Friday, January 23, 2009

Not THAT Lowell, the other one!

Ron Silliman recently showed that "quietism" has its roots in the methodology of Jones Very, Sidney Lanier, and... James Russell Lowell. But ironically, the term "School of Quietude" comes from Edgar Allan Poe (Happy Belated Birthday, Edgar!) - and Poe adored James Russell Lowell, as you can see from a review essay in which he says that Lowell "has given evidence of at least as high poetical genius as any man in America." Me, I'm not too crazy about J.R.'s stuff, but I'm no Poe, that's for sure!


Poe's review of Poems by James Russell Lowell. (Cambridge: Published by John Owen)

This new volume of poems by Mr. Lowell will place him, in the estimation of all whose opinion he will be likely to value, at the very head of the poets of America. For our own part, we have not the slightest hesitation in saying, that we regard the "Legend of Brittany" as by far the finest poetical work, of equal length, which the country has produced. We have only to regret, just now, that the late period at which we received the volume, and the great length to which Mr. Poe has been seduced into a notice of "Orion," will preclude an extended notice and analysis this month of Mr. Lowell's volume. This, however, we propose at some future period. For the present, we must content ourselves, perforce, with some very cursory and unconnected comments.

Mr. Lowell is, in some measure, infected with the poetical conventionalities of the day -- those upon which Mr. Poe has descanted in speaking of Mr. Horne's epic. He has suffered himself to be coteried into conceptions of the aims of the muse, which his reason either now disapproves, or will disapprove hereafter, and which his keen instinct of the beautiful and proper has, long ere this, struggled to disavow. It will not be many days before he dismisses these heresies altogether; and, in his last, longest, and best work, we clearly see that he is already growing wearied with them -- although the distaste may yet be scarcely perceptible to himself. We mean to say that he will soon find it wise to give every thing its due time and place. He will never the less reverence the truth nor ever will the welfare of his race be less precious in his eyes than now -- we should grieve, indeed, could we think it would -- but his views of the modes in which these objects are to be advanced will undergo modification, and he will see distinctly, what he now but vaguely feels -- that the sole legitimate object of the true poem is the creation of beauty.

The "Legend of Brittany" includes a hundred and eighteen of the Don Juan stanzas. Its subject is exquisitely beautiful. Whether it is original with Mr. Lowell we know not -- most probably it is not -- but the story itself (from whatever source derived) forms one of the truest and purest poetical theses imaginable. A Templar loves and betrays a maiden. Afterward, to conceal his guilt, he murders her, enceinte, concealing the corpse, temporarily, behind the altar of his church. A nameless awe prevents him from removing it. Meantime, a festival is held in the church; and, during the swell of the organ, the spirit-voice of the deceased addresses itself to the murderer. It represents that she, the murdered, cannot enjoy the heaven which she inhabits, through grief at the destiny of the unbaptized infant in her womb. She implores its baptism. The poem ends with the performance of this rite, and the death, through remorse, of the repentant lover.

The naked digest here given conveys, of course, only the most feeble idea of the rare beauty of the whole; nor of this beauty could we convey any just conception even in many pages of comment. The sublimity of human love was never more magnificently portrayed. We cannot refrain from quoting some passages from the words of the spirit:

Think not in death my love could ever cease.
If thou wast false more need there is for me
Still to be true; that slumber were not peace,
If't were unvisited with dreams of thee:
And thou hadst never heard such words as these,
Save that in heaven I must forever be
Most comfortless and wretched, seeing this
Our unbaptized babe shut out from bliss.
This little spirit with imploring eyes
Wanders alone the dreary wild of space;
The shadow of his pain forever lies
Upon my soul in this new dwelling place;
His loneliness makes me in Paradise
More lonely, and unless I see his face,
Even here for grief could I lie down and die,
Save for my curse of immortality.
World after world he sees around him swim,
Crowded with happy souls, that take no heed
Of the sad eyes that from the night's faint rim
Gaze sick with longing on them as they speed
With golden gates that only shut out him;
And shapes sometimes, from Hell's abysses freed,
Flap darkly by him, with enormous sweep
Of wings that roughen wide the pitchy deep.
I am a mother -- spirits do not shake
This much of earth from them -- and I must pine
Till I can feel his little hands, and take
His weary head upon this heart of mine;
And might it be full gladly for his sake
Would I this solitude of bliss resign,
And be shut out of Heaven to dwell with him
Forever in that silence drear and dim.
I strove to hush my soul, and would not speak
At first for thy dear sake; a woman's love
Is mighty, but a mother's heart is weak,
And by its weakness overcomes; I strove
To smother bitter thoughts with patience meek,
But still in the abyss my soul would rove,
Seeking my child, and drove me here to claim
The rite that gives him peace in Christ's dear name.
I sit and weep while blessed spirits sing;
I can but long and pine the while they praise,
And, leaning o'er the wall of Heaven, I fling
My voice to where I deem my infant strays,
Like a robbed bird that cries in vain to bring
Her nestlings back beneath her wing's embrace;
But still he answers not, and I but know
That Heaven and Earth are both alike in wo.

