Edmund Clarence Stedman

 

 

The Twilight of the Poets.

 

In writing upon the leaders of American song, I have sought to make our various studies as comprehensive as possible within due bounds. That they might be both critical and sympathetic, and afford new illustrations of the poetic principle and the temperament of poets, it has been my effort to approach the subject of each from his own ground, – to comprehend his motive and judge him at his best; at the same time, to see where he has failed of that standard and of the true spirit of ideal expression. Such an effort requires to be taken as a whole. Isolated phrases, and even sections, at times may have been misconstrued as unfair stricture or, on the other hand, as if biased by personal considerations. Yet, in the course of each study, I have tried to draw a just portrait, and so to analyze the work of its original as to obtain at least an approximately correct resultant.

For the present essay, – relating to various persons and questions of the time, and necessarily less cohesive and animate than those which it supplements, – I would ask that its parts be weighed together, if at all. It has a distinct purpose, – to glance at the existing condition of our poetry, and to speculate concerning the near future. Not to prophesy – we scarcely can forecast next month's weather from the numberless shifting currents of to-day. Yet one may hopefully surmise, for example, that a dull spell will not last beyond all reason and experience. The past teaches us what signs indicate the change, – where blue sky will first appear, – and that, if the wind "backs," or proves fickle, a brightening will be temporary and delusive. In the mood of a cautious weather-sage, then, let us examine the late reports from the signal-stations that together show the probabilities. In reviewing the poetry of England, the general drift was indicated more plainly by the choir at large than by the solos of a few striking and independent voices.

 

I.

 

When some of our elder poets, their careers felicitously rounded, were taken from us, there soon arose a cry of foreboding. Who, it was asked, are to occupy the places of Bryant, Longfellow, Emerson? What younger men can equal the work executed by those pioneers when the latter were of corresponding age? A period of decline has been predicted. It may be noted, as we seek to determine whether the prediction is well based, that a similar cry is heard from across the sea. The work of Tennyson and the Brownings, in their prime, is contrasted with that of their juniors, and critics are not boastful as to the promise of another sängerfest. I venture to recall that ten years ago I saw the beginning of a poetic dusk, and expressed a belief in its temporary continuance. It is now generally perceived and lamented; nevertheless it seems to me that it is near an end, and that we may begin to look for a new day. If this is to differ from the last, – if we who enjoyed the old fashion shall find it hard to accustom ourselves to the new, – the young will speedily interpret it for us. Their estimate of relative values will have its own gauge.

The rise of Poetry in America, its first noteworthy and somewhat original endeavor, was clearly marked, and singularly coincident with that of the Victorian School abroad. Before long, our poetry took its place with standard literature; its authors won the interest, even the affection, of an attentive public. The close of the term involved may not have been so clear to us. Literary periods shift with mingled sounds, like those of bands following one another at intervals in a procession. But, as in the case of the similar term abroad, it was defined sufficiently for us now to look back and recognize it. The influences to which was due a diversion of interest, and which brought poetic aims and methods into doubt, may be briefly recapitulated. They include all that we have seen prevailing throughout Christendom and resulting from its accelerated evolution of knowledge and energy: the radical change in the course of imagination, enforced by the advance of science, – the disturbance of tradition and convictions, – the leap from romance to realism. We must allow, too, for the diversion of genius to material conquests, adventure, the creation of fortunes; and for the growth of journalism, and of prose fiction answering to the demands of the time. All the resulting influences are fully as dynamic here as in the Old World, and some of them far more so. But other factors, peculiar to this country, must not be overlooked. The civil war was a general absorbent at the crisis when a second group of poets began to form. Their generation pledged itself to the most heroic struggle of the century. The conflict not only checked the rise of a new school, but was followed by a time of languor in which the songs [788] of Apollo seemed trivial to those who had listened to the shout of Mars. A manly reaction, from the taste for rhetoric and sentiment which existed before the war, degenerated into the indifferentism lately affected by our clever youths. Those whose lyrical instinct survived through all conditions, and still impelled them to sing, found themselves subject to a novel disadvantage. The favorite senior bards were still in voice; their very longevity, fitting and beautiful as it was, restrained the zeal and postponed the opportunities of pupils who held them in honor. Our common and becoming reverence prevented both the younger writers and the people from suspecting that these veterans were running in grooves and supplying little new; finally, when this was realized, and there was a more open field, it became evident that the public was satiated with verse and craved a change not merely of poets, but to some new form of imaginative literature. Original genius will find an outlet through all hindrances; be the air as it may, its flight will be the eagle's; but it will be apt, at such a time, to take some other direction than that of its predecessors. All in all, the subsequent incitement to lyrical effort was not so effective, nor was the opening so clear, as in the period that favored the rise of Longfellow and his compeers.

In the course of these studies I have referred at some length to a few poets next succeeding those veterans, – some who now, but for the regard shown them by younger contestants, would scarcely realize how surely they are becoming veterans themselves. Thus age succeeds to age, and still Poesy,

"blazoned as on heaven's immortal noon,
  . . . leads generations on."

It only remains for us to take an outlook, and make note of what poetic activity is discoverable at the present time. With respect to my near associates, and to the increasing circle of fresh recruits, whose chances are all before them, I repeat my statement that it would be out of taste and purpose for me to assume the functions of a critical censor or appraiser. The situation can be studied, and some conjecture made of the future, upon a simple record of what a representative number of these have done and are doing, and I do not think our conclusions can be so well reached in any other way.

 

II.

 

Whittier and Holmes, the two oldest survivors of their group, find their audience still extending with the rapid spread of culture in this land. Their eyes are scarcely dimmed, and their natural strength serves them for periodic flights of song. Lowell's apparent retirement in favor of younger writers, though doubtless only temporary, is the one courtesy they desire him to forego. From Whitman, more picturesque than ever, we have now and then some passing, half-broken, yet harmonic strain, striving to capture the substance of things seen and unseen. I have already written of Taylor, Stoddard, Boker, and their comrades, with whom our poetry began to show less of the ethical and polemic fervor that brought their predecessors into repute. No new cause required the lifting up of hands, and they meditated the Muse from simple love of beauty and song. Stoddard, although a hard-worked man of letters, has been true to his early vows, and adds to our songs of summer in the autumn of his life. Occasionally he writes, with his old finish and tranquil power, one of those sustained and characteristic blank-verse poems in which his faculty is at its highest. Of poets a decade younger, Hayne, Aldrich, Winter, Piatt, Howells, and a few others, still remain. It was their lot to begin at just the time when the country had forsworn peace and its pipings; but they none the less took heart, and did good service in keeping our minstrel line unbroken through good and evil days alike.

Winter's extreme poetic temperament, and his loyalty to an ideal, have made his frequent sketches of travel very charming, and have imparted to his dramatic criticisms the grace and proportion for which they are distinguished. The melody, ease, and sincere feeling of his personal tributes and occasional pieces for delivery, render them quite unique. The poem read at the dedication of the monument to Poe is an elevated production. His best lyrics have caught the spirit of the early English muse.

To Aldrich, now in his sunny prime, – the most pointed and exquisite of our lyrical craftsmen, – justly is awarded a place at the head of the younger art-school. He is a poet of inborn taste, a votary of the beautiful, and many of his delicately conceived pieces, that are unexcelled by modern work, were composed in a ruder time, and thus a forecast of the present technical advance. They illustrate the American instinct which unites a Saxon honesty of feeling to that artistic subtilty in which the French surpass the world. Though successful in a few poems of a more heroic cast, his essential skill and genius are found in briefer lyrics comparable to faultless specimens of the antique graver's art. Such pieces as the "Palabras Cariñosas" and the lines "On an Intaglio Head of Minerva" have a high-bred quality that still keeps them at the [789] head of our vers de société; nor is their author dependent for his effect on novel and elaborate forms. Apparently spontaneous, they are perfected with the touch of a Gautier. His quatrains and trifles expressive of fleeting moods rank with the best of our time. Aldrich's restraint in verse is a notable contrast to the sudden wit and fancy of his speech; as a writer, he never has stood in need of the injunction, –

"O Poet, then forbear
   The loosely sandalled verse,
Choose rather thou to wear
   The buskin straight and terse."

