Literary Criticism "[Rev. of] [Rev. of] The Poetical Writings of [Elizabeth Oakes Smith] [by] J. S. Redfield [by] J. S. Redfield"
"Seeking expression, yet shrinking from notoriety, and with a full share of that respect for a just fame and appreciation which belongs to every high-toned mind, yet oppressed by its shadow when circumstance is the impelling motive of publication, the writings of Mrs. Smith might well be supposed to betray great inequality; still in her many contributions to the magazines, it is remarkable how few of her pieces display the usual carelessness and haste of magazine articles. As an essayist especially, while graceful and lively, she is compact and vigorous; while through poems, essays, tales and criticisms, (for her industrious pen seems equally skillful and happy in each of these departments of literature,) through all her manifold writings, indeed, there runs the same beautiful vein of philosophy, viz: -- that truth and goodness of themselves impart a holy light to the mind which gives it a power far above mere intellectuality; that the highest order of human intelligence springs from the moral and not the reasoning faculties. […]"
"The Sinless Child" […] at once attracted much attention from the novelty of its conception and the general grace and purity of its style. Undoubtedly it is one of the most original of American poems -- surpassed in this respect, we think, only by Maria del Occidente's "Bride of Seven." Of course, we speak merely of long poems. We have had in this country many brief fugitive pieces far excelling in this most important point (originality) either "The Bride of Seven" or "The Sinless Child" -- far excelling, indeed, any transatlantic poems. After all, it is chiefly in works of what is absurdly termed "sustained effort" that we fall in any material respect behind our progenitors.
"The Sinless Child" is quite long, including more than two hundred stanzas, generally of eight lines. The metre throughout is iambic tetrameter, alternating with trimeter -- in other words, lines of four iambuses alternate with lines of three. The variations from this order are rare. The design of the poem is very imperfectly made out. The conception is much better than the execution. "A simple cottage maiden, Eva, given to the world in the widowhood of one parent and the angelic existence of the other, ….. is found from her birth to be as meek and gentle as are those pale flowers that look imploringly upon us ….. She is gifted with the power of interpreting the beautiful mysteries of our earth ….. For her the song of the bird is not merely the gushing forth of a nature too full of blessedness to be silent …. the humblest plant, the simplest insect is each alive with truth … She sees the world not merely with mortal eyes, but looks within to the pure internal life of which the outward is but a type," etc., etc. These passages are taken from the Argument prefixed to Part I. The general thesis of the poetess may, perhaps, be stated as the demonstration that the superior wisdom is moral rather than intellectual; but it may be doubted whether her subject was ever precisely apparent to herself. In a word, she seems to have vacillated between several conceptions -- the only very definitive idea being that of extreme beauty and purity in a child. At one time we fancy her, for example, attempting to show that the condition of absolute sanctity is one through which mortality may know all things and hold converse with the angels; at another we suppose it her purpose to "create" (in critical language) an entirely novel being, a something that is neither angel nor mortal, nor yet fairy in the ordinary sense -- in a word, an original ens. Besides these two prominent fancies, however, there are various others which seem continually flitting in and out of the poet's vision, so that her whole work has an indeterminate air. Of this she apparently becomes conscious towards the conclusion, and in the final stanza endeavors to remedy the difficulty by summing up her design --
The conduct of the narrative is scarcely more determinate -- if, indeed, "The Sinless Child" can be said to include a narrative at all. The poem is occupied in its first part with a description of the child, her saintly character, her lone wanderings, the lessons she deduces from all animal and vegetable things, and her communings with the angels. We have then discussions with her mother, who is made to introduce episodical tales, one of "Old Richard," another called "The Defrauded Heart," (a tale of a miser,) and another entitled "The Stepmother." Towards the end of the poem a lover, Alfred Linne, is brought upon the scene. He has been reckless and sinful, but is reclaimed by the heavenly nature of Eva. He finds her sleeping in a forest. At this point occur some of the finest and most characteristic passages of the poem.
We may as well observe here, too, that although neatly printed, the volume abounds in typographical errors that very frequently mar the sense […] These seeming minutiae are of real importance; but we refer to them, in the case of "The Sinless Child," because here the aggregate of this species of minor error is unusually remarkable. Of course it is the proof-reader or editor, and not Mrs. Smith, who is to blame. […]
It would, perhaps, have been out of keeping with the more obvious plan of the poem to make Eva really the bride of Albert. She does not wed him, but dies tranquilly in bed, soon after the spiritual union in the forest, "Eva," says the Argument of Part VII, "hath fulfilled her destiny. Material things can no farther minister to the growth of her spirit. That waking of the soul to its own deep mysteries -- its oneness with another -- has been accomplished. A human soul is perfected." At this point the poem may be said to have its conclusion.
