Puslapio vaizdai
PDF
„ePub“

ment, that demand the spiritual factor, the | personal equation, the allowance for exception, in the problem of national growth. In the absence of a sunlit atmosphere, they shine by inward light, and communicate heat and luster to their surroundings. When a link in the chain of evolution is missing, such are the forces that make up for it. But there are other forces, and certain modes of intellectual effort, which assist growth and somewhat forestall the ordinary process. Even criticism may do a share, and often by penetrative study of the leaders that reflect or stimulate the various tendencies of a people's ideality. Of course a poet must represent his age and habitat; a Grecian temple beside an Alleghanian troutbrook might be lovely, but surely would be out of place and date. It is now my province to discover what special aids the poets of America have experienced, and what hindrances. In no modern country has ideality been more retarded than in our own; and I think that certain restrictions have peculiarly limited production in the field of Poetry-the chief of imaginative arts. Yet I see that, in spite of these, the ultimate rise of an American school of poetry was swift and strong, and that its chiefs have had their aids no less than their obstacles, and have bravely confronted the latter. And thus we are brought directly to the preliminary issue.

II.

MUCH has been written of late upon the topic of our native literature. Is there a distinctly American school? If not, when and where shall we look for one? What are, or should be, its special characteristics? These and similar questions are frequently and somewhat vaguely discussed.

Now, it is first to be observed that the radical quality of any national school, in any country or period, does not wholly depend upon the types, personages, localities, and other materials utilized by its artists and men of letters, and this is especially true with regard to the work of a poet, in distinction from that of a painter. The specific tone of the former artist is not derived from the images which his genius informs with life, and from the plots that serve his expression of the thought, passion, imagination, of his people and time. Mere reliance upon these will not suffice. Even a painter might devote his life to copying the groups he finds in his own streets, the streets

themselves, and the fields and woods beyond them, yet not produce an original art, nor execute it in a fresh and native way. The mere dialect and legends of a province or section are powerless to convey their essential quality to the song of a poet who calls them to his aid. Mr. Grant White, therefore, is perfectly right when he suggests, for these and other reasons, that it is the spirit, not the letter, which giveth life; that we must pay regard to the flavor, rather than to the form and color, of the fruit-to the distinctive character, not the speech and aspect, of the personage. Unless the feeling of our home-poet be novel, his vision a fresh and distinctive vision,-unless these are radically different from the French, or German, or even the English, feeling and vision,-they are not American, and our time has not yet

come.

But I am not with this distinguished and thoroughly American writer in his further claim that we still are essentially English, and shall be so for a long series of years to come; that our literature, like the language we inherit, is wholly English, and must remain so for centuries, until " Anglo-Saxon and Hollander and German and Irishman and negro and Chinese shall have so blended their blood * that from the fusion a new race shall have sprung." What I first call to mind is that there are few Americans, even those of but one remove, who are not instantly recognized abroad as being very different from Englishmen, not only with. respect to feature, mold, and speech,which vary according to the sections from which they come,-but in their sentiment, modes of thought and feeling, and way of looking at things. In both outward and inward traits they are pronounced distinctively un-English and "American," however divided among themselves. Again, by so much as the style is the man, I believe that the literary product of this new people differs from the literary product of the English, or any other people of the Old World, and I hope to make that difference clear in the course of these essays. And I will remark, in passing, that " The Scarlet Letter," a romance which Mr. White cites in illustration, to me appears thoroughly un-English in its mystical temper, and its undertone and atmosphere; if not broadly American, it is locally so-the very fruit and out-giving of the New England sentiment that brooded in its author's spirit, and of which it is a soul-wrought witness and dramatic chronicle.

In fine, recognizing the error of those

who, by a forced effort, would anticipate | American in the sense that the product of
creations that will come only of themselves,
or through the natural impulse of fore-or-
dained artists, I also perceive that already,
in various walks of art, and in none more
than in that to which our present study
is devoted, we have exhibited the new and
broad results, both of acclimatization and
of a blending process, to which the ruling
divisions of our population thus far have
been subjected. Equally obvious are the
minor distinctive phases, which, on the other
hand, arise from the differentiation of the
American people by influences that, in
widely separated districts, have acted upon
their inhabitants from the early settlements
to the present time. The first-named phe-
nomena are national, while those of the lat-
ter class may be termed sectional; but all
are American, whether they appertain to
the whole, or to the subdivisions, of our
intellectual yield.

