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S. Adams Lee: American Sonnets and Sonneteers
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S. Adams Lee: American Sonnets and Sonneteers
S. Adams Lee:
American Sonnets and Sonneteers



Turning from the Italian and English sonnet-writers and their productions to the poets of America who have contributed something to the ame department of verse, we feel as though we were about to pass out of a region of the most abundant and delicate bloom into a field comparatively barren and uninviting.

The same causes which have hithero prevented the appearance in this country of any trugly graet poem - a poem like the masterpieces of English imagination, ex-pressing the culture, the knowledge, the matured genius of a great nation - have operated to prevent also the the cultivation of the legitimate sonnet. For the requisitions of the drama, nay, even of the epic itself, are not proportionably greater - as
I think the former part of this work has proved - than the requestions of this "little poem of fourteen lines." A perfect sonnet cannot often be dashed off "at a heat," but demanding the nicest polish, and
considerable patience in its composition, the majory of our poets, influenced by the eager, restless spirit of their age, neglect it altogether, to embody their conceptions in more obvious and popular forms.

Unwilling to trust to the remote awards of posterity, tinged with the materialism, and sharing the intense unrest of his people, the American poet has seldom, like Coleridge, looked upon his art as "its own exceeding great reward," nor has he been content to live and work as a poet only. Even where no constraining necessity
exist, we find him in the ranks of some practical profession, devoting, in all probability, the best portion of his energies to labors which unfit him for the pursuit of the highest purposes of his art.

It is not thus with the painter and sculptor: why should it be with the poet? If he be poor, - and alas! genius and poverty, married ages ago, seem, notwithstanding their conjugal incompatibility to have
no chance of a divorce, - the reason is plain enough; but what if he be rich, or possessed of a competence? Would it not be wiser in one thus circumstanced, feeling the "divine impulsion" within him, to labor
serenely and with singleness of aim in his vocation, disregarding the transient fashions of his time, and slowly building up unto perfection poems with the pith of immortality them.

Had this been done, we might not now have been destitude of THE great American poen, whatever its metrical form, concerning which so many prophecies have been ventured upon, and so much premature enthusiasm expended.

At all events, our literature would have been richer in poetry of a much higher stamp than that which at present distinguishes it. I feel assured that the Sonnet especially would have been amply and beautifully represented; that anybody undertaking the task which now employs me, instead ob experiencing a sentiment akin to mortification, as he compares the sonnets by his countrymen - not few in numbers, but careless in structure, and often commonplace in thought and design - with the masterly performances of this kind which adorn the literature of England and the Continent, would, on the contrary, have had every reason to be proud of the national achievements in an admirable and unique branch of art.

As it is, the American poet, under the conditions implied, circumscribed in his efforts, and democratic in his principles, has been satisfied with the production of verses which, for the most part, are easily written and quite as easily read. He addresses the masses, not a select circle of scholars, - the audience coveted by Milton, "fit, though few." The complex in thought and rythm he has had apparently neither the leisure nor the inclination to cultivate. True, since the advent of Edgar A. Poe, whose influence on the poetry of the country was marked and peculiar, a taste for labored eccentricities of metrical mechanism has repeatedly displayed itself; but it has been confined to a host of imitators, - the poetasters
of gazettes and magazines.

The architectural eccentricities of Poe's system of versification it was not difficult to copy; and we have, in consequence, during the last decade, been tormented by legions of illegitimate "Ravens," and
been invited to enter so prodigious a number of "Haunted Palaces,"
that they may realy be said to compose a minicipality of theire own, governed by a genius of grotesque diablerie..

Perhaps a better mode could not be found of bringing certain classes of the literary public to a clear perception of what is the true and beautiful in poetic art, than by calling them to the candid study
of such sonnets as those of Wordsworth in English, and George H. Boker in American literature. While the ear, if moderately correct, would be charmed by their rhythmical harmony, the pleasure derived
from them, instead of evaporating in a sensuous of those "grave thoughts, great thoughts," which are seldom more striking and effective than when delivered through the medium of a sonnet worthy the name.

My business, however, is not to regret that the legitimate sonnet has been neglected amongst us, nor yet to suggest a remedy for depraved literary taste, but to give as detailed a narrative of the earliest appearance and of the progress of the sonnet in America an my scanty materials will allow. The first American sonnet was written - at what precise date I have no means of ascertaining - by David
Humphreys, L.L. D., who was born at Denby, Connecticut, in 1753. He ranks among our Revolutionary heroes, and was educated at Yale College, with Barlow, Dwight, Trumbull, and others of historical fame.
Griswold, in the "Poets and Poetry of America," informs us that, soon after being graduated, in 1771, he joined the army under General Parsons, with the rank of captain. He was for serveral years attached
to the staff of Putnam, and in 1780 was appointed aid to General Washington. He continued in the military family of the Commander-in-Chief until the close of the war, when he went abroad with Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, as one of the commissioners appointed to negotiate treaties of commerce with foreign powers.

On his return to the United States, in 1786, he renewed his intimacy with his old friends, the authors of the "Columbiad" and "McFingal," and with Dr. Samuel Hopkins, with whom he engaged in writing the "Anarchiad," a political satire, in imitation of the "Rolliad," a work attributed to Sheridan and others, which he had seen in London.
Colonel Humphreys subsequently filled many military and diplomatic offies. He died at New Haven, in February, 1818, at the age of sixty-five. An interest attaches to the first known sonnet produced by an American author, as well as to the author himself, entirely independent of the artistic merits of the one, or the amont of poetical gwenius possessed by the other. Colonel Humphreys's sonnet, however, on the subject of "The Soul," is by no means a contemptible
performance. It shows the writer to have been a clever versifier, and a correct thinker. Its conclusion, particularly, is stately and sonorous. One other sonnet by him has come down to us, in the form of an
address to the Prince of Brazil, whose acquaintance Colonel Humphreys made during his residence as Minister in Lisbon. It bears the date of July, 1797, and is a manly, unaffected effusion, expressed in scholarly terms, and with some musical and rhythmic facility.

