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NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.
NEW SERIES, No. IX.
Art. I.—Poems by James G. Percival. 12mo, pp. 346. New
It happens to almost all men of superior talents, to have made an essay at poetry, in early life. Whatever direction be finally forced upon them, by strong circumstances or strong inclination, there is a period after the imagination is awakened, and the affections are excited, and before the great duties and cares of life begin, when almost all men of genius write a few lines, in the shape of a patriotic song, a sonnet by Julio in the magazine, or lines to some fair object. This is the natural outlet and expression of youthful enthusiasm and warmth ; and young men are poetical at the same age and for the same reasons, that they are apt to be flighty in their characters, and imprudent in their conduct. Poetry of this kind is a little intellectual dissipation, which calls up a blush on the cheek of the veteran in some profession, after a twenty years' recollection, as a youthful foible is also remembered with regret; but neither the sin of morals nor of taste is set down among the unpardonable. Certain forward young men moreover try their hand at almost every thing. Not that they have no prevailing taste, which will finally disclose itself for some one pursuit; and not because they are even now incapable of confining themselves to a manly choice of an occupation; but, like the generous ancients, they feel a lively interest in all the efforts of the understanding; and so when their zeal happens New Series, No. 9.
to be excited by passion within, or nature without, or patriotic spirit, or any occasional impulse, it bursts out in poetry. Plato wrote verses when he was a young man, and wrote poetry always; but he had the discretion to burn his verses, and has raised his poetry to a higher strain, than any mere inspiration of the muse, by the admixture of a sublime philosophy. Cicero wrote poetry, but unluckily for his reputation he did not imitate Plato's example; and some of his verses have survived and betrayed themselves to the world. As a general rule, young men ought to be counselled to take Plato and not Cicero for their model on this occasion, and to commit carefully to the flames all this first species of poetry. Even if they have a strong poetical genius, it will rarely happen that these first flights will do it justice. If Virgil wrote the little pieces, which bear his name- Virgil, who in the severity of his judgment condemned the Æneid to the flames—what would be his mortification, could he return to life, to find the Culex, and the Copa, and the Moretum extant ? Lord Byron would gladly have toiled many busy days to have redeemed his Hours of Idleness from the world's knowledge. The difficulty is, that this youthful poetry, which is very creditable to the young men and women who write it, which fills up a corner handsomely in a newspaper, helps on the periodical dulness of a magazine, and is a treasure to the happy album, which can boast of something original, is in reality a very different thing from that other native poetry, that sixth sense of the mind, that quicker perception, deeper thought, stronger feeling, prophetic warmth, vaster comprehension, and more glowing and expressive utterance, with which it is sometimes injuriously confounded. That it is different, witness all the corpuses of ancient and modern days, melancholy thesauruses of minor poets, (a phrase that commits suicide in its terms) sets of works in scores of volumes, containing under the sacred name of the Poets of a language, authors and the works of authors, of which the memory, the tradition would else be lost. These all thought themselves poets in their day. In the morning of life, their feelings were keen and lively. Well bred and well educated young men, they thought delicately on all subjects, and commanded a good flow of words out of the best books they had read; and when they had wrought up this cheap material into couplets and stanzas, and procured it the admiration of their friends and mistress, and accumulated it to a
volume's size, they ushered it into the world, a candidate for its favour.
Many productions, to which it would be paying an extravagant compliment to apply even the foregoing remarks, are daily appearing among us, and it becomes a delicate question with all conscientious, patriotic, and good natured critics in what manner they should be noticed. These authors, for obvious reasons, are commonly of that class of the genus irritabile vatum, who have more of the irritabile than of the vatum in their composition; and the better they are as moderate poets, the more unpromising is their condition, and the more infallibly are they involved in that sad but most oracular sentence,
Mediocribus esse poetis Non homines, non Di, non concessere columnæ. We say our duty in relation to the productions we allude to is delicate, for they are a species of thing, which our canons do not recognize. They cannot come into our court with any claim whatever Pretty good poetry is no poetry at all. This the misguided aspirants themselves feel. Authors in most other departments think it a satisfactory praise, if they are admitted to have done as well, as their talents and means permit. But to say that poetry is not excellent is a proposition which nullifies itself; it is to deny under the tender saving of an accident, that which is essential to the substance. For
this reason, most young men are glad to write their poetry, as they sow their wild oats; and think as little of building a permanent literary character on one, as a moral character on the other. But the season, while it lasts, is one of such flourish and restless excitement, there is such a bustle made about the moon and field-flowers, and nature and passion; and the whole circle of friends, acquaintances, and neighbours is kept in such an uneasy stir while the fit is on, and above all the unhappy critics are so beteased for their suffrage, then so denounced by the poet if it is adverse, and by the public if it is favourable, that for ourselves we carry a young and promising countryman through his poetry, with much the sort of feeling that a prudent mother carries her children through the measles, and are glad if he has had it well.
