by Edgar Allan Poe
By the time I had reached the "Ponnonner," it struck me that I was as wide
awake as a man need be. I leaped out of bed in an ecstacy, overthrowing
all in my way; dressed myself with a rapidity truly marvellous; and set
off, at the top of my speed, for the doctor's.
There I found a very eager company assembled. They had been awaiting me
with much impatience; the Mummy was extended upon the dining-table; and
the moment I entered its examination was commenced.
It was one of a pair brought, several years previously, by Captain Arthur
Sabretash, a cousin of Ponnonner's from a tomb near Eleithias, in the
Lybian mountains, a considerable distance above Thebes on the Nile. The
grottoes at this point, although less magnificent than the Theban
sepulchres, are of higher interest, on account of affording more numerous
illustrations of the private life of the Egyptians. The chamber from which
our specimen was taken, was said to be very rich in such illustrations;
the walls being completely covered with fresco paintings and bas-reliefs,
while statues, vases, and Mosaic work of rich patterns, indicated the vast
wealth of the deceased.
The treasure had been deposited in the Museum precisely in the same
condition in which Captain Sabretash had found it; -- that is to say, the
coffin had not been disturbed. For eight years it had thus stood, subject
only externally to public inspection. We had now, therefore, the complete
Mummy at our disposal; and to those who are aware how very rarely the
unransacked antique reaches our shores, it will be evident, at once that
we had great reason to congratulate ourselves upon our good fortune.
Approaching the table, I saw on it a large box, or case, nearly seven feet
long, and perhaps three feet wide, by two feet and a half deep. It was
oblong -- not coffin-shaped. The material was at first supposed to be the
wood of the sycamore (platanus), but, upon cutting into it, we found it
to be pasteboard, or, more properly, papier mache, composed of papyrus.
It was thickly ornamented with paintings, representing funeral scenes, and
other mournful subjects -- interspersed among which, in every variety of
position, were certain series of hieroglyphical characters, intended, no
doubt, for the name of the departed. By good luck, Mr. Gliddon formed one
of our party; and he had no difficulty in translating the letters, which
were simply phonetic, and represented the word Allamistakeo.
We had some difficulty in getting this case open without injury; but
having at length accomplished the task, we came to a second,
coffin-shaped, and very considerably less in size than the exterior one,
but resembling it precisely in every other respect. The interval between
the two was filled with resin, which had, in some degree, defaced the
colors of the interior box.
Upon opening this latter (which we did quite easily), we arrived at a
third case, also coffin-shaped, and varying from the second one in no
particular, except in that of its material, which was cedar, and still
emitted the peculiar and highly aromatic odor of that wood. Between the
second and the third case there was no interval -- the one fitting
accurately within the other.
Removing the third case, we discovered and took out the body itself. We
had expected to find it, as usual, enveloped in frequent rolls, or
bandages, of linen; but, in place of these, we found a sort of sheath,
made of papyrus, and coated with a layer of plaster, thickly gilt and
painted. The paintings represented subjects connected with the various
supposed duties of the soul, and its presentation to different divinities,
with numerous identical human figures, intended, very probably, as
portraits of the persons embalmed. Extending from head to foot was a
columnar, or perpendicular, inscription, in phonetic hieroglyphics, giving
again his name and titles, and the names and titles of his relations.
Around the neck thus ensheathed, was a collar of cylindrical glass beads,
diverse in color, and so arranged as to form images of deities, of the
scarabaeus, etc, with the winged globe. Around the small of the waist was
a similar collar or belt.
Stripping off the papyrus, we found the flesh in excellent preservation,
with no perceptible odor. The color was reddish. The skin was hard,
smooth, and glossy. The teeth and hair were in good condition. The eyes
(it seemed) had been removed, and glass ones substituted, which were very
beautiful and wonderfully life-like, with the exception of somewhat too
determined a stare. The fingers and the nails were brilliantly gilded.
Mr. Gliddon was of opinion, from the redness of the epidermis, that the
embalmment had been effected altogether by asphaltum; but, on scraping the
surface with a steel instrument, and throwing into the fire some of the
powder thus obtained, the flavor of camphor and other sweet-scented gums
We searched the corpse very carefully for the usual openings through which
the entrails are extracted, but, to our surprise, we could discover none.
No member of the party was at that period aware that entire or unopened
mummies are not infrequently met. The brain it was customary to withdraw
through the nose; the intestines through an incision in the side; the body
was then shaved, washed, and salted; then laid aside for several weeks,
when the operation of embalming, properly so called, began.
As no trace of an opening could be found, Doctor Ponnonner was preparing
his instruments for dissection, when I observed that it was then past two
o'clock. Hereupon it was agreed to postpone the internal examination until
the next evening; and we were about to separate for the present, when some
one suggested an experiment or two with the Voltaic pile.
The application of electricity to a mummy three or four thousand years old
at the least, was an idea, if not very sage, still sufficiently original,
and we all caught it at once. About one-tenth in earnest and nine-tenths
in jest, we arranged a battery in the Doctor's study, and conveyed thither
It was only after much trouble that we succeeded in laying bare some
portions of the temporal muscle which appeared of less stony rigidity than
other parts of the frame, but which, as we had anticipated, of course,
gave no indication of galvanic susceptibility when brought in contact with
the wire. This, the first trial, indeed, seemed decisive, and, with a
hearty laugh at our own absurdity, we were bidding each other good night,
when my eyes, happening to fall upon those of the Mummy, were there
immediately riveted in amazement. My brief glance, in fact, had sufficed
to assure me that the orbs which we had all supposed to be glass, and
which were originally noticeable for a certain wild stare, were now so far
covered by the lids, that only a small portion of the tunica albuginea
With a shout I called attention to the fact, and it became immediately
obvious to all.
I cannot say that I was alarmed at the phenomenon, because "alarmed" is,
in my case, not exactly the word. It is possible, however, that, but for
the Brown Stout, I might have been a little nervous. As for the rest of
the company, they really made no attempt at concealing the downright
fright which possessed them. Doctor Ponnonner was a man to be pitied. Mr.
Gliddon, by some peculiar process, rendered himself invisible. Mr. Silk
Buckingham, I fancy, will scarcely be so bold as to deny that he made his
way, upon all fours, under the table.
After the first shock of astonishment, however, we resolved, as a matter
of course, upon further experiment forthwith. Our operations were now
directed against the great toe of the right foot. We made an incision over
the outside of the exterior os sesamoideum pollicis pedis, and thus got
at the root of the abductor muscle. Readjusting the battery, we now
applied the fluid to the bisected nerves -- when, with a movement of
exceeding life-likeness, the Mummy first drew up its right knee so as to
bring it nearly in contact with the abdomen, and then, straightening the
limb with inconceivable force, bestowed a kick upon Doctor Ponnonner,
which had the effect of discharging that gentleman, like an arrow from a
catapult, through a window into the street below.
