The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 106/Reviews and Literary Notices
REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.
The things which please in these poems are so obvious, that we feel it all but idle to point them out; for who loves not graceful form, bright color, and delicate perfume? Of our younger singers, Mr. Aldrich is one of the best known and the best liked, for he has been wise as well as poetical in his generation. The simple theme, the easy measure, have been his choice; while he is a very Porphyro in the profusion with which he heaps his board with delicates:—
"Candied apple, quince and plum and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferred
From Fez; and spicèd dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedared Lebanon."
And the feast is well lighted, and the guest has not to third his way through knotty sentences, past perilous punctuation-points, to reach the table, nor to grope in the dark for the dainties when he has found it. We imagine that it is this charm of perfect clearness and accessibility which attracts popular liking to Mr. Aldrich's poetry; afterwards, its other qualities easily hold the favor won. He is endowed with a singular richness of fancy, and he has well chosen most of his themes from among those which allow the exercise of his best gifts. He has seldom, therefore, attempted to poetize any feature or incident of our national life; for this might have demanded a realistic treatment foreign to his genius. But it is poetry, the result, which we want, and we do not care from what material it is produced. The honey is the same, whether the bee stores it from the meadow-clover and the wild-flower of our own fields, or, loitering over city wharves, gathers it from ships laden with tropic oranges and orient dates.
If Mr. Aldrich needed any defence for the poems in which he gives rein to his love for the East and the South, he would have it in the fact that they are very beautiful, and distinctively his own, while they breathe full east in their sumptousness of diction, and are genuinely southern in their summer-warmth of feeling. We doubt if any poet of Persia could have told more exquisitely than he what takes place
"WHEN THE SULTAN GOES TO ISPAHAN.
"When the Sultan Shah-Zaman
Goes to the city Ispahan,
Even before he gets so far
As the place where the clustered palm-trees are,
At the last of the thirty palace-gates,
The pet of the harem, Rose-in-Bloom,
Orders a feast in his favorite room,—
Glittering squares of colored ice,
Sweetened with syrop, tinctured with spice,
Creams, and cordials, and sugared dates,
Syrian apples, Othmanee quinces,
Limes, and citrons, and apricots,
And wines that are known to Eastern princes;
And Nubian slaves, with smoking pots
Of spicèd meats and costliest fish,
And all that the curious palate could wish,
Pass in and out of the cedarn doors:
Scattered over mosaic floors
Are anemones, myrtles, and violets,
And a musical fountain throws its jets
Of a hundred colors into the air.
The dusk Sultana loosens her hair,
And stains with the henna-plant the tips
Of her pearly nails, and bites her lips
Till they bloom again,—but, alas! that rose
Not for the Sultan buds and blows;
Not for the Sultan Shah-Zaman,
When he goes to the city Ispahan.
"Then, at a wave of her sunny hand,
the dancing girls of Samarcand
Float in like mists from Fairy-land!
And to the low voluptuous swoons
Of music rise and fall the moons
Of their full, brown bosoms. Orient blood
Runs in their veins, shines in their eyes:
And there, in this Eastern Paradise,
Filled with the fumes of sandal-wood,
And Khoten musk, and aloes and myrrh,
Sits Rose-in-Bloom on a silk divan,
Sipping the wines of Astrakhan;
And her Arab lover sits with her.
That's when the Sultan Shah-Zaman
Goes to the city Ispahan.
"Now, when I see an extra light,
Flaming, flickering on the night
From my neighbor's casement opposite,
I know as well as I know to pray,
I know as well as a tongue can say,
That the innocent Sultan Shah-Zaman
Has gone to the city Ispahan."
As subtilely beautiful as this, and even richer in color and flavor than this, is the complete little poem which Mr. Aldrich calls a fragment:—
"DRESSING THE BRIDE.
"So, after bath, the slave-girls brought
The broidered raiment for her wear,
The misty izar from Mosul,
The pearls and opals for her hair,
The slippers for her supple feet,
(Two radiant crescent moons they were,)
And lavender, and spikenard sweet,
And attars, nedd, and richest musk.
When they had finished dressing her,
(The eye of morn, the heart's desire!)
Like one pale star against the dusk,
A single diamond on her brow
Trembled with its imprisoned fire!"
