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"And dost thou still, thou mass of breathing stone,
What though the spirits of the North that swept
To draw down Gods, and lift the soul to Heaven!"
If poetical merit bore any proportion to magnitude, "the Sick Chamber," and the Butterfly," would deserve no attention: but it would be difficult to name two small poems, by the same writer, in which he has attained such high degrees of kinds of excellence so dissimilar. The first has a truth of detail, which, considered merely as painting, is admirable; but assumes a high character, when it is felt to be that minute remembrance, with which affection recollects every circumstance that could influence a beloved sufferer. Though the morality which concludes the second be in itself very beautiful, it may be doubted whether the verses would not have left a more unmixed delight, if the address had remained as a mere sport of fancy, without the seriousness of an object, or an application.
The Verses, written in Westminster Abbey, are surrounded by dangerous recollections. They aspire to commemorate Fox-and to copy some of the grandest thoughts in the most sublime work of Bossuet. Nothing can satisfy the expectation awakened by such names. Yet we venture to quote the following lines, with the assurance, that there are some of them which would be most envied by the best writers of this age:
"Friend of the Absent! Guardian of the Dead!
The scenery of Loch Long is among the grandest in Scotland; and the following description of it shows the power of feeling and painting. Perhaps, however, it partly owes its insertion here, to individual recollections, as well as national sentiments. In this island, the taste for Nature has grown with the progress of refinement. It is most alive in those who are most brilliantly distinguished in social and active life. It elevates the mind above the meanness which it might contract in the rivalship for praise; and preserves those habits of reflection and sensibility, which receive so many rude shocks in the coarse contests of the world. Not many summer hours can be passed in the most mountainous solitudes of Scotland, without meeting some who are worthy to be remembered with the sublime objects of Nature which they had travelled so far to admire.
"Upon another shore I stood,
And look'd upon another flood, *
Great Ocean's self! (Tis He who fills
That vast and awful depth of hills;)
Where many an elf was playing round,
The shatter'd fortress, whence the Danc
All into midnight-shadow sweep
When day springs upward from the deep!*
The prow wakes splendour; and the oar,
Glad sign, and sure! for now we hail
Oh blest retreat, and sacred too!
And Her-the Lady of the Glen!"
The most conspicuous of the novelties of this volume, is the poem or poems, entitled, "Fragments of the Voyage of Columbus." The subject of this poem is, politically or philosophically considered, among the most important in the annals of mankind. The introduction of Christianity (humanly viewed)-the irruption of the Northern barbarians-the contest between the Christian and Mussulman nations in Syria-the two inventions of Gunpowder and Printing-the emancipation of the human understanding by the Reformation-the discovery of America, and of a maritime passage to Asia in the last ten years of the fifteenth century-are the events which have produced the greatest and most durable effects since the establishment of civilisation, and the consequent commencement of authentic history. But the poetical capabilities of an event bear no proportion to historical importance. None of the consequences that do not strike the senses or the fancy, can interest the poet. The greatest of the transactions above enumerated, are obviously incapable of entering into poetry. The Crusades were not without permanent effects on the state of men: but their poetical interest does not arise from these effects;-and it immeasurably surpasses them.