His shorter tales and sketches are finished like so many poems in prose, sparklingly original, and delightful for the airy by-play, the refined nuances, of a captivating literary style.

Fawcett's verse displays tendencies which class him with the art-school, and an inclination to profit by the Gallic taste and motive. The poems in his two volumes are selected, I presume, from a copious store, as he has been from youth a prolific writer. In "Fantasy and Passion" were many cabinet pictures in rhyme, drawn with fastidious care, and an occasional lyric, like "The Meeting," upon a weird theme and suggestively wrought. The leading pieces in "Song and Story" have fewer mannerisms, – a less fanciful, a freer and more imaginative, treatment. Mr. Fawcett's versatility leads him to essay almost every form of inventive, satirical, and critical literature, and as a playwright he has made not the least successful of his ventures. Two of our prominent New York authors seem, aside from their professional work as journalists, to have devoted themselves without reserve to poetry. Their characteristics are very dissimilar. Of Gilder I cannot speak here. The other, Charles de Kay, is conspicuous for height of aim, and certainly for a most resolute purpose. In these days it is bracing to see a man of his ability in earnest as a poet. It would be premature to judge of the strange, affluent and broadly handled Visions, "Nimrod" and "Esther," at this near view, or until completed by the final section of their trilogy. "Hesperus" and the "Poems of Barnaval" show his impassioned and more subjective moods, and his resources for a prodigal display of varied, uneven, but often strongly effective lyrical work.

The deaths of Arnold and Dorgan, at ages when practice-work ended and individual traits began to appear, stilled two voices of no little promise. Among our Northern poets there are some whose verse is the expression of their choicest impulses rather than the most substantial portion of their literary outcome. Lathrop's too infrequent lyrics give token of sensitive feeling and a beautiful poetic vein. Professor Boyesen's verse, like his prose, belongs so thoroughly to his adopted language, and is so fresh and classic, that we scarcely think of him as a Norwegian. The Oriental songs of Edward King are healthy and virile, and add variety to our recent product. Sill, Benton, Dr. Powers, Weir Mitchell, Professor Beers, Riordan, S. H. Thayer, W. S. Shurtleff, McKay, Abbey, Duffield, Blood, Proudfit, Saltus, Tilton, the late Robert Weeks, among our well-known writers of lyrical verse, represent widely different grades of motive and execution. Of the late Henry Work, that instinctive composer of songs (and their music) for the people, I have spoken elsewhere. Robert Grant has a frolic talent for satire, and something like that masterhood of current styles for which we still read Frere and Aytoun. Houghton's "St. Olaf's Kirk" is a good romantic poem, in the Tennysonian manner, finished with much care. Maurice Thompson's " Songs of Fair Weather" are well named; in breezy, out-of-door feeling he is a kinsman of Walter Mitchell, who wrote "Tacking Ship off Shore." It is chiefly through a close observation of nature that the influence of the elder poets, especially of Emerson, is prolonged by the new choir. "Monte Rosa," Nichols's long descriptive poem, is a not unworthy counterpart to "The Brook" – for which the late Dr. Wright is held in recollection. The transcendental instinct that follows upon nature's elusive and spiritual trails, survives in the thoughtful lines of her born communicant, John Albee, whose individuality is none the less apparent. Cheney's lyrics of nature and emotion have kindred yet distinct traits. McKnight's volume of sonnets on "Life and Faith" is fraught with poetic meditation. Montgomery and "Paul Hermes," the former avowedly, are inspired by the marvels of the new learning, and find no surer tonic for the imagination than modern scientific discovery. Emerson's song was a verification of Wordsworth's faith in the identity of philosopher and poet. Our future imagery will shape itself unconsciously, without much need of a poet's willful effort, and will be his adjunct and vehicle rather than the object of his aim. Montgomery's command of rhythm is finely evident, and the young author of "Hermes" seems to have good service within his power.

Boyle O'Reilly attests his Irish blood by the verve and readiness of his ballads. He may be more justly claimed as an American than the late Dr. Joyce, whose "Deirdre" fulfilled the promise of a bard who in youth wrote the "Ballads of Irish Chivalry." Among other and recent Celtic poets of this greater [790] Ireland, besides Maurice Egan, a sweet and true poet, have been the gallant O'Brien and Halpine, John Savage, and Father Ryan – whose emotional strains reach a larger audience than that which more studied verse is wont to gain.

A Scotch critic, whose resources as our literary historian are confined mostly to periods before the civil war, repeats an old fling at "the plague of American poetesses." This vieux garçon of letters, if acquainted with their work, might beseech us, like Benedick, not to flout at him for what he had said against them. Our daughters of song outnumber those in England, and some of them, like some of their brethren, have thin voices; but it is as just as true that much genuine poetry is composed by others, and that, while we have none whose notes equal those of at least one Englishwoman, in average merit they are not behind their fair rivals. Their lyrics, sonnets, ballads, are feminine and spontaneous, and often highly artistic. To be sure, our aspirants of either sex are attempting few works of invention; where all are sonneteering, it is not strange that women should hold their own. Yet their advance in discipline and range is apparent also in novels and other prose-work; they know more than of old, their thought is deeper, their feeling more healthy. The morale of their verse is always elevating; in other respects it fluently adapts itself to the conventions of the day.

Among these sweet-voiced singers, to some of whom I have alluded heretofore, Miss Larcom, with her orchard notes, well retains her popularity. Mrs. Cooke and Mrs. Stoddard are too seldom heard, each so original, so true in verse and prose to characteristic types. The former's poetry always has been admired for motive and execution; Mrs. Stoddard's, though less in amount, has the condensed power and vivid coloring that render it difficult to mistake the source of anything from her hand. The work of Mrs. Jackson is more smoothly finished, though perhaps it sings the less for its union of intellectuality with a subtle feeling whose intenseness is realized only by degrees. Mrs. Spofford's various lyrics are rich in cadence; she has a fine choice of measures, and always interests us both with her theme and its treatment. Her passion is genuine, and unusual resources of diction, color, effect, are brought to play in her poems. Mrs. Fields, the most objective of these writers, veils her personality, except as it becomes revealed by a free rhythmical method, and an obvious inclination toward the classical and antique. The zest, the enchanting glamour, of Northern coast-life are known to Celia Thaxter, our daughter of the isles. Her sprayey stanzas give us the dip of the sea-bird's wing, the foam and tangle of ocean, soulful interpretations of clambering sunrise mists and evening's fiery cloud above the main. Mrs. Allen, Mrs. Mapes Dodge, Mrs. Moulton, Nora Perry, Miss Coolbrith and Miss Shinn of California, are natural singers, in their several degrees. The stanzas of Mrs. Moulton and Mrs. Dodge are marked by charming fancy, and always tender and sweet. Miss Perry is an instinctive melodist, with a sure ear for the telling, original refrains that heighten the effect of such lyrics as "Cressid" and "Riding Down."