Too long for quotation here, but by no means too long to be read many times over, is "Pampinea," an idyl in which the poet's fancy plays lightly and gracefully with the romance of life in Boccaccio's Florentine garden, and returns again to the beauty which inspired his dream of Italy, as he lay musing beside our northern sea. The thread of thought running through the poem is slight as the plot of dreams,—breaks, perhaps, if you take it up too abruptly; but how beautiful are the hues and the artificing of the jewels strung upon it!
"And knowing how in other times
Her lips were ripe with Tuscan rhymes
Of love and wine and dance, I spread
My mantle by almond-tree,
'And here, beneath the rose,' I said,
'I'll hear thy Tuscan melody.'
I heard a tale that was not told
In those ten dreamy days of old,
When Heaven, for some divine offence,
Smote Florence with the pestilence;
And in that garden's odorous shade,
The dames of the Decameron,
With each a loyal lover, strayed,
To laugh and sing, at sorest need,
To lie in the lilies in the sun
With glint of plume and silver brede!
And while she whispered in my ear,
The pleasant Arno murmured near,
The dewy, slim chameleons run
Through twenty colors in the sun;
The breezes broke the fountain's glass,
And woke æolian melodies,
And shook from out the scented trees
The lemon-blossoms on the grass.
The tale? I have forgot the tale,—
A Lady all for love forlorn,
A rose-bud, and a nightingale
That bruised his bosom on the thorn:
A pot of rubies buried deep,
A glen, a corpse, a child asleep,
A Monk, that was no monk at all,
In the moonlight by a castle wall."
As to "Babie Bell," that ballad has passed too deeply into the popular heart to be affected for good or ill by criticism,—and we have only to express our love of it. Simple, pathetic, and real, it early made the poet a reputation and friends in every home visited by the newspapers, in which it has been printed over and over again. It is but one of various poems by Mr. Aldrich which enjoy a sort of perennial fame, and for which we have come to look in the papers, as we do for certain flowers in the fields, at their proper season. In the middle of June, when the beauty of earth and sky drives one to despair, we know that it is time to find the delicately sensuous and pensive little poem "Nameless Pain" in all our exchanges; and later, when the summer is subject to sudden thunderstorms, we look out for "Before the Rain," and "After the Rain." It is very high praise of these charming lyrics, that they have thus associated themselves with a common feeling for certain aspects of nature, and we confess that we recur to them with greater pleasure than we find in some of our poet's more ambitious efforts. Indeed, we think Mr. Aldrich's fame destined to gain very little from his recent poems, "Judith," "Garnaut Hall," and "Pythagoras"; for when it comes to be decided what is his and what is his period's, these poems cannot be justly awarded to him. To borrow a figure from the polygamic usages of our Mormon brethren, they are sealed to Mr. Aldrich for time and to Mr. Tennyson for eternity. They contain many fine and original passages: the "Judith" contains some very grand ones, but they must bear the penalty of the error common to all our younger poets,—the error of an imitation more or less unconscious. It is to the example of the dangerous poet named that Mr. Aldrich evidently owes, among other minor blemishes, a mouse which does some mischief in his verses. It is a wainscot mouse, and a blood-relation, we believe, to the very mouse that shrieked behind the mouldering wainscot in the lonely moated grange. This mouse of Mr. Aldrich's appears twice in a brief lyric called "December"; in "Garnaut Hall," she makes
"A lodging for her glossy young
In dead Sir Egbert's empty coat of mail,"
and immediately afterwards drags the poet over the precipice of anti-climax:—
"'T was a haunted spot.
A legend killed it for a kindly home,—
A grim estate, which every heir in turn
Left to the orgies of the wind and rain,
The newt, the toad, the spider, and the mouse."
A little of Costar's well-known exterminator would rid Mr. Aldrich of this rascal rodent. Perhaps, when the mouse is disposed of, the poet will use some other word than torso to describe a headless, but not limbless body, and will relieve Agnes Vail of either her shield or her buckler, since she can hardly need both.
We have always thought Mr. Aldrich's "Palabras Cariñosas" among the most delicious and winning that he has spoken, and nearly all of his earlier poems please us; but on the whole it seems to us that his finest is his latest poem, "Friar Jerome's Beautiful Book"; for it is original in conception and expression, and noble and elevated in feeling, with all our poet's wonted artistic grace and felicity of diction. We think it also a visible growth from what was strong and individual in his style, before he allowed himself to be so deeply influenced by study of one whose flower indeed becomes a weed in the garden of another.
