Atlantic Monthly Volume 6, No. 37, November, 1860
Part 5 out of 5
in bright red type, and the binding of it is warm and tender to every
touch. They reverence that book as one of the Almighty's infallible
revelations. They will insist on reading you lessons out of it, whether
you call them names or not. These will always be lessons of charity. No
doubt, nothing can be more provoking to listen to. But do beg your folks
to remember that the Smithfield fires are all out, and that the cinders
are very dirty and not in the least dangerous. They'd a great deal
better be civil, and not be throwing old proverbs in the doctors' faces,
when they say that the man of the old monkish notions is one thing and
the man they watch from his cradle to his coffin is something very
* * * * *
It has cost a good deal of trouble to work the Doctor's talk up into
this formal shape. Some of his sentences have been rounded off for him,
and the whole brought into a more rhetorical form than it could have
pretended to, if taken as it fell from his lips. But the exact course of
his remarks has been followed, and as far as possible his expressions
have been retained. Though given in the form of a discourse, it must
be remembered that this was a conversation, much more fragmentary and
colloquial than it seems as just read.
The Reverend Doctor was very far from taking offence at the old
physician's freedom of speech. He knew him to be honest, kind,
charitable, self-denying, wherever any sorrow was to be alleviated,
always reverential, with a cheerful trust in the great Father of all
mankind. To be sure, his senior deacon, old Deacon Shearer,--who seemed
to have got his Scripture-teachings out of the "Vinegar Bible," (the one
where _Vineyard_ is misprinted _Vinegar_, which a good many people seem
to have adopted as the true reading,)--his senior deacon had called Dr.
Kittredge an "infidel." But the Reverend Doctor could not help feeling,
that, unless the text, "By their fruits ye shall know them," were an
interpolation, the Doctor was the better Christian of the two. Whatever
his senior deacon might think about it, he said to himself that he
shouldn't be surprised if he met the Doctor in heaven yet, inquiring
anxiously after old Deacon Shearer.
He was on the point of expressing himself very frankly to the Doctor,
with that benevolent smile on his face which had sometimes come near
giving offence to the readers of the "Vinegar" edition, but he saw that
the physician's attention had been arrested by Elsie. He looked in the
same direction himself, and could not help being struck by her attitude
and expression. There was something singularly graceful in the curves of
her neck and the rest of her figure, but she was so perfectly still that
it seemed as if she were hardly breathing. Her eyes were fixed on the
young girl with whom Mr. Bernard was talking. He had often noticed their
brilliancy, but now it seemed to him that they appeared dull, and the
look on her features was as of some passion which had missed its stroke.
Mr. Bernard's companion seemed unconscious that she was the object of
this attention, and was listening to the young master as if he had
succeeded in making himself very agreeable.
Of course Dick Venner had not mistaken the game that was going on. The
schoolmaster meant to make Elsie jealous,--and he had done it. That's
it: get her savage first, and then come wheedling round her,--a sure
trick, if he isn't headed off somehow. But Dick saw well enough that he
had better let Elsie alone just now, and thought the best way of killing
the evening would be to amuse himself in a little lively talk with Mrs.
Blanche Creamer, and incidentally to show Elsie that he could make
himself acceptable to other women, if not to herself.
The Doctor presently went up to Elsie, determined to engage her in
conversation and get her out of her thoughts, which he saw, by her look,
were dangerous. Her father had been on the point of leaving Helen Darley
to go to her, but felt easy enough when he saw the old Doctor at her
side, and so went on talking. The Reverend Doctor, being now left alone,
engaged the Widow Rowens, who put the best face on her vexation she
could, but was devoting herself to all the underground deities for
having been such a fool as to ask that pale-faced thing from the
Institute to fill up her party.
There is no space left to report the rest of the conversation. If there
was anything of any significance in it, it will turn up by-and-by, no
doubt. At ten o'clock the Reverend Doctor called Miss Letty, who had no
idea it was so late; Mr. Bernard gave his arm to Helen; Mr. Richard saw
to Mrs. Blanche Creamer; the Doctor gave Elsie a cautioning look, and
went off alone, thoughtful; Dudley Venner and his daughter got into
their carriage and were whirled away. The Widow's gambit was played, and
she had not won the game.
REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.
_Reminiscences of the late Thomas Assheton Smith, Esq.; or, The Pursuits
of an English Country-Gentleman._ By Sir J.E. EARDLEY-WILMOT. London:
We are somewhat doubtful whether Charles Lamb would have included this
handsome volume in a list of _books_. It is evidently the work of an
eager sportsman, one learned in all the minutiae of the chase. Much of
it is taken up with enthusiastic description of Mr. Smith's favorite
horses and hounds, of the astonishing qualities of Rory O'More, of the
splendid runs made by Fireship and Lightboat, of the notable improvement
made in the Suffolk pack by Mr. Smith's judicious system of crossing.
All this part of the book will doubtless interest any English gentleman
who delights in pink and buckskins, and will especially please those who
recollect the famous Tom Smith, as he was called, when,
"on a morning
Ruddy as health, he rode into the field
And then pursued the chase,"
over and through swamp, hedge, and ditch, with that dare-devil speed and
recklessness that won for him the reputation of being the best rider,
the hardest seat, and the first sportsman in all England.
And even to us, who never chased the fox nor ever crossed a
thoroughbred, this portion of the work is not without a certain
interest; for we take a species of pleasure in hearing or learning the
technical terms of any art, trade, or pursuit whatsoever, and not often
to American eyes comes the chance of becoming acquainted with the
huntsman, the whipper-in, the ride to cover, and the eager, toilsome,
Still we cannot help regarding the over-abundance of these things as not
only a blemish in the book as a work of art, which indeed it scarcely
pretends to be, but also as a hindrance to the attainment of its object,
which is the vindication of Mr. Smith's character from certain charges
made against it by the "Times" and other London newspapers, which spoke
but slightingly of him, pronouncing him to have been a mere fox-hunting
squire, and nothing more.
To contradict these and similar aspersions, his widow put all of Mr.
Smith's correspondence into the hands of his warm friend, Sir J.E.
Eardley-Wilmot, and left to him the task of defending the name and fame
of her husband. These memoirs are the result, and we are of opinion,
that, with the exception of the superabundant cricketing and hunting
technicalities before mentioned, the work has been exceedingly well
performed. The book is written in an unambitious, straightforward,
gentlemanly style, that carries conviction with it; and as we rise from
a perusal of it, with occasional stoppings, we feel that the "Times"
correspondent has now at least no excuse for harsh judgment of Mr.
Smith, and that, if he was a reckless rider and a mighty hunter, he was
also very much more and better.
Thomas Assheton Smith was born of sturdy and right English stock, as the
following anecdote makes patent. His father opposed the building of
the Menai Bridge, did not believe, in fact, that it could be built,
considered the ferry good enough, and declared, that, if it should be
finished, he for one would never set foot upon it. The possibility of
building a bridge having been demonstrated to Mr. Smith by the completed
structure, he, for the remainder of his life, when his occasions took
him across the strait, made use of a boat. Other such anecdotes are told
of him, setting forth his obstinacy and courage in a strong light, so
that we are not surprised when we are informed that his son had a
stern temper and was somewhat dictatorial in the field. We could have
accounted for Tom Smith's severe countenance, though we had never heard
of that two hours' battle at Eton, of which the school-traditions yet
speak, when he fought a drawn fight with Jack Musters, who, the Squire
always declared, spoiled his beauty for him. Neither do we wonder when
we hear that he fought a six-foot carter in the street and beat him, or
that, when nearly eighty years of age, he jumped off his horse and put
up his hands to a farm-laborer who had insulted him, or that, when he
ran as candidate for Parliament, for Nottingham, and was hissed and
groaned in that radical city, he stepped down from the hustings and
proposed a set-to with any voter in the crowd. This was good crowing,
but the old cock had taught him.
