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AMERICAN QUARTERLY REVIEW.
ART. I.-POEMS BY MRS. FELICIA HEMANS. A new collection. Boston: 1828. Songs of the Affections, with other Poems. 12mo. Edinburgh: 1830. Scenes and Hymns of Life, with other Religious Poems. 12mo. Edinburgh; 1834. The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans. Complete. 8vo. Philadelphia: 1835.
Did we deem it necessary, at this time of day, to offer an apology for admiration of the great and gifted in song, we should refer ourselves at once to the tribute that has been paid to poetic genius from the earliest times to our own. The high rank held by poets, in almost every country, during the infancy of its civilization, or of its letters, has been retained, with those modifications, to be sure, which might be expected in the progress of society, so that we find it essentially unchanged and undisputed even among ourselves. The ancient superstition that invested the bard with a character of divinity, and his song with all the authority and sacredness of the oracles, was the natural result of the frequent exhibition of lofty and enthusiastic spirits, in powerful struggle with their strong conceptions, before a people comparatively simple and uncultivated. It is not astonishing that the flight of birds, the responses of the Sybil, or even the propitiatory thunders of Jove-the intonuit lævum-should be deemed less infallible tokens of a present inspiration, than the kindling strains of the poet, when he appealed, in glowing numbers, to the feelings or the patriotism of his auditory; or when he sang of deeds that touched their memories with an electric interest; or, more than all, when he bore them with him into the shadowy future, and there unveiled to his followers visions of glory and greatness, which by the contrivance of his wizard power, were transformed from the mere pageantry of imagination into splendid realities. It is matter familiar with our classic VOL. XXI. NO. 42. 33
associations, that bards, as well as conquerors, were followed, and courted, and crowned. It is not an easy thing to decide, whether Eschylus was less honoured than Miltiades; or whether he might not have borne additional renown from Marathon, while he was gazed at as the father of tragedy.
Indeed the triumphs of kings and consuls sink to the level of common spectacles beside the classical ovations that were awarded to successful poets. There was every thing intellectual in those early tributes to mental power returned from mental victory. There is an ever-during recollection that attaches itself to honours so won and so rendered. Considered as offerings to genius, they reflect glory alike on those who brought and those who received them. A dawn of moral light seems to be coincident with the morning of social life which such homage serves to indicate; and, though the tribute is purely mental, there comes with it a hope that the heart may awaken to truth, where there is such a stirring and pressing towards the shrine of mind. Certain it is that such exertions of powerful men, demanding such honours as they proceeded, were the first causes as well as the first proofs of improvement among the people from whom they stood distinguished: and it is to the poets of Greece and Italy, triumphing in laurel-wreath, or the plaudits of their countrymen, that we are to look, we had almost said, as the solitary men who first kindled that spark, which eventually caused an illumination of their age, and has continued to transmit its light to the world.
The influence of poetry, in the hands of the masters of antiquity, was carried to an extent that may seem almost incredible. They may be said to have formed and trained the virtues of those who heard them. They shaped the national sentiment, and moulded the opinions and wielded the sympathies of their listeners, to a degree that cannot be surpassed. They interwove public events with the drama. They excited an ambition to excel in wisdom and valour; and, by force of genius and skill, they generated among the aspiring and young the sentiments of glory that fell from the lips of their heroes. Euripides was the idol of his time. By promoting a more effectual union than had yet subsisted between moral philosophy and tragic representation, he became an object of praise and admiration with his contemporaries. His verses were on the lips of all who answered to the name of Greek. History relates, with an air of romance, that the appropriate introduction of some of his stanzas released the soldiers of Nicias from the slavery which they incurred in the expedition of that general to Syracuse; and, as if to carry the magic of his name beyond all rivalry, it has been pleasantly said, that, of old, the prisoner always found freedom by drafting his plea in the language of Euripides.
Surpassing, as these instances would seem almost to do, the fabled enchantment of Orpheus, we are not left to them, and like ancient sources, alone, for proof of the high distinction ever held by the poet and his art. The golden age of every country, since the revival of letters, has been signalized by the light that poetry has shed upon it, and by the honours rendered to the inspired men who may be regarded as its stars. Italy, Spain, France, England, as the new morning of mind dawned upon them, successively beheld their mighty geniuses springing upon their paths, with a power which they delighted to reverence, and a brilliancy that could not fail to captivate. The history of literature, in all these lands, proves, to satisfaction, the talent which this class of men possessed of infusing their own into the public sentiment, as well as of fixing the public eye on themselves it is enough, also, to convince us of the fact, that such men held important place on the scale of society, and that they are calculated to exert an influence on the growing character of their country.
But, while we perceive a singular power to have been sustained by the poets of high accomplishment in all ages, it is evident that, in modern times, the same power is either greatly modified, or holds a more quiet sway over the minds of the people. The principle of the power is the same. It is the power of an ardent, bold, creative nature, over spirits that cannot follow its march, but still bow to the dominion that has attended it. It is the power of a high-reaching, imaginative intellect over a passive one, yielded to the beautiful illusion that is thrown around it. It is the power of genius-penetrating to that subtle portion of the soul, which alone can claim sympathy, how remote soever it may be, with the master spirit that spells itbreathing upon it the breath of a new life, and calling it to the love of high deeds and splendid virtues, of which, before, it had but dull conception, or drowsy remembrance. Such is the power of poetry. Such is the gift of the poet: and to such power and such gifts has the world ever paid its admiration, where there have been poets to sing, or men to listen.