The next American sonnets, in the order of time, are those by Richard B. Davies, a native of New York, who died when quite a young man, in 1799; and those by Robert Treat Paine, a poetaster, famous in his
generation, whose verses have long since deservedly sunk into oblivion. His sonnets, like everything else he wrote, are formal and lifeless, though ambitious. No feeling more intense than vanity seems to have inspired them, and in execution they lack both taste and imaginative force. I have reproduced them, together with the sonnets of Paine's immediate predecessor, Davies, as literary curiosities only.
From the period at which we have now arrived to the rise of those generally considered the fathers of our poetic literature, namely, Allston, Dana, Bryant, Longfellow, ect., I have been unable to find, after consulting all the sources at my command, a single sonnet, good, bad, or indifferent*. It is therefore with the sonnets of Washington Allston that our critical tast propertly begins.



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* Since the above was written, I have accidentally discovered in the columns of the old Charlston "City Gazette and Daily Advertiser," for Wednesday, February 14, 1798, an original sonnet, signed W. R., and
no doubt intended as a valentine. It reads thus: -

"They tell me that in opening life the hue
Of rosy health bloomed on my glowing cheek;
That my full eye sparkled with liquid blue,
And seemed with strong intelligence to speak:

They tell me too, that in luxuriance wild
Waved my dark locks; perchance they tell me truth,
For 't is an adage that the loveliest child
Makes in advancing age the sorrier youth.

"So has it been with me; - in vain I seek
To trace the roseate hue of healthful red;
Dull is my eye, and colorless my chek,
And gone the flowing honors of my head;

"But still remains unchanged my better part,
Still true to love and Laura is my heart!"

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One would have supposed that a man of Allston's delicate and true feeling for beauty, his fine yet vigorous imagination, and the opportunities he enjoyed of studying Italian poetry among the scenes and associations that gave it birth and passionate life, would naturally have shown some partiality for the sonnet in its highest, most artistic forms. When, however, we ewxamine the few sonnets he has left us, we are disappointed, not merely in the paucity of their numbers, but in their want of constructive care. The thought is always appropriate, often suggestive, occasionally full of the insight and force of imagination characteristic of the writer in his happiest moods; but the same sort of dissatisfaction with Mr. Hunt expresses while reverting to the sonnets of Milton is apt to be felt, I think, after an impartial perusal of those by Allston. He could have done so much better, had he willed it. His genius, endowed with the constructive faculty, might have found herein one of its fittest modes of strictly poetical expression; and, indeed, after very just deduction from the merits of his sonnets, as they now remain, they are perhaps the best specimens of his poetic works. The sonnets by William Cullen Bryant are only four in number. Of these, the subjects have been drawn
chiefly from impressive aspects of the natural world, associated with the moral ideas and feelings of which such aspects are suggestive. They are delicate and beautiful productions; belonging, it is true,
to the illegitimate school, yet so thoroughly possessed by "the laconic soul of the sonnet" that none but a hypercritical reader would pause to note the defect of form. Nevertheless, turning hypercritical
ourselves for the moment, we venture to hint how much all Bryant's sonnets would have gained in melody, if the concluding terzettos had not invariably been burdened by a couplet. The effect of such a close,
even in sonnets in other respects perfect, is to give an incongrous tone to the versification, very such resembling the discord that would follow upon the introduction of a deep bass note at the end of a lyric
that should be sung throughout in tenor. As for the sentiment, the fancy, the genuine philosophical perception of Bryant's sonnets, they could hardly be overrated. In a somewhat different strain are the sonnets of Longfellow. As might have been anticipated from the
peculiar genius and culture of the poet, they have generally adapted themselves to the legitimate model, and are, moreover, admirable specimens of a rare descriptive power and pictureque imagination. The too frequent desire to illustrate by material images and comparisons what is abstract in thought and emotion - as when, for example, the "stern thoughts and awful" of the Florentine are likened to "Farinata rising from his fiery tomb" - constitutes, perhaps, the only reasonable objection that can be broght as an offset
to their unquestionable grace, purity, and "purple richness" of diction. For gorgeausness of color and language "The Evening Star" is remarkable.



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The Evening Star

"Lo! in the painted oriel of the West,
Whose panes the sunken sun incarnadines,
Like a fair lady at her casement shines
The evening star, - the star of love and rest!

And then anon, she doth herself divest
Of all her radiant garments, and reclines
Behind the sombre screen of yonder pines,
With slumber and soft dreams of love oppressed:

O my beloved! my sweet Hesperus!
My morning and my evening star of love!
My best and gentlest lady! even thus,

As that fair planet in the sky above,
Dost thou retire unto thy rest at night,
And from thy darkened window fades the light."

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In the last edition of Percival's Poems there are many sonnets of merit. It surprised me to remark the general finisch and grace of their execution; for the author's impulsive fancy, ready command of language, and, I may add, false principles of art, have caused him in the majority of his works to err on the score of diffuseness, and a careless ease of manner and expression. He says himself, in one of his prefaces, that his "verse is very far from bearing the marks of the file and burnisher"; and that he likes "to see poetry in the full ebullition of feeling and fancy, foaming up with the spirit of life, and glowing
with the rainbows of a glad inspiration." Believing thus in original genius, unrestrained and unmodified by the moulding powers of art, it is not astonishing that Percival should have left so little poetry - considering of course the quanity of verse he has published - that is likely long to survive him. His sonnets are beautiful productions. Illegitimate in form, they yet show a true concenption of what
the sonnet ought to be, in tone, general structure, and character of melody. In serveral cases the poet has invented a form of his own, by a novel and a not ineffective disposition of rhymes, as, for example,
in the following: -



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"O, there are moments when the dreaming soul
Forgets the earth, and wanders far away
Into some region of eternal day,
Where the bright waves in calm and sunshine roll!

"Thither it wanders, and has reached a goal; -
The good, the great, the beautiful, are there,
And wreaths of victory crown their floing hair;
And as they move, such music fills the air
As ne'er from fabled bower or cavern stole.

"Soft to the heart it winds, and hushes deep
Its cares and sorrows. Thought then, fancy-fee,
Flies on from bliss to bliss, till, finding thee,
It pauses, as the musk-rose charms the bee,
Tranced as in happy dream of magic sleep."