Our best-known Western poetess, Mrs. Piatt, though often obscure, has traits resembling those of Miss Rossetti, – a vivid consciousness of the mystery of life and death, a conjuring indirectness of style, and a gift, which she shares with Mrs. Dodge, of seeing into the hearts of children. She will not, however, be rightly measured by one who reads the wrong volume of her poems, or the wrong poem. Miss Phelps's deeply religious nature, warring with its own doubts, leads her on adventurous paths. That she is essentially a poet was evident from her prose, long before she made a collection of verse. She is the modern vine from a Puritan stock, subject to inherited tendencies, but yielding blossoms of feminine grace and aspiration. The names of the late Mrs. Hudson, of Mrs. Bradley, Marian Douglas, Mrs. Sangster, Miss Bushnell, Miss Woolsey, Mrs. Searing, Miss Bates, Mrs. Smith, Miss Bloede, Miss de Vere, Ella Dietz, Mrs. Rollins, Miss Proctor, Miss Osgood, and Miss Cone, may be cited in a list of those whose notes are pleasantly familiar. Miss Lazarus, to whose translations of Heine I have referred elsewhere, is on her own ground in rendering the Hebrew poets of old Spain; her minor pieces are written with a firm hand, and her tragedy, "The Dance of Death," is a work of much power. "Owen Innsley" has gained the favor of those who care for poetry of an artistic type, and Miss Thomas, that delightful confidante, yet betrayer, of the secrets of the nymphs and muses, has given us a volume of great beauty. The "Songs and Lyrics" of Miss Hutchinson, and even more her later pieces, striking for their melody, imagination, and unique sense of design, assure us that if she allots to poetry the devotion that has enriched her work in other fields, its very greenest wreath is at her command. There are still younger voices that give us fresh music – like Miss Guiney's, or, like those of the Goodale sisters, artless ditties of the woods and fields, and from which maturer notes are not unlikely to be heard.

In the South, we have Mrs. Preston's works, of an ambitious cast and strengthened by dramatic purpose and expression. Like Mrs. [791] Webster in England, she may be called a pupil of Browning. Local color, and much suggestion of the far Southern atmosphere and sentiment, are found in the volumes of Mrs. Townsend, of Louisiana.

These poets mostly sing for expression's sake, and therefore without affectation. They often excel the sterner sex in perception of the finer details of life and nature. The critic would be a renegade who, after paying his tribute to feminine genius in England, should not recognize with satisfaction what has been achieved by his own countrywomen. They have their shortcomings, not the least of which in some of them is that even perfection which is in itself a fault; but a general advance is just as evident in their poetry as in the prose fiction for which they now are held in honor throughout the English-speaking world.

A phase of our verse, illustrating its present station, reflects the new London vogue, and has been mentioned in comparison with Dr. Holmes's lighter vein. I refer to the plenitude of metrical trifles, society-verse, belles choses in the French forms that are so taking. Various new-comers make their entrance accordingly; scarcely one but turns you off his rondeau or ballade, and very cleverly withal. Ditties written gracefully, like those of Sherman, Minturn Peck, etc., are more agreeable than the prentice-work of sentimentalists. A sprightly Mercutio is better company than your juvenile Harold or Werter. They serve very well, moreover, for the travesties and "satire harming not" of the boulevard press. Our young collegians, of whom Loring, who died in his adventurous youth, was the precursor, are apt at such devices. It is curious to receive the same kind of rhymes from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Cambridge, England, and Mr. Scollard's are just as well turned as Mr. Ropes's, and are not without signs of good omen. The line of advance for a poet, who is apt in this way, has been exemplified by the author of "Airs from Arcady." Bunner's verse, whether of the gayer kind, or rising to the merit of his more ideal lyrics and sonnets, is a hopeful inscription at the parting of the ways. It already commends itself to those who look for feeling under grace, and shows that he, also, can make his standing with the muse depend upon the constancy of his devotion.

Before discussing further the latest tendencies, let us see what is doing in those precincts to which we naturally turn for literature of a specific flavor. The South, once so ambitious, has been very barren of poetry during the last thirty years, either mindful of Poe's conviction that there was no equal chance for her native writers, or feeling that they were too remote from the world to keep up with its progressive changes. I think that standard literature, including poetry, is read with more interest in the South than here, and oratory there is still more than a tradition. But the South has been unfortunate in the loss of promising writers. One such was Timrod, whose handiwork was skillful and often imaginative and strong. Timrod's "Cotton Boll" was a forerunner of the method of a still finer poet than he, whose career was equally pathetic. The name of Sidney Lanier brings him clearly to recollection – as I saw him more than once in the study of our lamented Deukalion; the host so buoyant and sympathetic; the Southerner nervous and eager, with dark hair and silken beard, features delicately molded, pallid complexion, hands of the slender, white, artistic type. The final collection of his writings, with an adequate and feeling memoir by Dr. Ward, confirms me in an already expressed belief that Lanier's difficulties were explained by the very traits which made his genius unique. His musical faculty was compulsive; it inclined him to override Lessing's law of the distinctions of art, and to essay in language feats that only the gamut can render possible. For all this, one now sees clearly that he was a poet, and bent upon no middle flight. He magnified his office, and took a prophetic view of its restored supremacy. The juvenile pieces here first brought together, although his biographer apologizes for them, have little in common with ordinary verse of the time. "Nirvâna," "Resurrection," and the songs for "The Jacquerie," are such as herald a new voice; and later efforts of the kind also show his gift unadulterated by meditations on rhythmical structure. Among these are the "Song of the Chattahoochee," almost as haunting as "Ulalume," – "The Revenge of Hamish," than which there are few stronger ballads, – "The Mocking Bird," "Tampa Robins," "The Stirrup-Cup," "The Bee," and "The Ship of Earth." But turn to the productions which he deemed far more significant, in view of their composition upon a new and symphonic method. In time he doubtless might have wrought out something to which these would seem but preliminary experiments. The Centennial cantata was written to be sung, and when rendered accordingly no longer appeared grotesque. We may surmise that the adaptation not of melody alone, but also of harmony and counterpoint, to the uses of the poet, was Lanier's ultimate design. Nor is it safe to gainsay the belief that he would have accomplished this more nearly, but for his early death and the hindrances of sickness and embarrassment that long preceded it. Compositions suggestive [792] and reverberant as "Sunrise" and "The Marshes of Glynn" go far toward vindicating his method. Yet even in these there is a surplusage, and an occasional failure to make not only outlines but impressions decidedly clear. "The Symphony," "Corn," and other over-praised ventures on the same plan, seem to me nebulous, and often mere recitative. The danger of too curious speculation is suggested by the strained effect of several ambitious failures, contrasted with the beauty of his unstudied work. An old foe, didacticism, creeps in by stealth when work upon a theoretical system is attempted. Let critics deduce what laws they may; it is not for the poet deliberately to set about illustrating them. The formulas devised by Poe and others often are found to suit, designedly or not, their inventor's personal capabilities. Lanier's movement to enlarge the scope of verse was directly in the line of his own endowment; he has left hints for successors who may avoid his chief mistake – that of wandering along in improvisation like some facile, dreamy master of the key-board. That remarkable piece of analysis, "The Science of English Verse," serves little purpose except, like Coleridge's metaphysics, to give us further respect for its author's intellectual powers.

Hayne's vitality, courage, and native lyrical impulse have kept him in voice, and his people regard him with a tenderness which, if a commensurate largesse were added, should make him feel less solitary among his pines. Various Southern poets, – Randall, Burns Wilson, Boner, and others, open vistas of the life of their region. Townsend's ballads, in their sturdy, careless way, speak for the poetic side of a peculiarly American writer, true to memories of a boyhood on "the Eastern shore." His tales, and the strongly dramatic fiction of Cable, Miss Murfree, Page, Johnston, etc., more clearly betoken the revived imagination of a glowing clime. The great heart of the generous and lonely South, too long restrained, – of the South once so prodigal of romance, eloquence, gallant aspiration, – once more has found expression. It enables us to know it, having begun at last to comprehend its true self.

