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It seems necessary to illustrate by examples. Thirty years ago, Washington Irving was still living, honored and read by all, and often placed at the head of our literature. But it was as evident then as now that Irving could do some things and could not do others; that as an essayist he was master of a clear and beautiful style, fairly to be compared with Lamb's, or even with Addison's; that the “ SketchBook” was not likely to lose its place among classic English works; that Irving was a genuine humorist, though sometimes coarse or tiresome; that he could tell a story gracefully; that the “ Life of Washing, ton was not likely to be superseded, but might be; and that, as biographer and historian, Irving failed because he lacked familiarity with the sounder and deeper method. The critic in 1854, then, might safely say, as he does to-day, that Irving stands in the fore-front of American literature, but not at the head of our prose-writers. The debt of American literature to the man who first gave us a European reputation in letters was as binding and as apparent then as now. Turning to others composing what the late J. R. Dennett called the “ Knickerbocker School,” could not a discerning student perceive, fifty years ago, that Paulding's writings bore no promise of lasting renown; that Drake, a poet clearly of a third-rate order, had, nevertheless, proved that poetry pure and simple could be written here ; and that Halleck's two lyrics would always give him a good place in the anthologies, while his doggerel humor and his “fine writing ” would go the way of all similar productions ?
The same foresight could have been applied to our early poetry. It was Bryant's good fortune, which he sometimes resented, to write his most popular poem in early youth. I think his sagest readers felt it in 1817, as they do now, that “ Thanatopsis” is one of the best modern pieces in blank verse—the most difficult of metres ; that its tone and expression are high, and true so far as they go ; and that its defects are of a negative order. When Bryant was fifty years old he had proved that he was sometimes as good a poet as Wordsworth, but that he could by no means attain to Wordsworth's serenest heights. To have claimed for Bryant the highest place in our poetry would have been idle ; for he lacked fire, breadth of view, wide sympathy with human nature, and what Hawthorne, speaking of Jones Very, called “ a sense of the ludicrous.” What could have been claimed for him, is now paid him as his due : the rank of a poet of lofty thought, austere mind, and commanding expression in his own field. Longfellow came, in his early life, to that position which he is not likely to lose,—the place of the poet of sympathy and feeling. Careful readers knew, in the days of “Souvenirs” and “Keepsakes," as they know now, that Longfellow's poems would endure, while time would bury the writings of N. P. Willis, and Mrs. Osgood, and“ Maria del Occidente,” and the rest who tried to succeed in the same work. When Longfellow showed what could be done in hexameter and trochaic tetrameter, gave us our nearest approach to an American epic, and chronicled old Acadian and New England days in fit verse, he proved that the
spirit of poetry could find native themes, and could put them into new forms on this side the water. There has been no time since Longfellow began to write when his position has not been secure; and it is not now, as it has not been in the past, jeopardized by his occasionai flatness, prosiness, and prolixity. Emerson, in old age, said that he could not read all Longfellow wrote,-he“ wrote too much”; but the same Emerson, at Longfellow's funeral, remembered him as a “sweet and noble soul,” though the dying sage had forgotten the very name of the dead singer. The critic may admit Longfellow's faults; but many an orphic, or intense, or cosmic, or Browningesque poet may well envy Longfellow's fame. It needs no future century to point out both the faults and the fame. The same may be said of Poe. If we go to Poe for what he cannot furnish, we shall be disappointed. He has no answer to life's problems, no help for life's struggle, no strong conception of ethics or faith ; he merely gives us weird fancies and sweetly melodious music, at times rising, as in “Annabel Lee” and “To One in Paradise,” to half-religious heights. He is not the “prince of American literature,” for princes govern as well as dazzle ; but he is one of the world's men of genius. Will all this be more evident, or less, a century hence ?
It seems to me that the value and the substantial accuracy of contemporary criticism of the higher order have been illustrated in the case of Emerson. There was not a little that was extravagant, or ephemeral, or valueless, or broadly farcical, in the Transcendental movement of 1840. But even in the
midst of that period of “storm and stress,” and of simmer and sputter, Emerson saw the follies of his associates, and avoided the most glaring of them, while Hawthorne, on a serener height of commonsense, perceived Emerson's mistakes. As the years have gone by, intelligent critics estimate Emerson with substantial fairness. The period of adulation has not yet passed, it is true ; but, after all, do we not know what Emerson was and was not, what he did and could not do, and what is the essential value of his prose and of his verse ? Emerson the optimist, the stimulating force, the developer of the individual, the deep and true poet, the seer, we know and feel ; and yet we can see not the less clearly his inconsistencies, his inferiority to Carlyle in Hebrewlike sense of Jehovah's might, his obscurities of style, his real narrowness of view when he renounced all religious forms. On the whole, the sager contemporary readers know and judge Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Margaret Fuller, as they ought to be known and judged.
That there is a difficulty in criticising, during the authors' lifetime, the works of such winsome personalities as Whittier and Holmes, is unquestionable. But is it too soon to say that Whittier, at his best, is high and noble ; or that “Snow-Bound” is a characteristic descriptive poem of New England, and seems sure to live ? No recognition of his bad rhymes, incorrect pronunciations, or occasional tediousness and thinness need hinder such an expression of opinion. And Holmes and Lowell know in what they have succeeded and in what failed ; in the works
of the latter the merits and demerits are so plain, that if the reader were to take his Lowell from the shelf, and mark these merits and demerits, from the first page to the last, from the Tennysonian echoes to “ The Cathedral” and the “ Commemoration Ode," I have no doubt that their writer would substantially agree with the criticisms made.
I need not speak here of other poets. In the case of Whitman, there is, of course, no agreement as yet. When one critio regards him as a Homer-Shakespeare, with improvements, and another deems him an impostor in the garb of a poet, it is not easy to make a compromise. Much contemporary criticism of Whitman, whether praise or blame, is valueless. The poet arouses undue adulation and unjust contempt. Certainly, however, we may claim that the criticism of Whitman by the best American minds is likely to be approved by the literary historians of the future, in comparison with that expressed by not a few foreigners of high intelligence. In regard to the perspective of American literature, it must never be forgotten that deck-hands, 'longshoremen, and stagedrivers, Californian miners, Chinese, highway robbers, buffaloes, and Indians are but a part of our civilization, and that literature may concern itself with such themes as God, duty, culture, and Eastern lakes or rivers, and still be distinctively American.
A German gentleman, an intelligent reader, for many years a resident of Boston, once expressed to me the opinion that Hawthorne is, perhaps, the greatest writer of this century, and that our historians are the equals of any who have written in Europe;