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The finest of Percival's sonnets are the purely descriptive. To him the glories of Nature never appealed in vain. They were

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His inspiration and his deep delight.
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When fully possessed by his theme, this poet, like Wordsworth, and some of the earlier English sonneteers, employs the sonnet as a stanza, as in the admirable poem beginning,


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"I stand upon the mountains 'mid a sea";
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and also the series of six sonnets on the subject of his love, which form a connected composition of exquisite tenderness and feeling. Regarded by itself, the sonnet which this performance opens is the
most perfect in every respect of Percival's minor poems. Im the delicate elaborateness of its structure, moulded upon the strictest Petrarcian model, in its melodious rythmical flow, and subtle earnestness of passion, it is alone a sufficing answer to those who maintain that the English Sonnet is adapted solely to topocs of a sublime and tragic, or, at all events, of a wholly solemn nature. I quote it entire, and beg the reader to note how success-ful the author has been in the rather dangerous experiment of changing his rhymes to dissyllables in the terzettos.


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"If on the clustering curls of thy dark hair,
And the pure arching of thy polished brow,
We only gaze, we fondly dream that thou
Art one of those bright ministers who bear,

Along the cloudless bosom of the air,
Sweet, solemn words, to which our spirits bow, -
With such a holy smile thou lookest now,
And art so oft and delicately fair.

A veil of tender light is mantling o'ver thee;
Around thy opening lips young loves are playing,
And crowds of youths, in passionate thought delaying,

Pause, as thou movest by them, to adore thee;
By many a sudden blush and tear betraying
How the heart trembles when it bends before thee!"

Percival was not merely a poez. He was an accomplished linguist and savant. His special scientific
attainments procured for him the office of State Geologist of Connecticut. It was probably when he first
determined to devote his time and labor to geological researches that the following sonnet was written:
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"Now to my task! - be firm, - the work requires
Cool reason, deep reflection; - and the glow
Of heart that pours itself in restless flow
Must sleep, and fancy quench her beaming fires,

And all my longings, hopes, and wild desires
Must seek their slumberous pillow, and be still;
But energy must mantle o'er my will,
And give the patient toil that never tires;

For Nature stands before me, and invites
My spirit to her sanctuary, and draws
Aside her pictured veil from where she writes
In living letters her eternal laws;

And as I stand amid the countless wheels
That roll the car of being on its way,
A deep serene my silent bosom feels,
I seem a portion of the viewless ray,
and o'ver me flows the light of pure, unfading day."

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The writings of Halleck and Richard Henry Dana are destitute of sonnets. So far as Mr. Dana is concerned, we regret the fact, because we think him endowed with those peculiar qualities of intellect and heart which enter into the composition of all the higher order of soneteers. The union in his nature of the elements of idealism and deep thoughtfulness of character, resulting in a chastened intellectual and moral power, is precisely that union of forces which finds a fitting manifestation and embodiment in the sonnets of Wordsworth, and other poets whose mental structure resembles his.
I have thought it right to bestow thus much consideration upon our elder and best known poets, although none of them - not even Percival - are to be looked upon as professed sonneteers.
I now come to a late period of our literature, which, fortunately for us, exhibits some specimens of the sonnet that would do no discredit to the art, taste, and genius of the classic writers of Italy and
Great Britain. Abandoining anything like an attempt at chronological order, I shall in the first place introduce to the reader those - very few in number - who have earned the right to be called Legitimate Sonneteers; and, secondly, those -not in number - who have practised, with more or less success, the diverse forms of illegitimate sonnet.

Among the former class, George H. Boker, of Philadelphia, better known as a dramatist of great merit, deserves in my judgment the most prominent position. His sonnets (seventy-eight of which appear in the second volume of his "Plays and Poems," published by Messrs. Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1856) are, with hardly an exception, composed in accordance with the established Italien rule. Wordsworth himself was not more scupulous in following the classical standards.
But Mr. Boker has not pursued a conventional system of versification from any blind reverence for authority, but because of the evident sincerity of his faith in the variety, flexibility, and beauty of the English
tongue. With those, indeed, who are accustomed only to the more prominent rhymes, and the more marked forms of verse, the melody of these sonnets may often fall as on a dull ear. But to a cultivated taste, and to the secret sense of hearing, apt for the music of poetry, we would cheerfully commit almost any one of Mr. Boker's sonnets, without an apprehension that the sweetness and variety of its harmony would pass unheeded. He has vindicated the justness of his views, by the production of sonnets as perfect in structure as they are instinkt with thought and beauty. Mr. Boker's sonnets may be dividet into three general classes: first, the political sonnets, or those which treat of topics nationally important; second, the philosophical; and third, the love-sonnets. There are also sonnets of a miscellaneous kind. Of the political sonnets, it may be fairly said, that they are full of a vigorous spirit hardihood, and energy. Never overstepping the modesty of Nature, and always with "a reserve of power in there passionate expression," they appeal to the enthusiasm that is latent in all healthful blood, quickening the pulse, enlivening the brain, and imparting the heat of a fine lyrical fire to every impulseive or susceptible nature. "What!" the poet exclaims, referring doubtless to some period inour history when the fear prevailed of a European invasion, -


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"What! cringe to Europe! Band it all in one,
Stilt its decrepit strength, renew its age,
Wipe out its debts, contract a loan to wage
Its venal battles, - and by yon bright sun,

Our God is false, and Liberty undone,
If slaves have power to win your heritage!
Look on your country! God's appointed stage,
Where man's vast mind its boundless race shall run.

For that it was your stormy coast He spread, -
A fear in winter, - girded you about
With granite hills, and made you strong and dread.

Let him who fears before the foemen shout,
Or gives an inch before a vein has bled,
Turn on himself, and let the traitor out!"

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What an honest ring and strength of indignation in these last three lines! The scorn seems to be a vital thing, smiting like a blow in the face the cowards whose supposed treachery has roused the poet's anger! The subjekt is continued thus: -

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"What though the cities blaze, the ports be sealed,
The fields untilled, the hand of labor still,
Ay, every arm of commerce and of skill
Palisied and broken; shall we therefore yield,

Break up the sword, put by the dintless shield?
Have we no home upon the wooded hill,
That mocks a siege? No patriot ranks to drill?
No nobler labor in the battle-field?