That the public is always on the alert for what is both good and novel was illustrated by Bret Harte's leap into favor with his portraitures of a new and scenic world. His prose idyls of the camp and coast, even more than his ballads, were the vouchers of a poet; familiar as the verse at once became, it is far less creative than the stories. The serious portion of it, excepting a few dialect pieces, – "Jim," "In the Tunnel," etc., – is much like the verse of Longfellow, Whittier, and Taylor; the humorous poems, though never wanting in some touch of nature, are apt to be what we do not recognize as American. But of either class it may be said that it is, like the rhyming of his master, Thackeray, the overflow of a rare genius, whose work must be counted among the treasures of the language. Mr. Harte may be termed the founder, and thus far has been the most brilliant exemplar, of our transcontinental school. Joaquin Miller is, first of all, a poet, if one may judge from the relative merits of his verse and prose, – the latter of which does not show his spirit and invention at their best. The "Songs of the Sierras," as a first book, was no ordinary production. Its metrical romances, notwithstanding obvious crudities and affectations, gave a pleasurable thrill to the reader. Here was something like the Byronic imagination, set aglow by the freedom and splendor of the Western ranges, or by turns creating with at least a sensuous vraisemblance an ideal of the tropics which so many Northern minstrels have dreamed of and sung. Miller still has years before him, and often lyrics from his pen suggest that, if he would add a reasonable modicum of purpose to his sense of the beautiful, the world would profit by the result. Among other poets of the Pacific Slope, Warren Stoddard and Phelps seem more indifferent to local flavor, and refine their work in the usual manner of the Eastern school.

Surveying the broad central region of tilth and traffic between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Range, – the most fertile land on earth, and tenanted by a people whose average culture exceeds that of any race numerically equal, – we find it sensitive to music and art, but not yet fruitful of that poesy which, as Sidney declared, alone can outvie nature, and "make the too-much-loved earth more lovely." The Ohio valley lost two poets, – one in battle, the other after he had lived to write our most effective ballad of the war, – Lytle and Forceythe Willson, each of whom had unquestionable lyrical talent. John Piatt, the laureate of prairie and homestead life, has won a just reputation for his reflective and idyllic verse. He has a Wordsworthian sympathy with nature, and knowledge of its forms, and a sincere purpose. He transmits with much simplicity the air and bloom of the prairie, the fire-light in the settler's home, and the human endeavor of the great inland States he knows so well. Will Carleton struck a natural vein by instinct, in his farm-ballads, and has been rewarded for the tenacity with which he has pursued it. Others, like Venable and Harney, find their way to the households of a rural constituency; they have the merit of presenting that to which they are wonted – they know whereof they affirm.

[793] John Hay, whose writings are at once fine and strong, has been so engrossed by a rare experience of "cities, .... councils, governments," as scarcely to have done full justice to his brilliant gifts. With his taste, mental vigor and mastery of style, he may well be taken to task for neglecting a faculty exceptionally his own. The uncompromising dialect-pieces, which made a hit as easily as they were thrown off, are the mere excess of his pathos and humor. Such poetry as the blankverse impromptu on Liberty shows the higher worth of a man who should rise above indifference, and the hindrance of his mood, and in these spiritless times take up the lyre again, nor fitfully touch the strings.

In places remote from the literary market, we often discover signs of hopeful energy. The best models are read by isolated poets, whose seclusion the capricious standards of the town oracles fail to influence. Mr. Snider's "Delphic Days," for example, a charming idyl in the elegiac distich, was printed in St. Louis, through a singular coincidence, at the same date with Munby's "Dorothy" in England, – the two being the only prolonged specimens of this measure, if I mistake not, which our language affords. "Agamemnon's Daughter," by the same hand, is another contrast to the narrow bounds of every-day song. Leighton's sterling dramas, "The Sons of Godwin" and "At the Court of King Edwin," are creditable to our literature. Their romantic themes, by inheritance and the liberties of art, plainly are within the usufruct of an American poet. A drama of like cast, and successfully adapted to the stage, is "Pendragon," the work of an Illinoisian, William Young.

The department of translation, which (as well as that of devotional verse) has been noted in a former article, is at present somewhat neglected, though there are minor contributions by Lea, Peterson, Mrs. Conant, and others. Perhaps the most suggestive of the late efforts in this field are Miss Preston's charming translations from the Provençal and her version of the Georgics. Howland's Æneid is rude and elegant by turns, but of interest to those who believe with me that the English accentuate hexameter is on the whole our best instrument for literal and lineal rendering of the classical measure. The translation of Virgil's complete works, by Wilstach, is more elaborate. It is written in flexible blank-verse, and enriched with copious and scholarly notes and a review of former English versions. This student is now translating "The Divine Comedy," upon a metrical system hitherto unessayed.

Few dialects of our tongue except those of Scotland, Lancashire and Dorset, have been more cleverly handled for metrical effect than those peculiar to the United States. The Atlantic varieties have been used to good purpose, as we have seen, from the time of Fessenden's "Country Lovers" to that wherein are recorded the exploits of Hans Breitmann. Harte's and Hay's successes in a corresponding line increased the popular regard for their better work. Riley's Hoosier lyrics often are more terse and pointed than the numerous ballads of Carleton. Some of the most attractive and piquant of American folk-songs are in the dialect of our African population, North and South. Stephen Foster, the pioneer of "minstrel" song-writers, whose touching or humorous ditties were wedded to genuine melody, deserves remembrance. A group, with the author of "Uncle Remus" included, has diligently cultivated the art of writing plantation-verse. Mrs. Preston, Sidney and Clifford Lanier, the late Mrs. McDowell and Irwin Russell, Miss McLean, Macon, and many others, have contributed to this quaint anthology, which – at its extremes of humor, as in "Reb'rend Quacko Strong," or of melody and devotional pathos, as in "De Sheepfol'" – certainly is an original outgrowth of the cis-Atlantic muse.

 

III.

 

Such is a fairly representative list of those to whom our recent poetry owes its being. A protest against so free a range of selection may be entered by some, who fail to consider that for each name here found a score of others could be cited. Doubtless many of the latter have equal claims to notice, this summary having been made with no design of completeness, but as a sufficient basis for remarks on the weakness, quite as much as on the strength, of our present movement, and on the chances of the near future.

At the outset it can be honestly asserted, in behalf of the writers named, that as a whole they do not show less favorably than the corresponding modern choir of Great Britain. It would be difficult to assort them in groups such as we have observed abroad: – apart from local differences of style they bear an almost monotonous relationship to one another. This common likeness, however, is an illusive something which renders their productions American. If their verse presents few absolutely novel types, it is more charged with national sentiment than that of the late English poets. It pays little regard to pseudo-classicism, middle-age restorations, and to themes borrowed from other lands and languages. It is sincere and impulsive, and has a New World mode of looking at things and considering them. Finally, the work of the most expert among these writers, both sexes included, is often as inter[794]esting for technical merit as that of their distant compeers, although it may be that we have fewer in number who reach a faultless standard.