From Eton young Smith was removed to Oxford, where we are told he often
rode out with the hounds and began his practice of keeping close up to
them at the risk of his own and his horse's neck. Clearly the subject of
these memoirs was not intended to shine in the schools and wisely did
not make the attempt. Leaving college, Mr. Smith for a few years devoted
himself to the improvement of his horses and hounds, and, as the author
says, to "creating a new country near Salisbury Plain." The thread
of his life is then followed down to the death of his father and his
entrance upon the manifold duties of a large landed proprietor, owner
of immense quarries, and landlord of some hundreds of tenants,--the
pursuits, in short, of an English country-gentleman. Here is the real
interest of the book. It is interesting to note the difference between
this country-squire and that typical country-squire with which the plays
and novels of the last hundred and fifty years have made us familiar.
We all know him. Purple with Port, beef-witted, tyrannical, intolerant,
ignorant, never happy unless when on horseback or drunk, nor looking
But the "glorious gains" of the nineteenth century have come to
fox-hunters as well as to other men, and Squire Smith is a very much
ameliorated Squire Western, though we see plain enough evidence that
the original stock is the same in both. Both are good Tories, hate the
French, and would fight for the Church; but we are sure that Squire
Western considers a curate as but a poor creature, and we fear Squire
Smith has not any Puritanical reverence for the clergy,--for curates, at
least; for we are told, that, when the Reverend Mr. T. Dyson preached
his first sermon, the Squire walked up to him in the church-porch, and,
clapping him on the back, said to the young parson, "Well done, my boy!
you shall have a mount on Rory next Tuesday for this!" But we do not
think that Squire Western would have been liberal or politic enough
to have given land and money to several neighboring congregations of
Dissenters, or that he would have given away to his quarrymen several
thousand acres of good land together with building-materials. Nor have
we such faith in the ability of the Georgian Squire as to believe that
he, from his own observation and acute reasoning on facts which he had
noticed when a boy in school, would ever have given to the world the
famous wave-line bow to be a pattern on which all nations should model
their vessels. Yet this our Victorian Squire has done, and he loses no
credit by the fact that Mr. Scott Russell, the great naval architect,
had at nearly the same time, working from entirely different premises,
arrived at the same result.
Mr. Smith seems to us well worth knowing as the type of a great class of
Englishmen,--that class to which the author of "School-Days at Rugby"
gives the comprehensive patronymic of Brown,--a class bold, honest,
energetic, not too affectionate, not too intellectual, perhaps, but,
by virtue of their strength of hand, head, and will, and their inborn
honesty of soul, the masters in some important respects of all the men
_Essays and Reviews_. The Second Edition. London: 1860. 8vo. pp. 434.
The second English and the first American edition of the volume bearing
the modest title given above have followed quickly its original
publication. The title-page, indicating only the form of the matter in
the volume, compels a reference to the table of contents in order to
learn its substance. From this it appears that the Essays and Reviews
are seven in number, each by a different author, and that they treat
chiefly of topics connected with the study of Scripture,--the only one
not directly indicating its relation to this study by its title being
the first, on "The Education of the World," by the Reverend Frederick
Temple, Head Master of Rugby School. The names of several of the
authors, those, for instance, of the late Baden Powell, of Dr. Rowland
Williams, and of Mr. Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek in the University
of Oxford, are well known as among those of the most advanced and ablest
leaders of thought in the most liberal section of the English Church. It
is not strange that a volume to which such men have contributed should
have excited a general and deep interest among all who are interested in
the present position of scholarship in England and of thought in regard
to the most important subjects which can occupy the intellects of men.
Whatever expectations the announcement of the volume excited are well
supported by its contents. It is the most important contribution made
during the present generation in England to the establishment of a sound
religious philosophy, and to the advance of religious truth. Whatever
opposition some of the speculations contained in it may excite, whether
the main views of its authors be accepted or not, (and in this notice we
do not propose to consider whether they be true or not,) the
principles upon which their opinions and speculations are based are
so incontrovertible, and the learning and ability with which they are
supported are so great, that the work must inevitably produce a lasting
effect upon the tendency of thought in respect to the subjects it
embraces and must lead to the reconsideration of many prevalent
opinions. It is a book at once to start doubts in the minds of those
attached to established forms and bound by ancient creeds, and to quiet
doubts in those who have been perplexed in the bewilderments of modern
metaphysical philosophy or have found it difficult to reconcile the
truths established by science with their faith in the Christian
religion. It is a book which serves as a landmark of the most advanced
point to which religious thought has yet reached, and from which to take
a new observation and departure.