Or grant us beaten. While we gather might,
Is there no comfort in the solemn wood?
No cataracts whose angry roar shall smite

Our heats with courage? No eternal brood
Of thoughts begotten by the eagle's flight?
No God to strengthen us in solitude?

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The italicized parts of this sonnet are assuredly very striking, breathing as they do the noblest spirit of resistance to invasion, an drawing significant incentives for unyielding action from "the angry roar of the cataract," and the "eternal thoughts" begotten by the flight f eagles. None of Mr. Boker's sonnets, whatever the subject, are without a firm "body of thought." Having masered his idea, he clothes it with language "simple, sensuous, passionate," developing its cognate relations with a clear, logical sequence, an admirable appropriateness of illustration, which give to his poems in this form the charm of great natural force, directness, and lucidity. From his philosophical sonnets we have only space to quote the ensuing, directed against that "hollow fraud" of consolation which profess to extract from all grief some precious healing balm: -

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"Dear is the fruit of sorrow, priceless store
Comes from the hand of grief, as sages tell;
Seeking for comfort in the woes that swell
Our hearts to bursting; with fore-gathered lore

Lulling the fears that make a gloom before
Our onward tread. Ah, hollow fraud! As well
Speak truth, and say, - "we healed mishaps that fell
By theire own issue, as with running gore

A wound is healed'; but lo! the lasting scar!
We make the best of man's dark destiny
By self-deceit, while hopes and pleasures flee

Before our vision; till the latest star
Fades in the dawn of knowledge, and we see
Earth, like a joyless desert, stretch afar."

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Whatever merits - and I have said they are many and peculiar - Mr. Boker's sonnets may possess, I am disposed to rank his love-sonnets first. Though each is a perfect lyric in itself, they form altogether an elaborate and tender associations. The author has infused into them the aroma of the sonneteers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, -


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"The spacious times of great Elisabeth."
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The quaintness bordering on conceit, but never degenerating into affectation; the air of devoted self-abnegation and abstraction, half sensuous, halb metaphysical; the terse verbal felicities, - all serve to remind us of Wyatt, Sidney, and Spenser. Steeped in the flush and spring-time of youth, these sonnets suggest the "hey-day" of the blood, that delicious season when, according to Charles Lamb, 'true love thinks no labor to send out thoughts upon the vast, and more than Indian voyages, to bring home rich pearls, outlandish wealth, gems, jewels, and spicery, to sacrifice in self-depreciatory similitudes, as shadows of true amiabilities, to the Beloved." They are full of the tender gallantry of the old cavalier lyrists, - a gallantry the result of chivalric sentiment, touched by e certain grace of euphuism, which in its very exaggeration we feel to be possessed by the noblest elements of courtly sincerity.



It is impossible to read such sonnets without marvelling at the manner in which their author has identified himself in spirit with the great models he has chosen. For example, migt not the following sonnet be
mistaken - so far as the cast of thought and the nature of the imagery ate concerned - for an amatory sonnet by Spenser, nay, by Spenser's master?


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"Either the sum of this sweet mutiny
Amongst thy features argues me some harm,
Or else they practise wicked treachery
Against themselves, thy heart, and hapless me.

For as I start aside with blank alarm,
Dreading the glitter which begins to arm
Thy cloudet brows, lo! from thy lips I see
A smile come stealing, like a loaded bee,

Heavy with sweets and perfumes, all ablaze
With soft reflections from the flowery wall
Whereon it pauses. Yet I will not raise

One question more, let smile or frown befall,
Taxing thy love where I should only praise,
And asking changes, that might change thee all."

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Still more striking an instance is at hand: -

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"I'll call thy frown a headsman, passing grim,
Walking before some wrech fordoomed to death,
Who counts the paintings of his own hard breath;
Wondering how heart can beat, or steadfast limb

Bear its sad burden to life's awful brim.
i'll call the smile a priest, who slowly saith
Soft words of comfort as the sinner strayeth
Away in thought, or sings a holy hymn,

Full of rich promise, as he walks behind
The fatal axe with face of goodly cheer,
And kind inclinings of his saintly ear.

So, love, tho sest, in smiles or looks unkind,
Some taste of sweet, in philosophy I find,
That seasons all things in our little sphere."


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The fantastic, but ingenious similes which render this sonnet a curiosity in its way, derive their parentage from the poetical vocabulary of Sidney and Shakespeare. Indeed, the more minutely we examine this portion of Mr Boker's writings, the stronger does the proof become of the enthusiasm with which he has thrown himself into the study of Elisabethan literature. It is refreshing to meet at this time, and in America too, with an author so vigorous, natural, and English. The solid richness of mr. Boker's imagination, his discreet judgment, large command of expression, and manly sensibility to what is beautiful and true in the nature without, and the passionate heart within us, are nowhere exemplified to so great an extent as in his sonnets.

Of the beauties of thought and diction scattered all over them, let me collect an commend upon a few. The possible decay of love is thus described: -

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"Thou dost confess my love will ever be,
And only fear its strength may waste away,
Dropping its blossoms as the seasons flee,
Or, like the evening of a boreal day,
In lingering twilight strech its sullen ray,
And on the edge of night hang doubtfully.

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There is something very impressive in this comparison
of waning love to the "evening of a boreal day," -


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"That on the edge of night hangs doubtfully."
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All its associations are in keeping with the nature of the "fear" it typifies, - desolation, lonliness, intolerable cold, und solitude made the more awful by the mockery of light. Thus it is that the poet, the interpreter of life's mystery and passion, by a single suggestive image or simile, defines the most complex conditions of feeling, or reveals to their depths the emotional phenomena of the soul! In a description of opening Spring, we have some lines which partake of the animated picturesqueness of Chaucer: -

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"Lo! Winter sweeps away
His snowy skirts, and leaves the landscape gay
With early verdure; and there's merry cheer
[I[Among the violets, where the sun lies clear
On the south hillsides."

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Of the affectation of a backward and somewhat cold mistress, whose "vague words and shy looks never touch the heart," it is said: -

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"Alas! alas! that reason only proves
A fact your cautious action never tells,
That I must reach my joy by slow removes,
And guess at love as at the oracles!"

