ere one could make her luxury complete.

In goodliest palaces, some meanest room
The owner's smallness shields contentedly.
Nay, further; of the manifold we are,
But one pin's point shall pass eternity.

Exalt, then, to the greatness of the throne
One only of these beggarlings of mine;
I with the rest will dwell in modest bounds:
The chosen one shall glorify the line.

If the singer will stand by her pledge, we may sleep sound of nights, with no spectral visitations. Not one, but many, are her verses which we pronounce to be good, enjoy as such, and are thankful for. Of Poems of the War, those entitled "Our Orders," "Left Behind," "The Battle Eucharist," are rapturous expressions of the abnegation, the exaltation, and the deep religious faith which carried our people through the recent contest. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," with its profound Hebraic spirit, and wrathful, exultant swell, seems, verily, to have borne "the world's fruit—the seed of history." The first of the "Parables" is a simple and tender rendering of the text, "Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me." The series of love poems entitled "Her Verses" are sensuous, if not simple, and have truer passion in them than can be found in other lyrics depending upon interjectional outbursts for their effect. But in some of the Poems of Study and Experience, Mrs. Howe seems to be raised, by higher thought, to higher art, and more nearly achieves success. "Philosophy and First Causes," and "The Christ" will repay any one's reading. "The Church" is in harmony with the free and catholic spirit of its author. Our attention is next caught by a little madrigal, called "The Evening Ride," which we quote as having musical quality, and being, therefore, one of the few pieces that can justly come under the title of this book:

Through purple clouds with golden crests
I go to find my lover;
Hid from my sight this many a year,
My heart must him discover:
I know the lair of the timid hare,
The nest of the startled plover.

O earth! of all thy garlands, keep
The fairest for our meeting;
Could we ask music, 'twere to drown
The heart's tumultuous beating,
That only eyes, in glad surprise,
Might look through tears their greeting.

If Time have writ my beauty out,
I have no charm to bind him;
No snare to catch his doubting soul,
Nor vow exchanged to bind him;
But this I keep, that I must weep
Bitterly when I find him.

The reader will also admire "Simple Tales," "Fame and Friendship," "Meditation," "The House of Rest," and other thoughtful poems. "The Unwelcome Message" is very striking, having much of the solemn quality which so impresses one in the "Up-Hill" of Christina Rossetti; but the latter artist would never have ruined her effect by toning up the closing stanza with commonplace light. To us, however, it seems that the most emotional and sweetest passages of the book are to be found in the poems on an infant's life and death—"The Babe's Lesson," "Spring Blossoms," "Remembrance," and especially the verses entitled "Little One." Whoever reads the latter will see what Mrs. Howe can do when feeling carries away the obscure vapors which often becloud her art.

Having thus exempted ourselves from reproach, under the rule made in "Lines to the Critic," we now proceed, lawyer-like—but in no pettifogging spirit—to take exception to the sentiment which those lines avow.

We hold that only a poor and unworthy purpose is content to throw off verse after verse, in the hope that one out of many will have poetic value. As well might a sculptor make rude, distorted figures, content with now and then conforming an image to the beauty of nature and finishing it to the fingers' ends. Is not a poem as truly a work of art as a statue or a painting, and are not all arts one in completeness? The safe, the noble rule is never to write a bad poem. We do not hold that this standard can be maintained; yet, in our day, several have come very near it. There are living poets (and poets who will live), each of whose pieces has such merit that we know not how to spare anything they have produced. If they have made poor verses, it has been in silence, and the manuscripts have been ignominiously crumpled, like Beau Brummell's "failures" in cravats. Why print anything that can be omitted—that is not a positive addition to literature? Of course, we all do this continually, but to do it avowedly, to do it "on principle"—that is, indeed, malice aforethought! Now, of the hundred and odd lyrics in Mrs. Howe's book there are fifty—we do not say devoid of poetry, but whose omission would benefit the author's reputation; and of the remainder, how few there are which are conscientiously finished, and, therefore, up to the requirements of the time!

The time, we say, has requirements equally binding with those of hope and patriotism. Loyalty to country and one's race will not alone suffice; there is a loyalty to art, our sovereign mistress, our early and eternal desire. In the age of chivalry there were Courts of Love, where coquettes and unfaithful suitors were indicted; and we do now cite this author into the High Court of Art, and, in gentle terms, impeach her of certain malfeasance. She shall be her own judge on the evidence adduced, and, if conviction ensue, will, perchance, hold herself in bonds for the more faithful performance of her high mission.