In looking back at its general plan, we cannot fail to see traces of high poetic capacity. The first point to be commended is the reach or aim of the poetess. She is evidently discontented with the bald routine of common-place themes, and originality has been with her a principal object. In all cases of fictitious composition it should be the first object -- by which we do not mean to say that it can ever be considered as the most important. But, ceteris paribus, every class of fiction is the better for originality; every writer is false to his own interest if he fails to avail himself, at the outset, of the effect which is certainly and invariably derivable from the great element, novelty.
The execution of "The Sinless Child" is, as we have already said, inferior to its conception -- that is, to its conception as it floated, rather than steadily existed, in the brain of the authoress. She enables us to see that she has very narrowly missed one of those happy "creations" which now and then immortalize the poet. With a good deal more of deliberate thought before putting pen to paper, with a good deal more of the constructive ability, and with more rigorous discipline in the minor merits of style, and of what is termed in the school-prospectuses, composition, Mrs. Smith would have made of "The Sinless Child" one of the best, if not the very best of American poems. While speaking of the execution, or, more properly, the conduct of the work, we may as well mention, first, the obviousness with which the stories introduced by Eva's mother are interpolated, or episodical; it is permitted every reader to see that they have no natural connection with the true theme; and, indeed, there can be no doubt that they were written long before the main narrative was projected. In the second place, we must allude to the artificiality of the Arguments, or introductory prose passages, prefacing each Part of the poem. Mrs. Smith had no sounder reason for employing them than Milton and the rest of the epicists have employed them before. If it be said that they are necessary for the proper comprehension of a poem, we reply that this is saying nothing for them, but merely much against the poem which demands them as a necessity. Every work of art should contain within itself all that is required for its own comprehension. An "argument" is but another form of the "This is an ox" subjoined to the portrait of an animal with horns. But in making these objections to the management of "The Sinless Child," we must not be understood as insisting upon them as at all material, in view of the lofty merit of originality -- a merit which pervades and invigorates the whole work, and which, in our opinion, at least, is far, very far more than sufficient to compensate for every inartisticality of construction. A work of art may be admirably constructed, and yet be null as regards every essentiality of that truest art which is but the happiest development of nature; but no work of art can embody within itself a proper originality without giving the plainest manifestations of the creative spirit, or, in more common parlance, of genius in its author. The originality of "The Sinless Child" would cover a multitude of greater defects than Mrs. Smith ever committed, and must forever entitle it to the admiration and respect of every competent critic.
The metre of this episode has been altered from its original form, and, we think, improved by the alteration. Formerly, in place of four lines of seven iambuses, the stanza consisted of eight lines -- a line of four iambuses alternating with one of three -- a more ordinary and artificial, therefore a less desirable arrangement. […] These petty objections, of course, will by no means interfere with the reader’s appreciation of the episode, with his admiration of its pathos, its delicacy and its grace -- we had almost forgotten to say of its pure and high imagination. […]
It is in the point of passages such as these, in their vigour, terseness and novelty, combined with exquisite delicacy, that the more obvious merit of the poem consists. A thousand such quotable paragraphs are interspersed through the work, and of themselves would be sufficient to insure its popularity. But we repeat that a far loftier excellence lies perdu amid the minor deficiencies of "The Sinless Child."
The other poems of the volume are, as entire compositions, nearer perfection, but, in general, have less of the true poetical element. "The Acorn" is perfect as regards its construction -- although, to be sure, the design is so simple that it could scarcely be marred in its execution. The idea is the old one of detailing the progress of a plant from its germ to its maturity, with the uses and general vicissitudes to which it is subjected. In this case of the acorn the vicissitudes are well imagined, and the execution is more skillfully managed -- is more definite, vigorous and pronounced, than in the longer poem. The chief of the minor objections is to the rhythm, which is imperfect, vacillating awkwardly between iambuses and anapaests, after such fashion that it is impossible to decide whether the rhythm in itself -- that is, whether the general intention is anapaestical or iambic. Anapaests introduced, for the relief of monotone, into an iambic rhythm, are not only admissible but commendable, if not absolutely demanded; but in this case they prevail to such an extent as to overpower the iambic intention, thus rendering the whole versification difficult of comprehension. […]
In common with a very large majority of American, and, indeed, of European poets, Mrs. Smith seems to be totally unacquainted with the principles of versification -- by which, of course, we mean itsrationale. Of technical rules on the subject there are rather more than enough in our prosodies, and from these abundant rules are deduced the abundant blunders of our poets. There is not a prosody in existence which is worth the paper on which it is printed.
Of the miscellaneous poems included in the volume before us, we greatly prefer "The Summons Answered." It has more of power, more of genuine imagination than anything written by its author. It is a story of three "bacchanals," who, on their way from the scene of their revelry, are arrested by the beckoning of a white hand from the partially unclosing door of a tomb. One of the party obeys the summons. It is the tomb of his wife. We quote the two concluding stanzas.
With the quotation of these really noble passages -- noble, because full of the truest poetic energy -- we take leave of the fair authoress. She is entitled, beyond doubt, to all, and perhaps to much more than the commendation she has received. Her faults are among the peccadilloes, and her merits among the sterling excellencies of the muse.