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so extended and heroic as of itself to feed | lands.
These adverse influences, belonging to the soil and air, are perhaps not so directly comprehended by the American poet as are the obvious and technical impediments which have force when he essays a sustained and novel work.
In considering these, let us acknowledge that they do not greatly concern the emotional and lyric poet. He is at no loss for a method or a theme; the latter is at once the cause and modulator of his song. Personal joys and griefs, special occurrences in history or related to the individual lifethese have inspired, and do inspire, the briefer poems, the lyrics which still make up the choicest portion of our verse. Their range is wide, from the simple fireside ballad to the impassioned ode, and my estimate of their remarkable freshness and variety will be given more fully hereafter. At present I would say that among them are many admirable of their kind, and that the relative number of these is not less than can be found in the popular verse of other
An American critic fails in discernment or independence who does not see this and avow it.
But, while the lyrical songster need not cast about for a subject, and does not even look into his heart to write-for his heart has already moved him-the ambitious poet is best equipped for a larger effort by some adequate theme awaiting his hand. The moment arrives when poets of the upper cast desire to forego their studies and brief lyrical flights, and to produce the composite and heroic works that rank as masterpieces. These leaders often have been arrested, with respect to romantic or epic structures, by a scarcity of home-themes, no less than by the lack of sharp dramatic contrast in our equable American life. I am aware that this statement frequently is derided, and that many poets, while realizing that their product is too meager, will not acknowledge its force. Others, and these of our foremost, who have thought to analyze their experience, confess that it is true in no small measure, and have stated this over their own hands.
Up to the present date, absence of theme for a national masterpiece, for a work belonging to our own atmosphere and history, has been a result of the condition under which we started. Original art is long deferred among a people cultured at the outset. A writer* has well said that "the cause of the absence of the legendary and poetic in our early history, may be attributed to the mental development of the colonists, who had already passed through that historic stage." They started at once with both church and school-house. The imagination was controlled by precedent, and "Art was cheated of its birthright." They made little history, in a dramatic sense. What there was of the poetic or wondrous in their arduous, compelling life had a local range, -such as the trials for witchcraft, finely utilized by New England's great romancer, and too inadequately, it must be owned, by her most famous poet. In Parkman's elegant survey of certain picturesque epochs in colonial history, the feminine element, essential to complete dramatic quality, is usually wanting; in other annals, like those of Spanish-American adventure, it scarcely appears at all. American antiquity is a rude settler's antiquity; a homely fashion that palls, because not long out of date; a
*See Otis's "Sacred and Constructive Art." New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
story everywhere the same,-furnishing at times the basis of some exquisite idyl, like "Evangeline," but for none too many of them. "Evangeline" still remains the most notable of the longer American poems; and how much of that is otherwise than scenic and idyllic, and how much of it does not fit the story to the landscape, rather than the landscape to the story? No material, no stirring theme, with all your freedom, your conquest, your noble woods and waters, your westward spread of men! These are motives, accessories, atmosphere, often grander inmagnitude than elsewhere to be found, but not perforce more new. The poetic instinct does not always hold the macrocosm superior to the microcosm, the prairie to the plain of Marathon, the Hudson to the Cephisus or the Tweed. As for latter-day history, this is not far enough removed. From the Revolution to the Civil War, the incidents of our life and passion are so recent and so plainly recorded as to gather no luminous halo from the too slight distance at which we observe them. The true poet will profit by them to the uttermost; the limits are to be overcome, but still are limits and in his way. He is thrown upon the necessity of inventing dramatic themes for the broader range of poetic venture. This the great poets always have avoided, for the product of such invention usually has seemed artificial and remote from human concern.
Bear in mind, also, that our wide-awake people are removed, not only from the superstitions that were a religion to our forefathers, but from the wondercraft and simple faith prevailing among the common folk of other lands than our own. The beautifying lens of fancy has dropped from our eyes. Where are our forest and river legends, our Lorelei, our Venusberg, our elves and kobolds? We have old-time customs and traditions, and they are quaint and dear to us, but their atmosphere is not one in which we freely move. Just so with our heroism. No national changes and struggles have been of more worth than our own, but critics are not far wrong who point out that, however lofty the action and spirit of our latest crisis, heroism is not with us so much the chief business that one must be always" enthusiastic and on guard." One of our poets aims to be especially national. He sings, upon theory, as the American bard must sing when the years have died away. The result is a striking but artificial assumption of what can only come of itself,
and after long time be past; a disjointed series of kaleidoscopic pieces, not constituting a master-work, but with all their strength and weakness, as unsatisfactory as the illassorted elements which he strives to represent. For he, too, as we shall see, is representative and a personage of mark, if not precisely in the direction of his own choice and assurance.
To more clearly understand how far, and in what way, our poets must feel the lack of background, of social contrasts, and of legendary and specific incident, we may observe the literature of some region where different conditions exist. In an isolated country of established growth and quality, a native genius soon discovers his tendency and proper field.