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We must here take leave of Mr. Boker, satisfied that enough has been said and quoted to justify the high estimation we have placed upon his sonnets; but equally satisfied that their merits can only be appreciated to the full by the reader after a close study of the poems themselves. The sonnets of James Russel Lowell are chiefly, like the foregoing, legitimate; but they cannot, like them, be dividet into particular classes, because of their miscellaneous character. They treat a variety of subjects, and are distinguished for subtle thoughtfulness, sensibility, and a delicate grace of imagination.
The love.sonnets, of which he has written a few, contrast remarkably with those by Mr. Boker; for they celebrate an assured affection, an affection placed above the throes of doubt, jealousy, passion, and
are exquisitely earnest and confiding. Although of a subjective tendency - as such poems must be - they have the merits of an enlarged suggestiveness and reflection, whereby the special love of the individual is made significant of love itself; and a moral of universal force and value is elicited from a personal experience.

Among the former class, George H. Boker, of Philadelphia, better known as a dramatist of great merit, deserves in my judgment the most prominent position. His sonnets (seventy-eight of which appear in the second volume of his "Plays and Poems," published by Messrs. Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1856) are, with hardly an exception, composed in accordance with the established Italien rule. Wordsworth himself was not more scupulous in following the classical standards.
But Mr. Boker has not pursued a conventional system of versification from any blind reverence for authority, but because of the evident sincerity of his faith in the variety, flexibility, and beauty of the English tongue. With those, indeed, who are accustomed only to the more prominent rhymes, and the more marked forms of verse, the melody of these sonnets may often fall as on a dull ear. But to a cultivated taste, and to the secret sense of hearing, apt for the music of poetry, we would cheerfully commit almost any one of Mr. Boker's sonnets, without an apprehension that the sweetness and variety of its harmony would pass unheeded. He has vindicated the justness of his views, by the production of sonnets as perfect in
structure as they are instinkt with thought and beauty. Mr. Boker's sonnets may be dividet into three general classes: first, the political sonnets, or those which treat of topics nationally important; second, the philosophical; and third, the love-sonnets. There are also sonnets of a miscellaneous kind. Of the political sonnets, it may be fairly said, that they are full of a vigorous spirit hardihood, and energy. Never overstepping the modesty of Nature, and always with "a reserve of power in there passionate expression," they appeal to the enthusiasm that is latent in all healthful blood, quickening the pulse, enlivening the brain, and imparting the heat of a fine lyrical fire to every impulseive or susceptible nature. "What!" the poet exclaims, referring doubtless to some period inour history when the fear prevailed
of a European invasion, -


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"What! cringe to Europe! Band it all in one,
Stilt its decrepit strength, renew its age,
Wipe out its debts, contract a loan to wage
Its venal battles, - and by yon bright sun,

Our God is false, and Liberty undone,
If slaves have power to win your heritage!
Look on your country! God's appointed stage,
Where man's vast mind its boundless race shall run.

For that it was your stormy coast He spread, -
A fear in winter, - girded you about
With granite hills, and made you strong and dread.

]I]Let him who fears before the foemen shout,
Or gives an inch before a vein has bled,
Turn on himself, and let the traitor out!"

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What an honest ring and strength of indignation in these last three lines! The scorn seems to be a vital thing, smiting like a blow in the face the cowards whose supposed treachery has roused the poet's anger! The subjekt is continued thus: -

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"What though the cities blaze, the ports be sealed,
The fields untilled, the hand of labor still,
Ay, every arm of commerce and of skill
Palisied and broken; shall we therefore yield,

Break up the sword, put by the dintless shield?
Have we no home upon the wooded hill,
That mocks a siege? No patriot ranks to drill?
No nobler labor in the battle-field?

Or grant us beaten. While we gather might,
Is there no comfort in the solemn wood?
No cataracts whose angry roar shall smite

Our heats with courage? No eternal brood
Of thoughts begotten by the eagle's flight?
No God to strengthen us in solitude?

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The italicized parts of this sonnet are assuredly very striking, breathing as they do the noblest spirit of resistance to invasion, an drawing significant incentives for unyielding action from "the angry roar of the cataract," and the "eternal thoughts" begotten by the flight eagles. None of Mr. Boker's sonnets, whatever the subject, are without a firm "body of thought." Having masered his idea, he clothes it with language "simple, sensuous, passionate," developing its cognate relations with a clear, logical sequence, an admirable appropriateness of illustration, which give to his poems in this form the charm of great natural force, directness, and lucidity. From his philosophical sonnets we have only space to quote the ensuing, directed against that "hollow fraud" of consolation which profess to extract from all grief some precious healing balm: -

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"Dear is the fruit of sorrow, priceless store
Comes from the hand of grief, as sages tell;
Seeking for comfort in the woes that swell
Our hearts to bursting; with fore-gathered lore

Lulling the fears that make a gloom before
Our onward tread. Ah, hollow fraud! As well
Speak truth, and say, - "we healed mishaps that fell
By theire own issue, as with running gore

A wound is healed'; but lo! the lasting scar!
We make the best of man's dark destiny
By self-deceit, while hopes and pleasures flee

Before our vision; till the latest star
Fades in the dawn of knowledge, and we see
Earth, like a joyless desert, stretch afar."

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Whatever merits - and I have said they are many and peculiar - Mr. Boker's sonnets may possess, I am disposed to rank his love-sonnets first. Though each is a perfect lyric in itself, they form altogether
an elaborate and tender associations. The author has infused into them the aroma of the sonneteers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, -


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"The spacious times of great Elisabeth."
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The quaintness bordering on conceit, but never degenerating into affectation; the air of devoted self-abnegation and abstraction, half sensuous, halb metaphysical; the terse verbal felicities, - all serve to remind us of Wyatt, Sidney, and Spenser. Steeped in the flush and spring-time of youth, these sonnets suggest the "hey-day" of the blood, that delicious season when, according to Charles Lamb, 'true love thinks no labor to send out thoughts upon the vast, and more than Indian voyages, to bring home rich pearls, outlandish wealth, gems, jewels, and spicery, to sacrifice in self-depreciatory similitudes, as shadows of true amiabilities, to the Beloved." They are full of the tender gallantry of the old cavalier lyrists, - a gallantry the result of chivalric sentiment, touched by e certain grace of euphuism, which in its very exaggeration we feel to be possessed by the noblest elements of courtly sincerity.

