Genius, and other essays/Stoddard's Poems
FOR some time past our Miltons of the Atlantic coast have been mute, if not inglorious, taking silent observation of the new departure indicated by the present lyrical vogue. They have shrunk away before the outburst of gulch-and-canyon minstrelsy—somewhat as high tragedians take to their beds when the coming of Ixion is announced; or, it may be, are in their respective strongholds, burnishing their arms for a victorious return to the tournament of song. Meantime the crown has been yielded to our rampant knights of the West, who, each bestriding a mustang more untamed than his predecessors, have tilted over the lists—one or two of them by way of recreation from service of another kind. We have heard the sound of their publishers' heraldic trumpetings and the plaudits of the multitude below the tiers—and on the head of each in turn we have seen
Perfume and flowers fall in showers
That lightly rain from ladies' hands.
Thus it ever has been the wide world over. The lists are open to all knights, errant or otherwise; and they who have won old triumphs may be sure that, if they hoard their fame too long, the newer aspirant—though not, perchance, the nobler—will become the favorite of the day.
Mr. Stoddard is the first of our Eastern poets to break the spell of their prolonged reserve. Many will choose to regard the title of his new volume as an intentional counterpoise to the popular mode, and as a pronunciamento of his own estate, fealty, and inspiration. It is derived, however, from a collection of those Oriental lyrics, to one of which we never listen without desiring to paraphrase the refrain in the Arabian Knights and say: "Pray sing us another of those love-songs which you know how to sing so well!" These elegant versions from the Persian, Tartar, and Chinese poetry, rendered with subtle and delicate touch, occupy the closing pages of The Book of the East. Taken separately they vary in merit and interest; but together they form a beautiful rose-garden, filled with flowers of both lustrous and sombre hues. We are glad to see them here, as they exhale the perfume of their author's earlier work and gracefully invite us to an acquaintance with the stronger and more elevated poems by which they are preceded.
Mr. Stoddard holds a place of honor amongst the few acknowledged American poets who stand halfway between the elder and new generations, and may be reckoned as at the prime of his powers. It is some fifteen years, we think, since he last made a collection of his minor poetry. Many of the pieces in this volume have appeared during the interval, and not long ago The King's Bell—the most extended and beautiful of his narrative productions—was issued by itself, and at once found a lasting place in the admiration of select lovers of poetry. On the whole, it seems to us that Mr. Stoddard has been somewhat careless of fame, as indeed a poet living in New York is apt to be. In provincial cities, where there is little enough to see, desire grows upon us to be seen and known of all men; but in the metropolis, where one can see so much and be himself so easily lost from public sight, a philosophic artist soon realizes that his own greater or less renown is of little moment compared with the storm and progress of the life about him. Once impressed with this feeling, his solicitude for appreciation is merged in love for art itself, unless, forsooth, he be stimulated by some publisher akin to that bearded husband of the ballet dancer in Hyperion who says: "I shall run her six nights at Munich, and then take her on to Vienna." For a poet of true sensibility never can run himself, even with a stage name plagiarized from a "grizzly" and a stage pair of seven-league top-boots.
The Songs of Summer, to which we have alluded, was Stoddard's second contribution, in book-form, to our metrical literature, and was composed of songs and idyls written after he had outgrown the undue influence of his early models (albeit these were of the best), and his genius had developed its specific quality. In fact, quality breathed from every leaf of that book, and at this day there is no single volume of American poetry to which, as a whole, we recur more often or with more pleasure. Its beautiful succession of lyrics, thrown off in a style thoroughly his own—all compact of wild and witching music, full as Shelley's of sudden cadences and dying falls, and spontaneous as the carols of the Elizabeth songsters—were each a work of melodious English art. They so dwelt upon the ear as to draw attention from the more extended compositions of which they were the overture. "The Abdication of Noman the Elder" is a masterpiece. "The Fisher and Charon"—a classical production of some length—as an example of noble and sustained blank-verse has not been excelled, in our way of thinking, by any American poem. It is stately Doric, and imaginative to a high degree.
A book of the East should represent the meridian of age, experience, and culture. What may we fairly demand from an Eastern poet? First, the genius that should inform a poet of whatever clime or period; secondly, a breadth of training and thought, not only enabling him to equal the poet of a newer region in the latter specialty, but giving him a poly-sided skill to excel in many specialties. He must touch life through and through and all around—"best bard because the wisest." It is time to estimate by some such high test a poet whose home is that portion of this New World which, to regions westward, has already become the Old.
In The Book of the East we accordingly find that Stoddard retains his lyrical faculty and technical skill, and we also discover that he composes not merely from the love of faultless execution, but with the thoughtful inspiration of maturity. The book is more subjective than his former work. The converse is true of many poets, who seem only in youth—when the secrets of their emotion are least worth knowing—to remember Sidney's injunction, "Look in thy heart and write."