Look at Scotland. Her national melodies were ready and waiting for Burns; her legends, history, traditions, for Walter Scott. The popular tongue, costumes, manners, all distinctively and picturesquely her own, affect the entire outcome of her song and art. Embraced in English literature, her literature is so un-English that it affords the paradigm we need. Enter the cathedral in Glasgow. Within the last thirty years that edifice has been refitted throughout with stained glass, contributed by the ancient families and clans. What associations are called up by the devices upon the windows in the chancel and nave, and in the impressive crypt below! Among all the shields and names,-those of Sterling, Hay, Douglas, Montrose, Campbell, Montgomerie, Lawrie, Buccleuch, Hamilton,— not one that is not utterly, purely Scottish. Even in our oldest and most characteristic sections, in Virginia or New England, influences like these do not prevail to any such extent. In a certain sense, they are not only influences but aids: they move, they stimulate, they belong to the life and memory of the native poet, and he avails himself of them without effort or consciousNot that they are the essential, the imperative aids. But to be without them is a restriction, and one which our first genuine school of poets has had more or less to endure.
Strange, indeed, if the material wants of New-World life, its utilitarian test of values, and the general conditions of a primitive democracy, had not forced our early idealists into a struggle for existence which even the sturdiest found it hard to prolong. Two things are essential to the poetic aspiration that results in fine achievement: the sym
pathetic applause which ministers to the last infirmity of noble minds, and the common wage that enables a laborer to do his work. The rewards of authorship have been sufficiently doubtful and varying in times before our own. In older lands, the poet, like his predecessor the minstrel, was at least protected and nourished by the good or great to whom he dedicated his song. Happily this kind of support was from the first impracticable in a liberal republic. But it long was impossible, on material grounds alone, -although certain enthusiasts might attempt to live upon love and fame,—that any vigorous and prevailing flood of poesy should be sustained in toiling, practical, frugal America. We now know that in art, as in life, ideal productiveness follows and does not precede material security and wealth. The most creative eras of historic lands were those when their cities were the richest, when their galleons sought out distant ports, and their nobles and burgesses, sure of life's needs, craved for the luxuries of taste and emotion. Literature thrives as a means of subsistence, nor is poetry an exception to the rule. The supply answers to the demand. Not long ago, in this country, few books except school-books were required by the people; and how should poetry, that looked from the printed page for its welcome and sustenance, be naturally composed? We are speaking of an ethereal art, but quietly examining the law of its activity.
It is, moreover, in America that the рорular instinct, which resists whatever is asserted to be a tax upon knowledge, has worked with peculiar force against the development of a home-school. So long as our purveyors could avail themselves without cost or hindrance of foreign master-works, they scarcely could be expected to risk their means in behalf of native authorship. Pure idealists, men like Poe and Hawthorne, are little able to push their own fortunes. Until a state of law shall exist that will induce American publishers, driven from their distant foraging-grounds, to seek for genius at home and make it available, the support of our authors will not be so assured as to tend" in the end to the advancement of literature." International copyright at least would have made it feasible for the poet to earn his living by general literary work, and to reserve some heart and thought for his nobler calling. Now, when a serious movement at last seems under way toward copyright reform. it still has
been so hampered with reservations and class-interests that many ask whether it were not better to have no change at all than to have one that is partial, and that may postpone indefinitely the one thing needful, to wit: honest recognition of an author's right of property in his own creations, without any more limits of space and time than those appertaining to other kinds of estate.
Literature verily has been almost the sole product of human labor that has not been rated as the lasting property of the producer and his heirs or assigns. This want of permanent copyright has borne severely upon authors in all countries, but most severely upon those of America, who have had to await the formation of public taste, to create their audiences, and who, while willing to suffer in their own persons, are less ready to devote life-times to the production of what will be valueless to those whom they hold most dear. The want of international copyright has been a grievous wrong to our brother-writers in Europe. Their complaints are just; their cry has gone up for years. Great as the spoliations have been which they have endured, the effect upon our native literature and authorship has been no less disastrous. Our authors themselves do not comprehend it. A few of the great publishing houses, grown rich upon the system of free reprints, of late have felt this wrong, and the men of heart and culture who control them are generously atoning for it. We see them leaders in artistic and literary movements, the friends of authors and artists, receiving for their public and private humanities our warmest tributes of honor and affection. It is said that every wrong in this world is surely, if slowly, righted; and the wrongs of authors doubtless will be set right. But who shall pick up water spilled to the ground. The writers of a new generation will never realize how bitter was the bread eaten by those who went before them and made their paths straight.