We rushed out en masse to bring in the mangled remains of the victim,
but had the happiness to meet him upon the staircase, coming up in an
unaccountable hurry, brimful of the most ardent philosophy, and more than
ever impressed with the necessity of prosecuting our experiment with vigor
and with zeal.
It was by his advice, accordingly, that we made, upon the spot, a profound
incision into the tip of the subject's nose, while the Doctor himself,
laying violent hands upon it, pulled it into vehement contact with the
Morally and physically -- figuratively and literally -- was the effect
electric. In the first place, the corpse opened its eyes and winked very
rapidly for several minutes, as does Mr. Barnes in the pantomime, in the
second place, it sneezed; in the third, it sat upon end; in the fourth, it
shook its fist in Doctor Ponnonner's face; in the fifth, turning to
Messieurs Gliddon and Buckingham, it addressed them, in very capital
"I must say, gentlemen, that I am as much surprised as I am mortified at
your behavior. Of Doctor Ponnonner nothing better was to be expected. He
is a poor little fat fool who knows no better. I pity and forgive him. But
you, Mr. Gliddon- and you, Silk -- who have travelled and resided in Egypt
until one might imagine you to the manner born -- you, I say who have been
so much among us that you speak Egyptian fully as well, I think, as you
write your mother tongue -- you, whom I have always been led to regard as
the firm friend of the mummies -- I really did anticipate more gentlemanly
conduct from you. What am I to think of your standing quietly by and
seeing me thus unhandsomely used? What am I to suppose by your permitting
Tom, Dick, and Harry to strip me of my coffins, and my clothes, in this
wretchedly cold climate? In what light (to come to the point) am I to
regard your aiding and abetting that miserable little villain, Doctor
Ponnonner, in pulling me by the nose?"
It will be taken for granted, no doubt, that upon hearing this speech
under the circumstances, we all either made for the door, or fell into
violent hysterics, or went off in a general swoon. One of these three
things was, I say, to be expected. Indeed each and all of these lines of
conduct might have been very plausibly pursued. And, upon my word, I am at
a loss to know how or why it was that we pursued neither the one nor the
other. But, perhaps, the true reason is to be sought in the spirit of the
age, which proceeds by the rule of contraries altogether, and is now
usually admitted as the solution of every thing in the way of paradox and
impossibility. Or, perhaps, after all, it was only the Mummy's exceedingly
natural and matter-of-course air that divested his words of the terrible.
However this may be, the facts are clear, and no member of our party
betrayed any very particular trepidation, or seemed to consider that any
thing had gone very especially wrong.
For my part I was convinced it was all right, and merely stepped aside,
out of the range of the Egyptian's fist. Doctor Ponnonner thrust his hands
into his breeches' pockets, looked hard at the Mummy, and grew excessively
red in the face. Mr. Glidden stroked his whiskers and drew up the collar
of his shirt. Mr. Buckingham hung down his head, and put his right thumb
into the left corner of his mouth.
The Egyptian regarded him with a severe countenance for some minutes and
at length, with a sneer, said:
"Why don't you speak, Mr. Buckingham? Did you hear what I asked you, or
not? Do take your thumb out of your mouth!"
Mr. Buckingham, hereupon, gave a slight start, took his right thumb out of
the left corner of his mouth, and, by way of indemnification inserted his
left thumb in the right corner of the aperture above-mentioned.
Not being able to get an answer from Mr. B., the figure turned peevishly
to Mr. Gliddon, and, in a peremptory tone, demanded in general terms what
we all meant.
Mr. Gliddon replied at great length, in phonetics; and but for the
deficiency of American printing-offices in hieroglyphical type, it would
afford me much pleasure to record here, in the original, the whole of his
very excellent speech.
I may as well take this occasion to remark, that all the subsequent
conversation in which the Mummy took a part, was carried on in primitive
Egyptian, through the medium (so far as concerned myself and other
untravelled members of the company) -- through the medium, I say, of
Messieurs Gliddon and Buckingham, as interpreters. These gentlemen spoke
the mother tongue of the Mummy with inimitable fluency and grace; but I
could not help observing that (owing, no doubt, to the introduction of
images entirely modern, and, of course, entirely novel to the stranger)
the two travellers were reduced, occasionally, to the employment of
sensible forms for the purpose of conveying a particular meaning. Mr.
Gliddon, at one period, for example, could not make the Egyptian
comprehend the term "politics," until he sketched upon the wall, with a
bit of charcoal a little carbuncle-nosed gentleman, out at elbows,
standing upon a stump, with his left leg drawn back, right arm thrown
forward, with his fist shut, the eyes rolled up toward Heaven, and the
mouth open at an angle of ninety degrees. Just in the same way Mr.
Buckingham failed to convey the absolutely modern idea "wig," until (at
Doctor Ponnonner's suggestion) he grew very pale in the face, and
consented to take off his own.
It will be readily understood that Mr. Gliddon's discourse turned chiefly
upon the vast benefits accruing to science from the unrolling and
disembowelling of mummies; apologizing, upon this score, for any
disturbance that might have been occasioned him, in particular, the
individual Mummy called Allamistakeo; and concluding with a mere hint (for
it could scarcely be considered more) that, as these little matters were
now explained, it might be as well to proceed with the investigation
intended. Here Doctor Ponnonner made ready his instruments.
In regard to the latter suggestions of the orator, it appears that
Allamistakeo had certain scruples of conscience, the nature of which I did
not distinctly learn; but he expressed himself satisfied with the
apologies tendered, and, getting down from the table, shook hands with the
company all round.
When this ceremony was at an end, we immediately busied ourselves in
repairing the damages which our subject had sustained from the scalpel. We
sewed up the wound in his temple, bandaged his foot, and applied a square
inch of black plaster to the tip of his nose.
It was now observed that the Count (this was the title, it seems, of
Allamistakeo) had a slight fit of shivering -- no doubt from the cold. The
Doctor immediately repaired to his wardrobe, and soon returned with a
black dress coat, made in Jennings' best manner, a pair of sky-blue plaid
pantaloons with straps, a pink gingham chemise, a flapped vest of brocade,
a white sack overcoat, a walking cane with a hook, a hat with no brim,
patent-leather boots, straw-colored kid gloves, an eye-glass, a pair of
whiskers, and a waterfall cravat. Owing to the disparity of size between
the Count and the doctor (the proportion being as two to one), there was
some little difficulty in adjusting these habiliments upon the person of
the Egyptian; but when all was arranged, he might have been said to be
dressed. Mr. Gliddon, therefore, gave him his arm, and led him to a
comfortable chair by the fire, while the Doctor rang the bell upon the
spot and ordered a supply of cigars and wine.
The conversation soon grew animated. Much curiosity was, of course,
expressed in regard to the somewhat remarkable fact of Allamistakeo's
still remaining alive.
"I should have thought," observed Mr. Buckingham, "that it is high time
you were dead."