It is impossible to read such sonnets without marvelling at the manner in which their author has identified himself in spirit with the great models he has chosen. For example, migt not the following sonnet be
mistaken - so far as the cast of thought and the nature of the imagery ate concerned - for an amatory sonnet by Spenser, nay, by Spenser's master?


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"Either the sum of this sweet mutiny
Amongst thy features argues me some harm,
Or else they practise wicked treachery
Against themselves, thy heart, and hapless me.

For as I start aside with blank alarm,
Dreading the glitter which begins to arm
Thy cloudet brows, lo! from thy lips I see
A smile come stealing, like a loaded bee,

Heavy with sweets and perfumes, all ablaze
With soft reflections from the flowery wall
Whereon it pauses. Yet I will not raise

One question more, let smile or frown befall,
Taxing thy love where I should only praise,
And asking changes, that might change thee all."

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Still more striking an instance is at hand: -

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"I'll call thy frown a headsman, passing grim,
Walking before some wrech fordoomed to death,
Who counts the paintings of his own hard breath;
Wondering how heart can beat, or steadfast limb

Bear its sad burden to life's awful brim.
i'll call the smile a priest, who slowly saith
Soft words of comfort as the sinner strayeth
Away in thought, or sings a holy hymn,

Full of rich promise, as he walks behind
The fatal axe with face of goodly cheer,
And kind inclinings of his saintly ear.

So, love, tho sest, in smiles or looks unkind,
Some taste of sweet, in philosophy I find,
That seasons all things in our little sphere."


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The fantastic, but ingenious similes which render this sonnet a curiosity in its way, derive their parentage from the poetical vocabulary of Sidney and Shakespeare. Indeed, the more minutely we examine this portion of Mr Boker's writings, the stronger does the proof become of the enthusiasm with which he has thrown himself into the study of Elisabethan literature. It is refreshing to meet at this time, and in America too, with an author so vigorous, natural, and English. The solid richness of mr. Boker's imagination, his discreet judgment, large command of expression, and manly sensibility to what is beautiful and true in the nature [I[without, and the passionate heart within us, are nowhere exemplified to so great an extent as in his sonnets.


Of the beauties of thought and diction scattered all over them, let me collect an commend upon a few. The possible decay of love is thus described: -

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"Thou dost confess my love will ever be,
And only fear its strength may waste away,
Dropping its blossoms as the seasons flee,
Or, like the evening of a boreal day,
In lingering twilight strech its sullen ray,
And on the edge of night hang doubtfully.

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There is something very impressive in this comparison
of waning love to the "evening of a boreal day," -


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"That on the edge of night hangs doubtfully."
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All its associations are in keeping with the nature of the "fear" it typifies, - desolation, lonliness, intolerable cold, und solitude made the more awful by the mockery of light. Thus it is that the poet,
the interpreter of life's mystery and passion, by a single suggestive image or simile, defines the most complex conditions of feeling, or reveals to their depths the emotional phenomena of the soul! In a description of opening Spring, we have some lines which partake of the animated picturesqueness of Chaucer: -

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"Lo! Winter sweeps away
His snowy skirts, and leaves the landscape gay
With early verdure; and there's merry cheer
Among the violets, where the sun lies clear
On the south hillsides."

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Of the affectation of a backward and somewhat cold mistress, whose "vague words and shy looks never touch the heart," it is said: -

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"Alas! alas! that reason only proves
A fact your cautious action never tells,
That I must reach my joy by slow removes,
And guess at love as at the oracles!"

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We must here take leave of Mr. Boker, satisfied that enough has been said and quoted to justify the high estimation we have placed upon his sonnets; but equally satisfied that their merits can only be appreciated to the full by the reader after a close study of the poems themselves. The sonnets of James Russel Lowell are chiefly, like the foregoing, legitimate; but they cannot, like them, be dividet into particular classes, because of their miscellaneous character. They treat a variety of subjects, and are distinguished for subtle thoughtfulness, sensibility, and a delicate grace of imagination.
The love.sonnets, of which he has written a few, contrast remarkably with those by Mr. Boker; for they celebrate an assured affection, an affection placed above the throes of doubt, jealousy, passion, and
are exquisitely earnest and confiding. Although of a subjective tendency - as such poems must be - they have the merits of an enlarged suggestiveness and reflection, whereby the special love of the individual is made significant of love itself; and a moral of universal force and value is elicited from a personal experience.


Here is the last of a trio of sonnets, which partially illustrates what we mean: -

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"I would not have this perfect love of ours
Grow from a single root, a single stem,
Bearing no goodly fruit, but only flowers
That idly hide life's iron diadem:

It should grow alway, like that Eastern tree
Whose limbs take root, and spread forth constantly;
That love for one, from which there doth not spring
Wide love for all, is but a worthless thing.

Not in another world, as poets prate,
Dwell we apart above the tide of things,
High floating o'er earth's clouds on faery wings;

But our pure love doth ever elevate
Into a holy band of brotherhood
All earthly things, making them pure and good."*

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*This is one of the few illegitimate sonnets contained in Mr. Lowell's works. I quote it in consideration of its present appropriateness.


The real secret of cynism, the reason why so many of us exclaim against human nature as wholly evil and ignoble, is well set forth in the sonnet beginning, -

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"For this true nobleness I seek in vain!"

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The cynic is counselled to "look inward, - to look into the depths of his own soul.

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"How is it with thee? art thou sound and whole?
Doth narrow search show thee no earthly stain?
BE NOBLE! and the nobleness that that lies
In other men, sleeping, but never dead,
Will rise in majesty to meet thine own:
Then wilt thou see it gleam in many eyes,
Then will pure light around thy path be shed,
And thou wilt nevermore be sad and lone."