Granting or claiming thus much, a reviewer must put the question directly to his conscience – How does the most of this recent verse impress you? Upon the foregoing summary, what can one honestly declare of its force and significance? Its achievements have been noted; the side on which it is trivial or deficient must be as plainly shown, lest the narrator be forced hereafter to regret that he withheld his convictions. Nor is it easy to gloss over the dynamic insufficiency of our present metrical literature. The belief scarcely can be resisted that there is, if not a decadence, at least a poetic interregnum, as compared with the past and measuring our advance in sundry fields of activity. As I have said, the first influence is ended; there is a pause before the start and triumph of another. This may be frankly acknowledged; in fact, the situation is merely correlative with that observed, ten years ago, in our look across the sea. It is none the less one on which neither our poets nor their countrymen have much reason to plume themselves. If our poetry, since the time of Longfellow, has not kept pace with our general movement, this of itself implies an interregnum. I suspect that it is of less relative importance than if it had held the point already gained. Its new leaders, at all events, are not invested with the authority of those to whom these essays chiefly have been devoted. Their volumes scarcely receive the welcome – nor have they the bearing and import as an indispensable part of literature – that appertained to the "Poems of the Seaside and Fireside," "Evangeline," the "Voices of Freedom," "Snow-Bound," "The Biglow Papers," "Under the Willows," "Poems of the Orient," and the "Poems" of the Concord sage. To the careful eye they seem less suggestive of changes and results than were "The Raven nd other Poems," "Songs of Summer," and "Leaves of Grass." They do not, like some of the books here named, supply either lay or professional classes with the most essential portion of their reading. We see that this is partly due to conditions which it is just as well should obtain for a season, and which the poets are not able to avert. Before recurring to this difficulty, let us see how far they are their own bafflers and justly to be held responsible.

Some of them have given such evidence of the faculty divine as to be sure of enrolment in the Parnassian registry. Others have composed charming bits of verse, – pledges, as yet unfulfilled, of something larger and more creative. We do not ask for masterpieces, but how few the recent poems which approach in breadth and interest those of the veteran school! Do our poets really trust their calling, in defiance of temporal conditions, however discouraging? Do they not share in a measure the sentiment which regards ideality as an amiable weakness, the relic of a Quixotic period, and thus feel half-ashamed of their birthright? Few of them, at the best, cultivate the latter seriously, as their avowed means of expression; and of these few the majority perhaps are women. There are some who will be ungracious enough to say that a time when religion and poesy are sustained by the graceful, devoted, but distinctly minor services of women, is not one of supremacy for either the pulpit or the lyre. Those who demur to this, and who refer to the authors of the "Sonnets from the Portuguese" and "Romola," will be told that Mrs. Browning and George Eliot were forerunners, not exemplars, of a golden era when it shall be no longer true.

Even if our poets are doing the best within their power, their misconception of relative values is much the same as that recently noted of the minor English school. To our predecessors the spirit of a work was all in all; the form was often marred by careless execution. It took years of Keats, Tennyson, and the study of their masters, to rectify this, and then the drift set quite too far in an opposite direction; until at last a Neo-Romantic group wreaked its thoughts upon details of sound and color, placed decoration above construction, the form of verse above its motive, – thus missing the impulsive cadence, the more ethereal structure, to which the evasive spirit of poetry mysteriously inclines. Heine's assertion, that a poet must have natural tones in his lyrics and characters in his narrative or dramatic efforts, was sustained by the impotency of our own verse-makers before the time of Whittier and Longfellow. With them and their comrades American poetry took on at least the merit of being natural, and gained a foothold; but this merit is less apparent in our later verse, whose forms, though neatly mastered, breed a temper as artificial as their own. In brief, our lyrics of the past had the virtue of simplicity, but were less noteworthy for imagination; those which have succeeded them fail equally in poetry's highest attribute, and their interest is due less to simplicity than to art – the art which, being a substitute for imaginative vitality, runs into artifices and mere technique. Over-refinement, through a strict interpretation of that excellent canon, "Art for Art's sake," is a vice of the period. Art is a language, and a seemingly careless workman may be a truer artist than his painstaking fellow. When one has little to say, his technics are a kind of pedantry, while [795] a faulty poem or picture may be great because a great thought or character is in it. The best workman is he who adapts means to the noblest end, and we tire of those who, with no message to deliver, elaborate their style. The oldest races have discovered that no labor is artistic, unless strictly to the purpose; a few sure lines, and the result may be attained. We see, however, that technical experts, though devoid of imagination, often have a sudden following among new men. This is because their skill is addressed to the profession rather than to the public, and also because the young recognize the dexterity which they must acquire, while the creative genius of true masters as yet escapes them. Hence the instant vogue of novel forms, requiring adroitness for their perfection, and so elegant as to conciliate even those they do not capture. When real additions to our English method, they will bear use and reproduction. But, after a few men of exquisite talents have employed them to advantage, the public grows weary of modes so peculiar that we are compelled to dwell upon the form and not the thought.

Thus we have in view, if not precisely a mob of gentlemen who write with ease, an increased number of those writing with the profusion of ease and the pain of curious labor, and often at a loss of individual distinction. Lyrics, sonnets, canzonets, are produced on every hand. The average is so good that, despite the beauty of an occasional piece, few can be said to stand out boldly from the rest. Considering the accumulated wealth of English poetry, it is questionable whether more sonnets, etc., are a real addition to it, and if a place worth having can be earned by polishing the countless facets of gems dependent on the fanciful analysis of love and other emotions. Again, some of our poets, like certain painters, avoid continued effort, and satisfy themselves with sketch-work – a facile way of keeping up expectation. Having mastered one's vocation, why not practice it with a determined hand? Too much assurance was the fault of our earlier period, but the ambition that went with it stimulated a few to real achievements. It is hard to account for our easy modern contentment. In older countries the mines have been so well worked that there is an excuse for resorting to the "tailings," but here there should be the broadest encouragement for prospectors. No doubt our reaction from the old-fashioned conceit has its effect on able men, and makes them cleave to ground of which they have no fear. Too much credit is awarded now to the knowledge of one's limitations. A poet, most of all, should not believe in limitations; by ignoring them, a few will reach the heights. But our aspirants seem to feel that nothing better can be done than to amuse readers who consider poetry a diversion, and they either fear to put their fate to the touch "to gain or lose it all," or utterly fail to realize the chance at this moment existing. And so, if poetry has lost its hold, it is to this extent because no brilliant leader compels attention to it, devoting himself to the hazard of arduous and bravely ventured song.

The time, then, is not one of transition, save in the sense that all periods are transitional. It is intercalary, yet as well defined as the middle ring of Saturn, gaining its light and substance from a multitude of little quantities, – notable, in fact, for the profusion and excellence of its minor verse. And here it must be bome in mind that not a few of our idealists are directing their main efforts to prose composition. For example, one of the finest elegiac poems of recent years, "The North Shore Watch," is privately printed by Mr. Woodberry, who thus far has permitted the ordinary reader to know him only as a biographer and critical essayist. Among the chief Victorian writers, we found but two or three that might be classified as novelist-poets. Hood was almost the only journalist-poet of note, a true vocalist, jaded by hackwork. Nowadays, the conditions are reversed, the rhythmic art is more frequently an avocation. Among our novelists, however, Aldrich always seems the poet, – an author with whom song has the precedence. His tales are the prose of a poetic artist and owe to this fact their airy charm. Howells furnishes an instance of the apt recognition of existing tendencies. The wisdom he has displayed "in his generation" goes far to justify the diversion we are observing. His early verse, issued conjointly with that of his friend Piatt, bore unusual marks of promise, nor has he quite broken with the muse or ceased to hold her image in his heart. Otherwise his bent, like Mr. James's, was that of a critic, scholar, analyst; and the determined evolution of a masterly novel-writer, from a youth of the qualifications involved, might serve as a text for homilies on the power of the human will. His pen being his fortune, his chosen profession that of a man of letters, he manfully trained himself to the production of literature that he foresaw would be welcome and remunerative; this, in a series of works, – at first descriptive, then inventive, – constantly advancing in perception, in management of incident and character, until he now stands where we find him, in the front rank of those who impress observers with a sense of our literary progress. His poetic gift serves him well in translation, dramatic adaptation, and with respect to the feeling and artistic effect [796] of his tenderest episodes. Waiving discussion of Mr. Howells's method as a novelist, who can question that he has judged wisely, and has done far better for the public than if he had pursued the art that was his early choice?