"Why," replied the Count, very much astonished, "I am little more than
seven hundred years old! My father lived a thousand, and was by no means
in his dotage when he died."
Here ensued a brisk series of questions and computations, by means of
which it became evident that the antiquity of the Mummy had been grossly
misjudged. It had been five thousand and fifty years and some months since
he had been consigned to the catacombs at Eleithias.
"But my remark," resumed Mr. Buckingham, "had no reference to your age at
the period of interment (I am willing to grant, in fact, that you are
still a young man), and my illusion was to the immensity of time during
which, by your own showing, you must have been done up in asphaltum."
"In what?" said the Count.
"In asphaltum," persisted Mr. B.
"Ah, yes; I have some faint notion of what you mean; it might be made to
answer, no doubt -- but in my time we employed scarcely any thing else
than the Bichloride of Mercury."
"But what we are especially at a loss to understand," said Doctor
Ponnonner, "is how it happens that, having been dead and buried in Egypt
five thousand years ago, you are here to-day all alive and looking so
"Had I been, as you say, dead," replied the Count, "it is more than
probable that dead, I should still be; for I perceive you are yet in the
infancy of Calvanism, and cannot accomplish with it what was a common
thing among us in the old days. But the fact is, I fell into catalepsy,
and it was considered by my best friends that I was either dead or should
be; they accordingly embalmed me at once -- I presume you are aware of the
chief principle of the embalming process?"
"Why not altogether."
"Why, I perceive -- a deplorable condition of ignorance! Well I cannot
enter into details just now: but it is necessary to explain that to embalm
(properly speaking), in Egypt, was to arrest indefinitely all the animal
functions subjected to the process. I use the word 'animal' in its widest
sense, as including the physical not more than the moral and vital being.
I repeat that the leading principle of embalmment consisted, with us, in
the immediately arresting, and holding in perpetual abeyance, all the
animal functions subjected to the process. To be brief, in whatever
condition the individual was, at the period of embalmment, in that
condition he remained. Now, as it is my good fortune to be of the blood of
the Scarabaeus, I was embalmed alive, as you see me at present."
"The blood of the Scarabaeus!" exclaimed Doctor Ponnonner.
"Yes. The Scarabaeus was the insignium or the 'arms,' of a very
distinguished and very rare patrician family. To be 'of the blood of the
Scarabaeus,' is merely to be one of that family of which the Scarabaeus is
the insignium. I speak figuratively."
"But what has this to do with you being alive?"
"Why, it is the general custom in Egypt to deprive a corpse, before
embalmment, of its bowels and brains; the race of the Scarabaei alone did
not coincide with the custom. Had I not been a Scarabeus, therefore, I
should have been without bowels and brains; and without either it is
inconvenient to live."
"I perceive that," said Mr. Buckingham, "and I presume that all the entire
mummies that come to hand are of the race of Scarabaei."
"I thought," said Mr. Gliddon, very meekly, "that the Scarabaeus was one
of the Egyptian gods."
"One of the Egyptian what?" exclaimed the Mummy, starting to its feet.
"Gods!" repeated the traveller.
"Mr. Gliddon, I really am astonished to hear you talk in this style," said
the Count, resuming his chair. "No nation upon the face of the earth has
ever acknowledged more than one god. The Scarabaeus, the Ibis, etc., were
with us (as similar creatures have been with others) the symbols, or
media, through which we offered worship to the Creator too august to be
more directly approached."
There was here a pause. At length the colloquy was renewed by Doctor
"It is not improbable, then, from what you have explained," said he, "that
among the catacombs near the Nile there may exist other mummies of the
Scarabaeus tribe, in a condition of vitality?"
"There can be no question of it," replied the Count; "all the Scarabaei
embalmed accidentally while alive, are alive now. Even some of those
purposely so embalmed, may have been overlooked by their executors, and
still remain in the tomb."
"Will you be kind enough to explain," I said, "what you mean by 'purposely
"With great pleasure!" answered the Mummy, after surveying me leisurely
through his eye-glass -- for it was the first time I had ventured to
address him a direct question.
"With great pleasure," he said. "The usual duration of man's life, in my
time, was about eight hundred years. Few men died, unless by most
extraordinary accident, before the age of six hundred; few lived longer
than a decade of centuries; but eight were considered the natural term.
After the discovery of the embalming principle, as I have already
described it to you, it occurred to our philosophers that a laudable
curiosity might be gratified, and, at the same time, the interests of
science much advanced, by living this natural term in installments. In the
case of history, indeed, experience demonstrated that something of this
kind was indispensable. An historian, for example, having attained the age
of five hundred, would write a book with great labor and then get himself
carefully embalmed; leaving instructions to his executors pro tem., that
they should cause him to be revivified after the lapse of a certain period
-- say five or six hundred years. Resuming existence at the expiration of
this time, he would invariably find his great work converted into a
species of hap-hazard note-book -- that is to say, into a kind of literary
arena for the conflicting guesses, riddles, and personal squabbles of
whole herds of exasperated commentators. These guesses, etc., which passed
under the name of annotations, or emendations, were found so completely to
have enveloped, distorted, and overwhelmed the text, that the author had
to go about with a lantern to discover his own book. When discovered, it
was never worth the trouble of the search. After re-writing it throughout,
it was regarded as the bounden duty of the historian to set himself to
work immediately in correcting, from his own private knowledge and
experience, the traditions of the day concerning the epoch at which he had
originally lived. Now this process of re-scription and personal
rectification, pursued by various individual sages from time to time, had
the effect of preventing our history from degenerating into absolute
"I beg your pardon," said Doctor Ponnonner at this point, laying his hand
gently upon the arm of the Egyptian -- "I beg your pardon, sir, but may I
presume to interrupt you for one moment?"
"By all means, sir," replied the Count, drawing up.
"I merely wished to ask you a question," said the Doctor. "You mentioned
the historian's personal correction of traditions respecting his own
epoch. Pray, sir, upon an average what proportion of these Kabbala were
usually found to be right?"
"The Kabbala, as you properly term them, sir, were generally discovered to
be precisely on a par with the facts recorded in the un-re-written
histories themselves; -- that is to say, not one individual iota of either
was ever known, under any circumstances, to be not totally and radically
"But since it is quite clear," resumed the Doctor, "that at least five
thousand years have elapsed since your entombment, I take it for granted
that your histories at that period, if not your traditions were
sufficiently explicit on that one topic of universal interest, the
Creation, which took place, as I presume you are aware, only about ten
"Sir!" said the Count Allamistakeo.