The most striking external characteristic of these Essays is, that,
having been "written in entire independence of each other, and without
concert or comparison," they, without exception, present a close
similarity in spirit and in tone. All of them are distinguished by
a union of freedom with reverence, as rare as it is remarkable, in
treating of subjects peculiarly likely to suffer from being handled in a
conventional manner, and usually discussed with exaggerated freedom or
with superstitious reverence. In tone and temper they leave nothing to
be desired; they are neither hot with zeal nor rash with controversial
eagerness; but they are calm without coldness, earnest without
extravagance. The fairness and candor displayed in them, the freedom
from party-prejudice or bias, the clearness in the statement of
difficulties, the honesty in the recognition of the limits of present
knowledge, all indicate most clearly the growth of a worthy spirit in
the treatment of subjects which have too often heretofore been fields
for the exhibition of narrowness, intolerance, and bigotry. Such a book
is not only an honor to the men engaged in its production, but of happy
augury for the future progress of truth.
The topics which these Essays discuss are of as much interest in America
as in England, to those outside the English Church as to those within
it. But, at the same time, most of the Essays (and this consideration
is not a satisfactory one) are of a kind which it would seem could have
been produced only in England, and there only within the limits of the
Church. In America we have no body of men capable of work so different
in its parts, and, at the same time, exhibiting such soundness and
extent of scholarship, such liberality of opinion, such disciplined
habits of thought. Any single Essay in the volume might, perhaps,
without any extravagance of supposition, have been the work of some
American scholar; but the difficulty would be to find here seven writers
each capable of producing one of the Essays. The intellectual discipline
of English methods of study and of English institutions still produces
a greater number of men capable of the highest sort of work, than the
methods in vogue and the institutions established here. We have thinkers
who venture as pioneers into the uncleared wilderness. Their vigorous
blows bring down many an old tree moss-grown with errors, and their
ploughs for the first time turn the soil covered with the fallen leaves
of decayed beliefs; but we fail in our supply of those men who are to
follow the pioneers and do the higher and more lasting constructive work
of civilization. Now, as in past times, we must be content, so far as we
may, to have this work done for us by the thinkers and scholars of other
lands. But how long is this to last? Is the same sort of makeshift to be
allowed in the processes of American thought, which in the expanse of
our territory we have allowed in the processes of material labor?
The publication of these "Essays and Reviews" marks, as we believe,
an epoch in the history of thought in England. They will stand as the
monument of the reaction of the best minds against the "Tractarian"
movement on the one hand, and against the skeptical tendencies of much
of the science and philosophy of recent times on the other. For while,
at Oxford and elsewhere, a strong current has set back against the
unimpeded progress of truth, while the attempt has been made, and not
without a transient success, to rivet old fetters upon the hearts and
intellects of men, another school, borrowing their metaphysics from
Germany, and their notions of Christianity from the common creeds, have
set up science in opposition to faith, and have treated religion, with
more or less openness, as if it were a worn-out superstition. The
essential value of this book is, that its various Essays are virtually
an attempt--how far successful each reader must judge for himself--to
show that the Christian religion is no fixed and formalized set of
doctrines, but an expansive and fluent faith, adapting itself to the new
needs of every generation and of each individual; not opposed to the
teachings of science, but, when properly understood, entirely harmonious
with them, and drawing continually fresh support from them; having
nothing to fear from the progress of knowledge and the increase of
light, but everything to gain; welcoming truth, whencesoever it may
come, whatsoever it may be, whithersoever it may lead.