Stoddard avowedly belongs to the natural, universal school. Rejecting the idea that a cisatlantic poet should imitate the inventor of corn-stalk architecture, and adopt new modes less excellent than those already tested, he believes that an artist has all lands, seasons, and themes for his material, and may compel all forces to be the servants of his craft. Nevertheless his country lies near his heart, and in handling patriotic themes he chooses the open way and best. Of his perfect simplicity as a balladist the publishers seem to be aware. "Red Riding-Hood," "The Babes in the Wood," and "Putnam the Brave," composed at their suggestion, delighted young and old alike. In the present volume, "The Ballad of Valley Forge," "When this Old Flag was New," and that Parnassian counterpart to Eastman Johnson's glorious drawing, "The Little Drummer," show what genius can accomplish without striving after effect. We have the inspiration of the sibyl without the contortions. It looks easy, but try it! Nor can anything be better than "The Ballad of Crecy"—as healthy and surging as old Drayton's "Agincourt"—upon which, by the way, it is somewhat closely modelled.
Of the poems before us we are least attracted by the sentimental though finished studies from life as a kind of sop to Cerberus, we suppose—are made to open the volume. They show less of the author's specific gift, though one—"After the Funeral"—is an exception, with an intense amount of genuine feeling crowded into its brief lyrical expression. We prefer to look further on to the works of graver purport, which give tone and character to the main body of the collection.
Stoddard's lyrics and madrigals, we have indicated, have the rare felicity of being spontaneous as a skylark's, and at the same time exquisite in delicacy of art. Two or three specimens will show that his voice has lost none of its sweetness:
Wail on, thou bleeding nightingale!
I join my wail with thine;
Deplore thy passion for the rose,
And let me weep for mine!
Lament thy rose for seventy days,
She lives, and may reply;
But mine is dead, and I must weep,
Or break my heart, and die!
THE DYING LOVER
The grass that is under me now
Will soon be over me, sweet!
When you walk this way again,
I shall not hear your feet.
You may walk this way again,
And shed your tears like dew;
They will be no more to me, then,
Than mine are now to you!
"I am a white falcon, hurrah!
My home is the mountains so high;
But away o'er the lands and the waters,
Wherever I please, I can fly.
"I wander from city to city,
I dart from the wave to the cloud;
And when I am dead I shall slumber,
With my own white wings for a shroud!"
"I know a little rose,
And O but I were blest,
Could I but be the drop of dew
That lies upon her breast!
"But I dare not look so high,
Nor die a death so sweet;
It is enough for me to be
The dust about her feet!"
The Horatian touch, that can add a grace to the simplest theme, is visible in these dainty couplets:
TO A FRIEND, WITH A VASE
Poet, take this little vase,
From a lover of the race,
Given to hold—a funeral jar—
The ashes of thy loved cigar.
If for that it seem too fine,
Fill it to the brim with wine,
And drink, in love, to me and mine,
As I drain to thee and thine.
Ashes, though, may suit it best,
(There's a plenty in my breast);
Fill it, then, in summer hours
With the ashes of thy flowers—
Roses, such as on it blow,
Or lilies, like its ground of snow.
The English metrical period, with whose productions, so far as manner is concerned, Mr. Stoddard's art now seems most in sympathy, is that of the Commonwealth and Restoration—the time of Wither, Shirley, and Marvell, whose enduring metres he, among contemporary poets, has made distinctively his own, by infusing beneath their body a new and modern soul. In the pieces for which he chooses these forms of expression, he rises above the Fancy which lightens his songs, and Imagination—often sombre, but sustained and noble—is their dominant force. The gravity and stateliness of such measures are suited to the themes for which he has selected them. There is no better poetry in the book than that written in honor of the great who have passed away, and of one still among us. Certainly the piece entitled "Abraham Lincoln: A Horatian Ode," is the finest tribute yet paid to the memory of the Liberator. Its monotone is grand throughout:
Not as when some great Captain falls
In battle, where his Country calls,
Beyond the struggling lines
That push his dread designs.
Nor as when sink the civic great,
The safer pillars of the State,
Whose calm, mature, wise words
Suppress the need of swords.
With no such tears as e'er were shed
Above the noblest of our dead
Do we to-day deplore
The Man that is no more.
Our sorrow hath a wider scope,
Too strange for fear, too vast for hope,
A wonder, blind and dumb,
That waits—what is to come!
Not more astounded had we been
If Madness, that dark night, unseen,
Had in our chambers crept,
And murdered while we slept.
We woke to find a mourning earth,
Our Lares shivered on the hearth,
The roof-tree fallen, all
That could affright, appall!