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Mr. Lowell's sonnet to "The Spirit of Keats" I must indulge myself and the reader in quoting entire:
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"Great soul! thou sittest with me in my room,
Uplifting me with thy vast, quiet eyes,
On whose full orbs with kindly lustre lies
The twilight warmth of ruddy ember-gloom:

The clear strong tones will oft bring sudden bloom
Of hope secure, to him who lonely cries,
Wrestling with the young poet's agonies,
Neglect and scorn which seem a certain doom:

Yes! the few words which, like great thunder-drops,
Thy large heart down to earth shook doubtfully,
Thrilled by the invard lightning of its might,

Serene and pure like gushing joy of light,
Shall track the eternal chords of destiny
After the moon-led pulse of ocean stops."

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Not only grand as a sonnet, but truthful as a criticism! The electric suggestiveness of which poetry is capable is admirably shown in the first terzetto, and it is worth pages of tame prose disquisition.
Almost every phrase is typical, comprising a picture of not merely some peculiar trait of Keats's character and genius, but by its emphatic appropriateness bringing vividly to sight the whole man, as man and as artist. The prominent features of Lowell's sonnets may be briefly summed up, as extreme sensibility to moral and spiritual beauty; imagination, not so bright in its coloring, as clear, defined, harmonious in its outlines; insight, metaphysically acute; and, finally, in their mechanical construction, a degree of care and scholarly finish, which we often fail to perceive in his other and longer poems.
Of the American writers of the illegitimate sonnet, in its countless multiplicity of forms, I do not think it necessary to speak at length. Their number, as intimated, is considerable; but their productions
exhibit, on the whole, so little saliency, that I shrink from the task of individually criticising, or attemping to criticise them, that is to say elaborately* It is, however, essential to my plan that something
should be said, in a cursory way, of the merits and demerits of these authors.

*Our Female Sonneteers i have groupet together in the latter part of the work, not from discourtesy to them, but because the material needed for the preparation of that portion of my essay reached me last, and after my work was almost completed.

Mr. Jones Very, known as having formerly filled the post of Tutor in Greek in Harvard College, is responsible for a larger number of sonnets than any other writer of New England. Mr Very is also the author of three essays, - on "Epic Poetry," "Shakespeare," and "Hamlet." They are "fine specimens of learned and sympathetic criticism." His sonnets appeared in a collection of his works in prose and verse, issued in 1839, and belong to the extreme conventional type of the illegitimate sonnet. Mr. Very's tone is deeply devotional. No matter what his topic, he unconsciously imbues it with the religious sentiment. The old metaphysical rhapsodists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, &c., are evidently his poetical models. He has studied them with faithful attention, and has reproduced their style, more in its faults, however, than in its excellences. Donne, I take it, is his favorite. He could not, in many respects, have hosen a worse master. Mr Very shows no real power
of invention, and his "range of subjects, like his range of thought, is "limited." nevertheless, in his highest moods, he is sincere, tender, fanciful; and the flow of his verse, though at one time monotonous,
at another involved, is for the most part musical and pleasing. Nevertheless, his great fault, as a sonneteer, is a vague mysticism of reflection, encouraged by, if not absolutely dreived from, his too familiar acquaintance with the poets we have mentioned. The sonnets which bear his name in this collection have been chosen because of their freedom from this characteristic obscurity. Mr. Park Benjamin was the first American, so far as I can learn, who employed the sonnet as a vehicle of humorous description* A keen sense of the absurd and bizaae is displayed in the following: -

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"To see a fellow of a summer's morning,
With a large fox-hound of a slumberous eye,
And a slim gun, go slowly lounging by,
About to give the feathered bipeds warning,

That probably they may be shot hereafter,
Excites in me a quiet kind of laughter;
For though I am no lover of the sport
Of harmless murder, yet it is to me

Almost the funniest thing on earth to see
A corpulent person breathing with a snort,
Go on a shooting frolic all alone;

For well I know that when he's out of town,
He, and his dog, and gun will all lie down,
And undestructive sleep till game and light are flown!"

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*Unless we consider the following, by Robert Treat Paine, as an attempt in the same style: -


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SONNET TO ELIZA

"Ah! do the Muses, once so coy and shy,
Pursue Meander as hard as legs can lay?
By heavens! Meander swears, he will not fly,
But meet their gentle ladyships half-way.

"What! shall this coward bard turn pale with fear?
When clinging round his knees these virgins lie,
Is he afraid of drowning in a tear,
Or being blown to atoms by a sigh?

"No, dear Eliza, with eypanded arms
I turn to clasp the fair one that pursues;
But, struck with such divinity of charms,
Shrink from alliance with so bright a muse.

"Yet weep not, that from Hymen's yoke I've slipped my neck,
For you 've escaped a bite, while I have lost a spec."

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This is not, however, a characteristic sonnet. There are others among the few Mr. Benjamin has written which - beside being more nearly adapted to the right sonnetform - are, in themselves, clever and thoughtful poems. Here is one of them, addressed simply to

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M. J.

"Born in the North, and reared in tropic lands;
Her mind has all the vigor of a tree
Sprung from a rocky soil beside the sea,
And all the sweetness of a rose that stands
In the soft sunshine on some sheltered lea.
She seems all life, and light, and love to me!
No winter lingers in her glowing smile,
No coldness in her deep melodious words;
But all the warmth of her dear Indian isle,
And all the music of its tuneful birds.
With her conversing of my native bowers
In the far South, I feel the genial air
Of some delicious morn, and taste those flowers,
Which like herself are bright above compare!"

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The sonnet to "A Great Name" has just escaped fulfilling all the conditions necessary to a sonnet of the strictly legitimate type: -

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"Time! thou destroyest the relics of the Past!
And hidest all the footprints of thy march,
On sheltered column, and on crumbled arch,
By moss, and ivy growing green and fast:

Hurled into fragments by the tempest blast,
The Rhodian monster lies; - the Obelisk
That with sharp line divided the broad disk
Of Egypt's sun, down to the sands was cast;

And where these stood, no remnant trophy stands,
And even the art is lost by which they rose;
Thus with the monments of other lands,

The place that knew them now no longer knows; -
Yet triumph not, O Time! strong towers decay,
But a great Name shall never pass away!"