These remarks are extorted from us by the present state of the American Parnassus. No species of mental effort appears to have been so attractive, of late, in our community as the
poetical ; the trunk-makers can bear us witness. The most unhappy circumstance is, that a good deal of this poetry has been quite respectable, and such as in the time and place which elicited it, would have done its authors credit; nay, of which, without a complimentary overrating, a critic might speak as hopefully, as of the majority of political pamphlets, of voyages and travels, and the journals thereof, which have been appearing simultaneously from our press. Did we however say this, did we, in reviewing such poems, observe that they discovered laudable industry, that the author had spared no pains to make them good, that we gave him credit for an intense labour bestowed on every line, that he had consulted all the preceding poets, and borrowed from them every thing which his subject admitted, that he had evinced a praiseworthy diffidence of his own powers, that there was not a couplet in his works which did not testify to a hopeful teachableness, and that in confining himself to the technical dialect of poetry, choosing no epithets but such as Pope had used before, making his heroes all corsairs, and his heroines all ladies of the lake, he was determined to approve himself as a painstaking, unpretending, and docile bard; did we say this, as we might with truth of most of our current poetry, we doubt whether the authors would even admit that we damned with faint praise. We have little question it would be set down as positive faultfinding and carping, and the old insipid changes be rung upon the injustice, the malignity, and stupidity of critics. Yet the same sort of praise would content a modest writer of almost any other description ; and to be told that he had carefully studied, and faithfully followed his predecessors, would often be the highest commendation, which could be paid to an essay on ordinary topics of science and speculation. Unable, therefore, to give pleasure by honestly speaking our opinion and awarding that meed of qualified commendation which may be due, and not being particularly pleased to belie our consciences by so mean a submission as flattering poor poetry-of all poor things in the world—we have preserved a somewhat gloomy silence, with respect to many of the productions of our native bards. This silence has, we regret to say, been occasionally carried beyond its proper limits; and various causes, which will suggest themselves to those initiated into the mysteries of reviewing, have prevented our enjoying the greatest pleasure of our vocation, that of expressing our admiration of a few
charming pieces, which have appeared among us. singularly straightened between the desire to do credit to our pages by an honourable notice of Fanny, and the difficulty we felt in these remote and somewhat saturnine latitudes in entering, with true perception, into the local spirit and humour of that agreeable little poem. We cannot, however, suppress the hope that its just and merited success will invite the author to higher efforts, and encourage him to undertake a poetical composition of elevated pretensions.
We are consoled, morever, in our neglect of this and a few other pieces of genuine merit or great promise, which have appeared among us, by the consideration that of all faculties the poetical is the most independent; the least aided by applause, the least depressed by censure, the least capable of being obstructed or furthered by all that critics, of malign or benevolent aspect, can proclaim. If it dwell not in the native vivacity of the mind, you cannot create or quicken it, by the breath of fame; and if it really exist in native truth, tenderness, and power, all persecution that falls short of secluding it from pen, ink, and paper, instead of subduing, nourishes it; and, according to the temper of the individual, makes it pathetic or indignant or philosophical. Lord Byron's genius was unquestionably matured and kindled by the provoking reception of his first essays; and though Milton had fallen on evil days, and lived in a community prepared to purchase his Paradise Lost for ten pounds, it does not appear that his muse drooped a moment in the chilly atmosphere. On the contrary, we owe to it one of the sweetest strains of his heavenly lyre. So well established is it, that disappointment and sorrow are the nurse of poetical inspiration, that our philosophical statesman, in his Notes on Virginia, seriously mentions it as a circumstance that confirms the intellectual inferiority of the blacks. • Misery,' he beautifully observes, 'is often the parent of the most affecting touches of poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.* Were the poets among us as miserable as their works, there would be some hope.
We are therefore quite sure no permanent injury is done to a poet of the true vein, by a temporary neglect of his productions. So far from this, we can name more than one living bard, in our own language, who, could he by any momentary insen
* Jefferson's Notes on Virginia, p. 274.