Italy is Italian, or that of France is French.
At this distance, we, who watch others as
we are watched ourselves, can readily see
that the same causes which make our civil-
ization assume the composite type are
blending the politics, manners, dress, art,
and letters of the several European coun-
tries, and this, however distinct their na-
tionalities, in proportion to the growth of
travel and interculture. But the United
States are homogeneous in what pertains to
the language and methods of their master-
race, and to this extent their homogeneity
is definitely assured. Concerning the primal
influences that affect the general tone of art
and literature, mutual communication and
understanding are so perfect that any
changes or advances are almost simul-
taneous throughout our territory. This
being the situation, foreign critics are not
far wrong in requiring that our home-product
shall differ from their own; that it shall be,
at least, un-European,-manifestly of the
New World and not of the Old. Return to a
consideration of the family likeness, physical
and mental, which instantly is apparent to
others as we visit the mother-land.
If we
ourselves are unconscious of it, or wonted
to it; if the air and fashion that we display
seem to us imperceptible or of small account,
they are not so regarded by our kinsmen, or
by the guest who lands upon these shores.
The stranger quickly perceives, and holds
at its value, the general, the national, type.
Material and psychological changes are
correlative, and almost equally sure of
external recognition.

The type first suggested, that of a broadly national character, is plainly incomplete, and has wide room for maturer development. Let us measure it only at its worth. A restless and ill-adjusted spirit still pervades the heterogeneous elements of our nationality. Here is a country as large as all Europe, embracing zones as far apart, in physical attributes, as those of Norway and Sicily. Here are the emigrants or descendants of every people in Europe,-to go no farther, and all their languages, and customs, and traditions, and modes of feeling, at one time or another, have come with them. Hence our unconscious habitude of variety, the disinclination to cling to one way of life or thought until its perfect conclusion. There is a ferment in new blood. The American travels, and at first is delighted with the color and flavor of the region to which he has come, but soon wearies of them and pushes on to some new place where novel characteristics can be enjoyed. This is observable of all Anglo-Saxons, capricious yet steadfast as they are, but more so among ourselves than with respect to our British kinsmen. America has absorbed the traits of many lands and people; the currents still set this way; our modern intercourse with the world at large is close and unintermitting, so that the raw ingredients of our national admixture are supplied quite as rapidly as the whirl and stir of the popular system can triturate and commingle them. It is too much, then, to expect that our art or song, from whatever section these may come, will exhibit a quality specifically

So far, therefore, from demanding absolute novelty in structure, language, or theme, of our home-poet, it is the duty of the critic to value the Americanism which great and small have displayed in quality of tone, and in faithful expression of the dominant popular moods. Thus considered, it will be found they have not fallen short. Those arbiters of foreign taste who do not acknowledge this, may be suspected of some unconscious insincerity. Not every mother as fair and ripe as England, and as affectionate, can look with perfect complacency upon a daughter growing to her own height and beauty before the world. To her eyes the maiden is still a child, and they own with reluctance, and very slowly, her attractiveness and the claims of her suitors. One by one the points of youth and inferiority, brought against America, have worn away, and now, when so many of us grant England this last

defense of her supremacy, it is with the respect due a mother, and with a courtesy perchance no less insincere than her avowal. The new Americanism is not so modest as to surrender any freehold or to be unconscious of its smallest advantages.

the old words and traditions. The landlords who cater to foreign or provincial guests still give English and French names to their hotels, and a fresh English colony, after the manner of our ancestors, calls its village Rugby-but the reproach of this barrenness of nomenclature is fast passing away, and the time has come when the declaration of our independence may be made to include the fields of literature and art.

|

The less essential novelties of structure, theme, and dialect already are discernible in the yield that represents our territorial subdivision. The local flavor of our genre and provincial literature is, I believe, unquestioned, but our conceit is not overfed by an acknowledgment almost wholly due to grotesque and humorous exploits,-a welcome such as a prince in his breathing-hour might give to a new-found jester or clown. American poetry, however, has not represented the popular life of our continental slopes and corners merely in their coarser traits. These sections are not so isolated as the Scottish highlands, or as those mountain nooks in Italy, where peasant women contentedly whirl the spindle and never visit the plains that glisten below; yet some of them are long-settled, and have an abiding population, with habits more or less confirmed. Where there is the least of change and interruption, and the colonial blood is most unmixed, the national ennui does not prevail; the sentiment and instinct of the people, if limited, are clearly understood, and have been fairly expressed in poetry and prose-romance.