By such examples more light is cast upon the reduced importance of our song-makers, and ground discovered for a belief that this is transitory and that a fresh departure will anon be made. Fancy and imagination are still rife, but their energy finds vent in new directions. Accomplished craftsmen, some of whom thirty years ago might have been numbered among the poets, now supply the public with its imaginative rations in the guise of prose fiction and romance. Through instinct or judgment, they have occupied the gap in our literature. The time has been opportune; famous innings were made by the elder minstrels; our school of fiction had been represented only by a few rare and exceptional names. So keen has been the new impulse, that the young neophyte of to-day, instead of shaping his vague conceptions into rhythm and imitating the poets within his knowledge, longs to emulate the foremost novelists. In the flush of our latest conquest, the rank and file naturally overrate the relative worth of prose fiction, which, at its best, – as will appear on a brief consideration of the world's literary master-pieces, – is not a more vital and enduring creation than the poet's song. Yet the movement has resulted in a decided gain to the prestige of our national authorship. With a staff of novelists and romancers well equipped in both invention and style, – Howells, Aldrich, Julian Hawthorne, Eggleston, Cable, James, Harte, Crawford, Bishop, Lathrop, Mrs. Stoddard, Miss Jewett, Miss Woolson, Mrs. Jackson, Miss Murfree, Miss Howard, Mrs. Foote, and others who also are adequate to cope with the transatlantic experts, – in view of the results already obtained from the field in which these popular authors are so active, none can assume that the diversion of creative energy thus exemplified has not brought with it a measurable compensation.

 

IV.

 

Both exterior and subjective conditions having thus determined the present office of the imagination, the breathing-spell of poetry is not without promise of a stronger utterance than ever when its voice shall be renewed. We shall have more poets yet, and some of those who have been named will contribute, I doubt not, to the hastening of that renewal. They can derive from our fiction itself a shrewd lesson for their guidance. Their predecessors fully met the need for idyllic verse, relating to home, patriotism, religion, and the workaday life of an orderly people. They did not scrutinize, and vividly present, the coils of individual being. Our people have outgrown their juvenescence, tested their manhood, and now demand a lustier regimen. They crave the sensations of mature and cosmopolitan experience, and are bent upon what we are told is the proper study of mankind. The rise of our novelists was the answer to this craving; they depict Life as it is, though rarely as yet in its intenser phases. Those who, besides meeting Mr. James's requirement that "the mind of the producer shall be displayed," do reflect life in something more than a commonplace aspect, are the chroniclers, chiefly, of provincial episodes, confined to sections so narrow that it is scarcely needful to linger in them throughout the narrative of a sustained work. Their welcome is partly due to the fact that their studies are bolder and more dramatic than those of the restrained Eastern school. The muster-roll of the latter has increased somewhat more rapidly than its market. We have seen poetry out of demand; the same thing begins to be observed of prosefiction. Renewed attention is given to history, memoirs, travels; but many signs declare that there never was a time when a live and glowing poet would have a better chance than now. In the multitude of ambitious novelists, distinction is less easily gained. Only the poet can excite the subtlest thrills, the most abiding sensations. The promise of his return lies in the truth that our spiritual nature does abhor a vacuum, – the need insures the supply. Though our public has resorted to prose literature for its wants, it now and then still reads a poem with avidity. The sudden popularity of Arnold's "Light of Asia " – the work of a scholar and enthusiast rather than of a strongly original hand – was of real significance. That production gave a sensuous and legendary idealization of the religious feeling of an impressible body of readers; it appealed to an existing sentiment; it focalized the rays in which the faiths of the East and the West are blending throughout the modern world. In short, it was most timely, and it was both attractive and dimensional. If, then, the people care little for current poetry, is it not because that poetry cares little for the people and fails to assume its vantage-ground? Busying itself with intricacies of form and sound and imagery, it scarcely deigns to reach the general heart. Your skill is admirable, say the people, and of interest to your own guild, but we ask that it shall be used to some purpose. Convey to us the intellect and passion wherewith poets are thought to be endowed, the gloom and glory of human life, the national aspiration, the pride of the past and vision of the future.

[797] Rhythmical productions will be acceptable that compare with those of the past, as vigorous figure-paintings with the canvases of our elder artists. Even in landscape we have reached the stage where human feeling, and that American, pervades the most favored work. Nor will it be enough to depict life in aggregated and general types. Whitman has achieved this, conveying a national spirit in his symphonic echoes of the murmuring towns and forests and ocean-waves. He gives us life and movement, but the specific character, the personal movement, seldom animate his pages. Individuals, men and women, various and real, must be set before us in being and action, – above all, in that mutual play upon one another's destinies which results from what we term the dramatic purport of life. Thus rising above mere introspection and analysis, poetry must be not so much a criticism, as the objective portrayal and illumination, of life itself, – and that not only along the uneventful, quiescent flow of rural existence, but upon the tides of circumstance where men are striving for intense sensations and continuous development.

In other words, the time has come for poetry, in any form, that shall be essentially dramatic. This kind, has rounded each recurring cycle in other literatures than our own. It is a symptom of maturity, and we, in our turn, approach the age when life attains fire and color and is full of experiences that give tone to art. I think that our future efforts will result in dramatic verse, and even in actual dramas for both the closet and the stage. I am aware that this belief has been entertained before, and prematurely; it was as strong in the time of Tyler and Dunlap and Payne, nor would our own experiments be much more significant than theirs, were it not for the recent and encouraging efforts of our younger authors, several of whom are among the poets already named. Playwrights still feel compelled to offer rudimentary work to their audiences. The primary and denominative element of the actor's art, that of action, with every aid of scenic effect, just now is all in all. The text is but an adjunct to the pantomime. Realism, also, is as conspicuous in our theaters as in the latest French and English novels. It was desirable to get beyond stale and absurd conventionality, yet certain conventions are indispensable to art; there is nothing ideal in a slavish, mechanical reproduction of speech and manners. Unduly favored as the text once may have been, we now err as plainly in the opposite way. A poet turns playwright, and there begins the inevitable conflict with the stage itself. He yields to the conviction of actor and manager that the text will never regain the critical interest of audiences. I make bold to think otherwise; to hold that belief is to overlook the recorded equipoise of text and action at every epoch when the theater has been preëminent. The sentiment of the hour may be against the production of what are termed literary plays; yet nothing, after all, is surer to draw than some familiar tragedy or comedy of the great dramatic poets. In Italy, France, Germany, it is the same. The people want amusement, and in all times they prefer the best offered; when there were none but poetic dramas, they sustained them, and intelligently traversed the rendering of dialogue and phrase. On the other hand, wretched mounting and acting will make the finest text wearisome. The whole dispute turns largely upon circumstance and fashion. Notwithstanding Tennyson's undramatic cast of genius, he has succeeded, – but only, as was predicted long ago, after successive trials and by a tour de force, – in producing an excellent drama. "Becket," with respect to action, plot, and language, is greatly superior to many plays of the Knowles and Talfourd period, which still hold the stage; and yet the public, and various theatrical critics, will have none of it. The time has been simply unpropitious. Boker's "Francesca da Rimini" waited twenty-five years for an actor and a manager fully to utilize its possibilities.

