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CALCUTTA REVIEW . .
Art. I.-1. Ina, and other Poems. By Miss LESLIE. Hay and
Co., Calcutta. 2. Ex Eremo, Poems chiefly written in India. By H. G. KEENE.
Blackwood, Edinburgh. 3. A Dream of a Star, and other Poems. Calcutta.
UR readers would not thank us, if we were to add to all that
has been written in elucidation of the question, “what is poetry?” From the days of Aristotle to those of Leigh Hunt, few subjects of a kindred nature have given rise to speculations at once so profound and so beautiful ; but we know of nothing so practically sensible, or which goes so directly to the heart of the matter, as a saying of Johnson's,
in reply to the question of Boswell, “Sir, what is poetry ?”. “Why, sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is, but it is not easy to tell what it is.” And, that, without being guided by any theory, men do knoïo what poetry is, seems manifest from the manner in which true poetry is sooner or later recognised, and sifted from all counterfeits.
There is an universal appreciation of melody and rhyme. As by an instinct, all nations, even the rudest, shape their languages into poetic form. Like Pope, they “lisp in numbers ;" even though the higher elements of poetry may be wanting. And this instinct is ever prepared to welcome him who will give it voice and shape. Hence the avidity with which even the uneducated adopt such songs and ballads as embody familiar incidents of love and war; and hence too, the readiness with which poets and their productions are welcomed.
But the glad reception accorded to poetry in its ordinary forms, is not the only proof that it is known--known in the
sense of being appreciated. This appreciation is perhaps more strikingly seen in the preference that is given to good poetry over bad, or in other words to real poetry; for according to a strict application of poetic laws, bad poetry is not poetry at all. It usually has happened that a great poet has at once and for ever taken possession of his crown, as by a kind of right divine which none felt inclined even for a moment to dispute. Homer, Shakespeare and Spenser have never had their genius called in question. If it has occasionally happened otherwise, there have been reasons for it. Milton's earlier productions appear to have been received as they deserved; for who could question the genius which gave birth to the magnificent “Hymn on the nativity of Christ,” to “ Lycidas,” “ L'Allegro" and “Il Pense
If his “ Paradise Lost” was not received by his cotemporaries, in a manner worthy of its merits, the cause is easily found in that intense prejudice and hate, with which the dominant party in the nation during the reign of Charles II., looked on everything which belonged to the Puritans. It was impossible for them to recognise any merit in aught that could emanate from the Secretary of Cromwell; albeit there was not perhaps in all England a man of loftier genius or nobler nature than that defamed, blind old man. But from the time when party spirit sufficiently subsided to allow men to judge impartially the works of their predecessors, there has been but one opinion about Milton as a poet. Wordsworth is the next great poet, whose merits were not at once recognised, save by a very few of his earliest cotemporaries. De Quincy tells us, that he had two enthusiastic admirers, himself and Professor Wilson! He reduces the number low enough; too low, indeed, for the demands of truth, we imagine ; but it is certain, that his friends were few, and his decriers tolerably numerous. But for this, he had himself to blame; he seemed intent on shewing how easy it is to descend from simplicity to silliness. Not content to write such exquisite poems as “Ruth," " Laodamia,” “ the Power of Sound," and “Dion;" he was led, by pushing a dangerous theory too far, to put forth such productions as “ Alice Fell," “ The Idiot Boy,' and“ the Waggoner," as if to perplex the judgment of his readers, and keep in suspense his own reputation. Wordsworth now, we are inclined to think, holds his high position, not because of all that he has written, but in spite of one half of it; for the reputation of a writer is fixed much more by his best productions than by his worst.
The conclusion then to which we arrive, is this; that all poets, both small and great, wi sooner or later receive their due at the hands of the community. The verdict may be delayed, but it will be a just one at last. Great poets are too few, and too dearly
prized, to be allowed to perish; and we believe that not a single one has ever thus perished. If minor ones are forgotten, they can well be spared.
Such thoughts as we have now thrown out are of use to us in reflecting on the probable fate of cotemporary literature, and of still greater use to such writers as those whose poems we are now about to review. The volumes before us are the first publications of their respective authors, and to us they are of greater interest, since, with the exception of a small portion of Mr. Keene's volume, all their contents have been written in India. Their individual peculiarities render it necessary that we notice each one separately ; but before doing so, they collectively suggest to us one or two observations.
The first has reference to their general characteristics, when compared with the style of poetry now most common in England. India has no school of literature; writers here, therefore, will take their models and receive their bias from the writers of our native land. Our readers need not be told, we hope, that the prevalent tone of poetic literature there is not worthy of imitation. It is what the Edinburgh Review happily designated of the “spasmodic” type, which being forced and unreal, must necessarily be short-lived. The three writers before us have happily avoided, to a very considerable extent, this unfortunate characteristic. Mr. Keene has done so entirely ; but we cannot say quite so much for Miss Leslie, and the author of “A Dream of a Star.” If the former has been influenced by any living writer, we suspect it has been Mrs. Browning; nor could she study a better living model, if, instead of freely and alone cultivating her own nature, she must have one.