And, indeed, if, under the free system of a democracy, art does not show in time as proud a result-whether in the product of its disciples or in the wealth of its libraries and museums-as in countries where it is fed by governmental patronage and subsidies, then our republicanism, upon its æsthetic side, is itself a failure. So far as poetry is concerned, I see that we have already had the first period of what may be called, for want of a better term, a true American school. I see that this school was slow to rise, until suddenly a number of its leaders appeared at once; that its first tuneful season has been completed, so that, in the temporary pause, we now, for the first time, may honestly recount its triumphs. But that our lyrical product has not been so obvious as our material grandeur, that it has put on a national type less complete than the types of various sections, that it has been but a delightful promise of what a new song will create for us when poetry comes in vogue again throughout the world,

this, too, is not to be gainsaid. Before examining what we have done, let us see what we have not been able to do until recently, and what not at all. It is time to indicate the early and latter restrictions that have hemmed in the poets, and limited the poetry, of the western world.

In a certain sense, it is natural for the citizen of so vast and various a country to find his patriotism and his gift of expression respond most easily to the appeals of his own locality. There is still a lagging behind full nationality, just as Federal supremacy, in the hearts of a great multitude, gives precedence to "State rights." Yet there are signs of growth toward an imagination in keeping with our political enlargement. The new Americanism, with relation to literature and the arts of beauty and construction, is seen in the very search for it, in the closer inspection of our own ground, in our more realistic method-in the genuine quality of our modern poetry and creative prose, so much more indigenous than the work of the neo-Romantic English school, and presenting so fresh a contrast to the poetry and prose of our early periods; finally, in the greater value set upon our home-workers, upon our ventures for ourselves. It is curious to note the minor symptoms of this change. As time has lessened our yearning for the mother-country, native Americans less fondly cling to

III.

THE poets themselves, naturally, would be slow to perceive the causes of their difficulties. The brain is not always conscious of its own malaise. Nevertheless, I think that to each true singer, as he arrived at a period when his intellectual faculty sought the rationale of his successes and failures, the facts have been more or less apparent. The idealism of this people was long retarded by certain interdicts, and at last forced its way to expression under very baffling and perplexing conditions, some of which are even now felt. So far as the embarrassments peculiar to the new epoch are involved,

it was a perception of these that led me to observe their bearing on the poets of England, before venturing to write upon our own. To these matters I shall again refer, after some mention of the absolute barriers which shut out the Muses from these shores until so late a time.

For two centuries, in truth, the situation here was so adverse to art, and especially to song, as to nullify even our complement to Taine's theory; to stifle, or to divert to other than ideal uses,* * any exceptional genius that existed, and that would have made its way against restrictions not of themselves quite as exceptional. The modified results of this situation may still be observed. As a rider to all I have said of the essential superiority of art to its materials, we must not fail, also, to consider the repugnance of the general mind to disassociate things and ideas-to separate the spirit of a work from what is used for its construction. There is a natural expectation that the art of a country will convey to us something of the national history, aspect, social law. On the whole, it has been the instinct of masters to avail themselves, so far as might be, in their plots, manners, and scenery, of the region nearest them; a wise instinct, through which they reach closely to nature, and are more sure to make their work of interest elsewhere and afterward. Shakspere's men are apt to be Englishmen, though they may figure in Illyria or Rome. Nor is it entirely through unfairness and caprice that the free range allowed to English poets has been denied our own. The Old World has drawn its countries together, like elderly people in a tacit alliance against the strength of youth which cannot return to them, the fresh, rude beauty and love which they may not share. There is, also, something worth an estimate in the division of an ocean gulf, that makes us like the people of a new planet; and when those on the other side hear us sounding the changes upon familiar themes, with voices not unlike their own, they well may feel as if the highest qualities of our song were not full compensation for its lack of

*I am not considering the question whether a poet of the first rank may, or may not, find his natural vocation under the most adverse conditions, and overcome them; but am trying to see why a general poetic movement, embracing many true poets, was deferred until Longfellow, Poe, Whittier, Emerson, Lowell, Whitman, and others of the generation under review, appeared almost simultaneously. An article which seeks to regard many factors of a problem should be read wholly and in detail, or it will be misinterpreted.

"something rich and strange." A response may fairly be expected to the search for novelty, to the curious yearning of those who look to us from across the seas.

Here begin the special restrictions of an American poet. He represents, it is true, the music and ardor of a new country, of a land his race has peopled for two hundred and fifty years, a nation that has completed its first century. A new land, a new nation