The Doctor repeated his remarks, but it was only after much additional
explanation that the foreigner could be made to comprehend them. The
latter at length said, hesitatingly:
"The ideas you have suggested are to me, I confess, utterly novel. During
my time I never knew any one to entertain so singular a fancy as that the
universe (or this world if you will have it so) ever had a beginning at
all. I remember once, and once only, hearing something remotely hinted, by
a man of many speculations, concerning the origin of the human race; and
by this individual, the very word Adam (or Red Earth), which you make
use of, was employed. He employed it, however, in a generical sense, with
reference to the spontaneous germination from rank soil (just as a
thousand of the lower genera of creatures are germinated) -- the
spontaneous germination, I say, of five vast hordes of men, simultaneously
upspringing in five distinct and nearly equal divisions of the globe."
Here, in general, the company shrugged their shoulders, and one or two of
us touched our foreheads with a very significant air. Mr. Silk Buckingham,
first glancing slightly at the occiput and then at the sinciput of
Allamistakeo, spoke as follows:
"The long duration of human life in your time, together with the
occasional practice of passing it, as you have explained, in installments,
must have had, indeed, a strong tendency to the general development and
conglomeration of knowledge. I presume, therefore, that we are to
attribute the marked inferiority of the old Egyptians in all particulars
of science, when compared with the moderns, and more especially with the
Yankees, altogether to the superior solidity of the Egyptian skull."
"I confess again," replied the Count, with much suavity, "that I am
somewhat at a loss to comprehend you; pray, to what particulars of science
do you allude?"
Here our whole party, joining voices, detailed, at great length, the
assumptions of phrenology and the marvels of animal magnetism.
Having heard us to an end, the Count proceeded to relate a few anecdotes,
which rendered it evident that prototypes of Gall and Spurzheim had
flourished and faded in Egypt so long ago as to have been nearly
forgotten, and that the manoeuvres of Mesmer were really very contemptible
tricks when put in collation with the positive miracles of the Theban
savans, who created lice and a great many other similar things.
I here asked the Count if his people were able to calculate eclipses. He
smiled rather contemptuously, and said they were.
This put me a little out, but I began to make other inquiries in regard to
his astronomical knowledge, when a member of the company, who had never as
yet opened his mouth, whispered in my ear, that for information on this
head, I had better consult Ptolemy (whoever Ptolemy is), as well as one
Plutarch de facie lunae.
I then questioned the Mummy about burning-glasses and lenses, and, in
general, about the manufacture of glass; but I had not made an end of my
queries before the silent member again touched me quietly on the elbow,
and begged me for God's sake to take a peep at Diodorus Siculus. As for
the Count, he merely asked me, in the way of reply, if we moderns
possessed any such microscopes as would enable us to cut cameos in the
style of the Egyptians. While I was thinking how I should answer this
question, little Doctor Ponnonner committed himself in a very
"Look at our architecture!" he exclaimed, greatly to the indignation of
both the travellers, who pinched him black and blue to no purpose.
"Look," he cried with enthusiasm, "at the Bowling-Green Fountain in New
York! or if this be too vast a contemplation, regard for a moment the
Capitol at Washington, D. C.!" -- and the good little medical man went on
to detail very minutely, the proportions of the fabric to which he
referred. He explained that the portico alone was adorned with no less
than four and twenty columns, five feet in diameter, and ten feet apart.
The Count said that he regretted not being able to remember, just at that
moment, the precise dimensions of any one of the principal buildings of
the city of Aznac, whose foundations were laid in the night of Time, but
the ruins of which were still standing, at the epoch of his entombment, in
a vast plain of sand to the westward of Thebes. He recollected, however,
(talking of the porticoes,) that one affixed to an inferior palace in a
kind of suburb called Carnac, consisted of a hundred and forty-four
columns, thirty-seven feet in circumference, and twenty-five feet apart.
The approach to this portico, from the Nile, was through an avenue two
miles long, composed of sphynxes, statues, and obelisks, twenty, sixty,
and a hundred feet in height. The palace itself (as well as he could
remember) was, in one direction, two miles long, and might have been
altogether about seven in circuit. Its walls were richly painted all over,
within and without, with hieroglyphics. He would not pretend to assert
that even fifty or sixty of the Doctor's Capitols might have been built
within these walls, but he was by no means sure that two or three hundred
of them might not have been squeezed in with some trouble. That palace at
Carnac was an insignificant little building after all. He (the Count),
however, could not conscientiously refuse to admit the ingenuity,
magnificence, and superiority of the Fountain at the Bowling Green, as
described by the Doctor. Nothing like it, he was forced to allow, had ever
been seen in Egypt or elsewhere.
I here asked the Count what he had to say to our railroads.
"Nothing," he replied, "in particular." They were rather slight, rather
ill-conceived, and clumsily put together. They could not be compared, of
course, with the vast, level, direct, iron-grooved causeways upon which
the Egyptians conveyed entire temples and solid obelisks of a hundred and
fifty feet in altitude.
I spoke of our gigantic mechanical forces.
He agreed that we knew something in that way, but inquired how I should
have gone to work in getting up the imposts on the lintels of even the
little palace at Carnac.
This question I concluded not to hear, and demanded if he had any idea of
Artesian wells; but he simply raised his eyebrows; while Mr. Gliddon
winked at me very hard and said, in a low tone, that one had been recently
discovered by the engineers employed to bore for water in the Great Oasis.
I then mentioned our steel; but the foreigner elevated his nose, and asked
me if our steel could have executed the sharp carved work seen on the
obelisks, and which was wrought altogether by edge-tools of copper.
This disconcerted us so greatly that we thought it advisable to vary the
attack to Metaphysics. We sent for a copy of a book called the "Dial," and
read out of it a chapter or two about something that is not very clear,
but which the Bostonians call the Great Movement of Progress.
The Count merely said that Great Movements were awfully common things in
his day, and as for Progress, it was at one time quite a nuisance, but it
We then spoke of the great beauty and importance of Democracy, and were at
much trouble in impressing the Count with a due sense of the advantages we
enjoyed in living where there was suffrage ad libitum, and no king.
He listened with marked interest, and in fact seemed not a little amused.
When we had done, he said that, a great while ago, there had occurred
something of a very similar sort. Thirteen Egyptian provinces determined
all at once to be free, and to set a magnificent example to the rest of
mankind. They assembled their wise men, and concocted the most ingenious
constitution it is possible to conceive. For a while they managed
remarkably well; only their habit of bragging was prodigious. The thing
ended, however, in the consolidation of the thirteen states, with some
fifteen or twenty others, in the most odious and insupportable despotism
that was ever heard of upon the face of the Earth.
I asked what was the name of the usurping tyrant.
As well as the Count could recollect, it was Mob.
Not knowing what to say to this, I raised my voice, and deplored the
Egyptian ignorance of steam.
The Count looked at me with much astonishment, but made no answer. The
silent gentleman, however, gave me a violent nudge in the ribs with his
elbows -- told me I had sufficiently exposed myself for once -- and
demanded if I was really such a fool as not to know that the modern
steam-engine is derived from the invention of Hero, through Solomon de
We were now in imminent danger of being discomfited; but, as good luck
would have it, Doctor Ponnonner, having rallied, returned to our rescue,
and inquired if the people of Egypt would seriously pretend to rival the
moderns in the all- important particular of dress.