We see that for the development of an ideal drama the public taste and sentiment must rise accordingly. The stage reflects these; but it also can anticipate and help to form them, through works of genius which the people in the end will appreciate. The ambitious playwright, on his part, must realize that his faculty is the greater when adaptable and inventive. Writer, actor, theater and public, must unite to give effect to any drama. Brander Matthews says that, "for a poetic play to have a success, it must be the work of one who is both poet and playwright; who is, in fact, playwright first and poet after," – and cites the examples of Molière and Shakspere and Hugo, and of lesser men. Playwrights not familiar with the stage from youth have succeeded only after failures. Our dramatists are likely to spring from those who, if not used to theatrical "business" and people, are thoroughly acquainted with town life. We know the retardant effect of society upon artists of exalted sensibility. Liszt's rival declares that social distractions have prevented the Abbé from being a great composer; that Bach's seclusion and Beethoven's deafness protected them from outside voices and made them hear the voice of God within. Yet the dramatist, whose theme is human action, must have observed that action under the excitements, and among the contrasted types of [798] civic life. The increase of our cities itself betokens a change from idyllic to dramatic methods in literary art.

But I have allowed my faith in the need of such a change to lead me into surmises concerning the rise of the stage-drama in America. The latter certainly would give a rapid impulse to the former. As it is, a young playwright like Mr. Carleton finds it prudent to adapt his labors to the immediate requirements of the stage, after testing his literary faculty by the composition of a metrical drama, "Memnon," a work indebted to Elizabethan models in its rhetoric and emblazonry, and not devoid of fine diction and poetic glow. Among the numerous plays offered to the managers, there probably are some of an elevated class that would be available under conditions which I think will not be long delayed. Meanwhile, under existing conditions, our few playwrights who combine tact with refinement, – and Bronson Howard should have the credit due to a pioneer who still works among the foremost, – probably have done the best that could be done, with a sense of what is now practicable, and a hopeful willingness to prepare the way for their successors, poetic or otherwise, in the early future. Time is all that is needed to give us the heroic temper and coadequate themes. Of the two, tradition is less essential to romance and the drama than a favoring atmosphere. The wreath must be held out by a public that delights in the Pythian games, and won by contestants worthy to receive it.

 

V.

 

There are questions that come home to one who would aid in speeding the return of "the Muse, disgusted at" the "age and clime." Can I, he asks, be reckoned with the promoters of her new reign? Yes, it will be answered, if your effort is in earnest and if you are in truth a poet. To doubt of this is almost the doubt's own confirmation. That writer to whom rhythmic phrases come as the natural utterance of his extremest hope, regret, devotion, is a poet of some degree. At the rarest crises he finds that, without and even beyond his will, life and death, and all things dear and sacred, are made auxiliary to the compulsive purpose of his art; just as in the passion for science, as if to verify the terrible irony of Balzac and Wordsworth, the alchemist will analyze his wife's tears, the Linnæan will botanize even upon his mother's grave:

"Alas, and hast thou then so soon forgot
The bond that with thy gift of song did go –
Severe as fate, fixed and unchangeable?
Dost thou not know this is the poet's lot!"

If, when his brain is in working humor, its chambers filled with imaged pageantry, the same form of utterance becomes his tricksy servant, then he is a poet indeed. But if he has a dexterous metrical faculty, and hunts for theme and motive, – or if his verse does not say what otherwise cannot be said at all, – then he is a mere artisan in words, and less than those whose thought and feeling are too deep for speech. The true poet is haunted by his gift, even in hours of drudgery and enforced prosaic life. He cannot escape it. After spells of dejection and weariness, when it has seemed to leave for ever, it always, always, returns again – perishable only with himself.

Again he will ask, What are my opportunities? What is the final appraisement of the time and situation? We have noted those latter-day conditions that vex the poet's mind. Yet art is the precious outcome of all conditions; there are none that may not be transmuted in its crucible. Science, whose iconoclasm had to be considered, first of all, in our study of the Victorian period, has forced us to adjust ourselves to its dispensation. A scientific conflict with tradition always has been in progress, though never so determinedly as now. But the poet and artist keep pace with it, even forestall it, so that each new wonder leads to greater things, and the so-called doom of art is a victorious transition:

"If my bark sink, 'tis to another sea."

As to material conditions, we find that the practical eagerness of the age, and of our own people before all, has so nearly satisfied its motive as to beget the intellectual and æsthetic needs to which beauty is the purveyor. As heretofore in Venice and other commonwealths, first nationality, then riches, then the rise of poetry and the arts. – After materialism and the scientific stress, the demands of journalism have been the chief counter-sway to poetic activity. But our journals are now the adjuvants of imaginative effort in prose and verse; the best of them are conducted by writers who have the literary spirit, and who make room for ideal literature, even if it does not swell their lists so rapidly as that of another kind. The poet can get a hearing; our Chattertons need not starve in their garrets; there never was a better market for the wares of Apollo, – their tuneful venders need not hope for wealth, but if one cannot make his genius something more than its own exceeding great reward, it is because he mistakes the period or scorns to address himself fitly to his readers. Finally, criticism is at once more catholic and more discriminating than of old. Can it make a poet, or teach him his mission? [799] Hardly; but it can spur him to his best, and point out the heresies from which he must free himself or address the oracle in vain.

Such being our opportunities, we have seen that the personal requirements are coequal, and their summing-up may well be the conclusion of the whole matter. Warmth, action, genuine human interest, must vivify the minstrel's art; the world will receive him if he in truth comes into his own. Taste and adroitness can no longer win by novelty. Natural emotion is the soul of poetry, as melody is of music; the same faults are engendered by over-study of either art; there is a lack of sincerity, of irresistible impulse, in both the poet and the composer. The decorative vogue has reached its lowest grade – that of assumption for burlesque and persiflage; just as Pre-Raphaelitism, at first a reform in art, extended to poetry, to architecture, to wall-decoration, to stage-setting, finally to the dress of moonstruck blue-stockings and literary dandies. What has been gained in new design will survive. But henceforth the sense of beauty must have something "far more deeply interfused": the ideal, which, though not made with hands of artificers, is eternal on the earth as in the heavens, because it is inherent in the soul. There is also one prerequisite upon which stress was laid by Dr. Storrs, in his application to modern art of Goethe's reservation as to the worth of certain engravings; "Still, something is wanting in all these pictures – the Manly. . . The pictures lack a certain urgent power, etc." Culture, I have said, will make a poet draw ahead of his unstudious fellows, but the resolve bom of conviction is needed to sustain the advance. The lecturer rightly declared that only "courageous work will suit America, whose race is essentially courageous and stoical." Our key-note assuredly should be that of freshness and joy; the sadness of declining races, only, has the beauty of natural pathos. There is no cause for morbidly introspective verse, – no need, I hope, for dillettanteism, – in this brave country of ours for centuries to come.

I think, too, we may claim that there is no better ideal of manhood than the American ideal, derived from an aggregation of characteristic types. Our future verse should be more native than that of the past, in having a flavor more plainly distinct from the motherland. Not that our former contingent misrepresented the America of its time. Even Longfellow's work, with so much of imported theme and treatment, conveyed a sentiment that came, say what we will, from no foreign source. The reason that a decidedly autochthonous kind was not then proffered, unless by Whitman, was that a distinction between the conditions of England and America was not more strongly established. Since the war our novitiate has ended. We welcome home-productions; our servility to foreign judgment has lessened, and we apply with considerable self-poise our own standards of criticism to things abroad. We have outlived the greed of a childhood that depends on sustenance furnished by its elders, and are far indeed from the senile atrophy which also must borrow to recruit its wasting powers. Our debt to acute foreign critics is none the less memorable. They, in truth, were the first to counsel us that we should lean upon ourselves; to insist that we ought at least to escape Old World limitations, – the first to recognize so heartily anything purely American, even our sectional humor, as to bring about our discovery that it was not necessarily "a poor thing," although our "own."

