EBB's unsigned review of a collection of poems by American author and editor, Cornelius Mathews (1817-89), Poems on Man in His Various Aspects under the American Republic (New York, 1843) was printed in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (June 1845. Pp. 373-75). EBB referred to it to Mathews only as being by "a hand known to you" (30 April 1845; Brownings' Correspondence 10:179-80). See also The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2010), vol. 4, pp. 537-43.
THIS is a slight book in its exterior form, and the frame-work of the intention of it is slighter still. The American writer, Mr. Cornelius Mathews, is the secretary of the Author's Copyright Protection Club in New York; and is known in his own country by the "Motley Book," "Puffer Hopkins," and humorous prose works of the like order, indicating a quick eye, and a ready philosophy in the mind that waits on it; generous sympathies towards humanity in the mass, and a very distinct and characteristic nationality. He has written also a powerful fiction called "Behemoth." The small volume before us consists of poems; and both for their qualities and their defects, they are to be accounted worthy of some respectful attention.
To render clearer the thought which is in us, we pass to general considerations. The contrast between the idea of what American poetry should be, and what it is, is as plain as the Mississippi on the map. The fact of the contrast faces us. With abundant flow and facility, the great body of American verse has little distinct character of any kind, and still less national character. There is little in it akin to the mountains and rivers, the prairies and cataracts, among which it arises. This sound from the forests is not of them. It is as if a German bullfinch, escaped from the teacher's finger into the depth of the pines, sate singing his fragments of Mozart, in learned modulation, upon a rocking, snowy branch. And we find ourselves wondering how, in the great country of America, where the glory of liberty is so well comprehended, and where Nature rolls out her waters and lifts her hills, as in attestation of a social principle worthy of her beauty,–the poetry alone should persist in being lifeless, flat, and imitative, as the verse of a court-rhymer when he rests from the bow of office among the fens of Essex. It is easier to set this down as a fact, (and the American critics themselves set it down as a fact,) than to define the causes of it. And the fact of the defective nationality of the literature of a young country, suggests the analogy of another fact,–the defective individuality attributable to many a young writer; and the likeness may be closer than the mere analogy expresses. Nationality is individuality under the social and local aspect; and the nationality of a country's literature is the individuality of the writers of it in the aggregate. It is curious to observe, that the "wild oats" sown in literature by the youthful author as by the youthful nation, is, generally speaking, as barely tame as any stubble of the fields. Perhaps there is a bustling practicalness in both cases, which hinders that inner process of development necessary to the ulterior expression. Perhaps the mind, whether of the nation or of the man, must stand, before the cream rises. However this may be, we have given utterance to no novel form of opinion on the subject of American poetry in the mass. And let no one mistake that opinion. We do not forget–how should we?–such noble names as Longfellows may nobly lead, as Whittiers may add honour to; we believe the beautiful prophecy of beauty contained in the poems of Lowell. But in speaking of these poets, we do not speak of poetry in the gross: and in speaking even of some of these, the English critic feels unawares that he would fain clasp the hand of an American poet, with stronger muscles in it, and less softened by the bath. Under which impression we are all the readier, let our readers understand, to meet the hand of Mr. Mathews, while it presents to us the slender volume called "Poems on Man, in his various aspects under the American republic."
The volume is "dedicated to the hopeful friends of humanity, by their servant, the author." It consists of short poems in various metres, and with no connecting link beyond the association suggested in the reader's mind, – descriptive, as the title indicates, of the different ages and conditions of men in the republic; and remarkable, as we have hinted, for their very defects. For the poems are defective precisely in that with which the verse-literature of the country overflows,–we mean grace and facility. They are not graceful, but they are strong. They give no proof of remarkable facility in composition; and we are tempted sometimes to think of the writer, that he is versed better in sympathy and aspiration, than in rhythms and rhymes. His verses are occasionally incorrect, and are frequently rugged and hard. His ear is not "tuned to fine uses," and his hand refuses to flatter unduly the ear of his audience. But he writes not only "like a man," but like a republican and an American. Under this rough bark is a heart of oak; and peradventure a noble vessel, if not a Dodonæan oracle, may presently be had out of it. The wood has a good grain, the timber is large of size; and, if gnarled and knotted, these are the conditions of strength, and perhaps the convulsions of growth: it is thus that strong trees grow, while slim grasses spring smoothly from the ground. And the thoughtful student of the literature of America will pause naturally and musingly, at sight of this little book, and mark it as something "new and strange," considering the circumstances of the soil.
Here is "THE CHILD," with which Mr. Mathews' illustrations of life begin, and in which the views of life are brighter, because higher, than those of Gray's celebrated ode:–
"Calm in thy cradle lie, thou little child,
Thy white limbs smoothing in a patient sleep,
Or gambolling when thou wakest at the peep
Of the young day–as clear and undefiled
As thou! around thy fresh and lowly bed,
Look up and see how reverent men are gathered.
"They watch the quiet of thy deep blue eye,–
Where all the outward world is born anew,–
Where habit, figure, form, complexion, hue,
Rise up and live again in that pure sky;
At every lifting of thine arms, they feel
The ribbed and vasty bulk of empire shake,
And from the fashion of thy features, take
The hope and image of the commonweal.