A feature of Mrs. Howe's verses, as of Mrs. Browning's, is their earnestness; but this becomes too often a coarse defect. It is revealed in spasmodic utterance, or in words big and painful with a meaning that will not out, and ejaculations of the Gerald-Massey order—is rhetorical, eloquent, gushing, anything but lyrical and poetic. Mrs. Browning's impulses led her continually on the same path; but noble imagination lifted her lightly above the wild-wood thicket in which she went astray, and her sacred fire seemed to consume the brambles clinging to her skirts. Mrs. Howe's genius is not sufficient to redeem her teacher's faults, and the latter she has copied to excess. She seems to write before her idea is thoroughly defined to herself. The result is a confused imagery, and language strangely involved. Her obscurity is not that of thought too elevated for expression in words, for clear thoughts find the highest and purest utterance. It is rather the outward symbol of imperfect inner sight, and leads her into bewildering inversions, ignoble conceits, inelegant and even ungrammatical forms. We cite a few instances of what we mean:

Lost on the turbid current of the street,
My pearl doth swim;
Oh, for the diver's cunning hands and feet
To come to him!

And only the sun's warm fire
Stirs softly their happy breast.

Ye harmless household drudges,
Your draggled daily wear,
And horny palms of labor,
A softer heart may bear:

Death's cold purity condense
Vaporous sin to soul's intense.
Life ye tear to shred and flitter,
Joying in the costly glitter
To rehearse each art-abortion
That consumes a widow's portion.

The skies have left one marble drop
Within the lily's heart.

Here is a stanza that can only find its counterpart in Sternhold and Hopkins's version of the Psalms:

The murderer's wicked lust
Their righteous steps withstood:
The zeal that thieves and pirates knew
Brought down the guiltless blood.

Mrs. Howe invariably says Jèsu for Jesus; and her prayer is always an Ave. Among her crippled and unscholarly devices of expression are such words and phrases as "sweat-embossed," "sense-magic," "weird-encircled," "inmould," "poor occurrence," "recondite dinners," "man's idle irk," "love's eterne," "solvent skies," "in wondrous sequency involved," "life's great impersonate," "prince's minivère," and so forth, since these are taken at random from a barbaric host. She tells us of one who "passions with her glance," and elsewhere bids "dawn's sentinels" to "shed golden balsam." Who else could have written such a stanza as this?

Deep Night, within thy gloomy catafalque
Bury my grief;
And, while thy candles light my funeral walk,
Promise relief.

The faulty rhyme in this stanza is the least of its offences, but suggests others which have kept us in a stumbling and apprehensive condition throughout our reading of these lyrics:

"Rule—full,""shady—ready,""daily—railway,""God—bowed,""host—lost,""attracts-us—backs-us,""fingers—singers,""rudeness—voidness,""joy—by,""coin— shine,""kindred—hundred,""teeth—death,""grieve—shrive," etc.

Mrs. Howe wisely clings to quatrains in which only the second and fourth lines are paired, and if she would follow Mr. Walt Whitman's ingenious system, casting rhyme (no less than metre) beneath her feet, she would at least show it more consideration than in couplets with such endings as these. This may be technical criticism, but is not on a minor matter. The great poets know better than to do these things. A vile rhyme breaks in upon the full-flowing river of written song as rudely as a flat note upon the aria of a prima donna. It is, like dropping the ring at a wedding, a shock and an evil omen. But Mrs. Howe's carelessness in this regard is merely a part of the system by which she utters equally disjointed thought. There can be nothing more odd than the constant juxtaposition of vigorous and feeble verses in her poems. The third and fourth stanzas addressed "To the Critic" furnish an example. More frequently, however, she will commence a lyric with a really fine verse, and let the reader down so woefully before the close that he begins to ask himself whether anti-climax is not her favorite figure of speech.

If these shortcomings arise from constitutional disability—from natural lack of power to express—they present serious arguments against a verdict that Mrs. Howe is a poet. She may be full of poetic feeling, appreciative and reflective, may possess the undoubted poetical temperament; but poetical power consists in the faculty of utterance, and the poet is not only a seer, but a "maker"—a revealer of what he sees. If they come from impatience of revision, or too great devotion to that social life in which Mrs. Howe cannot fail to be an honor and a charm, they may and will be amended, if she will be conscientious and true to her art-career. If they are due to the ready praises of undiscriminating friends, we would rather not rank among the number of those who thus take away from a gifted aspirant more than they can possibly bestow. What we have thought is written in a sincere and, we trust, not ungenerous spirit. And if Mrs. Howe will study more closely those masters of English song whose manner is furthest removed from that which has hitherto most guided her; if she will add to the fire and humanity of her lyrics the harmonies of order, the grace of completeness, and the strength of repose, our voice shall be among the foremost to claim for her the Sapphic crown.

  1. The Round Table, February 3, 1866.