Beside the topics of thought treated of in this volume, it suggests
incidentally many others of peculiar interest. As an indication of the
present condition of English scholarship, it is full of encouragement
for the future. For more than a century there has been very little deep,
original, and productive study of the Scriptures in England. A new
impulse has now been given to it. What will be its effect, and the
effect of the liberalized and more tolerant spirit of which it is a
proof, upon the constitution of the English Church can be foreseen but
in part. It is certain that it must lead to great changes, and to a
virtual breaking-down of many of the most confining sectarian barriers.
No Articles and no Creeds can stand for many generations as the
authoritative expressions of belief, after the character of the
compulsion which they exercise is understood, after the history of
sectarian differences is fairly stated, after the interpretation of
Scripture is placed upon a sound basis, and the nature of Christianity
and the object of the teachings of Christ are thus brought home to the
intellects and the hearts of men.
_A Journey in the Back-Country_. By FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED. Author of "A
Journey in the Seaboard Slave-States," "A Journey in Texas," "Walks and
Talks of an American Farmer in England," etc. New York: Mason Brothers.
1860. pp. xvi., 492.
Mr. Olmsted is no ordinary traveller for amusement or adventure. He
leaves home to instruct himself through his own eyes and ears concerning
matters of general interest about which no trustworthy information was
to be found in books. Looking at Slavery merely as an economist, with no
political or moral prepossessions to mislead his judgment, he went to
study for himself its workings and results as a form of labor, we might
almost say, so cool-headed is he, as an application of forces, rather
than as a social or political phenomenon. Self-possessed and wary,
almost provokingly unsympathetic in his report of what he saw,
pronouncing no judgment on isolated facts, and drawing no undue
inferences from them, he has now generalized his results in a most
interesting and valuable book. No more important contributions to
contemporary American history have been made than in this volume and the
two that preceded it. We know of no book that offers a parallel to them,
except Arthur Young's "Travels in France." To discuss the question of
Slavery without passion or even sentiment seemed an impossibility; yet
Mr. Olmsted has shown that it can be done, and, having no theory to
bolster, has contrived to tell us what he saw, and not what he went to
see,--the rarest achievement among travellers. Without the charm of
style, he has the truthfulness of Herodotus.
We do not forget that there was wisdom as well as wit in Dr. Johnson's
sarcastic classification of facts with donkeys. The great majority of
so-called facts, and especially those detailed by travellers, are of no
consequence whatever to man or beast. What is it to us that Mr. A. has
been condescending enough to look at the Venus of Milo, or that Mr. B.,
with more time than he knows what to do with already on his hands, must
steal a couple of good working hours from Carlyle, worth probably five
guineas apiece? That Hannibal crossed the Alps was something; that
Goethe did was and is also of some consequence; but the transit of Mr.
Anarithmon Smith need cause no excitement in the observatories. That a
man has found out, by laborious counting, which is the middle word
in the New Testament, is pretty sure to get into the newspapers as a
remarkable fact; that he had discovered its central thought, and made
it the keystone to knit together his else incomplete outward and inward
lives, would hardly be esteemed of so much consequence. Facts are such
different things, especially to different persons! The truth is, that
we should distinguish between real facts and the mere images of facts,
though the newspapers teach us to confound them, putting side by side,
as they do, Garibaldi's entry into Naples and Dennis McQuigley's into
The man who gives us a really new fact deserves to be classed with
him who makes two blades of grass grow where one grew before, for it
contains the germinal principle of knowledge. We owe a large debt in
this kind to Mr. Olmsted. He tells us much of what he saw, little of
what he thought. He has good eyes, and that something behind them that
makes a good observer. As respects the South, he has the advantage of
being at once native and foreigner, so that what is merely American does
not divide his attention with what is local and peculiar. Making entries
in his diary before impressions have had time to cool, he has preserved
even the dialect of those with whom he talked, and thus given a lively
reality to his narrative.