In the progress of things, the unity of this power has passed away. Its distinctiveness has been lost in the crowding interests of life; but its agency, though more secret and diffused, is still felt, with a vigour, indestructible as ever, and almost as wonderful, when we consider the vast sphere in which it is called to operate. In the simplicity of the early, and the comparative moral inaction of the middle ages, it was a necessary consequence of the state of the times, that the poet should hold a more discernible elevation, and that the exercise of his power should be more direct, and consequently more effectual, upon the mass of mankind. As society advanced, he also, as the depositary of
this power, lost his original superiority among men. They turned from him, to the sublime and uplifting things which he had eloquently revealed-no longer to dream over, but to study, and pant after, and pursue them; until, by a gradation, the most natural in the world, the poet descended to diffuse among his fellows those beautiful and kindly influences, that, in olden times, he had dispensed as favours from a superior to his followers. Then, it may be said, poetry was leagued with superstitious dread. Now, it goes hand and hand with the charities of life. It was then a thing to wonder and tremble at; heard in terrible distinctness, as a revelation, amid the forests and sacred groves of the gods. Now, it makes a part of the music of the world. It enters into our dwellings, and our hearts: it mingles with our social duties, and ennobles-purifies-endears our spirits and our memories. Then, the poet was honoured, as almost a deity, and his numbers listened to as the breathings of prophecy, or with the chastened delight of hearts bowed continually to threatening and commanding genius. Now, he is honoured, where he should be, as a man; and his works come abroad to animate us to our duties, or to cheer us in solitude; to charm us by their power, or to woo us by their beauty. Then, he was like a monarch on his throne, lording it over the kingdom of unawakened intellect. Now, he is but a gifted brother of the great family, bearing indeed the same brow of inspiration, and the same wand of genius; but he mingles with the busy throng, and, with his harp upon his shoulders, scatters his music to his fellows, as he passes onward in the common pilgrimage.
As the mode in which the poetic influence was accustomed to operate has changed with the changes of time and things, so has the popularity of the poet found new sources in the altered inclinations and feelings of his readers. Hence no modern writer may be said to bear at once and incontestably the palm of superiority, or is, like one of the ancient masters, placed, as it were by acclamation, upon the pinnacle of poetic renown. Though his genius may entitle him to high rank, yet the conflicting struggles of the thousand aspirants round him, and the collisions of as many different tastes and favouritisms, render his right for a season questionable, and his fame less brilliant. This is a natural consequence where there are so many to share in the splendid rivalry.
It is evident that there are schools of poetry. We have heard some of them talked of, till their names have come to be familiar words. And these schools have actually engendered a party spirit in poetry-so that we find something like clanism meeting us even on the pathway of Parnassus. If Wordsworth, and Leigh Hunt, and Coleridge, may be said to constitute the head of the Lake school, Pope was as certainly the head of the philo
sophical, or metaphysical. We know not, in short, that Byron would be unaptly termed, by the sentimental, or sickly, the leader of the demoniac order. Certain it is, that each of these writers is distinguished by something peculiar to himself, and each one has his partisans. We know not, again, that this can be helped; nor, on the whole, that it is fair subject of complaint. As a general rule, every man has a right to his taste, and a consequent privilege of praising him who best suits it. Still there is something to be regretted even in this. There is, after all, hardly as much latitude allowable in relation to governing principles, in the republic of letters, as in the body politic. It is desirable to have such things as style and taste more fixed, and amenable to a standard, than it is to have faith in matters of government squared by any particular creed. With regard to the poetical schools, this evil of partisanship-a partisanship which is carried to laboured articles, and even to the enlistment of journals in favour of their different leaders-is decidedly destructive. It has made, and it still makes, mannerists of writers, and, as far as this goes, it is fatal to the fine spirit of poetry.
It has been said, as though by way of excuse for its most unpardonable irregularities, that genius always has its characteristics. It may be so: but they are always essentially the same, where high and holy enthusiasm animates the votary. As to poetry, we believe that the glorious art receives no additional dignity, either from the noisy blazonry of the merits of some who profess it, and whose claim to genius consists only in their peculiarities, or from consenting to submit itself to any of the working-day methods of gaining popularity. It strikes us, that far from conforming itself to the demands of a diseased taste, or the unhealthy fancies of society, poetry has but one eminent object before it-and that is to make men better by the divine spirit which it breathes around them. We believe that mere trickery of phrase, gilded imagery, and prettinesses of thought, constitute no vital portion of poetry; and we are unwilling to think that that verse is destined to live, which, at best, is a mere attempt at originality, or a mass of laboured simplicity, according to the worst signification of the word. We wish to see that kind of metrical composition alone recognised as poetry, which is such in the true sense of the term; that is constituted such by the combination of great thought with harmony of numbers; and whose music derives its greatest attractiveness from the sentiment. This we hold to be the true criterion; and by this standard we should point to him as the true Roscius of his art, who, in the best strains, best sings the deathless charms of virtue and honour; who stamps, in golden lines, upon his age those sublime lessons of moral power, that, of old, sometimes lured the great to glory, and the good to heaven; who comes upon the world in