have been reading with much pleasure and no little profit
the volume of Mr. Wetherell's selections from the poems
of Wordsworth. The book is an immense advance from the
days of the old "Red Book series," which we
can all so vividly remember, and to judge of its usefulness
I have only to recall that it was between the humble
covers of one of that very series that I first became
acquainted with a single poem of Wordsworth, "Fidelity."
I can remember distinctly the great attraction this
single poem had for me, and I can form some idea of
the force for good which such a carefully edited volume
of Wordsworth's selections must inevitably have. The
book is decently printed and well bound considering
its low price, which of course is a requisite in a book
intended for the use of the schools; the illustrations
are not bad, and, as they discreetly represent only
familiar haunts of the poet and a very tolerable cut
of his face, they are acceptable. It was a rare piece
of taste that kept the illustrations of special poems
out and spared us all the unnamable horrors of a delineation
of the "Highland Reaper." The biographical
sketch and the essays are admirable and serious, and
the notes are not absolutely superfluous, as is so often
the case with notes. The selection of special criticisms
on individual poems is also a good idea and should serve
to stimulate reading. Of course we must not forget that
this volume is a text-book and that notes and counter
notes are the real reasons for its being, otherwise
we might feel that the author of the preface might have
spared us his notes on the essays with their insistence
on what he desires the student to find in them. When
he asks us to believe that Mr. Roberts "shows us
clearly that Matthew Arnold's estimate of Wordsworth's
genius is misleading and demands correction," there
are not a few of us who will refuse to assent. It would
have been wiser for Mr. Wetherell to have allowed Mr.
Roberts' thoughtful essay to stand for itself; its context
cannot be strengthened by the assertion that it is an
absolutely safe guide to the true position of Wordsworth
in the poetic firmament. But even if it were impossible
for the Wordsworthian to agree with Mr. Roberts, there
is so much of sound, healthy criticism in his remarks
that this minor point, for it is really a minor point,
may be very well left for the controversialists. We
have one more thing for which to thank Mr. Roberts.
His own genius is essentially un-Wordsworthian, and
it is pleasant to find him able and willing to give
us such a wholesome dissertation on the great poet.
The closing words of his essay convey the true value
and power of the poet's work:—"The distinctive
excellence of Wordsworth's poetry is something so high,
so ennobling, so renovating to the spirit that it can
be regarded as nothing short of a calamity for one to
acquire a preconception which will seal him against
its influence. One so sealed is deaf to the voice which,
more than any other in modern song, conveys the secret
of repose. To be shut out from hearing Wordsworth's
message is to lose the surest guide we have to those
regions of luminous calm which this breathless age so
needs for its soul's health." To me it seems an
evident contradiction to write so, and then to make
the subject of the criticism equal with Byron and Shelley.
For this "luminous calm," this "repose,"
which we need for our soul's health, is surely for us
among the very greatest of all powers, the one to which
we turn as the centre of all things when the spirit
is at rest and contented. But the agreement or disagreement
with this view will be settled by personal characteristics.
It is to be hoped that for every student this little
book will be a prelude to the reading of Wordsworth's
poetry; there is always too great an insistence upon
the tediousness of much of the poet's work; this has
come to be a sort of cant in criticism. He who will
pas from the selections to "The Prelude" and
the longer works will find ample compensation for the
lapses into dulness of which we hear so much. We should
thank Mr. Houston for his just remark upon the memorisation
of poetry, which, he says, is "invaluable for life."
This is very true, and no one can properly judge the
comforting power of poetry until it becomes a thing
of the memory, to be called up when the heart is troubled
last of the great group of American poets has passed
to his long home after having lived to a ripe old age,
and in the death of Whittier New England loses her most
characteristic poet. Holmes, who is the only one of
the old writers now living, while just as famous a personality
in his own way, will be less regarded as a poet than
as a humorist, though "The Chambered Nautilus"
is a poem of exquisite beauty. Whittier was essentially
the poet of a cause, and he so identified himself with
the abolition movement that many have failed to see
the real beauty of several of his other poems. "Maud
Muller" is a poem of enduring quality in its human
interest and pathos, and "In School Days"
is also very touching. Whittier has also done some exquisite
nature-work, and has written some strong ballads, such
as "The Witch of Wenham," but to my mind his
most enduring poem is "Snow-bound," which
is the great New England pastoral. Like Longfellow and
Lowell, Whittier lived in a heroic age, that of the
great civil war, and so gained a widespread fame, that
might have been more slowly achieved in more prosaic
times. That he was great as a man none will deny. His
heart was large and tender; and the most religious of
the poets of his day, he was also intensely human, so
that even his hymns, notably his "Centennial Hymn,"
are great in their way. While restless and progressive
as a reformer, Whittier's mind was gentle and almost
child-like in its faith in the great Ruler of the universe.
No dark problems seem to have ruffled the serene tides
of his soul, no hideous doubts appeared to confront
him, but his was a large and simple creed, that gave
little room for doubt and speculation. Then we must
remember that he lived in an age that was advancing
to easier achievements than are possible now, and that
he was reared in a healthy rural environment, prolific
with hope for the individual, and hence the universe,
and strong in those nerve-giving qualities that brace
the spirit to great deeds. In those days there was plenty
of room for all, men on this continent were not so crowded.