It is agreed that sectional types, which thus have lent their raciness to various productions, are subsidiary to the formation of one that shall be national. A character formed of mingling components must undergo the phases of defective hybridity; our own is just beginning to assume a coherence that is the promise of a similar adjustment in art. As local types disappear there may be special losses, yet a general gain. The lifting of the Japanese embargo was harmful to the purity of the insular art, but added something to the arts of the world at large. Even now our English cousins, seeking for what they term Americanism in our literature, begin to find its flavor stealthily added to their own.

Nothing will strengthen more rapidly the native bias of our literature than its increase of dramatic tone. Speech, action, and passion will be derived from life as here seen, from factors near at hand and stuff" of which the writer himself is moulded. Our playwrights are now encouraged by a copyright royalty. All classes of literary workmen, however, still endure the disadvantage of a market drugged with stolen goods. Shameless as is our legal plundering of foreign authors, our blood is most stirred by the consequent injury to home literature, – by the wrongs, the poverty, the discouragement to which the foes of International Copyright subject our own writers. The nerve and vitality of the latter can have no stronger demonstration than by the progress which they make while loaded with an almost insufferable burden. When this shall at last be lifted, their forward movement may answer to the most sanguine conjecture. Of two things they already are assured: First, the perception, the inborn taste, of their countrymen stands in need of less tutorage than that of transatlantic Saxon races. Our people have blundered from isolation; confront them [800] with the models of older lands, and they quickly learn to choose the fit and beautiful, and the time is now reached when the finest models are widely attainable. Secondly, our inheritance is a language that is relatively the greatest treasure-house of the world's literature: at once the most laconic and the most copious of tongues, – the sturdiest in its foundations of emotion and utility, the most varied by appropriation of synonyms from all languages, new and old; the youngest and most occidental of the great modes of speech, steadily diffusing itself about the globe, with no possible supplanter or successor except itself at further stages of maturity; finally, elastic and copious most of all in the land which adds to it new idioms, of cisatlantic growth, or assimilated from the dialects of many races that here contribute their diction to its own. A language whose glory is that even corruptions serve to speed its growth, and whose fine achievement long has been to make the neologism, even the solecisms, of one generation the classicism of the next. This is the potent and sonorous instrument which our poet has at his command, and the genius of his country, like Ariel, bids him

          "–take
This slave of music, for my sake."

 


 

The twilight of the poets, succeeding to the brightness of their first diurnal course, is a favorable interval at which to review the careers of those whose work therewith is ended. Although at such a time public interest may set in other directions, I have adhered to a task so arduous, yet so fascinating to the critical and poetic student. When the luster of a still more auspicious day shall yield, in its turn, to the recurring dusk, a new chronicler will have the rangg of noble imaginations to consider, heightened in significance by comparison with the field of these prior excursions. But, if I have not wholly erred in respect to the lessons derivable from the past, he will not go far beyond them. The canons are not subject to change; he, in turn, will deduce the same elements appertaining to the chief of arts, and test his poets and their bequests by the same unswerving laws. And concerning the dawn which may soon break upon us unawares, as we make conjecture of the future of American song, it is difficult to keep the level of restraint – to avoid "rising on the wings of prophecy." Who can doubt that it will correspond to the future of the land itself, – of America now wholly free and interblending, with not one but a score of civic capitals, each an emulative center of taste and invention, a focus of energetic life, ceaseless in action, radiant with the glow of beauty and creative power?

 

 

 

 

Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Century Magazine.
Bd. 30, 1885, Nr. 5, September, S. 787-800.

Gezeichnet: Edmund C. Stedman.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).


The Century Magazine online
URL: http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/c/cent/index.html
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006057380
URL: https://www.unz.org/

 

 

Literatur

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. Stuttgart u.a. 2011, S. 1-14.

Cohen, Michael: E. C. Stedman and the Invention of Victorian Poetry. In: Victorian Poetry 43.2 (2005), S. 165-88.

Décaudin, Michel: Being Modern in 1885, or, Variations on "Modern," "Modernism," "Modernité". In: Modernism. Challenges and Perspectives. Hrsg. von Monique Chefdor u.a. Urbana u.a. 1986, S. 25-32.

Göske, Daniel: Poets and Great Audiences. Amerikanische Dichtung in Anthologien, 1745 - 1950. Frankfurt a.M. u.a. 2005 (= Mainzer Studien zur Amerikanistik, 49).

Höllerer, Walter (Hrsg.): Theorie der modernen Lyrik. Neu herausgegeben von Norbert Miller und Harald Hartung. 2 Bde. Darmstadt 2003.

Loeffelholz, Mary: Stedman, Whitman, and the Transatlantic Canonization of American Poetry. In: Whitman among the Bohemians. Hrsg. von Joanna Levin u.a. Iowa City, IA 2014, S. 213-230.

Newcomb, John T.: Would Poetry Disappear? American Verse and the Crisis of Modernity. Columbus, Ohio 2004.

Newcomb, John T.: How Did Poetry Survive? The Making of Modern American Verse. Urbana, Ill. u.a. 2012.

Renker, Elizabeth: The 'Twilight of the Poets' in the Era of American Realism, 1875-1900. In: The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Poetry. Hrsg. von Kerry Larson. Cambridge 2011, S. 135-153.

Renker, Elizabeth: The "Genteel Tradition" and Its Discontents. In: The Cambridge History of American Poetry. Hrsg. von Alfred Bendixen u.a. Cambridge 2015, S. 403-424.

Scholnick, Robert J.: Edmund Clarence Stedman. Boston 1977 (= Twayne's United States Authors Series, 286).

Scholnick, Robert J.: Art. Edmund Clarence Stedman. In: American Literary Critics and Scholars, 1850-1880. Hrsg. von John W. Rathbun u.a. Detroit, Mich. 1988, S. 218-229.

Scholnick, Robert J.: In Defense of Beauty. Stedman and the Recognition of Poe in America, 1880-1910. In: Poe and His Times. The Artist and His Milieu. Hrsg. von Benjamin F. Fisher. Baltimore 1990, S. 256-276.



Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Victorian Poets. Boston: James R. Osgood 1876.
URL: https://archive.org/details/cu31924013268697
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001370082

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Edgar Allan Poe. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin 1881.
URL: https://archive.org/details/edgarallanpoe00stedgoog
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009591571

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Poets of America. Boston u. New York: Houghton, Mifflin 1885.
URL: https://archive.org/details/poetsamerica02stedgoog
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011210468

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: The Twilight of the Poets. In: The Century Magazine. Bd. 30, 1885, Nr. 5, September, S. 787-800.

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: The Nature and Elements of Poetry. Boston u. New York: Houghton, Mifflin 1892.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001899938
URL: https://archive.org/details/natureelementsof00steduoft

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: An American Anthology, 1787-1900. Selections Illustrating the Editor's Critical Review of American Poetry in the Nineteenth Century. Boston u. New York: Houghton, Mifflin 1900.
URL: https://archive.org/details/anamericananthol00stedrich
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100406501

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Genius and Other Essays. New York: Moffat, Yard 1911.
URL: https://archive.org/details/geniusandothere00stedgoog
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006518627


Stedman, Laura / Gould, George M.: Life and Letters of Edmund Clarence Stedman. 2 Bde. New York: Moffat, Yard 1910.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000377085
Bd. 2, S. 613-654: Bibliography.

 

 

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