As a people, we are so used to policeman-like severity or snobbish ridicule from European criticism, that we hardly know what to make of the attentions of a Frenchman who is not an Inspector Javert, or of an Englishman who is not a Commercial Traveller. M. Laugel eulogizes us without the least patronage in his manner; Mr. Goldwin Smith praises us with those reserves which enhance the value of applause. We are ourselves accustomed to deal generously and approvingly with the facts of our civilization, but our pride in them falls short of M. Laugel's; and our most sanguine faith in the national future is not more cordial than Mr. Goldwin Smith's.
The diverse methods in which these writers discuss the same aspects and events of our history are characteristic and interesting, and the difference in spirit is even greater than that of form,—greater than the difference between a book, which, made from articles in the Revue de Deux Mondes, recounts the political, military, and financial occurrences of the last four years, sketches popular scenes and characters, and deals with the wonders of our statistics, and a slender pamphlet address, in which the author concerns himself rather with the results than the events of our recent war. This is always Mr. Smith's manner of dealing with the past; but in considering a period known in all its particulars to his audience, he has been able to philosophize history more purely and thoroughly than usual. He arrives directly and clearly at the moral of the Ilias Americana, and sees that Christianity is the life of our political system, and that this principle, without which democracy is a passing dream, and equality an idle fallacy, triumphed forever in the downfall of slavery. He has been the first of our commentators to discern that the heroism displayed in the war could only come from that principle which made our social life decent and orderly, built the school-house and the church, and filled city and country with prosperous and religious homes. He has seen this principle at work under changing names and passing creeds, and has recognized that here, for the first time in the history of the world, a whole nation strives to govern itself according to the Example and the Word that govern good men everywhere.
In the Introduction to his book, M. Laugel declares as the reasons for his admiration of the United States, that they "have shown that men can found a government on reason, where equality does not stifle liberty, and democracy does not yield to despotism; they have shown that a people can be religious when the State neither pays the Church nor regulates belief; they have given to woman the place that is her due in a Christian and civilized society." It is this Introduction, indeed, that will most interest the American reader, for here also the author presents the result of his study of our national character in a sketch that the nation may well glass itself in when low-spirited. The truth is, that we looked our very best to the friendly eyes of M. Laugel, and we cannot but be gratified with the portrait he has made of us. An American would hardly have ventured to draw so flattering a picture, but he cannot help exulting that an alien should see us poetic in our realism, curious of truth and wisdom as well as of the stranger's personal history, cordial in our friendships, and not ignoble even in our pursuit of wealth, but having the Republic's greatness at heart as well as our own gain.
In the chapters which succeed this Introduction, M. Laugel discusses, in a spirit of generous admiration, the facts of our civilization as they present themselves in nearly all the States of the North and West; and while he does not pretend to see polished society everywhere, but very often an elemental ferment, he finds also that the material of national goodness and greatness is sound and of unquestionable strength. He falls into marvellously few errors, and even his figures have not that bad habit of lying to which the figures of travellers so often fall victims.
The books of M. Laugel and Mr. Goldwin Smith come to us, as we hinted, after infinite stupid and dishonest censure from their countrymen; but the intelligent friendship of such writers is not the less welcome to us because we have ceased to care for the misrepresentations of the French and English tourists.
The advice of friends, so often mistaken, and so productive of mischief in goading reluctant authorship to the publication of unwise, immature, or feeble literature, prevailed upon Mr. Reed to give the world the present book; and we have a real pleasure in saying that for once this affectionate counsel has done the world a favor and a service. We have read the volume through with great interest, and with a lively impression of the author's good sense and modesty. In great part it is a personal narrative; but Mr. Reed, in recounting the story of the unwearied vigilance and tenderness and dauntless courage with which the corps of the Sanitary Commission discharged their high duties, contrives to present his individual acts as representative of those of the whole body, and to withdraw himself from the reader's notice. With the same spirit, in describing scenes of misery and suffering, he has more directly celebrated the patience and heroism of the soldiers who bore the pain than the indefatigable goodness that ministered to them, though he does full justice to this also. The book is a record of every variety of wretchedness; yet one comes from its perusal strengthened and elevated rather than depressed, and with new feelings of honor for the humanity that could do and endure so much. Mr. Reed does not fail to draw from the scenes and experiences of hospital life their religious lesson, and throughout his work are scattered pictures of anguish heroically borne, and of Christian resignation to death, which are all the more touching because the example of courage through simple and perfect faith is enforced without cant or sentimentality.