O honest face, which all men knew!
O tender heart, but known to few!
O wonder of the age,
Cut off by tragic rage!
To further illustrate the vigor of Mr. Stoddard's imagination we will quote from another of this class of poems. "Adsum," in commemoration of Thackeray, is widely known, and we pass it by. The opening of the ode written for Shakespeare's birthday is very striking:
She sat in her eternal home
The sovereign mother of mankind;
Before her was the peopled world,
The hollow night behind.
"Below my feet the thunders break,
Above my head the stars rejoice;
But man, although he babbles much,
Has never found a voice;
"Ten thousand years have come and gone,
And not an hour of any day
But he has dumbly looked to me
The things he could not say.
"It shall be so no more," she said;
And then, revolving in her mind,
She thought, "I will create a child
Shall speak for all his kind."
It was the spring-time of the year,
And lo! where Avon's waters flow,
The child, her darling, came on earth,
Three hundred years ago.
There was no portent in the sky,
No cry, like Pan's, along the seas;
Nor hovered round his baby-mouth
The swarm of classic bees.
"Vates Patriæ," which, if our memory serves us, was read at the Century Club on occasion of Mr. Bryant completing his 70th year, is remarkable for evenness and nobility of expression. It is as fine as Halleck's "Burns."
We are impressed by several poems of an elevated character, quite unlike anything before written, though involving no new methods of structure. They may be studied to advantage by people who confound originality with novel or grotesque rhythm. No one but Stoddard could have written the solemn and mystical "Invocation," or the Holbeinish "Catch" which follows it, and each is remarkable in its kind. "Rome" and "Cæsar," companion pieces, are no less original in conception and execution. But of all the poems one, "Why Stand ye Gazing into Heaven?" is the most impassioned and yet the most unsatisfying—the voice not of an infant, but of an earnest, strong man
——crying in the night,
And with no language but a cry!
It is the despair of the modern Lucretius. We know too much and too little; have shaken off blind superstition and fables new or old, and now stand eager for some new revelation yet to come. The cry comes from the depths of a resolute heart. When we long to say to the poet, "Look upward," he makes us feel that he is too self-pitiless to accept comfort from that of which his reason knoweth not.
The solemnity of a large number of these poems is very marked. They are not written in a minor key, but are both profound and sad—the utterances of a chastened spirit who has gone through the period at which men like Clough strive to read the problem of life, and is content to do his work and leave the rest to that Power we do not comprehend. The tone to which we refer may be distasteful to some, but there are many readers even of modern poetry whose own hearts sooner would lead them to the house of mourning than the house of joy. And nothing but affection for the poet can be awakened by the touching pathos of the lyrics in which he records his portion of the "one great Sorrow" which is "all over the wide, wide world." One can see that only the deepest wounds could yield such blood-red flowers of pain. In "The King's Sentinel" we also observe an exquisite passage which no one could have written but a father who had lost a darling child.
Mr. Stoddard's few poetical faults—neglect of synthetic structure, too great use of the parenthesis, occasional failure to simply express his thought—are rarely noticeable in this collection. And there are charming bits of sunshine, showing the natural lightness of the poet's heart, which flash in upon its pages here and there. Such is that wise and healthful poem, "The Country Life," from which our limits will not permit us to quote. We trust that the eminent publishers, to whom America has been indebted for admirable presentations of her foremost poets, will ere long give us in one compact volume the contents of this and Mr. Stoddard's earlier collections; nor can we refrain from expressing a hope that he himself will not suffer his devotion to those more exacting literary pursuits, in which he has a practical and scholarly eminence, to prevent his composition of some larger poetical work which shall be the measure and evidence of his full creative power.
In conclusion we reprint the grand Christmas Hymn, which will take its place as a standard portion of our choicest national song.
A CHRISTMAS HYMN TO AMERICA
Not as of old we keep the day
Whereon the Prince of Peace was born,
Whose kingdom comes not! Let us pray
It comes this holy morn:
Let us begin it; make our brawlings cease,
And kill the hate that lurks behind the mask of Peace!
Men of the South, if you recall
The fields your valor won in vain,
Unchecked the manly tears may fall
Above your heroes slain!
Weep! but remember we had heroes too,
As sadly dear to us as yours can be to you!
Men of the North, whose sons and sires,
Victorious in a hundred fights,
Gather no more about your fires
In the long winter nights;
If some you loved are missing here and there,
No household at the South but mourns its vacant chair!
By all the blood that has been shed,
And will be till contentions cease,
Bury your anger with the dead,
And be again at peace!
So, with your muskets rusting on the wall,
Your State shall be secure when greatest empires fall!
- The World, New York, November 3, 1871.