Critical periods are sometimes uncreative, yet there is little doubt that our poetry has suffered, also, from the lack of those high and exquisite standards of criticism which have been established in older lands. The poet, the artist, alike need the correction of a fine censorship and the tonic of that just appreciation which is the promise of fame. American verse, within recent memory, has experienced, first, a popular favor gained by its weakest and most effeminate sentiment, and, secondly, a rude exaggeration
of its defects, a refusal to acknowledge its |
time one to which a hackneyed word, "transitional," is more correctly applied than to any former period. The new learning-the passage from the child-like and phenomenal way of regarding things to the absolute, scientific penetration of their true entities and relations, has directly told upon the work of the poet, requiring new language, imagery, invention, as he adapts himself to a deeper purpose and the hope of a sublimer faith. I have pointed out, as well, the struggles, devices, defeats, and victories, of the English minstrels under the stress of latter-day iconoclasm and the invincible demands of modern thought; taking into account, also, the minor and obvious forces antagonistic to a devoted pursuit of the ideal,-among the rest the world's material activity, displayed in labor, invention, confac-struction,-the world's realistic eagerness, that makes of the newspaper, the novel, and the bulletins of science, the food and outlets of the imagination, and renders mankind intent alone upon each day's labor, so to hasten on the golden year. Reluctant to confront these ceaseless and perturbing manifestations, until out of them the world shall have derived a more assured philosophy, and shall again have found repose, many of the latest singers have ignored. them altogether; the weaker busying themselves with mere dilettanteism and the technique of their vocation,—the nobler being devoted to the worship of beauty pure and simple, and often going back to its early revelations and the antique forms.
THESE, it seems to me, have been the local and organic difficulties with which the American poet, wittingly or unwittingly, has had to contend. They are not figments of the brain; their force has been real; time and national development alone have lessened them; during the continuation of their serious pressure the rise of poetry was delayed. It is curious to note that, just as their adverse influence began to pass away, a new class of restrictions came in play throughout the enlightened world, affecting our own idealists in common with those of the mother-land. When I long since began to think of the present work, I saw that the modern intellectual change was so absolute and noteworthy that I was compelled to examine its results, to seek for the general conditions of the period, and to attempt a review of the poets and poetry of England before entering upon our home-field-in order to justly comprehend the effect of the new atmosphere upon the spirit of poetry itself. In the first chapter of the "Victorian Poets," certain perplexing elements are considered which have made the recent
THESE generic burdens of the age itself have borne even more severely upon American idealists than upon their transatlantic brethren. Yet, it was when they first began to have their weight, and not until then, that the true light of Poetry in America ventured to appear. Under the very shadow of the whirlwind it brightened into dawn. Possibly the new learning was most of all needed here, as an offset to puritanism, superstition, and sentimentalism in its mawkish forms. Honest fact and a search for our own resources gave an impulse to healthy inspiration. But the opportunity for the achievements of our leading poets, now so famous and beloved in their hoary years, really came when the specific restrictions, to which so much space has been here devoted, at last yielded measurably to time
and national progress. Coincidently with their decline, certain positive Aids to our lyrical genius became apparent, and were felt, and aroused to joyous activity its instinct, courage, and imagination.
First of all, as I have shown, the American with an eye for natural beauty, led by his seclusion to close and musing observation, had a subject for poetic expression in the landscape of the New World, by turns impressive, bewildering, reposeful, but always beautiful and strong. If its primeval aspect stupefied the toiling settlers, while its grandeur seemed to belittle humanity and to defer the proper study of mankind, it afterward compelled our ideal recognition, and inspired the early and reverent anthems of the father of our choir. Next, and most vital of the elements required for the promotion of a home-school, a national feeling grew up when the compactness and growth of the United States, as a nation, became assured. Half a century was needed to bring this feeling to the blossoming form of art. Meanwhile, it had been strengthening and finding expression in other ways; for example, in the patriotic eloquence which marked our oratory, and which warmed the blood and stirred the impulse of many a poetic youth, as he read in his school-books the speeches of the founders and preservers of liberty. Hence our strongest emotional traits-love of freedom, hatred of oppression, respect for ancestral faith, the sense of independence which makes an American stand erect and believe himself the peer of any man, the audacity and ambition found among no other people; finally an adventurous habit of experimenting without much regard to precedent or training. Out of some of these traits came, it is true, a commonplace and widely diffused product
But if a host of writers ended in mediocrity, this, too, was in the order of evolution. The poor books of one generation are often horn-books for the people, the promise and cause of better work in the next. The late Civil War was not of itself an incentive to good poetry and art, nor directly productive of them. Such disorders seldom are; action is a substitute for the ideal, and the thinker's or dreamer's life seems ignoble and repugnant. But we shall see that the moral and emotional conflicts preceding the war, and leading to it, were largely stimulating to poetic ardor; they broke into expression, and buoyed with earnest and fervid sentiment our heroic verse. Lastly, it must be observed that, about the time from which I date the appearance of a group of noteworthy poets, a material support was afforded to ideal work. Both artists and writers began to be paid, and found their respective gifts to some extent a means of subsistence. American publishers, as I have said, took heart, and made ventures in behalf of our own literature. Journalism also lent its aid, paying critical attention to native authors, and enabling not a few of them to gain a sure foot-hold by labor upon the great newspapers and magazines. All these aids, I repeat, came into service after the scientific restraint of the modern period began to have weight. They assisted us to bear up against it, and alleviated the special restrictions of an earlier time. The sweet and various measures of a band of genuine singers at length were heard, and found an audience in whatsoever regions know the English_tongue. American poetry took its place in literature, and entered upon a first term, now drawing to an end, and included in the field of this review.
FORTH from the dust we spring, and run About the green earth's patient breast,— Our little day. At set of sun
Into her bosom creep and rest.