Whether the voyage of Columbus be destined to be for ever incapable of becoming the subject of an epic poem, is a question which we have scarcely the means of answering. The success of great writers has often so little corresponded with the promise of their subject, that we might be almost tempted to think the choice of a subject indifferent. The story of Hamlet, or of Paradise Lost, would beforehand have been pronounced to
be unmanageable. Perhaps the genius of Shakspeare and of Milton has rather compensated for the incorrigible defects of ungrateful subjects, than conquered them. The course of ages may produce the poetical geniusthe historical materials and the national feelings, for an American epic poem. There is yet but one State in America, and that state is hardly become a nation. At some future period, when every part of the continent has been the scene of memorable events, when the discovery and conquest have receded into that legendary dimness which allows fancy to mould them at her pleasure, the early history of America may afford scope for the genius of a thousand national poets; and while some may soften the cruelty which darkens the daring energy of Cortez and Pizarro-while others may, in perhaps new forms of poetry, ennoble the pacific conquests of Penn-and while the genius, the exploits, and the fate of Raleigh, may render his establishments probably the most alluring of American subjects-every inhabitant of the new world will turn his eyes with filial reverence towards Columbus,―and regard, with equal enthusiasm, the voyage which laid the foundation of so many states, and peopled a continent with civilised men. Most epic subjects, but especially such a subject as Columbus, require either the fire of an actor in the scene, or the religious reverence of a very distant posterity. Homer, as well as Ercilla, and Camoens, show what may be done by an epic poet who himself feels the passions of his heroes. It must not be denied, that Virgil has borrowed a colour of refinement from the Court of Augustus, in painting the age of Priam and of Dido. Evander is a solitary and exquisite model of primitive manners, divested of grossness without losing their simplicity. But to an European poet, in this age of the world, the Voyage of Columbus is too naked and too exactly defined by history. It has no variety, scarcely any succession of events. It consists of one scene, during which two or three simple passions continue in a state of the highest excitement. It is a voyage with intense anxiety in every bosom, controlled by magnanimous fortitude in the leader, and producing among his followers a fear sometimes submissive, sometimes mutinous, always ignoble. It admits no variety of character-no unexpected revolutions; and even the issue the sight of undiscovered land, though of unspeakable importance, and admirably adapted to some kinds of poetry, is not an event of such outward dignity and splendour as ought naturally to close the active and brilliant course of an epic poem.
The author has accordingly not attempted such a poem; he professes only to offer fragments of the voyage. To prove that these fragments have not the interest of a story, is a mere waste of critical ingenuity. The very title of Fragments, is a disavowal of all pretension to such an interest. Many of them have the appearance of having been originally members of a Lyric poem on the voyage of Columbus; and they still retain that predominant character. They are not so much parts of a narrative, as the sentiments or the visions of the poet. In the progress of insertion and amplification, they seem to have become separate poems-Lyrical, Descriptive, and Dramatic-on various events and scenes of the voyage. It cannot be true, that, because the whole is not a favourable subject for epic poetry, many of the parts should not be well adapted to such poems. Each fragment is to be tried by its separate excellence. Part of that excellence will consist in their relation and allusion to each other, which naturally arises from affinity of subject. If there be any other criterion by which such poems are to be tried, it can only be their fitness to be inserted into an epic poem, if
such a poem could be founded upon the event. The title, Fragments, implies also a renunciation of all claim to whatever merit may arise from the artifices of connection and transition. This will be considered as matter of very serious reproach, by those who adopt the maxim of French criticism, that difficulty conquered is the chief triumph of talent-who, to be consistent with themselves, ought to consider the most minute expedient of art as superior to the noblest exertions of genius.
To examine the general question of epic machinery, on an occasion like the present, would be impertinent. It is natural that the Fragments should give a specimen of the marvellous as well as of the other constituents of epic fiction. We may however observe, that it is neither the intention nor the tendency of poetical machinery, to supersede second causes-to fetter the will-and to make human creatures appear as the mere instruments of Destiny. It is introduced, to satisfy that insatiable demand for a nature more exalted than that which we know by experience—which creates all poetry and which is most active in its highest species, and in its most perfect productions. It is not to account for the thoughts and feelings, that the superhuman agents are brought down upon earth. It is rather for the contrary purpose, of lifting them into a mysterious dignity beyond the cognizance of reason. There is a material difference between the acts which superior beings perform and the sentiments which they inspire. It is true, that when a God fights against men, there can be no uncertainty or anxiety, and consequently no interest, about the event,-unless indeed in the rude theology of Homer, where Minerva may animate the Greeks, while Mars excites the Trojans. But it is quite otherwise with these divine persons inspiring passion, or represented as agents in the great phenomena of nature. Venus and Mars inspire love or valour. They give a noble origin and a dignified character to these sentiments. But the sentiments themselves act according to the laws of our nature; and their celestial source has no tendency to impair their power over human sympathy. No event, which has not too much modern vulgarity to be susceptible of alliance with poetry, can be incapable of being ennobled by that eminently poetical art which ascribes it either to the supreme will, or to the agency of beings who are greater than human. The wisdom of Columbus is neither less venerable, nor less his own, because it is supposed to flow more directly than that of other wise men, from the inspiration of Heaven. The mutiny of his seamen is not less interesting or formidable, because the poet traces it to the suggestion of those malignant spirits, in whom the imagination, independent of all theological doctrines, is naturally prone to personify and embody the causes of evil.