"See! through the white skin beats the ruddy tide!
The pulses of thine heart, that come and go,
Like the great circles of the ocean-flow,
And dash a continent at either side.
Thou wield'st a hopeful empire, large and fair,
With sceptred strength: about thy brow is set
A fresh glad crown, with dewy morning wet,
And noonday lingers in thy flaxen hair!
"Kingdom, authority, and power, to thee
Belong; the hand that frees, the chain that thralls,
Each attribute on various man that falls,
Strides he the globe, or canvass-tents the sea:
The sword, the staff, the judge's cap of death,
The ruler's robe, the treasurer's key of gold,
All growths the world-wide scope of life may hold,
Are form'd in thee, and people in thy breath.
"Be stirr'd or still, as prompts thy beating heart!
Out of thy slumbering calmness there shall climb
Spirits serene and true against the time
That trumpets men to an heroic part.
And motion shall confirm thee, rough or mild,
For the full sway that unto thee belongs,
In the still house, or 'mid the massy throngs
Of life,–thou gentle and thou sovereign child.
And thus he exhorts "THE CITIZEN":–
"Feel well, with the poised ballot in thine hand,
Thine unmatched sovereignty of right and wrong.
'Tis thine to bless or blast the waiting land,
To shorten up its life, or make it long.
"Who looks on thee, not hopeless should behold
A self-deliver'd, self-supported man;
True to his being's mighty purpose, true
To a wisdom-blessed, a God-given plan.
"Nowhere within the great globe's skyey round,
Canst thou escape thy duty, grand and high;
A man unbadged, unbonneted, unbound,
Walk to the tropic, to the desert fly.
A full-fraught Hope upon thy shoulder leans,
And beats with thine the heart of half the world.
Ever behind thee walks the shining Past,
Before thee burns the star-stripe, high unfurl'd."
In "THE MERCHANT," we have these high trading speculations:–
"Undimm'd the man should through the trader shine,
Nor show the soul disabled by the craft.
Slight duties may not lessen but adorn–
The cedar's berries round the cedar's shaft.
The pettiest act will lift the doer up,
The mightiest cast him swift and headlong down;
If one forgets the spirit of his deed,
The other wears it as a living crown.
"A grace, be sure, in all true duty dwells;
Humble or high, you always know it thus;
For, beautiful in act, the foregone thought
Confirms its truth, though seeming-ominous.
Pure hands and just may therefore well be laid
On duties daily as the air we breathe;
And heaven, amid the thorns of harshest trade,
The laurel of its gentlest love may wreathe."
"THE REFORMER" is addressed with no bland conservative argument; and the readers of Tait will think the following language strong and spirited enough: –
Seize by its horns the shaggy past,
Full of uncleanness.
Yet the poet counsels patience and prudence–
Wake not at midnight and proclaim it day,
When lightning only flashes o'er the way!
Pauses and starts, and strivings toward an end,
Are not a birth, although a god's birth they portend.
Be patient, therefore, like the old broad earth
That bears the guilty up, and through the night
Conducts them gently to the dawning light–
Thy silent hours shall have as great a birth!
The volume concludes with "THE POET," as the great knot in whom all the ends of life are tied fast; while the ends of the world look to him for the just vocal expression of all that is suffered and acted beneath the sun.
There sits not in the wildernesses' edge,
In the dusk lodges of the wintry north,
Nor crouches in the rice-fields' slimy sedge,
Nor on the cold wide waters ventures forth,–
Who waits not, in the pauses of his toil,
With hope, that spirits in the air may sing!
Who upwards turns not, at propitious times,
Breathless, his silent features listening–
In desert, and in lodge, on marsh, and main,
To feed his hungry heart, and conquer pain.
"To strike, or bear, to conquer, or to yield,
Teach thou! O topmost crown of Duty, teach
What Fancy whispers to the listening ear,
At hours when tongue, nor taint of care, impeach,
The fruitful calm of greatly silent hearts!
When all the stars for happy thoughts are set,
And in the secret chambers of the soul
All blessed powers of joyful truth are met.
Though calm and garlandless thou mayst appear,
The world shall know thee for its crowned seer.
"Mirth in an open eye may sit as well,
As sadness in a close and sober face!
In thy broad welcome, both may fitly dwell,
Nor jostle either from its nestling-place.
Tears, free as showers, to thee may come as blest,
As smilings, of the happy sunshine borne;
And cloaked up trouble, in his turn caressed,
Be taught to look a little less forlorn!
Thy heart-gates mighty, open either way,
Come they to feast, or go they forth to pray."
However the reader may be inclined to be critical, (and perhaps he will be more inclined than the critic,) upon these extracts,–however he may be struck by the involutions and obscurities which to some extent disfigure them,–he will yet be free to admit, that the reverence for truth, the exultation in right, the good hope in human nature, which are the characteristics of this little book, and that the images of beauty which mingle with the expression of its lofty sentiment,–are not calculated, when taken together, to disturb the vision and prophecy of such among us as are looking at this hour towards America, as the future land of freemen in all senses, and of poets in the highest of all.