The Count, at this, glanced downward to the straps of his pantaloons, and
then taking hold of the end of one of his coat-tails, held it up close to
his eyes for some minutes. Letting it fall, at last, his mouth extended
itself very gradually from ear to ear; but I do not remember that he said
any thing in the way of reply.
Hereupon we recovered our spirits, and the Doctor, approaching the Mummy
with great dignity, desired it to say candidly, upon its honor as a
gentleman, if the Egyptians had comprehended, at any period, the
manufacture of either Ponnonner's lozenges or Brandreth's pills.
We looked, with profound anxiety, for an answer -- but in vain. It was not
forthcoming. The Egyptian blushed and hung down his head. Never was
triumph more consummate; never was defeat borne with so ill a grace.
Indeed, I could not endure the spectacle of the poor Mummy's
mortification. I reached my hat, bowed to him stiffly, and took leave.
Upon getting home I found it past four o'clock, and went immediately to
bed. It is now ten A.M. I have been up since seven, penning these
memoranda for the benefit of my family and of mankind. The former I shall
behold no more. My wife is a shrew. The truth is, I am heartily sick of
this life and of the nineteenth century in general. I am convinced that
every thing is going wrong. Besides, I am anxious to know who will be
President in 2045. As soon, therefore, as I shave and swallow a cup of
coffee, I shall just step over to Ponnonner's and get embalmed for a
couple of hundred years.
The Poetic Principle
IN speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either
thorough or profound. While discussing, very much at random, the
essentiality of what we call Poetry, my principal purpose will be to cite
for consideration, some few of those minor English or American poems which
best suit my own taste, or which, upon my own fancy, have left the most
definite impression. By "minor poems" I mean, of course, poems of little
length. And here, in the beginning, permit me to say a few words in regard
to a somewhat peculiar principle, which, whether rightfully or wrongfully,
has always had its influence in my own critical estimate of the poem. I
hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, "a long
poem," is simply a flat contradiction in terms.
I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch
as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the
ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a
psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would
entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a
composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the
very utmost, it flags -- fails -- a revulsion ensues -- and then the poem
is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.
There are, no doubt, many who have found difficulty in reconciling the
critical dictum that the "Paradise Lost" is to be devoutly admired
throughout, with the absolute impossibility of maintaining for it, during
perusal, the amount of enthusiasm which that critical dictum would demand.
This great work, in fact, is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing
sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it
merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity -- its
totality of effect or impression -- we read it (as would be necessary) at
a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excitement
and depression. After a passage of what we feel to be true poetry, there
follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no critical prejudgment
can force us to admire; but if, upon completing the work, we read it
again, omitting the first book -- that is to say, commencing with the
second -- we shall be surprised at now finding that admirable which we
before condemned -- that damnable which we had previously so much admired.
It follows from all this that the ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect
of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity: -- and this is
precisely the fact.
In regard to the Iliad, we have, if not positive proof, at least very
good reason for believing it intended as a series of lyrics; but, granting
the epic intention, I can say only that the work is based in an imperfect
sense of art. The modem epic is, of the supposititious ancient model, but
an inconsiderate and blindfold imitation. But the day of these artistic
anomalies is over. If, at any time, any very long poem _were _popular in
reality, which I doubt, it is at least clear that no very long poem will
ever be popular again.
That the extent of a poetical work is, _ceteris paribus, _the measure
of its merit, seems undoubtedly, when we thus state it, a proposition
sufficiently absurd -- yet we are indebted for it to the Quarterly
Reviews. Surely there can be nothing in mere _size, _abstractly considered
-- there can be nothing in mere _bulk, so _far as a volume is concerned,
which has so continuously elicited admiration from these saturnine
pamphlets! A mountain, to be sure, by the mere sentiment of physical
magnitude which it conveys, _does _impress us with a sense of the sublime
-- but no man is impressed after _this _fashion by the material grandeur
of even "The Columbiad." Even the Quarterlies have not instructed us to be
so impressed by it. As _yet, _they have not _insisted _on our estimating
Lamar" tine by the cubic foot, or Pollock by the pound -- but what else
are we to _infer _from their continual plating about "sustained effort"?
If, by "sustained effort," any little gentleman has accomplished an epic,
1* us frankly commend him for the effort -- if this indeed be a thing conk
mendable--but let us forbear praising the epic on the effort's account. It
is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer
deciding upon a work of Art rather by the impression it makes -- by the
effect it produces -- than by the time it took to impress the effect, or
by the amount of "sustained effort" which had been found necessary in
effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and
genius quite another -- nor can all the Quarterlies in Christendom
confound them. By and by, this proposition, with many which I have been
just urging, will be received as self-evident. In the meantime, by being
generally condemned as falsities, they will not be essentially damaged as
On the other hand, it is clear that a poem may be improperly brief.
Undue brevity degenerates into mere epigrammatism. A very short poem,
while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a
profound or enduring effect. There must be the steady pressing down of the
stamp upon the wax. De Beranger has wrought innumerable things, pungent
and spirit-stirring, but in general they have been too imponderous to
stamp themselves deeply into the public attention, and thus, as so many
feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the
A remarkable instance of the effect of undue brevity in depressing a
poem, in keeping it out of the popular view, is afforded by the following
exquisite little Serenade--
I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright.
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
- led me -- who knows how? --
To thy chamber-window, sweet!
- wandering airs they faint
On the dark the silent stream --
- champak odors fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream;
- nightingale's complaint,
It dies upon her heart,
As I must die on shine,
O, beloved as thou art!
O, lift me from the grass!
I die, I faint, I fail!
- thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast:
O, press it close to shine again,
Where it will break at last.
Very few perhaps are familiar with these lines--yet no less a poet
than Shelley is their author. Their warm, yet delicate and ethereal
imagination will be appreciated by all, but by none so thoroughly as by
him who has himself arisen from sweet dreams of one beloved to bathe in
the aromatic air of a southern midsummer night.
One of the finest poems by Willis -- the very best in my opinion which
he has ever written--has no doubt, through this same defect of undue
brevity, been kept back from its proper position. not less in the
- shadows lay along Broadway,
'Twas near the twilight-tide--
- slowly there a lady fair
Was walking in her pride.
Alone walk'd she; but, viewlessly,
Walk'd spirits at her side.
Peace charm'd the street beneath her feet,
And Honor charm'd the air;
- all astir looked kind on her,
And called her good as fair--
- all God ever gave to her
She kept with chary care.
- kept with care her beauties rare
From lovers warm and true--
- heart was cold to all but gold,
And the rich came not to won,
- honor'd well her charms to sell.
If priests the selling do.
- walking there was one more fair --
A slight girl, lily-pale;
- she had unseen company
To make the spirit quail--
'Twixt Want and Scorn she walk'd forlorn,
And nothing could avail.