The description of the swelling of the organ -- immediately preceding these extracts -- surpasses, in all the loftier merits, any similar passage we have seen. It is truly magnificent. For those who have the book, we instance the forty-first stanza of the second book, and the nine stanzas succeeding. We know not where to look, in all American poetry, for any thing more richly ideal, or more forcibly conveyed.

The music is suddenly interrupted by the nameless awe which indicates the presence of the unseen spirit.

As if a lark should suddenly drop dead
While the blue air yet trembled with its song,
So snapped at once that music's golden thread,
Struck by a nameless fear that leapt along
From heart to heart, and like a shadow spread
With instantaneous shiver through the throng,
So that some glanced behind, as half aware
A hideous shape of dread were standing there.

The defects observable in the "Legend of Brittany" are, chiefly, consequent upon the error of didacticism. After every few words of narration, comes a page of morality. Not that the morality, here -- not that the reflections deduced from the incidents, are peculiarly exceptionable, but that they are too obviously, intrusively, and artificially introduced. The story might have been rendered more unique, and altogether more in consonance with the true poetic sentiment, by suffering the morality to be suggested; as it is, for example, in the "Old Curiosity Shop," of Dickens -- or in that superb poem, the "Undine" of De la Motte Fouqué.

The other demerits are minor ones. The versification is now and then slightly deficient -- sometimes in melody -- sometimes in force. The drawing out of "power," "heaven," and other similar words into two syllables, is sure to enfeeble the verses in which they are so drawn out. The versifier, where a doubt, however slight, exists, never errs on the side of excess; but this is a point we cannot argue just now. Of the positively rough lines, we quote only one:

Earth's dust hath clotted round the soul's fresh wing.

Here the harsh consonants are excessive. But we feel ashamed of alluding to trifles such as these in the presence of beauties so numerous and so true. We extract, at random, a few of the smaller gems of the poem.

Her spirit wandered by itself and won
A golden edge from some unsetting sun.
For she was but a simple herdsman's child,
A lily chance-sown in the rugged wild.
Not the first violet on a woodland lea
Seemed a more visible gift of spring than she.
Low stirrings in the leaves, before the wind
Wakes all the green strings of the forest lyre.
Faint heatings in the calyx ere the rose
Its warm, voluptuous breast doth all unclose.
Flooded he seemed with bright delicious pain,
As if a star had burst within his brain.
So, from her sky-like spirit, gentleness
Dropt ever like a sunlit fall of rain,
And his beneath drank in the bright caress
As thirstily as would a parched plain
That long hath watched the showers of sloping gray
Forever, ever, falling far away.
And when he went, his radiant memory
Robed all his fantasies with glory fresh,
As if an angel, quitting her the while,
Left round her heart the halo of his smile.
Like golden ripples, hastening to the land
To wreck their freight of sunshine on the strand.
Hope skims o'er life as we may sometimes see
A butterfly, whose home is in the flowers,
Blown outward far over the moaning sea,
Remembering in vain its odorous bowers.
She seemed a white-browed angel sent to roll
The heavy stone away which long had prest,
As in a living sepulchre, his soul.
In the court-yard a fountain leaped alway --
A Triton blowing jewels thro' his shell
Into the sunshine.
His heart went out within him like a spark
Dropt in the sea.
---- as if all fäerie
Had emptied her quaint halls, or, as it were,
The illuminated marge of some old book,
While we were gazing, life and motion took.

We have left ourselves no room to speak of the other poems in detail. Those which we think best, are "The Moon," "To Perdita Singing," "Midnight," "Rosalie," "Reverie," "The Shepherd of King Admetus," and "A Dirge." These are crowded with excellences of the loftiest order. "Prometheus" we have not yet read so attentively as we could wish. Altogether, we intend this as merely an introduction to an extended review of all the poems of Mr. Lowell. In the mean time we repeat, that he has given evidence of at least as high poetical genius as any man in America -- if not a loftier genius than any.

Source: Graham's Magazine, March 1844, pp. 142-143. Illustration above by Manet for "The Raven," in particular the lines: "And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; /And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted— nevermore!"

Addendum: The story behind the story of "quietude" can be found here, thanks to Shanna Compton, who brought it to my attention.


Zachariah Wells said...


the unreliable narrator said...

Quite the flowery critic, our Edgar! I know Silliman asserts that Poe came up with the term in the 1840s, but I do wonder where and given what contingent points of reference. And I wonder how much ormulu Poe criticism I'd have to read through to find out...I am on my way to the library, but tackling Lowell the younger is my aim.

Given that I'm actually trying to read poetry and learn about it this semester, I've disengaged from the electronic fray, especially given that I'm a thread-killer and was somehow always on a different page (or even in a different library) from everyone else. But I lurk here with Byronic glee. "Confess—confess—you dog—and be candid—that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing."

the unreliable narrator said...

Oh and PS—my final prelurking blurt, for what it's worth; which is to say, it and five bucks might get you a latté.

Don Share said...

Rob, Poe's middle name was misspelt twice, an egregious error now corrected - for which apologies and thanks. The spellings in his essay are as they were in the original, and I have not attempted to alter them.

Yrs. gratefully & red-faced, too,