Nearly one-half of Mr. Olmsted's present volume is devoted to a
discussion of the conclusions to be drawn from the mass of observations
he has thus far collected. His views are entitled to the more
consideration that the tone of his mind is so dispassionate. He finds
himself compelled to give his verdict against Slavery, whether it be
considered morally, politically, or economically. We cannot but think
that the reading of his book will do great good in opening the minds of
many to a perception that the agitation of the Slavery question is not
a mere clash of unthinking prejudices between North and South, that
Slavery itself is not a matter of purely local concern, but that
it interests all parts of the Republic equally. It is certainly of
paramount importance that we should understand the practical workings
of a system which is converting what by natural increase will soon
constitute a majority of the population in the fairest portion of our
territory into a vast planting, hoeing, and cotton-picking machine.
Mr. Olmsted's qualifications as a traveller are so remarkable that we
cannot help wishing that he would make a journey through New England and
make us as thoroughly acquainted with its internal condition as we ought
to be. We believe there is no book of the kind since that of President
Dwight, and that gives us little of the sort of information we desire.
It is an insight into the manners, modes of life, and ways of thinking
that is of value; and Mr. Olmsted, who goes about, like Chaucer's
"Ever inquiring upon everything,"
is just the person to supply a great want in our literature. We know
less of the domestic habits of a large part of our population than of
those of the Saxons in the time of Alfred. But for a few glimpses
which we get from Dunton, Madam Knight, the Rev. Jacob Bailey, and the
Proceedings of Synods, we should be little better acquainted with the
New Englanders of the century following the Restoration than with the
primitive Aryans. Bailey's account of his voyage to England is the best
contemporary testimony to the truth of Smollett's pictures of sea-life
that we ever met with, and we cannot sufficiently regret that the whole
of his journal during his college-life was not published. Mr. Olmsted
would be sure of a grateful recognition from posterity, if he would
do for New England what he has done for the South. We might not be
flattered by his report, but we could not fail to be benefited by it.
It would, perhaps, lead to the establishment of home missions among the
Bad-Bread and Foul-Air tribes, who make more wretched captives for life
and kill more children than the French and Indians together ever dreamed
_Sketches of Parisian Life. The Greatness and Decline of Cesar
Birotteau_. From the French of HONORE DE BALZAC. Translated by O.W.
WIGHT and F.B. GOODRICH. New York: Rudd & Carleton, 130 Grand Street.
1860. pp. 387.
We are very glad to see this beginning of a translation of Balzac, or
de Balzac, as he chose to christen himself. Without intending an
exact parallel, he might be called the Fielding of French
Literature,--intensely masculine, an artist who works outward from an
informing idea, a satirist whose humor will not let him despise human
nature even while he exposes its weaknesses. The story of Caesar
Birotteau is well-chosen as an usher to the rest, for it is eminently
characteristic, though it does not show the higher imaginative qualities
of the author. It is one of the severest tests of genius to draw an
ordinary character so humanly that we learn to love and respect it in
spite of a thorough familiarity with its faults and absurdities. In this
respect Balzac's "Birotteau" is a masterpiece. The translation, as far
as we have had time to look into it, seems a very easy, spirited, and
knowing one. The translators have overcome the difficulties of _slang_
with great skill, rendering by equivalent vulgarisms which give the
spirit where the letter would be unintelligible. We object, however, to
a phrase like "vest-pocket," where we find it in the narrative, and not
in the mouth of one of the personages. It is tailor's English, which is
as bad as peddler's French. But this is a trifle where there is so much
to commend in essentials, and we hope the translators will be encouraged
to go on in a work so excellently begun.
_Home Ballads and Poems_. By JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER. Boston: Ticknor &
Fields. 1800. pp. 206.
The natural product of a creed which ignores the aesthetical part of man
and reduces Nature to a uniform drab would seem to have been Bernard
Barton. _His_ verse certainly infringed none of the superstitions of the
sect; for from title-page to colophon, there was no sin either in the
way of music or color. There was, indeed, a frugal and housewifely Muse,
that brewed a cup, neither cheering unduly nor inebriating, out of the
emptyings of Wordsworth's teapot. How that little busy B. improved each
shining hour, how neatly he laid his wax, it gives us a cold shiver to
think of,--_ancora ci raccappriccia!_ Against a copy of verses signed
"B.B.," as we remember them in the hardy Annuals that went to seed
so many years ago, we should warn our incautious offspring as an
experienced duck might her brood against a charge of B.B. shot. It
behooves men to be careful; for one may chance to suffer lifelong from
these intrusions of cold lead in early life, as duellists sometimes
carry about all their days a bullet from which no surgery can relieve
them. Memory avenges our abuses of her, and, as an awful example, we
mention the fact that we have never been able to forget certain stanzas
of another B.B., who, under the title of Boston Bard, whilom obtained
from newspaper-columns that concession which gods and men would
unanimously have denied him.
