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Estelle Anna Robinson Lewis               TEI-encoded version

"Mrs. Lewis' Poems"

Edgar A. Poe

[In Southern Literary Messenger vol. 14, no. 9 (September 1848), pp. 569-571: ]

The Child of the Sea and other Poems V. By S. Anna Lewis, author of "Records of the Heart," etc., etc.

Mrs. Lewis has, in a very short space of time, attained a high poetical reputation. She is one of the youngest of our poetesses; and it is only since the publication of her "Records of the Heart," in 1844, that she can be said to have become known to the literary world; -- although her "Ruins of Palenque" which appeared in the "New-World" sometime, we think, in 1840, made a most decided impression among a comparatively limited circle of readers. It was a composition of unquestionable merit, on a topic of infallible interest. In 1846, Mrs. Lewis published, in "The Democratic Review," a poem called "The Broken Heart," in three cantos, and subsequently has written many minor pieces for the "American" and "Democratic" Reviews, and for various other periodical works. In all her writings we perceive a marked idiosyncrasy -- so that we might recognize her hand immediately in any of her anonymous productions. Passion, enthusiasm, and abandon are her prevailing traits. In these particulars she puts us more in mind of Maria del Occidente than of any other American poetess.

There has been lately exhibited, at the Academy of Fine Arts in New York, a portrait of Mrs. Lewis […] with dark and very expressive hazel eyes and chestnut hair, naturally curling -- a poetical face, if ever one existed. […] We have thought that these succinct personal particulars of one, who will most probably, at no very distant day, occupy a high, if not the highest, position among American poetesses, might not prove uninteresting to our readers.

The "Records of the Heart" was received with unusual favor at the period of its issue. It consists, principally, of poems of length. The leading one is "Florence," a tale of romantic passion, founded on an Italian tradition of great poetic capability and well managed by the fair authoress. It displays, however, somewhat less of polish and a good deal less of assured power than we see evinced in her "Child of the Sea." We quote a brief passage, by way, merely, of instancing the general spirit and earnest movement of the verse:

     Morn is abroad; the sun is up;
     The dew fills high each lily's cup.
      Ten thousand flowerets springing there
      Diffuse their incense through the air,
5     And, smiling, hail the morning beam;
      The fawns plunge panting in the stream,
     Or through the vale with light foot spring:
     Insect and bird are on the wing
     And all is bright, as when in May
10     Young Nature holds high holiday.

"Florence," however, is more especially noticeable for the profusion of its original imagery -- as for example:

     The cypress in funeral gloom
      Folds its dark arms above the tomb.

"Tenel" (pronounced Thanail,) "Melpomene," (a glowing tribute to L. E. L.,) "The Last Hour of Sappho," "Laone," and "The Bride of Guayaquil," are all poems of considerable length and of rare merit in various ways. Their conduct as narratives, is, perhaps, less remarkable than their general effect as poems proper. They leave invariably on the reader's heart a sense of beauty and of sadness. In many of the shorter compositions which make up the volume of which we speak, ("Records of the Heart") we are forced to recognize the truth and perfect appositeness of the title -- we are made to feel that it is here indeed the heart which records, rather than the fancy which invents. The passionate earnestness of the following lines will be acknowledged by every reader capable of appreciating that species of poetry of which the essentiality and inspiration is truth.


     It hath been said -- for all who die
               There is a tear;
15     Some pining, bleeding heart to sigh
               O'er every bier: --
     But in that hour of pain and dread
               Who will draw near
     Around my humble couch and shed
20               One farewell tear?
Who watch my life's departing ray
               In deep despair
     And soothe my spirit on its way
               With holy prayer?
25     What mourner round my bier will come
               In "weeds of wo"
     And follow me to my long home
                Solemn and slow?
     When lying on my clayey bed,
30               In icy sleep,
Who there by pure affection led
               Will come and weep;
      By the pale moon implant the rose
               Upon my breast,
35      And bid it cheer my dark repose --
               My lowly rest?
      Could I but know when I am sleeping
                Low in the ground,
      One faithful heart would there be keeping
40                Watch all night round,
      As if some gem lay shrined beneath
                That sod's cold gloom,
'Twould mitigate the pangs of death
                And light the tomb.
45      Yes, in that hour if I could feel
                From halls of glee
      And Beauty's presence one would steal
                In secresy,
      And come and sit and weep by me
50                In nights' deep noon --
Oh! I would ask of Mercury
               No other boon.
     But ah! a lonelier fate is mine --
               A deeper wo:
55     From all I love in youth's sweet time
               I soon must go --
      Draw round me my cold robes of white,
                In a dark spot,
To sleep through Death's long dreamless night,
60               Lone and forgot.

We have read this little poem more than twenty times and always with increasing admiration. It is inexpressibly beautiful. No one of real feeling can peruse it without a strong inclination to tears. Its irresistible charm is its absolute truth -- the unaffected naturalness of its thought. The sentiment which forms the basis of the composition is, perhaps, at once the most universal and the most passionate of sentiments. No human being exists, over the age of fifteen, who has not, in his heart of hearts, a ready echo for all here so pathetically expressed. The essential poetry of the ideas would only be impaired by "foreign ornament." This is a case in which we should be repelled by the mere conventionalities of the Muse. We demand, for such thoughts, the rigorous simplicity at all points. It will be observed that, strictly speaking, there is not an attempt at "imagery" in the whole poem. All is direct, terse, penetrating. In a word nothing could be better done. The versification, while in full keeping with the general character of simplicity, has in certain passages a vigorous, trenchant euphony which would confer honor on the most accomplished masters of the art. We refer, especially to the lines:

     And follow me to my long home
                Solemn and slow

and to the quatrain:

     Could I but know when I am sleeping
                Low in the ground
65     One faithful heart would there be keeping
                Watch all night round.

The initial trochee here, in each instance, substituted for the iambus produces, so naturally as to seem accidentally, a very effective echo of sound to sense. The thought included in the line "And light the tomb," should be dwelt upon to be appreciated in its full extent of beauty; and the verses which I have italicized in the last stanza are poetry -- poetry in the purest sense of that much misused word. They have power -- indisputable power; making us thrill with a sense of their weird magnificence as we read them.

In "The Child of the Sea," Mrs. Lewis has accomplished a much more comprehensive at least, if not at all points a more commendable poem than any included in her "Records of the Heart." One of its most distinguishing merits is the admirable conduct of its narrative -- in which every incident has its proper position -- where nothing is inconsequent or incoherent -- and where, above all, the rich and vivid interest is never, for a single moment, permitted to flag. How few, even of the most accomplished and skillful of poets, are successful in the management of a story, when that story has to be told in verse. […]

The poem, although widely differing in subject from any of Mrs. Lewis' prior compositions, and far superior to any of them in general vigor, artistic skill, and assured certainty of purpose, is nevertheless easily recognized as the production of the same mind which originated "Florence" and "The Forsaken." We perceive, throughout, the same passion, the same enthusiasm, and the same seemingly reckless abandon of thought and manner which we have already mentioned as characterizing the writer. We should have spoken also, of a fastidious yet most sensitive and almost voluptuous sense of Beauty. […]

Date: 1848 (Coding Revisions: 01/02/2006). Author: Edgar Allan Poe; editor Brandon Clay (Coding Revisions: Laura Mandell).
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