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You will not have forgotten, my R, the request you lately made, that I would detail to you the conversation, which, a few weeks previously, I had had with our mutual friend, W, and of which he had related to you part. I have thought, that, besides ministering to your gratification and instruction, the scene if written out would form for my new volume of rhymes no unfitting preface. W. was, as perhaps you know, my agent with the publishers of the Vision, and overlooked that poem in its progress through the press. Hence, during its brief career he watched it with parental solicitude, and even aided with his pen, as you have seen in the Critique of the Vision, in making ridiculous its unprincipled defamers. In a word, he was my other self.
It was then a beautiful afternoon, of the month preceding this in which I write. Whad come to see me, and was seated with me in the little library, whose double window faces, as you are aware, the west. The casement was open; and the blinds, thrown half way back, shielded us from the slant rays of the summer sun, which was now slowly westering, and would ere long be lost behind the houses' tops. Between us on a table, where stood a bottle of his favorite claret, ice clearer than crystal, and some foreign fruits, was a vase filled to the brim with newly gathered roses. In the balcony, the plants had never looked more lovely. The purple gilia was in bloom, the delicate schizanthus with its jagged flowers, the copper-colored streptanthera, the irritable mimu
THE BACKSIDES OF AN AMERICAN CITY.
lus, with its blushing petals and its musky perfume, and the rosy calandrinia, which gave me; while your favorite calochortus, just in bud, the showy lichidnea with its crown of blossoms, nearly opened, the painted ipomopsis, the camellia (once my sister's), which had long ago shed its scentless beauties, and the tall green Ethiopian calla, looked, if not so gay, yet flourishing, and varied pleasantly the vegetable group. Without, in the neighbouring yards, every thing was in correspondence. The grapevines, clambering up to the windows, covered the piazzas; and here and there, between the dense broad leaves, a cluster could be seen, green as the leaves themselves; while flowers of various hues bordered the little grassplots, or stood in pots, or in open beds, against the whited walls. Above, the sky was blue as indigo; and sundry fleecy clouds gave promise of no little beauty when the sun should have descended lower. The wrens were singing round their tiny house between the willows, interrupting at intervals their delightful song with a twitter scarcely less agreeable; and, to add to all, a gentle breeze was blowing capriciously from the westward, and, as it breathed over the flowers in the balcony, wafted perfume with its coolness into the apartment. It was altogether a scene such as few large cities can present, and an hour and weather that to those who are in health, and are of happy temper, give a positive enjoyment, such as is sufficient to atone for months of past gloom and solicitude, and to make them forget that there is such a thing for the heart as care, or for the senses as fatigue, that skies are ever blackened, and that flowers ever fade.
sat awhile in silence; and the first remark that opened our dialogue was suggested by the scene before him.
W. What an evening, ERNEST!
A. Beautiful! Few cities, W— are so favored in their climate as this unromantic, busy NEW YORK.
W. Still fewer are there, I imagine, where the people take
PRESENT STATE OF POLITE LITERATURE. xiii
such pains to surround themselves with the wholesome beauty of the country. Do you know, I am much inclined at this moment to believe in all the influence you ascribe to the climate, in shaping our yet unfinished physical and intellectual character as a people.
A. In connexion with the free government, remember. Yes, AMERICA, with her clear skies, her republican institutions, and her system of universal education, must one day excel in all that has made GREECE famous.
W. Excepting, I hope, her intestine dissensions.
A. Of course. In all that has made her justly famous. But then, we must not be misled by false teachers.
W. And these abound; at least in politics and in letters. In morals we have few, if any: it is not the character of the age.
A. To teach corruption openly, certainly not. But if you have false teachers in politics and in letters, how shall morality escape contamination? But, to confine ourselves to letters; (they are not nearly of such moment to the happiness of a people, as politics; yet, for the immediate time, they interest me more ;) look at the rapid declension of taste, in ENGLAND as well as in this country. To what, think you, is it owing?
W. To false teachers, undoubtedly. But whether do you inean, to authors or to critics?
A. To both. They act, each upon the other, as both cause and effect. Yet it would be in the power of criticism to stay the decline, certainly in a degree. Therefore it is owing chiefly to false critics: false, not merely as erroneous, but as being unfaithful to the duties they assume. But I will not spoil your afternoon, by argumentation. That would be a bad requital of your visit, W
W. Do not think so. You could oblige me in nothing more. Indeed, have I not come for the very purpose of talking about your new poems ?
A. Which you consider an illustration of the subject, — false
CRITICISM OF THE DAY. CANT.
teaching by authors. But let us open this claret. I think it will suit you,- quite as well, at least, as my rhymes.
W. It would serve you right to say, Heaven forbid! But, in truth, ERNEST, if it were as easy to satisfy the world with your opinions in letters as ...
A. It is to suit your taste in wine, my task would be a light one. (Ice?) Well, I have said that the decline of taste in English and American writers is owing chiefly to false criticism. Now, what is the criticism of the day? I mean, in what manner is it conducted? Reviewers now, if they do not take the title of a book merely to introduce an essay of their own, which is usually the case, yet content themselves with examining the sentiments.
W. What, do you not consider the sentiments as the most important part?
A. I do indeed; but, being a part, they are not the whole. I would observe, that I consider that very little criticism will do for the sentiments of any poem, for example; for what is there new in that respect? it is the manner that distinguishes the poet chiefly; for that which he shall detail to us of thought has been done time out of mind before him. Besides, I am utterly disgusted with that cant, which is confirming authors in hypocrisy. If a man now make a display of patriotism, if he prate of his country, and affect to despise his own interest, what do we hear? Noble sentiments; high-toned sentiment; and the like. If he tell us of the delights of virtue and the misery of vice, we have, a tone of high morality, and so on. If of religion and the undying worm, and other common-places, all NEW YORK resounds with praises of his piety. To me, this is inexpressibly disgusting; and I never have doubted, from my own feelings, that Lord BYRON was driven to his defiance of decency, by his hatred of hypocrisy.
W. But would you have one, then, neglect such sentiments, or confine them to his breast? for I do you justice to believe, that you do not approve of that more odious affectation, which would teach us libertinism.