George Fox, utterly ignoring the immense stress which Nature lays on
established order and precedent, got hold of a half-truth which made him
crazy, as half-truths are wont. But the inward light, whatever else it
might be, was surely not of that kind "that never was on land or sea."
There has been much that was poetical in the lives of Quakers, little in
the men themselves. Poetry demands a richer and more various culture,
and, however good we may find such men as John Woolman and Elias
Boudinot, they make us feel painfully that the salt of the earth is
something very different, to say the least, from the Attic variety of
the same mineral. Let Armstrong and Whitworth and James experiment as
they will, they shall never hit on a size of bore so precisely adequate
for the waste of human life as the journal of an average Quaker.
Compared with it, the sandy intervals of Swedenborg gush with singing
springs, and Cotton Mather is a very Lucian for liveliness.
Yet this dry Quaker stem has fairly blossomed at last, and Nature, who
can never be long kept under, has made a poet of Mr. Whittier as she
made a General of Greene. To make a New England poet, she had her choice
between Puritan and Quaker, and she took the Quaker. He is, on the
whole, the most representative poet that New England has produced. He
sings her thoughts, her prejudices, her scenery. He has not forgiven the
Puritans for hanging two or three of his co-sectaries, but he admires
them for all that, calls on his countrymen as
"Sons of men who sat in council with their
Bibles round the board,
Answering Charles's royal mandate with a
stern 'Thus saith the Lord,'"
and at heart, we suspect, has more sympathy with Miles Standish than
with Mary Dyer. Indeed,
"Sons of men who sat in meeting with their
broadbrims o'er their brow,
Answering Charles's royal mandate with a
_thee_ instead of _thou_,"
would hardly do. Whatever Mr. Whittier may lack, he has the prime merit
that he smacks of the soil. It is a New England heart he buttons his
strait-breasted coat over, and it gives the buttons a sharp strain now
and then. Even the native idiom crops out here and there in his verses.
He makes _abroad_ rhyme with _God_, _law_ with _war_, _us_ with _curse_,
_scorner_ with _honor_, _been_ with _men_, _beard_ with _shared_. For
the last two we have a certain sympathy as archaisms, but with the rest
we can make no terms whatever,--they must march out with no honors of
war. The Yankee lingo is insoluble in poetry, and the accent would give
a flavor of _essence-pennyr'y'l_ to the very Beatitudes. It differs from
Lowland Scotch as a _patois_ from a dialect.
But criticism is not a game of jerk-straws, and Mr. Whittier has other
and better claims on us than as a stylist. There is true fire in the
heart of the man, and his eye is the eye of a poet. A more juicy soil
might have made him a Burns or a Beranger for us. New England is dry
and hard, though she have a warm nook in her, here and there, where the
magnolia grows after a fashion. It is all very nice to say to our poets,
"You have sky and wood and waterfall and men and women,--in short, the
entire outfit of Shakspeare; Nature is the same here as elsewhere"; and
when the popular lecturer says it, the popular audience gives a stir of
approval. But it is all _bosh_, nevertheless. Nature is _not_ the same
here, and perhaps never will be, as in lands where man has mingled his
being with hers for countless centuries, where every field is steeped in
history, every crag is ivied with legend, and the whole atmosphere of
thought is hazy with the Indian summer of tradition. Nature without an
ideal background is nothing. We may claim whatever merits we like, (and
our orators are not too bashful,) we may be as free and enlightened as
we choose, but we are certainly not interesting or picturesque. We may
be as beautiful to the statistician as a column of figures, and dear to
the political economist as a social phenomenon; but our hive has little
of that marvellous Bee-bread that can transmute the brain to finer
issues than a gregarious activity in hoarding. The Puritans left us a
fine estate in conscience, energy, and respect for learning; but they
disinherited us of the past. Not a single stage-property of poetry did
they bring with them but the good old Devil, with his graminivorous
attributes, and even he could not stand the climate. Neither horn nor
hoof nor tail of him has been seen for a century. He is as dead as the
goat-footed Pan, whom he succeeded, and we tenderly regret him.
