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Lydia Howard Sigourney; Hannah Flag Gould; Elizabeth Fries Ellet               TEI-encoded version

"L.H. Sigourney -- H.F. Gould -- E.F. Ellet"

Edgar Allan Poe

[In Southern Literary Messenger vol. 2 , no. 2 (January 1836), pp. 112-117: ]

Zinzendorff, and other Poems. By Mrs. L.H. Sigourney, New York: Published by Leavitt, Lord & Co. 1836.
Poems. By Miss H.F. Gould, Third Edition. Boston: Hilliard, Gray & Co. 1835.
Poems: Translated and Original. By Mrs. E.F. Ellet. Philadelphia: Key and Biddle. 1835.

Mrs. Sigourney has been long known as an author. Her earliest publication was reviewed about twenty years ago, in the North American. She was then Miss Huntley. The fame which she has since acquired is extensive; and we, who so much admire her virtues and her talents, and who have so frequently expressed our admiration of both in this Journal -- we, of all persons -- are the least inclined to call in question the justice or the accuracy of the public opinion, by which has been adjudged to her so high a station among the literati of our land. Some things, however, we cannot pass over in silence. There are two kinds of popular reputation, -- or rather there are two roads by which such reputation may be attained: and it appears to us an idiosyncrasy which distinguishes mere fame from most, or perhaps from all other human ends, that, in regarding the intrinsic value of the object, we must not fail to introduce, as a portion of our estimate, the means by which the object is acquired. To speak less abstractedly. Let us suppose two writers having a reputation apparently equal -- that is to say, their names being equally in the mouths of the people -- for we take this to be the most practicable test of what we choose to term apparent popular reputation. Their names then are equally in the mouths of the people. The one has written a great work -- let it be either an Epic of high rank, or something which, although of seeming littleness in itself, is yet, like the Christabelle of Coleridge, entitled to be called great from its power of creating intense emotion in the minds of great men. And let us imagine that, by this single effort, the author has attained a certain quantum of reputation. We know it to be possible that another writer of very moderate powers may build up for himself, little by little, a reputation equally great -- and this, too, merely by keeping continually in the eye, or by appealing continually with little things, to the ear, of that great, overgrown, and majestical gander, the critical and bibliographical rabble.

It would be an easy, although perhaps a somewhat disagreeable task, to point out several of the most popular writers in America -- popular in the above mentioned sense -- who have manufactured for themselves a celebrity by the very questionable means, and in the very questionable manner, to which we have alluded. But it must not be thought that we wish to include Mrs. Sigourney in the number. By no means. She has trod, however, upon the confines of their circle. She does not owe her reputation to the chicanery we mention, but it cannot be denied that is has been thereby greatly assisted. In a word -- no single piece which she has written, and not even her collected works as we behold them in the present volume, and in the one published some years ago, would fairly entitle her to that exalted rank which she actually enjoys as the authoress, time after time, of her numerous, and, in most instances, very creditable compositions. The validity of our objections to this adventitious notoriety we must be allowed to consider unshaken, until it can be proved that any multiplication of zeroes will eventuate in the production of a unit.

We have watched, too, with a species of anxiety and vexation brought about altogether by the sincere interest we take in Mrs. Sigourney, the progressive steps by which she has at length acquired the title of the "American Hemans." Mrs. S. cannot conceal from her own discernment that she has acquired this title solely by imitation. The very phrase "American Hemans" speaks loudly in accusation: and we are grieved that what by the over-zealous has been intended as complimentary should fall with so ill-omened a sound into the ears of the judicious. We will briefly point out those particulars in which Mrs. Sigourney stands palpably convicted of that sin which in poetry is not to be forgiven.

And first, in the character of her subjects. Every unprejudiced observer must be aware of the almost identity between the subjects of Mrs. Hemans and the subjects of Mrs. Sigourney. The themes of the former lady are the unobtrusive happiness, the sweet images, the cares, the sorrows, the gentle affections, of the domestic hearth -- these too are the themes of the latter. The Englishwoman has dwelt upon all the "tender and true" chivalries of passion -- and the American has dwelt as unequivocally upon the same. Mrs. Hemans has delighted in the radiance of a pure and humble faith -- she has looked upon nature with a speculative attention -- she has "watched the golden array of sunset clouds, with an eye looking beyond them to the habitations of the disembodied spirit" -- she has poured all over her verses the most glorious and lofty aspirations of a redeeming Christianity, and in all this she is herself glorious and lofty. And all this too has Mrs. Sigourney not only attempted, but accomplished -- yet in all this she is but, alas! -- an imitator.