No mercy now can clear her brow
From this world's peace to pray
- as love's wild prayer dissolved in air,
Her woman's heart gave way!--
- the sin forgiven by Christ in Heaven
By man is cursed alway!
In this composition we find it difficult to recognize the Willis who
has written so many mere "verses of society." The lines are not only
richly ideal, but full of energy, while they breathe an earnestness, an
evident sincerity of sentiment, for which we look in vain throughout all
the other works of this author.
While the epic mania, while the idea that to merit in poetry prolixity
is indispensable, has for some years past been gradually dying out of the
public mind, by mere dint of its own absurdity, we find it succeeded by a
heresy too palpably false to be long tolerated, but one which, in the
brief period it has already endured, may be said to have accomplished more
in the corruption of our Poetical Literature than all its other enemies
combined. I allude to the heresy of _The Didactic. _It has been assumed,
tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of
all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a morals and
by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We
Americans especially have patronized this happy idea, and we Bostonians
very especially have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads
that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake, and to acknowledge such
to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting
in the true poetic dignity and force:--but the simple fact is that would
we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately
there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor _can _exist any
work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem,
this poem _per se, _this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem
written solely for the poem's sake.
With as deep a reverence for the True as ever inspired the bosom of
man, I would nevertheless limit, in some measure, its modes of
inculcation. I would limit to enforce them. I would not enfeeble them by
dissipation. The demands of Truth are severe. She has no sympathy with the
myrtles. All _that _which is so indispensable in Song is precisely all
_that _with which _she _has nothing whatever to do. It is but making her a
flaunting paradox to wreathe her in gems and flowers. In enforcing a truth
we need severity rather than efflorescence of language. We must be simple,
precise, terse. We must be cool, calm, unimpassioned. In a word, we must
be in that mood which, as nearly as possible, is the exact converse of the
poetical. _He _must be blind indeed who does not perceive the radical and
chasmal difference between the truthful and the poetical modes of
inculcation. He must be theory-mad beyond redemption who, in spite of
these differences, shall still persist in attempting to reconcile the
obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth.
Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious
distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I
place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which in the
mind it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but
from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle
has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues
themselves. Nevertheless we find the _offices _of the trio marked with a
sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth,
so Taste informs us of the Beautiful, while the Moral Sense is regardful
of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and
Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms:
-- waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity -- her
disproportion -- her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the
harmonious -- in a word, to Beauty.
An immortal instinct deep within the spirit of man is thus plainly a
sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the
manifold forms, and sounds, and odors and sentiments amid which he exists.
And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in
the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and
sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments a duplicate source of de"
light. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing,
with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of
description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and
sentiments which greet _him _in common with all mankind -- he, I say, has
yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the
distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst
unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This
thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and
an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for
the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild
effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of
the glories beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among
the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that Loveliness
whose very elements perhaps appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by
Poetry, or when by Music, the most entrancing of the poetic moods, we find
ourselves melted into tears, we weep then, not as the Abbate Gravina
supposes, through excess of pleasure, but through a certain petulant,
impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at
once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys of which _through' _the
poem, or _through _the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate
The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness -- this struggle, on
the part of souls fittingly constituted -- has given to the world all
_that _which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand
and _to feel _as poetic.
The Poetic Sentiment, of course, may develop itself in various modes
--in Painting, in Sculpture, in Architecture, in the Dance -- very
especially in Music -- and very peculiarly, and with a wide field, in the
com position of the Landscape Garden. Our present theme, however, has
regard only to its manifestation in words. And here let me speak briefly
on the topic of rhythm. Contenting myself with the certainty that Music,
in its various modes of metre, rhythm, and rhyme, is of so vast a moment
in Poetry as never to be wisely rejected -- is so vitally important an
adjunct, that he is simply silly who declines its assistance, I will not
now pause to maintain its absolute essentiality. It is in Music perhaps
that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired
by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles -- the creation of supernal Beauty.
It _may _be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained
in _fact. _We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from
an earthly harp are stricken notes which _cannot _have been unfamiliar to
the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry
with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the
Poetic development. The old Bards and Minnesingers had advantages which we
do not possess -- and Thomas Moore, singing his own songs, was, in the
most legitimate manner, perfecting them as poems.
To recapitulate then: -- I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words
as _The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. _Its sole arbiter is Taste. With
the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations.
Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with
A few words, however, in explanation. _That _pleasure which is at once
the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I
maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of
Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or
excitement _of the soul, _which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and
which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of
the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the heart. I make
Beauty, therefore--using the word as inclusive of the sublime -- I make
Beauty the province of the poem, simply because it is an obvious rule of
Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from
their causes: -- no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the
peculiar elevation in question is at least _most readily _attainable in
the poem. It by no means follows, however, that the incitements of
Passion' or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be
introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve
incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work: but the
true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to
that _Beauty _which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.
I cannot better introduce the few poems which I shall present for your
consideration, than by the citation of the Proem to Longfellow's "Waif":
- day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an Eagle in his flight.
I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
- a feeling of sadness comes o'er me,
That my soul cannot resist;
A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
- resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
- from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.
For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavor;
And to-night I long for rest.
Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;
- through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.
Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
- come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.
Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
- lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.
- the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
With no great range of imagination, these lines have been justly
admired for their delicacy of expression. Some of the images are very
effective. Nothing can be better than --
------------- the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Down the corridors of Time.
The idea of the last quatrain is also very effective. The poem on the
whole, however, is chiefly to be admired for the graceful _insouciance _of
its metre, so well in accordance with the character of the sentiments, and
especially for the _ease _of the general manner. This "ease" or
naturalness, in a literary style, it has long been the fashion to regard
as ease in appearance alone--as a point of really difficult attainment.
But not so:--a natural manner is difficult only to him who should never
meddle with it--to the unnatural. It is but the result of writing with the
understanding, or with the instinct, that _the tone, _in composition,
should always be that which the mass of mankind would adopt--and must
perpetually vary, of course, with the occasion. The author who, after the
fashion of "The North American Review," should be upon _all _occasions
merely "quiet," must necessarily upon _many _occasions be simply silly, or
stupid; and has no more right to be considered "easy" or "natural" than a
Cockney exquisite, or than the sleeping Beauty in the waxworks.
Among the minor poems of Bryant, none has so much impressed me as the one
which he entitles "June." I quote only a portion of it: --
There, through the long, long summer hours,
The golden light should lie,
- thick young herbs and groups of flowers
Stand in their beauty by.
The oriole should build and tell
- love-tale, close beside my cell;
The idle butterfly
Should rest him there, and there be heard
The housewife-bee and humming bird.
- what, if cheerful shouts at noon,
Come, from the village sent,
Or songs of maids, beneath the moon,
With fairy laughter blent?
And what if, in the evening light,
Betrothed lovers walk in sight
Of my low monument?