Though these poems have almost all been written in India, they have but a very slight connexion with the land of their nativity; and singular enough, this remark chiefly applies to the two volumes which have been published in this country. Mr. Keene has evidently seen in Indian history and the incidents of oriental life, ample materials for the exercise of his poetic powers, whilst his own exile has suggested some of the most touching and beautiful sentiments to be found in his volume; sentiments which will find a response in the heart of every Englishman whose lot is cast in this land of the sun. We wish that the other two writers before us had derived more of their inspiration from the same sources. Surely in the history, the scenery, the social relations, and even in the superstitions of India, there are abundant materials for the poet to work upon. Not only might we suppose that writers would chiefly direct their attention to the land in which they live, especially if that land were one about which distant nations, through many ages, have fondly dreamed and ardently thought; but any writer, whether of fiction or of poetry, would have, in making Indian subjects his theme, the great advantage of working a mine hitherto comparatively neglected and overlooked. Ireland, Scotland, America, Italy, Germany, and the lands so pregnant with instruction to the philosophic historian, as well as of gorgeous recollections and imaginings to the poet, which, fifty years ago, formed the Ottoman Empire, have all in turn contributed rich materials to the suggestive minds of our English poets and romancers. India's time will surely come at last. As Campbell sang his funeral dirge over neglected Poland, as Rogers made us acquainted with sunny sensuous Italy, as Byron aroused attention in favour of degenerate Greece, as Whittier drew forth sympathy toward slaves, and excited wrath against their masters; so may we hope, that the labour of calling a yet deeper attention to India's wrongs and wants will not be left exclusively to statisticians, historians and political adventurers, but that some one or more of powerful genius, deeply brooding over the state of this land, will give forth to the world in “immortal verse” an account of its sufferings, its wants and its resources, which shall call forth English sympathy and energy, as, to this country, they have never been called before. Southey, in his “ Curse of Kehama,” has handled 'a purely Indian subject with marvellous accuracy and skill, and proved that even the huge and monstrous mythology of this country is rich in themes which might well engage the attention of a poet even of the highest order. Waiving the consideration of the capability of any of the writers before us, thus to arouse public attention, we are sorry we cannot say of them “they have done what they could.” But we must proceed to a more detailed consideration of their respective merits. Two of the works before us will not demand so much of our time, since they were brought before the attention of our readers in the “ Miscellaneous Notices” of this Review on their first appearance.
A "Dream of a Star” occupies nineteen pages of the pamphlet in which it appears; and we are bound to say, it should not have appeared at all. We find it quite beyond our power to give an intelligible account of it, simply because it is as devoid of incident as it is destitute of aim. All we know is, that it is intended to be about a brother and a sister, who, when children, wander about a good deal amongst flowers, churchyards and meadows, but not half so much as the author himself. Indeed, he wanders so much that he absolutely loses the poor children altogether, and at length, apparently conscious that, like the “ Babes in the Wood,” they are actually missing, exclaims :
“But where is he? that thoughtful boy!
Where they are, he does not inform us, and we cannot discover. We think the sister dies at the dawn of womanhood, but the author leaves us to infer this rather than tells us so. If he intended the “Dream of a Star” to be an account of a lovely sister, prematurely snatched from an affectionate brother, he should have remembered that this alone is not sufficient to be the basis of a poem of any length; incident and purpose are demanded, and in this case we have them not. The discursiveness everywhere exhibited is excessive, and the writer resembles a child. who wandering from its home, soon becomes lost amidst the mazes of a trackless forest. He preserves no sequence and connexion between the different parts of his poem. The lines are tolerably good, viewed separately ; his choice of language is usually select, and there is a sylvan cast about his scenery, which not unfrequently reminds us of Keats; but there is no continuity, even in the thoughts and sentiments; it is like a piece of spar, the crystals of which jut out without any connexion the one with the other.
Such a poem as this should not have been published. It can bring no reputation to the author, nor can it minister enjoyment or instruction to the reader. We regret that we cannot pronounce a more favourable opinion on the literary production of one, evidently possessed of a mind deeply imbued with sentiments of a pure and healthful quality, and who writes, as all true poets do, because he feels deeply, and finds verse the most befitting form of utterance. But we have to judge of the intellectual character of this production, and thus viewing it, we pronounce that it is wanting in some of the essential qualities of a good narrative poem. Were it within our province to take account of the moral qualities of a writer of verses, we should willingly do so in this case, since it would then be our happiness to express a higher estimate of this small volume. It exhibits to us a heart at least which is the home of the social and domestic virtues, and very susceptible of all those influences which refine and elevate humanity.
The miscellaneous pieces are of higher merit. There is the same habit of running off from the subject into purposeless versification, the same want of thought, and not unfrequently a very prosaic style of expression. “The Missionaries in India perhaps best illustrates these defects. The following lines to « Mnemosyne" are in the author's best style :
Memory! to gaze on thy land of shade,
Chequer'd with flashes of sunny light,
Illumin’d by sunbeams few, yet bright.