And secondly -- in points more directly tangible than the one just mentioned, and therefore more easily appreciated by the generality of readers, is Mrs. Sigourney again open to the charge we have adduced. We mean in the structure of her versification -- in the peculiar turns of her phraseology -- in certain habitual expressions (principally interjectional,) such as yea! alas! and many others, so frequent upon the lips of Mrs. Hemans as to give an almost ludicrous air of similitude to all articles of her composition -- in an invincible inclination to apostrophize every object, in both moral and physical existence -- and more particularly in those mottos or quotations, sometimes of considerable extent, prefixed to nearly every poem, not as a text for discussion, nor even as an intimation of what is to follow, but as the actual subject matter itself, and of which the verses ensuing are, in most instances, merely a paraphrase. These were all, in Mrs. Hemans, mannerisms of a gross and inartificial nature; but, in Mrs. Sigourney, they are mannerisms of the most inadmissible kind -- the mannerisms of imitation.

In respect to the use of the quotations, we cannot conceive how the fine taste of Mrs. Hemans could have admitted the practice, or how the good sense of Mrs. Sigourney could have thought it for a single moment worthy of her own adoption. In poems of magnitude the mind of the reader is not, at all times, enabled to include in one comprehensive survey the proportions and proper adjustment of the whole. He is pleased -- if at all -- with particular passages; and the sum of his pleasure is compounded of the sums of the pleasurable sensations inspired by these individual passages during the progress of perusal. But in pieces of less extent -- like the poems of Mrs. Sigourney -- the pleasure is unique, in the proper acceptation of that term -- the understanding is employed, without difficulty, in the contemplation of the picture as a whole -- and thus its effect will depend, in a very great degree, upon the perfection of its finish, upon the nice adaptation of its constituent parts, and especially upon what is rightly termed by Schlegel, the unity or totality of interest. Now it will readily be seen, that the practice we have mentioned as habitual with Mrs. Hemans and Mrs. Sigourney is utterly at variance with this unity. By the initial motto -- often a very long one -- we are either put in possession of the subject of the poem; or some hint, historic fact, or suggestion is thereby afforded, not included in the body of the article, which, without the suggestion, would be utterly incomprehensible. In the latter case, while perusing the poem, the reader must revert, in mind at least, to the motto for the necessary explanation. In the former, the poem being a mere paraphrase of the motto, the interest is divided between the motto and the paraphrase. In either instance the totality of effect is annihilated.

Having expressed ourselves thus far in terms of nearly unmitigated censure, it may appear in us somewhat equivocal to say that, as Americans, we are proud -- very proud of the talents of Mrs. Sigourney. Yet such is the fact. The faults which we have already pointed out, and some others which we will point out hereafter, are but dust in the balance, when weighed against her very many and distinguishing excellences. Among those high qualities which give her, beyond doubt, a title to the sacred name of poet are an acute sensibility to natural loveliness -- a quick and perfectly just conception of the moral and physical sublime -- a calm and unostentatious vigor of thought -- a mingled delicacy and strength of expression -- and above all, a mind nobly and exquisitely attuned to all the gentle charities and lofty pieties of life.

The volume whose title forms the heading of this article embraces one hundred and seventy-three poems. The longest, but not the best, of these is Zinzendorff. "It owes its existence," says the author, "to a recent opportunity of personal intercourse with that sect of Christians who acknowledge Zinzendorff as their founder; and who, in their labors of self-denying benevolence, and their avoidance of the slight, yet bitter causes of controversy, have well preserved that sacred test of discipleship 'to love one another.'" Most of the other pieces were "suggested by the passing and common incidents of life," -- and we confess that we find no fault, with their "deficiency in the wonderful and wild." Not in these mountainous and stormy regions -- but in the holy and quiet valley of the beautiful, must forever consent to dwell the genius of Mrs. Sigourney.