I would the lovely scene around
Might know no sadder sight nor sound.
I know, I know I should not see
The season's glorious show,
- would its brightness shine for me;
Nor its wild music flow;
But if, around my place of sleep,
- friends I love should come to weep,
They might not haste to go.
Soft airs and song, and the light and bloom,
Should keep them lingering by my tomb.
These to their soften'd hearts should bear
The thoughts of what has been,
- speak of one who cannot share
The gladness of the scene;
Whose part in all the pomp that fills
- circuit of the summer hills,
Is -- that his grave is green;
And deeply would their hearts rejoice
To hear again his living voice.
The rhythmical flow here is even voluptuous--nothing could be more
melodious. The poem has always affected me in a remarkable manner. The
intense melancholy which seems to well up, perforce, to the surface of all
the poet's cheerful sayings about his grave, we find thrilling us to the
soul--while there is the truest poetic elevation in the thrill. The
impression left is one of a pleasurable sadness. And if, in the remaining
compositions which I shall introduce to you, there be more or less of a
similar tone always apparent, let me remind you that (how or why we know
not) this certain taint of sadness is inseparably connected with all the
higher manifestations of true Beauty. It is, nevertheless,
A feeling of sadness and longing
That is not akin to pain,
- resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
The taint of which I speak is clearly perceptible even in a poem so full
of brilliancy and spirit as "The Health" of Edward Coate Pinckney: --
I fill this cup to one made up
Of loveliness alone,
A woman, of her gentle sex
The seeming paragon;
To whom the better elements
And kindly stars have given
A form so fair that, like the air,
'Tis less of earth than heaven.
- every tone is music's own,
Like those of morning birds,
- something more than melody
Dwells ever in her words;
- coinage of her heart are they,
And from her lips each flows
As one may see the burden'd bee
Forth issue from the rose.
Affections are as thoughts to her,
The measures of her hours;
- feelings have the flagrancy,
The freshness of young flowers;
- lovely passions, changing oft,
So fill her, she appears
- image of themselves by turns, --
The idol of past years!
Of her bright face one glance will trace
A picture on the brain,
- of her voice in echoing hearts
A sound must long remain;
- memory, such as mine of her,
So very much endears,
When death is nigh my latest sigh
Will not be life's, but hers.
I fill'd this cup to one made up
Of loveliness alone,
A woman, of her gentle sex
The seeming paragon --
- health! and would on earth there stood,
Some more of such a frame,
That life might be all poetry,
And weariness a name.
It was the misfortune of Mr. Pinckney to have been born too far south.
Had he been a New Englander, it is probable that he would have been ranked
as the first of American lyrists by that magnanimous cabal which has so
long controlled the destinies of American Letters, in conducting the thing
called "The North American Review." The poem just cited is especially
beautiful; but the poetic elevation which it induces we must refer chiefly
to our sympathy in the poet's enthusiasm. We pardon his hyperboles for the
evident earnestness with which they are uttered.
It was by no means my design, however, to expatiate upon the _merits
_of what I should read you. These will necessarily speak for themselves.
Boccalini, in his "Advertisements from Parnassus," tells us that Zoilus
once presented Apollo a very caustic criticism upon a very admirable book:
-- whereupon the god asked him for the beauties of the work. He replied
that he only busied himself about the errors. On hearing this, Apollo,
handing him a sack of unwinnowed wheat, bade him pick out _all the chaff
_for his reward.
Now this fable answers very well as a hit at the critics--but I am by
no means sure that the god was in the right. I am by no means certain that
the true limits of the critical duty are not grossly misunderstood.
Excellence, in a poem especially, may be considered in the light of an
axiom, which need only be properly _put, _to become self-evident. It is
_not _excellence if it require to be demonstrated as such:--and thus to
point out too particularly the merits of a work of Art, is to admit that
they are _not _merits altogether.
Among the "Melodies" of Thomas Moore is one whose distinguished
character as a poem proper seems to have been singularly left out of view.
I allude to his lines beginning -- "Come, rest in this bosom." The intense
energy of their expression is not surpassed by anything in Byron. There
are two of the lines in which a sentiment is conveyed that embodies the
_all in all _of the divine passion of Love -- a sentiment which, perhaps,
has found its echo in more, and in more passionate, human hearts than any
other single sentiment ever embodied in words: --
Come, rest in this bosom, my own stricken deer
Though the herd have fled from thee, thy home is still here;
Here still is the smile, that no cloud can o'ercast,
And a heart and a hand all thy own to the last.
Oh! what was love made for, if 'tis not the same
Through joy and through torment, through glory and shame?
I know not, I ask not, if guilt's in that heart,
I but know that I love thee, whatever thou art.
Thou hast call'd me thy Angel in moments of bliss,
And thy Angel I'll be, 'mid the horrors of this, --
Through the furnace, unshrinking, thy steps to pursue,
And shield thee, and save thee, --or perish there too!
It has been the fashion of late days to deny Moore Imagination, while
granting him Fancy--a distinction originating with Coleridge--than whom no
man more fully comprehended the great powers of Moore. The fact is, that
the fancy of this poet so far predominates over all his other faculties,
and over the fancy of all other men, as to have induced, very naturally,
the idea that he is fanciful _only. _But never was there a greater
mistake. Never was a grosser wrong done the fame of a true poet. In the
compass of the English language I can call to mind no poem more pro.
foundry--more weirdly _imaginative, _in the best sense, than the lines
commencing--"I would I were by that dim lake"--which are the com. position
of Thomas Moore. I regret that I am unable to remember them.
One of the noblest--and, speaking of Fancy--one of the most singularly
fanciful of modern poets, was Thomas Hood. His "Fair Ines" had always for
me an inexpressible charm: --
O saw ye not fair Ines?
She's gone into the West,
To dazzle when the sun is down,
And rob the world of rest;
- took our daylight with her,
The smiles that we love best,
With morning blushes on her cheek,
And pearls upon her breast.
O turn again, fair Ines,
Before the fall of night,
- fear the moon should shine alone,
And stars unrivalltd bright;
- blessed will the lover be
That walks beneath their light,
- breathes the love against thy cheek
I dare not even write!
Would I had been, fair Ines,
That gallant cavalier,
- rode so gaily by thy side,
And whisper'd thee so near!
Were there no bonny dames at home
Or no true lovers here,
That he should cross the seas to win
The dearest of the dear?
I saw thee, lovely Ines,
Descend along the shore,
With bands of noble gentlemen,
And banners waved before;
- gentle youth and maidens gay,
And snowy plumes they wore;
It would have been a beauteous dream,
If it had been no more!
Alas, alas, fair Ines,
She went away with song,
With music waiting on her steps,
And shootings of the throng;
- some were sad and felt no mirth,
But only Music's wrong,
In sounds that sang Farewell, Farewell,
To her you've loved so long.