Unless, indeed, the marvellous be a part of the popular creed at the period of the action, the reader of a subsequent age will refuse to sympathise with it. His poetical faith is founded in sympathy with the poetical personages. What they believed during their lives, he suffers to enter his imagination during the moment of enthusiasm in which he adopts their feelings. Still more objectionable is a marvellous, neither believed by the reader nor by the hero;-like a great part of the machinery of the Henriade and the Lusiad, which indeed is not only absolutely ineffective, but rather disennobles heroic fiction, by association with light and frivolous ideas. Allegorical persons (if the expression be allowed) are only in the way to become agents. The abstraction has received a faint outline of form but it has not yet acquired those individual marks,
and characteristic peculiarities, which render it a really existing being. Beauty and love gradually form themselves into Venus and Cupid. To employ them in the intermediate stage through which they must pass in the course of their tranformation from abstractions into deities, is an inartificial and uninteresting expedient. On the other hand, the more sublime parts of our own religion, and more especially those which are common to all religion, are too awful and too philosophical for poetical effect. If we except Paradise Lost, where all is supernatural, and where the ancestors of the human race are not strictly human beings, it must be owned that no successful attempt has been made to ally a human action with the sublimer principles of the Christian theology. Some opinions, which may perhaps, without irreverence, be said to be rather appendages to the Christian system, than essential parts of it, are in that sort of intertermediate state which fits them for the purposes of poetry ;-sufficiently exalted to ennoble those human actions with which they are blendedand not so exactly defined, nor so deeply revered, as to be inconsistent with the liberty of imagination. The guardian angels, in the project of Dryden, had the inconvenience of having never taken any deep root in popular belief. The agency of evil spirits, firmly believed in the age of Columbus, seems to afford the only species of machinery which can be introduced into his voyage. With the truth of facts poetry can have no concern; but the truth of manners is necessary to its persons-and its marvellous must be such as these persons believed. If the minute investigations of the notes to this poem had related to historical details, they would have been insignificant; but they are intended to justify the human and the supernatural parts of it, by an appeal to the manners and to the opinions of the age.
Having premised these general observations, it is now only necessary to quote some of these fragments, that the reader, if he adopt the above principles, may have the means of applying them to this poem.
The proposition-The first appearance of the ships, and the tradewindin the first canto, appear to us to be passages which, in beauty of conception and execution, it is not easy to equal.
Say who first pass'd the portals of the West,
Twas night. The Moon o'er the wide wave disclosed
When, slowly rising in the azure sky,
Three white sails shone-but to no mortal eye,-
Entering a boundless sea. In slumber cast,
The very ship-boy, on the dizzy mast,
Half breathed his orisons! Alone unchanged,
Calmly, beneath, the great Commander ranged,
Thoughtful, not sad. Thy will be done!' he criel.-.
He spoke, and, at his call, a mighty Wind,
Not like the fitful blast, with fury bliud,
But deep, majestic, in its destined course,
From the bright East. Tides duly ebb'd and flow'd;
Stars rose and set; and new horizons glow'd:
Still did its ample spirit, night and day,