The poem of Zinzendorff includes five hundred and eighty lines. It relates, in a simple manner, some adventures of that man of God. Many passages are very noble, and breathe the truest spirit of the Muse. At page 14, for example:

               ----------------The high arch
     Of the cloud-sweeping forest proudly cast (casts)
     A solemn shadow, for no sound of axe
     Had taught the monarch Oak dire principles
5     Of Revolution, or brought down the Pine
     Like haughty baron from his castled height.
     Thus dwelt the kings of Europe -- ere the voice
     Of the crusading monk, with whirlwind tone
     Did root them from their base, with all their hosts,
10      Tossing the red-cross banner to the sky. […]

The poem, however, is by no means free from faults. In the first paragraph we have the following:

               -----------Through the breast
     Of that fair vale the Susquehannah roam'd,
     Wearing its robe of silver like a bride.
     Now with a noiseless current gliding slow,
15     Mid the rich velvet of its curtaining banks
     It seemed to sleep.

To suppose the Susquehannah roaming through the breast of any thing -- even of a valley -- is an incongruity: and to say that such false images are common, is to say very little in their defense. But when the noble river is bedizzened out in robes of silver, and made to wash with its bright waters nothing better than curtains of velvet, we feel a very sensible and a very righteous indignation. We might have expected such language from an upholsterer, or a marchande des modes, but it is utterly out of place upon the lips of Mrs. Sigourney. To liken the glorious objects of natural loveliness to the trappings and tinsel of artificiality, is one of the lowest, and at the same time, one of the most ordinary exemplifications of the bathos. At page 21, these verses occur:

               No word was spoke,
     As when the friends of a desolated Job,
      Finding the line of language all too short
20      To fathom woe like his, sublimely paid
     That highest homage at the throne of grief,
     Deep silence.

The image here italicized is striking, but faulty. It is deduced not from any analogy between actual existences -- between woe on the one hand, and the sea on the other -- but from the identity of epithet (deep) frequently applied to both. We say the "deep sea," and the expression "deep woe" is certainly familiar. But in the first case the sea is actually deep; in the second, woe is but metaphorically so. Sound, therefore -- not sense, is the basis of the analogy, and the image is consequently incorrect.

Some faults of a minor kind we may also discover in Zinzendorff. We dislike the use made by the poetess of antique modes of expression—here most unequivocally out of place. […]

We will conclude our remarks upon Zinzendorff with a passage of surpassing beauty, energy, and poetic power. Why cannot Mrs. Sigourney write always thus?

                         -----Not a breath
     Disturbed the tide of eloquence. So fixed
25     Were that rude auditory, it would seem
     Almost as if a nation had become
      Bronzed into statues. Now and then a sigh,
     The unbidden messenger of thought profound,
     Parted the lip; or some barbarian brow
30     Contracted closer in a haughty frown,
     As scowled the cynic, 'mid his idol fanes,
     When on Mars-Hill the inspired Apostle preached
     Jesus of Nazareth.

These lines are glowing all over with the true radiance of poetry. The image in italics is perfect. Of the versification, it is not too much to say that it reminds us of Miltonic power. […]

On page 67, in a poem entitled Female Education, occur the following lines:

                         -----Break Oblivion's sleep,
35               And toil with florist's art
     To plant the scenes of virtue deep
               In childhood's fruitful heart!
     To thee the babe is given,
               Fair from its glorious Sire;
40     Go -- nurse it for the King of Heaven,
               And He will pay the hire.

The conclusion of this is bathetic to a degree bordering upon the grotesque. …

We now bid adieu to Mrs. Sigourney -- yet we trust only for a time. We shall behold her again. When that period arrives, having thrown aside the petty shackles which have hitherto enchained her, she will assume, at once, that highest station among the poets of our land which her noble talents so well qualify her for attaining. […]

In Miss Gould we recognize, first, a disposition, like that of Wordsworth, to seek beauty where it is not usually sought -- in the homelinesses (if we may be permitted the word,) and in the most familiar realities of existence -- secondly abandon of manner -- thirdly a phraseology sparkling with antithesis, yet, strange to say, perfectly simple and unaffected.

Without Mrs. Sigourney’s high reach of thought, Miss Gould surpasses her rival in the mere vehicle of thought -- expression. "Words, words, words," are the true secret of her strength. Words are her kingdom -- and in the realm of language, she rules with equal despotism and nonchalance. Yet we do not mean to deny her abilities of a higher order than any which a mere logocracy can imply. Her powers of imagination are great, and she has a faculty of inestimable worth, when considered in relation to effect -- the faculty of holding ordinary ideas in so novel, and sometimes in so fantastic a light, as to give them all of the appearance, and much of the value, of originality. Miss Gould will, of course, be the favorite with the multitude -- Mrs. Sigourney with the few.

We can think of no better manner of exemplifying these few observations, than by extracting part of Miss G's little poem, The Great Refiner.