Farewell, farewell, fair Ines,
That vessel never bore
So fair a lady on its deck,
Nor danced so light before,--
Alas for pleasure on the sea,
And sorrow on the shorel
- smile that blest one lover's heart
Has broken many more!
"The Haunted House," by the same author, is one of the truest poems ever
written,--one of the truest, one of the most unexceptionable, one of the
most thoroughly artistic, both in its theme and in its execution. It is,
moreover, powerfully ideal--imaginative. I regret that its length renders
it unsuitable for the purposes of this lecture. In place of it permit me
to offer the universally appreciated "Bridge of Sighs":--
One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Gone to her death!
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;--
Fashion'd so slenderly,
Young and so fair!
Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving not loathing.
Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.
Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful;
Past all dishonor,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.
Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.
The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver,
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life's history,
Glad to death's mystery,
Swift to be hurl'd--
Out of the world!
In she plunged boldly,
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran,--
Over the brink of it,
Picture it,--think of it,
Lave in it, drink of it
Then, if you can!
Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve's family--
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily,
Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?
Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?
Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
Oh! it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God's providence
Take her up tenderly;
Lift her with care;
Fashion'd so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!
Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, -- kindly, --
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!
Through muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fixed on futurity.
Spurred by contumely,
Into her rest, --
Cross her hands humbly,
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!
Owning her weakness,
Her evil behavior,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to her Saviour!
The vigor of this poem is no less remarkable than its pathos. The
versification although carrying the fanciful to the very verge of the
fantastic, is nevertheless admirably adapted to the wild insanity which is
the thesis of the poem.
Among the minor poems of Lord Byron is one which has never received
from the critics the praise which it undoubtedly deserves:--
Though the day of my destiny's over,
And the star of my fate bath declined
- soft heart refused to discover
The faults which so many could find;
Though thy soul with my grief was acquainted,
It shrunk not to share it with me,
- the love which my spirit bath painted
It never bath found but in thee.
Then when nature around me is smiling,
The last smile which answers to mine,
I do not believe it beguiling,
Because it reminds me of shine;
- when winds are at war with the ocean,
As the breasts I believed in with me,
If their billows excite an emotion,
It is that they bear me from thee.
Though the rock of my last hope is shivered,
And its fragments are sunk in the wave,
Though I feel that my soul is delivered
To pain--it shall not be its slave.
There is many a pang to pursue me:
They may crush, but they shall not contemn--
They may torture, but shall not subdue me--
'Tis of _thee _that I think--not of them.
Though human, thou didst not deceive me,
Though woman, thou didst not forsake,
Though loved, thou forborest to grieve me,
Though slandered, thou never couldst shake, --
Though trusted, thou didst not disclaim me,
Though parted, it was not to fly,
Though watchful, 'twas not to defame me,
Nor mute, that the world might belie.
- I blame not the world, nor despise it,
Nor the war of the many with one--
If my soul was not fitted to prize it,
'Twas folly not sooner to shun:
- if dearly that error bath cost me,
And more than I once could foresee,
I have found that whatever it lost me,
It could not deprive me of thee.
From the wreck of the past, which bath perished,
Thus much I at least may recall,
It bath taught me that which I most cherished
Deserved to be dearest of all:
In the desert a fountain is springing,
In the wide waste there still is a tree,
And a bird in the solitude singing,
Which speaks to my spirit of thee.
Although the rhythm here is one of the most difficult, the
versification could scarcely be improved. No nobler _theme _ever engaged
the pen of poet. It is the soul-elevating idea that no man can consider
himself entitled to complain of Fate while in his adversity he still
retains the unwavering love of woman.
From Alfred Tennyson, although in perfect sincerity I regard him as
the noblest poet that ever lived, I have left myself time to cite only a
very brief specimen. I call him, and _think _him the noblest of poets,
_not _because the impressions he produces are at _all _times the most
profound-- _not _because the poetical excitement which he induces is at
_all _times the most intense--but because it is at all times the most
ethereal--in other words, the most elevating and most pure. No poet is so
little of the earth, earthy. What I am about to read is from his last long
poem, "The Princess":--
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.
Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken'd birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.
Dear as remember'd kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign'd
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more.
Thus, although in a very cursory and imperfect manner, I have
endeavored to convey to you my conception of the Poetic Principle. It has
been my purpose to suggest that, while this principle itself is strictly
and simply the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty, the manifestation of
the Principle is always found in _an elevating excitement of the soul,
_quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart,
or of that truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason. For in regard to
passion, alas! its tendency is to degrade rather than to elevate the Soul.
Love, on the contrary--Love--the true, the divine Eros--the Uranian as
distinguished from the Diona~an Venus--is unquestionably the purest and
truest of all poetical themes. And in regard to Truth, if, to be sure,
through the attainment of a truth we are led to perceive a harmony where
none was apparent before, we experience at once the true poetical effect;
but this effect is referable to the harmony alone, and not in the least
degree to the truth which merely served to render the harmony manifest.
We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of
what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements
which induce in the Poet himself the poetical effect He recognizes the
ambrosia which nourishes his soul in the bright orbs that shine in
Heaven--in the volutes of the flower--in the clustering of low
shrubberies--in the waving of the grain-fields--in the slanting of tall
eastern trees -- in the blue distance of mountains -- in the grouping of
clouds-- in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks--in the gleaming of silver
rivers --in the repose of sequestered lakes--in the star-mirroring depths
of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds--in the harp of
Bolos --in the sighing of the night-wind--in the repining voice of the
forest-- in the surf that complains to the shore--in the fresh breath of
the woods --in the scent of the violet--in the voluptuous perfume of the
hyacinth--in the suggestive odour that comes to him at eventide from far
distant undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored.
He owns it in all noble thoughts--in all unworldly motives--in all holy
impulses--in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He
feels it in the beauty of woman--in the grace of her step--in the lustre
of her eye--in the melody of her voice--in her soft laughter, in her
sigh--in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in
her winning endearments--in her burning enthusiasms--in her gentle
charities--in her meek and devotional endurances--but above all--ah, far
above all, he kneels to it--he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in
the strength, in the altogether divine majesty--of her love.
Let me conclude by -- the recitation of yet another brief poem -- one
very different in character from any that I have before quoted. It is by
Motherwell, and is called "The Song of the Cavalier." With our modern and
altogether rational ideas of the absurdity and impiety of warfare, we are
not precisely in that frame of mind best adapted to sympathize with the
sentiments, and thus to appreciate the real excellence of the poem. To do
this fully we must identify ourselves in fancy with the soul of the old
Then mounte! then mounte, brave gallants all,
And don your helmes amaine:
Deathe's couriers. Fame and Honor call
No shrewish teares shall fill your eye
When the sword-hilt's in our hand, --
Heart-whole we'll part, and no whit sighe
- the fayrest of the land;
Let piping swaine, and craven wight,
Thus weepe and poling crye,
Our business is like men to fight.