The tides of immigration and of human freedom had not
reached the points where the ebb sets in. In the days
of Whittier's prime the era of personal independence
and self-assertion was at its best. When we look back
to the widespread popularity of the leading singers
of his school, we find that the age was sympathetic
to their song, which was largely sentiment, pre and
yet only ephemeral in its existence. While their song
was large and human, it was largely the stretching out
of the hands of liberty and the heart-strings of hope
in a world where there was plenty of room. Now and then
we catch a gleam of the deeper sounding with the plummets
into the human ocean, where life is always the same,
no matter what the age or its wants. After all, it seems
to me that the real greatness of the New England school
lay in its largeness of personality, so that they made
great anything they laid hands on, and their age never
failed to take them seriously. Even if poets like Whittier
cannot be classed with the greater singers of the earth,
they have built for themselves such a pinnacle of nobleness
of effort and aspiration, such a large human love and
sympathy, that they never can be less than great. And
all true souls cannot but be thankful that such souls
have dwelt on earth. Even if we, with clearer if less
hopeful sight, see afterwards that the evil was not
crushed, in the real sense, but only hurled to the ground
to rise in another, perhaps more hideous, form, yet
the voice that is large and strong against evil is never
lost on this earth. The beautiful souls that teach us
of beauty in life and thought, they are the voices of
morning at noonday and evening. Whatever be our standards,
whatever our hopes, they will ever be to suffering,
weak and maimed humanity as the angel-voices of earth.
writing is fascinating exercise. Every man who writes
verse at all must write a sonnet. The form has been
abundantly cultivated in America. Our magazines and
journals are full of sonnets, many of them revealing
an excellent gift of versification and true thought
and feeling; yet America has not produced any poet who
has been a really eminent sonnet writer, and she has
produced very few sonnets of a very high order, perhaps
none of the highest. It may be that the unsettled social
atmosphere of this continent is not fitted to develop
that particular union of austere dignity and lyric fervor
which makes the fine sonnet writer. The sweetest sonnets
and the most beautiful in all the American collections
are undoubtedly Longfellow's. His "Nature,"
"Sound of the Sea," "Milton," "Tides"
and "Chimes" are very lovely little poems
and only need a little strengthening, a slight access
of ruggedness, to make them sonnets of the highest order.
The cleverest sonnets we have are those of Mr. Edgar
Fawcett. They are the cleverest, the strongest, the
most ingenious and the least touching. Like all Mr.
Fawcett's work, they are the product of a powerful artistic
genius, devoted to a sort of subtile imitation of passion
and equipped with an unusual faculty of invention. Some
of them are splendid as bits of versification—"Sleep,"
for instance—others are simply horrible, the more
so for being able, and not one of them has the accent
of real tenderness or moves with the freedom of the
noblest beauty. Edgar Allen Poe came nearest to writing
the grand sonnet of his continent in "Silence."
Bryant nearly succeeded in "October," and
so did Lowell in some of his sonnets addressed to persons,
in which he seems to have been moved by a specially
lofty and musical spirit. Mr. Aldrich has written some
exceedingly able and grandly sounding sonnets, but he
has generally erred, as Americans are so apt to do,
on the side of cleverness. Many of his pieces are marred
by a line or two of much too evident effort at fine
writing. He has not often the patient ear and majestic
self-restraint of the true sonneteer. Sydney Lanier
injured the character of his sonnets not only as sonnets
but even as poems by weaving them full of careful subtleties
of phrase and meaning and weighting them too heavily
with intricate imagery; for the sonnet—most particularly
among all kinds of poetry—should be simple. Mr.
Gilder, who also came very near the ideal American sonnet
in "The Life-mask of Abraham LIncoln," has
written a number of other beautiful ones—"The
River" and "The Holy Land," especially.
His sonnet on the sonnet, which is much extolled, seems
to me rather a spasmodic little production, a sort of
task momentarily imposed, and done by tour de force,
but very cleverly. Some of James Whitcomb Riley's sonnets
are exquisite in their almost impish cleverness and
their dainty and whimsical beauty. For with him the
sonnet has put off her fair and majestic robes of wisdom
and has donned not exactly the cap and bells, but certainly
some sort of gay and rather impudent apparel. The sonnets
of Emma Lazarus are the finest of those written by American
women. One or two of them—"Success,"
for instance, and "The Venus of the Louvre"—are
strong, and bite keenly into the memory. A certain looseness,
however—the flagging of a line here and there—prevents
them from ranking with the very best work of their kind.
Our own poet, Chas. G.D. Roberts, has written at least
one sonnet of a high order, "Reckoning," and
several others of marked and individual excellence.
Among the poems of Mrs. Moulton, Helen Gray Cone, Mrs.
Jackson, Clinton Scotland, Charles H. Luders, Bayard
Taylor, and R.H. Stoddart are scattered sonnets of considerable
beauty, but not often with the genuine sonnet ring.