     'Tis sweet to feel that he, who tries
               The silver, takes his seat
     Beside the fire that purifies;
45               Lest too intense a heat,
     Raised to consume the base alloy,
     The precious metal to destroy.
     'Tis good to think how well he knows
               The silver's power to bear
50     The ordeal to which it goes;
               And that with skill and care,
     He'll take it from the fire, when fit
     For his own hand to polish it
     'Tis blessedness to know that he
55               The piece he has begun
     Will not forsake, till he can see,
               To prove the work well done,
     An image by its brightness shown
     The perfect likeness of his own.

The mind which could conceive the subject of this poem, and find poetic appropriateness in a forced analogy between a refiner of silver, over his crucible, and the Great Father of all things, occupied in the mysteries of redeeming Grace, we cannot believe a mind adapted to the loftier breathings of the lyre. On the other hand, the delicate finish of the illustration, the perfect fitness of one portion for another, the epigrammatic nicety and point of the language, give evidence of a taste exquisitely alive to the prettinesses of the Muse. […]

From the apparently harsh strictures we have thought it our duty to make upon the poetry of Miss Gould, must be excerpted one exquisite little morceau at page 59 of the volume now under review. It is entitled The Dying Storm. We will quote it in full.

60      I am feeble, pale and weary,
                And my wings are nearly furled;
     I have caused a scene so dreary,
               I am glad to quit the world!
     With bitterness I'm thinking
65               On the evil I have done,
      And to my caverns sinking
                From the coming of the sun.
     The heart of man will sicken
               In that pure and holy light,
70     When he feels the hopes I've stricken
               With an everlasting blight!
     For widely, in my madness,
               Have I poured abroad my wrath,
     And changing joy to sadness,
75               Scattered ruin on my path.
      Earth shuddered at my motion,
               And my power in silence owns;
      But the deep and troubled ocean
                O'er my deeds of horror moans!
80     I have sunk the brightest treasure --
               I've destroyed the fairest form --
      I have sadly filled my measure,
                And am now a dying storm.

We have much difficulty in recognizing these verses as from the pen of Miss Gould. They do not contain a single trace of her manner, and still less of the prevailing features of her thought. Setting aside the flippancy of the metre, ill adapted to the sense, we have no fault to find. All is full, forcible, and free from artificiality. The personification of the storm, in its perfect simplicity, is of a high order of poetic excellence -- the images contained in the lines italicized, all of the very highest. […]

In evidence that Mrs. Ellet is a poetess of no ordinary rank, we extract, from page 51 of her volume, a little poem rich in vigorous expression, and full of solemn thought. Its chief merits, however, are condensation and energy.

               Hark -- to the midnight bell!
85               The solemn peal rolls on
     That tells us, with an iron tongue,
               Another year is gone!
     Gone with its hopes, its mockeries, and its fears,
     To the dim rest which wraps our former years.
90               Gray pilgrim to the past!
               We will not bid thee stay;
     For joys of youth and passion's plaint
               Thou bear'st alike away.
     Alike the tones of mirth, and sorrow's swell
95     Gather to hymn thy parting. -- Fare thee well!
               Fill high the cup -- and drink
               To Time's unwearied sweep!
     He claims a parting pledge from us --
               And let the draught be deep!
100     We may not shadow moments fleet as this,
     With tales of baffled hopes, or vanished bliss.
               No comrade's voice is here,
               That could not tell of grief --
     Fill up! -- We know that friendship's hours,
105               Like their own joys -- are brief.
     Drink to their brightness while they yet may last,
     And drown in song the memory of the past!
               The winter's leafless bough
               sunshine yet shall bloom;
110     And hearts that sink in sadness now
               Ere long dismiss their gloom.
     Peace to the sorrowing! Let our goblets flow,
     In red wine mantling, for the tears of wo!
               Once more! A welcoming strain!
115               A solemn sound -- yet sweet!
     While life is ours, Time's onward steps
               In gladness will we greet!
     Fill high the cup! What prophet lips may tell
     Where we shall bid another year farewell!

With this extract, we close our observations on the writings of Mrs. Ellet -- of Miss Gould -- and of Mrs. Sigourney. The time may never arrive again, when we shall be called upon, by the circumstances of publication, to speak of them in connexion with one another.

Date: 1836 (Coding Revisions: 01/02/2006). Author: Edgar Allan Poe; editor Brandon Clay (Coding Revisions: Laura Mandell).
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