Mr. Whittier himself complains somewhere of
"The rigor of our frozen sky,"
and he seems to have been thinking of our clear, thin, intellectual
atmosphere, the counterpart of our physical one, of which artists
complain that it rounds no edges. We have sometimes thought that his
verses suffered from a New England taint in a too great tendency to
metaphysics and morals, which may be the bases on which poetry rests,
but should not be carried too high above-ground. Without this, however,
he would not have been the typical New England poet that he is. In the
present volume there is little of it. It is more purely objective than
any of its forerunners, and is full of the most charming rural pictures
and glimpses, in which every sight and sound, every flower, bird, and
tree, is neighborly and homely. He makes us see
"the old swallow-haunted barns,
Brown-gabled, long, and full of seams
Through which the moted sunlight streams,
And winds blow freshly in to shake
The red plumes of the roosted cocks
And the loose hay-mow's scented locks,"--
With the white horns tossing above the wall,"--
the spring-blossoms that drooped over the river,
"Lighting up the swarming shad:"--
"the bulged nets sweeping shoreward
With their silver-sided haul."
Every picture is full of color, and shows that true eye for Nature which
sees only what it ought, and that artistic memory which brings home
compositions and not catalogues. There is hardly a hill, rock, stream,
or sea-fronting headland in the neighborhood of his home that he has not
fondly remembered. Sometimes, we think, there is too much description,
the besetting sin of modern verse, which has substituted what should be
called wordy-painting for the old art of painting in a single word. The
essential character of Mr. Whittier's poetry is lyrical, and the rush of
the lyric, like that of a brook, allows few pictures. Now and then there
may be an eddy where the feeling lingers and reflects a bit of scenery,
but for the most part it can only catch gleams of color that mingle
with the prevailing tone and enrich without usurping on it. This volume
contains some of the best of Mr. Whittier's productions in this kind.
"Skipper Ireson's Ride" we hold to be by long odds the best of modern
ballads. There are others nearly as good in their way, and all, with a
single exception, embodying native legends. In "Telling the Bees," Mr.
Whittier has enshrined a country superstition in a poem of exquisite
grace and feeling. "The Garrison of Cape Ann" would have been a fine
poem, but it has too much of the author in it, and to put a moral at the
end of a ballad is like sticking a cork on the point of a sword. It is
pleasant to see how much our Quaker is indebted for his themes to Cotton
Mather, who belabored his un-Friends of former days with so much bad
English and worse Latin. With all his faults, that conceited old pedant
contrived to make one of the most entertaining books ever written on
this side the water, and we wonder that no one should take the trouble
to give us a tolerably correct edition of it. Absurdity is common
enough, but such a genius for it as Mather had is a rare and delightful
This last volume has given us a higher conception of Mr. Whittier's
powers. We already valued as they deserved his force of faith, his
earnestness, the glow and hurry of his thought, and the (if every third
stump-speaker among us were not a Demosthenes, we should have said
Demosthenean) eloquence of his verse; but here we meet him in a softer
and more meditative mood. He seems a Berserker turned Carthusian. The
half-mystic tone of "The Shadow and the Light" contrasts strangely, and,
we think, pleasantly, with the war-like clang of "From Perugia." The
years deal kindly with good men, and we find a clearer and richer
quality in these verses where the ferment is over and the _rile_ has
quietly settled. We have had no more purely American poet than Mr.
Whittier, none in whom the popular thought found such ready and vigorous
expression. The future will not fail to do justice to a man who has been
so true to the present.
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