The history of the great Christian aspect of our war cannot be too minutely written nor too often read. There is some danger, now the occasion of mercy is past, that we may forget how wonderfully complete the organization of the Sanitary Commission was, and how unfailingly it gave to the wounded and disabled of our hosts all the succor that human foresight could afford,—how, beginning with the establishment of depots convenient for the requisitions of the surgeons, it came to send out its own corps of nurses and watchers, until its lines of mercy were stretched everywhere almost in sight of the lines of battle, and its healing began almost at the hour the hurt was given. Mr. Reed devotes a chapter to this history, in which he briefly and clearly describes the practical operation of the system of national charity, accrediting to Mr. Frank B. Fay the organization of the auxiliary corps, and speaking with just praise of its members who perished in the service, or clung to it, till, overtaken by contagion or malaria, they returned home to die. The subject is dealt with very frankly; and Mr. Reed, while striving to keep in view the consoling and self-recompensing character of their work, does not conceal that, though they were rewarded by patience and thankfulness in far the greater number of cases, their charities were sometimes met by disheartening selfishness and ingratitude. But they bore up under all, and gave the world such an illustration of practical Christianity as it had never seen before.
Mr. Reed's little book is so earnestly and unambitiously written, that its graphic power may escape notice. Yet it is full of picturesque touches; and in the line of rapidly succeeding anecdote there is nothing of repetition.
The history of the Gypsies, according to the editor of the present work, is best presented in a series of desultory anecdotes which relate chiefly to the Egyptian usages of murder, pocket-picking, and horse-stealing, and the behavior of the rogues when they come to be hanged for their crimes. Incidentally, a good deal of interesting character is developed, and both author and editor show a very intimate acquaintance with the life and customs and speech of an inexplicable people. But here the value of their book ends; and we imagine that the earlier Simpson, who contributed the greater part of it in articles to Blackwood's Magazine, scarcely supposed himself to be writing anything more than sketches of the Scotch Gypsies whom he found in the different shires, and of the Continental and English Gypsies of whom he had read. The later Simpson thought it, as we have seen, a history of the Gypsies, and he has furnished it with an Introduction and a Disquisition of amusingly pompous and inconsequent nature. His subject has been too much for him, and his mental vision, disordered by too ardent contemplation of Gypsies, reproduces them wherever he turns his thought. If he values any one of his illusions above the rest,—for they all seem equally pleasant to him,—it is his persuasion that John Bunyan was a Gypsy. "He was a tinker," says our editor. "And who were the tinkers?" "Why, Gypsies, without a doubt," answers the reader, and makes no struggle to escape the conclusion thus skilfully sprung upon him. Will it be credited that the inventor of this theory was denied admittance to the columns of the religious newspapers in this country, on the flimsy pretext that the editors could not afford the space for a disquisition on John Bunyan's Gypsy origin?
The comparison of the Gypsy language in this book with a dialect of the Hindostanee is interesting and useful, and the accounts of Gypsy habits and usages are novel and curious; and otherwise the work is a mass of rather entertaining rubbish.
All these little books are very prettily printed and very pleasingly bound. Each has its little index and its little dedication, and each its hundred pages of rhymes, and so each flutters forth into the world.
"Dove vai, povera foglia frale?"
To oblivion, by the briefest route, we think; and we find a pensive satisfaction in speculating upon the incidents of the journey. Shall any one challenge the wanderers in their flight, and seek to stay them? Shall they all reach an utter forgetfulness, and be resolved again into elemental milk and water, or shall one of them lodge in a dusty library, here and there, and, having ceased to be literature, lead the idle life of a curiosity? We imagine another as finding a moment's pause upon the centre-table of a country parlor. Perhaps a third, hastily bought at a railway station as the train started, and abandoned by the purchaser, may at this hour have entered upon a series of railway journeys in company with the brakeman's lamps and oil-bottles, with a fair prospect of surviving many generations of short-lived railway travellers. We figure to ourselves the heart-breaking desolation of a village-tavern, where, on the bureau under the mirror, to which the public comb and brush are chained, a fourth might linger for a while.
