« AnteriorContinuar »
that for this and other reasons he could “more freely and graciously begin by choosing a foreign paradigm than by entering upon the home-field, and that none could be so good for the purpose as the poetry of Great Britain.” It seemed to him, also, that, until after some training of this kind, “affection, reverence, national feeling, or some less worthy emotion, might be thought to prevent an American from writing without prejudice' of the poets of his own country. Certainly he could attempt this more profitably when the changes mentioned should be more complete, and the careers more rounded of the chief American writers who would pass under review.
The time came when I felt emboldened to renew my original undertaking, and the result is set forth in this volume. My belief is strengthened that the earlier treatise was essential to it, and, in fact, the most expedient preliminary task that could be chosen. The modern conditions, as far as they relate to both countries, could be observed more directly in England than in America, their stress being there of earlier origin and less diffused. My previous synopsis of them now has only to be condensed, and supplemented by discussion of those other conditions that are peculiar to this country alone. Furthermore, I regard the treatise on British poetry as of less significance, in its field of observation, than the work now following it; and I trust that reasons for this opinion - to which some at first may demur — will become apparent to those who give more than a cursory
reading to these essays. Even now few Americans set a proper value on the relative bearing of our ideal and intellectual progress thus far. The instinctive deference of a young nation to its elders, and the frequent assurance of the latter that our progress has been restricted chiefly to physical achievement, have united until a recent date to make us accept that view of the matter. Aesop's lion discovered that the honors of a contest depend largely upon the sculptor that commemorates it. If there were a stake-boat, a winning-post, by which the comparative import (waiving the question of inherent value) of national activities could be measured exactly, various estimates might be disestablished. What is of most concern, in relation to the theme of this work, is the fact that the literature - even the poetic literature of no country, during the last half-century, is of greater interest to the philosophical student, with respect to its bearing on the future, than that of the United States. My judgment is to this effect, after years in which I have fead a good deal of native and foreign comment upon the subject. The reasons for it are generally perceptible in the ensuing chapters, but three may be stated here succinctly : 1. American poetry, more than that of England during the period considered, has idealized - often inspired - the national sentiment, the historic movements, of the land whose writers have composed it. 2. This nation already, - in the second century of a growth which began not in barbarism, but in political civilization, – is gaining in strength, population, and the liberal
arts, at an accelerative speed that soon must make it a typical exemplar of ideal as well as material production. Nor can there be a time when the bent of its ideality will be more suggestive than now, for the present angle determines the arc of the future. 3. The first true course of American poetry has distinguished the principal term covered in these essays ; à first heat has been run during that time, to whose leaders special chapters are devoted. It is rare that an epoch so definitely begun and ended can be selected as the object of synthetic examination. The reader is invited to study a period as distinct in literature as our Constitutional period in politics, or the Thirty Years' War in history; one, moreover, in which poetry bore closer relations to the life and enthusiasm of a people than it often has borne in other lands and times.
We see, also, that this term has been singularly concurrent with that of the Victorian hemicycle, so that an examination of the poetry of our English tongue for the last fifty years is compassed in my two books. In order to perceive the evolution of a new minstrelsy from its foreign and native germs, the opening chapters of this volume are occupied partly with the efforts of the Colonial verse - writers and their immediate successors. A A final chapter contains a rapid summary of what is now doing, as a basis for speculation on the outlook and the chances of a revival in the future. The reader thus obtains a general view of American poets and poetry from their outset to the present date.
Nevertheless, the main purpose of this work, as suggested heretofore, is to continue my former effort, by obtaining further illustrations of the poetic life, and ideas with respect to the spirit and methods of the art of poetry. The marginal Analysis and topical Index are planned to accord with this intention. My views were formulated to some extent in our consideration of the transatlantic field. They can be emphasized in no way more readily than by fresh and personal examples which are a kind of object-lessons ; by criticism of a series of poets, employing the same tongue, but varying in genius and temperament, and influenced by the conditions of a distinct environment.
The tenor of the original discussion, which I have no reason to modify seriously, was in favor of simplicity, impulse, sincerity, as opposed to obscurity, didacticism, and the affectation either of refinement or a "saucy roughness," —always in behalf of imagination, and against the multiform devices proffered, consciously or unconsciously, in lieu of that supreme quality. It placed construction before decoration, the tone of a composition above its detail, and looked to the spirit rather than the structure, — not content, however, with the half-truth of ta writer who declares that poetry is a spirit
, not a 'form, — the truth being that poetry is a spirit, taking form. Finally, I welcomed every sign of healthy passion and every promising dramatic tendency, both invigorating after a prolonged reflective period. Various sins of commission were discoverable among the lesser pupils of
Wordsworth, the “spasmodic” lyrists, the Neo-Romantic artificers, etc., and frequently an absence was noted of merits that undoubtedly are found in our native verse simplicity and honest impulse. The last-named traits do not of themselves suffice, for spontaneity must be allied with power. American singers often have been more natural than imaginative, and have risen to passion only in rare individual or public crises. Our most noted group, that of New England, distinguished for grace and scholarship, fervent in conviction and of marked intellectuality, has been pronounced too thin - blooded ; what sensuousness enriches American poetry has appeared chiefly in the work of its middle and younger schools. On the other hand, our verse has been measurably free from the vice of over-decoration, prevalent in the writings of the minor British romanticists ten years or more ago.
It is to be hoped that the trace of this now observed is something from which the new school soon will free itself. And I here say to our young writers, as I have said again and again with re». spect to their foreign standards, that in literature, as is a architecture, construction must be decorated, not decora tion constructed, — that invention must precede then la both, - and that, if imagination be clouded and the glowl: of passion unfelt, it is utter and worthless jugglery to compose at all. An enumeration, in a closing chapter, of younger poets and their efforts is purposely uncritical, except in the case of Lanier; it aims to show these at their best, but the fact is not gainsaid that there is a