yet not forced, like those which have progressed from barbarism to a sense of art, to create a language and literature of their own; a new land with an old language, a new nation with all the literature and traditions behind it of the country from whose colonies it has sprung. While the thought and learning of this people began in America just where it had reached in the mother-land at the dates of the respective settlements, the physical state and environment of Americans were those of men who find themselves encountering the primitive nature of a savage world; with this difference, that they were equipped for the struggle, not as an aboriginal race, but with the logic, courage, experience, of the civilization behind them. All the drags, the anchorage, the limitations, involved in the word Colonial, retarded a new ideality. The colonial restriction has been well determined. It made the western lyre, until the period covered by this survey, a mechanism to echo, without fresh and true feeling, notes that came from over sea. It so occupied this people with a stern, steadfast, ingenious, finally triumphant, contest with Nature, that their epic passion was absorbed in the clearing of forests, bridging of rivers, the conquest of savage and beasts, the creation of a free government; and this labor is not yet ended-it goes on with larger cohorts, and immensely widening power. But the imagination never dies, and when our first leisure came for its exercise it was awakened by contact with the Nature thus tamed-by communion with the broadest panorama of woods and hills and waters, under the most radiant skies, that civilized man has ever found himself confronting. Pioneers in art and poetry here caught their inspiration, and naturally the field of painting was the first to give token of novel results. The very ease with which books containing the world's best literature were obtainable in the backwoods made our early writers copyists. The painters, meanwhile, had to lament the absence of galleries in this country, and their own inability to go abroad

and study. Thrown upon themselves, and deficient in technical knowledge, they sought for models in the nature about them; and thus began our landscape-school of painting, the work of which, however rude and defective, was more original than the verse wherewith it was contemporary.

The

A poet of the first rank is not given to every country, nor to every age. But poets of gifts approaching those of our living favorites doubtless have been born in America, according to Nature's average, at different times of our history. Until recently, the stimulants of their genius must have been wanting. It may be that the people had no real need of them, and song and art, no more than invention, come without necessity. What poetry was latent here and there does not concern us. stone on which our colonial life was founded was frigid as an arctic bowlder-there was no molecular motion to give out life and heat. Who were the mute, inglorious Miltons? Of what kind is the verse that was produced? Does it move us ? Is it poetry? However fine the cast of individuals, the effect of a perpetual contest with the elemental, often sinister, always gigantic, forces of a new continent, would be so adverse to art, so directly in the line of necessity and temporal gain, as to stifle their poetic fire, to develop a heroism that was stolid and unimaginative, to mark persons and communities with sternness and angularity, leading them to a homely gauge of values, not wont to esteem the ideal at its true worth. The aspiration of a refined nature would seem to the multitude foolishness and a stumbling-block. For a prolonged season the art of writing verse was almost solely a luxury of the professional classes in America, and its relics bear witness to their pedantry and dullness. It is not to the wigged and gowned that we instinctively listen for the music and freedom of creative song. And if poetry even in England, from the middle of the seventeenth century to the close of the eighteenth, stupidly fashioned itself upon the models of worn-out schools, how should it do more in England's colonies-that brought hither certain shoots of taste and learning from the Old World and found it hard to protect them at all in the sterile wild-woods of the New ?

Such was the nature of the barriers which, in the early and later colonial periods, absolutely defied the overleaping of a single notable poet. We find little of more

significance in the transition era of the Revolution, although a nation took on life. No poetry was begotten in the rage of that heroic strife; its humor, hatred, hope, suffering, prophecy, were feebly uttered, so far as verse was concerned, in the mode and language inherited years before from the coarsest English satirists. There came at last a time when the nation felt itself in vigorous youth, and began to have a song. Some few original notes were heard among our pipings. The positive barriers were broken, and in their stead came the restrictions that are felt in some degree down to the present time.

At the outset it may be said of republicanism itself,—in which our pride and faith are based, and which we trust is ultimately to promote a literature and an art not below the standard of our bravest hope,—that it hitherto has somewhat lessened the ardor of our poets, or kept it within temperate bounds. There is a craving for ideality of a certain kind, and in our liberal regions the sense of utility is not the sole controlling power. There is a wide manifestation of that which bears to pure ideality an inferior relationship. Our system has diffused the intelligence which lifts our people quite above the dullness and stolidity of the middle classes elsewhere, but has not yet brought them to the pitch of high emotion. It is a leveler, and in its early stages raises a multitude to the level of the commonplace; so that there have been few tall heads of grain above the even field. The general independence and comfort have not bred those dramatic elements which imply conditions of splendor and squalor, glory and shame, triumph and despair. In their stead we have the spirit of the American homesteads, and the loss to the artist of some darker contrast, that would make their virtue and piety more inspiring, certainly is their gain. In no other country are there so many happy little households—although there is a curious foreign belief to the contrary, derived from traveling acquaintanceship. This must be so in the one land where every man can own a portion of the soil and be a freeholder, and where a man's toil meets no doubtful reward. The popular thrift and freedom, joined with the necessity for labor to steadily maintain them, are not at first productive of the tragic or entrancing dreams of effective art. Wisely bettering their material chances, men are too busy to feel a spiritual want. And the labor of our representative men is

« AnkstesnisTęsti »