But in all the world shall anybody read one of these books? We fancy not even a critic; for the race so vigilantly malign in other days has lost its bitterness, or has been broken of its courage by the myriad numbers of the versifiers once so exultingly destroyed. Indeed, that cruel slaughter was but a combat with Nature,—
"So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life";
and from the exanimate dust of one crushed poetaster she bade a thousand rhymesters rise. Yet one cannot help thinking with a shudder of the hideous spectacle of "Eros" in the jaws of Blackwood or the mortal Quarterly, thirty years ago; or of how ruthlessly our own Raven would have plucked the poor trembling life from the "Patriotic Poems," or "The Contest," or the "Poems."
The world grows wiser and better-natured every day, and the tender statistician has long since stayed the hand of the critic. "Why strike," says the gentle sage, "when figures will do your work so much more effectually, and leave you the repose of a compassionate soul? Do you not know that but one book in a thousand survives the year of its publication?" etc., etc., etc. "And then as to the infinite reproduction of the species," adds Science, "is Nature,
"'So careful of the single type?' But no,
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, 'A thousand types are gone.'"
Patience! the glyptodon and the dodo have been dead for ages. Perhaps in a million years the poetaster also shall pass.
There is not much variety in frontier life, it must be confessed, though there is abundant adventure. A family likeness runs through nearly all histories of bear-fights, and one Indian-fight might readily be mistaken for another. So also bear-fighters and Indian-fighters are akin in character, and the pioneers who appear in literature leave a sense of sameness upon the reader's mind. Nevertheless, one continues to read of them with considerable patience, and likes the stories because he liked their ancestral legends when a boy.
Colonel Marcy's book offers something more than the usual attractions of the class to which it belongs; for it contains the history of his own famous passage of the Rocky Mountains in mid-winter, and notices of many frontiersmen of original and striking character (like the immortal Captain Scott), as well as much shrewd observation of Indian nature and other wild-beast nature. All topics are treated with perfect common-sense; if our soldierly author sometimes philosophizes rather narrowly, he never sentimentalizes, though he is not without poetry; and he is thoroughly imbued with the importance of his theme. One, therefore, suffers a great deal from him, in the way of unnecessary detail, without a murmur, and now and then willingly accepts an old story from him, charmed by the simplicity and good faith with which he attempts to pass it off as new.
The style of the book is clear and direct, except in those parts where light and humorous narration is required. There it is bad, and seems to have been formed upon the style of the sporting newspapers and the local reporters, with now and then a hint from the witty passages of the circus, as in this colloquy:—
"'Mought you be the boss hossifer of that thar army?'
"'I am the commanding officer of that detachment, sir.'
"'Wall, Mr. Hossifer, be them sure 'nuff sogers, or is they only make-believe chaps, like I see down to Orleans?'
"'They have passed through the Mexican war, and I trust have proved themselves not only worthy of the appellation of real, genuine soldiers, but of veterans, sir.'"
And so forth. We like Colonel Mercy when he talks of himself better than when he talks for himself. In the latter case he is often what we see him above, and in the former he is always modest, discreet, and entertaining.
When, as Heine says, Napoleon, who was Classic like Cæsar and Alexander, fell to the ground, and Herren August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, who were Romantic like Puss in Boots, arose as victors, Baron von Eichendorff was one of those who shared the triumph. He wrote plays and poems and novels to the tunes set by the masters of his school, but for himself practically he was a wise man,—held comfortable offices all his life long, and, in spite of vast literary yearning, sentiment, and misanthropy, was a Philister of the Philisters. The tale which Mr. Leland translates so gracefully is an extravaganza, in marked contrast to all the other romances of Eichendorff, in so far as it is purposely farcical, and they are serious; but we imagine it does not differ from them greatly in its leading qualities of fanciful incoherency and unbridled feebleness. An idle boy, who is driven from home by his father, the miller, and is found with his violin on the road to nowhere by two great ladies and carried to their castle near Vienna,—who falls in love with one of these lovely countesses, and runs away for love of her to Italy, and, after passing through many confused adventures there, with no relation to anything that went before or comes after, returns to the castle, and finds that his lovely countess is not a countess, but a poor orphan adopted by the great folk,—and so happily marries her,—this is the Good-for-Nothing and his story. A young student of the German language, struggling through the dusty paths of the dictionary to a comprehension of the tale, would perhaps think it a wonderful romance, when once he had achieved its meaning; but being translated into our pitiless English, its poverty of wit and feeling and imagination is apparent; and one is soon weary of its mere fantasticality.