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"Mine held them once; I flung away
Those keys that might have open set
But clutch the keys of darkness yet;
Into God's harvest; I, that might
"O glorious Youth, that once wast mine!
Ye enter at this ruined shrine
Whence worship ne'er shall rise again;
The bat and owl inhabit here,
The snake nests in the altar-stone,
The sacred vessels moulder near,
The image of the God is gone." - pp. 75-79.
The swift movement of Mr. Lowell's verses and the daring energy of his conceptions show that his genius inclines to the lyric form of poetry. He is master, indeed, of all the chords of the lyre, and strikes them with a bold and impetuous hand, till they ring out in loud but harmonious concert. We like this sustained freedom and vigor; for the dreamy tenderness, the philosophical musing spirit, the exuberance of sweet diction, and the over-refined sentiment, to which many of our contemporary poets have so long accustomed us, have come to pall upon the ear, and we welcome the first clarion note that is heard among the hills. We have listened long enough in the twilight to the spiritual wailings of an Æolian harp, and now wait with some impatience for a bugle or trumpet call, which shall herald the approach of light and the time for action. But the poet must remember that it is dangerous to play with these loud and high notes, for his excitement sometimes leads to frantic daring, and what is meant for a harmonious burst of sound sometimes ends in a clanging dissonance. We must confess that Mr. Lowell by his trials has shown the hazard of failure, as well as the glory that waits on success. Thus, the first four stanzas of the address "To a Pine-Tree," though with one defect, are very fine.
"Far up on Katahdin thou towerest,
Purple-blue with the distance and vast;
Like a cloud o'er the lowlands thou lowerest,
"In the storm, like a prophet o'ermaddened,
When whole mountains swoop valeward.
"In the calm thou o'erstretchest the valleys
"To the lumberer asleep 'neath thy glooming
Whose finned isles are their cattle."
The last line is susceptible of three or four explanations, not one of which is very satisfactory. Yet it is preferable to the second line in the following stanza, the whole of which, indeed, is unpleasing.
"For the gale snatches thee for his lyre,
Whose arms stretch to his playmate." This is in Bombastes Furioso's vein; but the concluding stanza makes up for all.
"Thou alone know'st the glory of summer,
Gazing down on thy broad seas of forest,
"The Present Crisis" is a poem full of stirring energy and fiery appeals, though its leading purpose is not very apparent, for we can hardly tell what the writer is driving at, or what is the particular evil against which he rolls his poetical thunder. Our readers may find out what his drift is, if they can, from a few of the closing stanzas.
""T is as easy to be heroes as to sit the idle slaves
Of a legendary virtue carved upon our fathers' graves; Worshippers of light ancestral make the present light a crime;
Was the Mayflower launched by cowards, steered by men behind their time?
Turn those tracks toward Past or Future, that make Plymouth rock sublime?
"They were men of present valor, stalwart old iconoclasts, Unconvinced by axe or gibbet that all virtue was the Past's; But we make their truth our falsehood, thinking that hath made us free,
Hoarding it in mouldy parchments, while our tender spirits flee The rude grasp of that great Impulse which drove them acrossthe sea.
They have rights who dare maintain them; we are traitors to our sires,
Smothering in their holy ashes Freedom's new-lit altar-fires; Shall we make their creed our jailer? Shall we, in our haste
From the tombs of the old prophets steal the funeral lamps
To light up the martyr-fagots round the prophets of to-day?
"New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves must Pil-grims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future's portal with the Past's blood-rusted. key." pp. 60-62.
This is very spirited, though it sounds like a general encouragement to valor, patriotism, and toleration, just as some sermons are intended specially to inculcate all Christian virtues. But there are a few allusions in the earlier part of the poem which make it plain, we fear, that the poet is advocating, though rather indirectly here, the cause of the fierce political philanthropists of our day, who inculcate toleration with savage intolerance, who preach against bigotry while VOL. LXVI. No. 139.
they are afflicted with utter blindness as to the merits of all creeds except their own, and who generously take it for granted that cowardice, selfishness, and meanness are the only reasons why all their fellow-mortals do not shout their war-cry, advocate their measures, and worship them as the only great and good reformers and iconoclasts of modern times. Mr. Lowell has too much good sense and good taste to go all lengths with them in their insane fanaticism; but the tone of his mind, as evinced by several of the poems in this collection, has been injured by contact with them, and though we admire the gallantry and nobleness of feeling by which he is evidently prompted, we cannot but sorrow to see it wasted in such a cause. Earnestly, but kindly, would we entreat him to strive after more liberal and catholic views, that the great bulk of his countrymen are dastards or bigots, or that Christian teachers and Christian institutions are solely responsible for all the great social evils of our times. Poetry is profaned when it is made to minister to the miserable party politics of the day, however these may be veiled by big words and philanthropic or sentimental manifestos. If there are any beings who ought to be entirely avoided by a man of good sense and high principles, they are those whom Sidney Smith calls "our moral bullies and virtuous braggadocios." Mr. Lowell doubtless discharged his conscience by including these poems in his volume; we hope he will do us the justice to believe that we have discharged ours by frankly commenting upon them. We gladly turn to more attractive matter.
not to believe.
The descriptive power shown in many of these poems is one of their most striking merits. The poet's eye catches even the most minute tracery of Nature's works, and the most rapidly fleeting of her aspects, and depicts them in verse with startling distinctness. His language, when he chooses that it should be so, excels in precision and terseness, and thus admirably seconds his fine perceptive powers. The pictures are usually minute, and the canvas crowded; but they give back the features of Nature with a daguerreotype exactness. They are drawn with sharp outlines, and seen under a white light. If any fault is to be found with them, it is for the curious and elaborate finish of the parts, so that the effect of the whole is somewhat hard, like that of painting in enamel, or of flowers delicately represented in mosaic. Our readers will perceive what we mean by referring to the only two
poems in the volume which are exclusively descriptive, the Summer Storm," and "An Indian Summer Reverie," both of which are very beautiful and exact. We are sorry that either is too long for quotation, and extracts would do them no justice. We prefer to give specimens of another class, in which the poet's aim is not merely to copy the outward features of the object, but to preserve the sentiment which they inspire. The following is called "The BirchTree." Nothing can exceed the delicateness of the second and third stanzas
"Rippling through thy branches goes the sunshine,
The soul once of some tremulous inland river,
"While all the forest, witched with slumberous moonshine,
Waiting the dew, with breath and pulse suspended,
I hear afar thy whispering, gleamy islands,
And track thee wakeful still amid the wide-hung silence.
"Upon the brink of some wood-nestled lakelet,
Thy foliage, like the tresses of a Dryad,
Dripping about thy slim white stem, whose shadow
Slopes quivering down the water's dusky quiet,
Thou shrink'st as on her bath's edge would some startled Dryad.
"Thou art the go-between of rustic lovers;
Thy white bark has their secrets in its keeping;
Reuben writes here the happy name of Patience,
And thy lithe boughs hang murmuring and weeping
"Thou art to me like my beloved maiden,
So frankly coy, so full of trembly confidences;
pp. 96, 97.