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The sonnets of William H. Burleigh "possess," as Leigh Hunt says of Shelley's "Ozymandias," "the right comprehensiveness," and I have doubted - there structure is in some cases so correct - wether they might not be fairly ranked among the legitimate sonnets. "The Brook," and "Solitude," both to be found among our selections, will justify this remark. The most original and salient of the irregular sonneteers of the South is William Gilmore Simms, whose fertile genius has contributed so much to the vindication of ihr intellect and patriotism of his part of the country. His sonnets are numerous and of every variety of construction. Their chif merit resides in the character of the thought, which is seldom otherwise than strong, suggestive, and perspicuous. A rugged and impetuous power, and, where the topic admits of it, a passionate intensy of feeling, rising almost into vehemence, leave the author no time to consider the "proprieties of verse"; he rushes on with the energy of the improvvisatore, so that frequently he constains himself to make use of the sonnet as a stanza, the limit of fourteen lines appearing to bo insufficient to the full exercise either of his imagination or his enthusiasm. Yet many of his sonnets are complete and "roundet," possessing a fine metrical balance, and leaving consequently little to desire in reference to theire construction. The following is a good example: -

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"Sudden the mighty nation goes not down;
There is no mortal fleetness in its fate: -
Time, many omens, still anticipate
The peril that removes its iron crown

And shakes its homes with ruin. Centuries
Fleet by in the long struggle, and great men
Rush mounted to the break where victory lies,
And personal virtue brings us life again.

Were it not thus, my Country! were this hope
Not ours, the present were a fearful time;
Vainly we summon mighty hearts to cope
With thy oppressors, - vanity and crime.

These ride thee as upon some noble beast,
The scoundrel jackal hurrying to his feast."

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Mr. Simms in the choice of his subjects adheres mostly to the gravest themes. The solemn or fearful aspects of national events, the dark mysteries of human fate and experience, - demanding in their consideration the exercise of the metaphysical faculty, - these are the burden of his sonnets.

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"The thing," as Wordsworth expresses it, becomes "a trumpet in his hands," - when he would awaken the dormant patriotism of his people; or it serves him as the medium of philosophical inquiry in those regions of speculation which only imagination, sublimated by faith, should dare to enter. In a word, the sonnets of this writer are valuable, not as matured art-products, but as stern embodiments
of individual will and passion, no less than as specimens of genuine subtlety and reach of thought. Henry T. Tuckerman is the author of about twentyeight sonnets of a miscellaneous natur, written in the
form of three quatrains, concluded by the usual heroic couplet. Griswold says that "Mr. Tuckerman's sonnets display some of the most perfect examples of that kind of writing that adorn American literatur." I cannot subscribe to this assertion, which proves how superficial Griswold's knowledge of the sonnet, and its requirements, must have been; nor do I believe that Mr. Tuckerman himself - whose candor as a critic equals his ability - will quarrel with me for denying it. Let us admit, however, that his sonnets, if not worthy this degree of praise, are unquestionably graceful, polished, and pleasing compositions. Every line seems to have been carefully revised, and the ultimate effect is a Pope-like ease and flow of rhythm, and great propriety of diction, not without a special charm of their own. I call the reader's special attention to the sonnets entitled "To One Deceived," "Freedom," "Sleep," and "The Balcony," - all included in this work, and all confirming, I think, what has been said. Mr. Epes Sargend, in his "Summer Voyage to Cuba," has employed a stanza of fourteen lines, the last line of which is invariably a rgymed Alexandrine, - which brings his stanzas technically under the head of
the most irregular of quatorzens. Some of them are so picturesque that I have thought proper to extract them into our volume.
The younger poets of America, who have won distinction in other departments of their art, - I refer here particularly to Bayard Taylor, Aldrich and Stoddard, have published few sonnets, but those few are meritorious. I instance Taylor's manly and earnest dedication to George H. Boker, which introduces his "Poems of Home and Travel," - a sonnet not unworthy of Boker himself; also his sonnet to "Life," and "To the Mountains."

Since this essay was planned and almost executed, Mr. T. B. Aldrich has risen so rapidly into poetical fame, through the deserved honors bestowed upon him both in this country and in England, that I would
call particular attention to such of his sonnets as I have quoted from his "Poems," published by Messrs. Ticknor and Fields in 1865. Hithero Mr. Aldrich has been distinguished for the exquisite beauty of his
lyrics, and the grand passages to be found in his Scriptual poem of "Judith," rather than for any achievements in the peculiar and difficult branch of poetry of which I treat. I think, however, that a careful consideration of the sonnets hereafter quoted will convince the reader that Mr. Aldrich occupies no second rank amongst
living sonneteers, and that the care and polish which he has bestowed upon his works give promise of a higher future excellence in this department. I refer to the sonnets entitled respectively "Egypt" and "Accomplices," as admirable specimens of Mr. Aldrich's powers. According to the strict rules laid down by the Italian writers, these sonnets are not constructed on the legitimate model, but they approach it so nearly in form, and are so far elevated above mere forms by the genius which embodies them, as to disarm extreme criticism, and content us with their own beauties. A further study and cultivation of the "Sonnet's scanty plot" will all not only to Mr. Aldrich's growing reputation, but to the literary wealth of America in a branch of refined poetical art in which she grievously needs representation.

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The following to "T. B." - Bayard Taylor, I presume - is one of the best of the few sonnets which Richard Henry Stoddard, the American Keats, has as yet written: -


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To T. B.

"Though Youth is fresh upon us, we are squires
Of Poesy, and swell her shining train,
With all the belted knights, whose prowess fires
Our hearts to do what noble deeds remain;

The golden spurs are ours ere many days,
If we are true; then let us join our hands,
And knit our souls in friendship's holy bands,
To help each other in the coming frays.

Envy and hate are for the low and mean;
We will be noble rivals, oftentime
Crossing our spears in tournaments of rhyme,

In friendly tilts to glorify our queen;
Friendly to all save caitiffs foul and wrong,
But stern to guard the holy land of song!"


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I cannot but regret, more than in the case of any other American poet, that Stoddard has not cultivated the Sonnet to its utmost limits. There is that in his delicate touch, his rich yet subdued coloring,
the concientious labor whi
31.01.2007 13:20
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