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This poem had its origin in the following somewhat singular custom – It appears from the Scholiast, that the women of Argos, on a fixed day of annual recurrence, were accustomed to take the statues of Minerva and Diomed from their places, convey them to the river Inachus, and there bathe and purify them. It was unlawful for any male to behold these images uncovered ; the punishment of the transgressor being either immediate death, or a life of misery. This corresponds with the fable of Actaeon, who, through the resentment of Diana at his unintended sight of her disrobed, was changed into a stag, and miserably pursued and devoured by his own dogs. The poem is eminently beautiful —smooth, simple, and affecting. There runs through the whole of it that air of enthusiasm of feeling, mingled with plainness of language, which constitutes the great and enduring charm of all, but re-eminently of early Greek, literature. he poem opens with an address and an exhortation to all the maids and matrons of Greece to hasten and come forth to
wait upon the goddess. The first few lines, translated into literal prose, run thus: “As many of ye as are the bathtenders of Pallas, go forth all, go forth. I heard the sacred horses neighing but lately, and the goddess goes forth well adorned. Haste ye now, oh ye of the ellow hair, haste ye, oh women of the elasgi. Never did Minerva lave her mighty arms before she had dashed the dust from the flanks of her horses;–no! not even then, when, bearing their armor all sprinkled with bloody dust, she came from the godless Earth-born.” Thus he continues, with great poetical beauty both in thought and versification, for some fifty lines, describing Minerva’s dress in her famous trial for the apple of gold and the prize of beauty, before the shepherd of Ida, the ill-starred Paris.” Then, after giving all males a caution not to gaze upon the goddess, as they would avoid ruin, he enforces his caution by relating to the listening maidens a beautiful tale, of a young man who had beheld Minerva bathing,and whom her wrath had struck blind among the mountains.
Go! Pallas ! bathe thy heavenly limbs, while I to these shall tell
Then, whilst the swelling tide of wrath was gathering in her breast,
Minerva saw, and pitied much the mother's deep distress,
MISS BARRETT'S POEMS.*
BY A Contributor.
If we apply the Horatian requirement to poetry, and deny a place to mediocrity, there are but two poets in England who now belong to the new generation—Alfred Tennyson and Miss Barrett. There are many others who write agreeable verses; accomplished men and women who, by the liveliness of their talents, or their cultivation and refinement, may afford us many a delightful hour; popular echoers of popular topics; easy versifiers who reflect for us our personal opinions, in the creed of politics, history, or religion—but the sacred name of poet exacts higher requisitions before it can be rightfully appropriated. How long Tennyson is to remain in the ascendant, “the glass of fashion and the mould of form,” to be worshipped and imitated by inferior writers, is a matter upon which the hopes of some who reverence the manliness of the English character and the ruggedness of the English race, and the contentinent of his admirers, may differ. He is certainly not as favorable a representative of the manly character as Miss Barrett is of the feminine, and Miss Barrett's genius is of too subtle and elevated an order ever to become widely popular with the people. Yet with two such guests standing at the threshold of the temple in which still a few of the great bards of the last age linger, though the music of their cunning hands be still in the choir forever, we need not despair of the coming future. We too shall have our poets. Our lives shall be illustrated by the song of the bard. Great as were the events in our fathers' lives, ours too are the gift of God; and in good time poets shall sing for us, and raise our existence from the dull life of earth-worms; and we, too, shall transmit an inheritance of genius to our sons. It would be a sad belief if we thought that the poets were dead, and that our cares were to be concluded in buying and selling, sowing and reaping, without partaking of that higher life which the poet teaches us to live. Heaven sends us poets. This act of Providence
* A Drama of Exile, and other Poems, by Elizabeth Barrett Barrett.
New York: H. G. Langley, 1844.
may not be included in the books which treat of the evidences of natural or revealed religion; but it is as great a blessing as that the sun shines or the grass grows. This is a reflection which may appear very simple, for it is very natural ; but let us fancy our privation, for a moment, if that unconsidered, ill-rewarded being, the poet, together with all he brings to us of love and knowledge, were forever taken from the world. The language that we utter would begin to lose its harmony; we should find ourselves insensibly forgetting the mastery of that cunning instrument of speech which the poets have fashioned for all the finer relations of life, and talking in the jargon of the market and exchange; with our loss of happy words the occasion for them would have passed away, and instead of being friends and lovers by a thousand invisible ties which a refined imagination weaves for us, we should be coarse and treacherous, with no better impulses than desire and interest. Our religion would lose faith, that imaginative worship of the heart, and be driven back to stocks and stones. Our paintings and architecture, if they were suffered to exist, would be strange and idiotic ; but they could not exist, for the sentiment that gives life to the color and harmony to the building would be withdrawn, and both would fall and perish by vulgar hands. Let us, then, hail the new poet, and with the thousand voices of the press, utter the new-found fame wide over the land. This generation too has a poet, though Campbell be gathered to Westminster, and Burns be honored only at his monument, and Wordsworth shelter a quiet and revered age in silence. Miss Barrett's new book comes to us indeed with something of the interest of an American production. It is published simultaneously with the English edition, under the care of an American author;f and it has been preceded by the publication of a part of its contents, a
2 vols. 12mo.
t Mr. Mathews, to whom Miss Barrett pays a delicate compliment in her preface, and whose volume of Poems she pronounces in another part of her volume “as remarkable in thought and manner, for a vital sinewy vigor, as the right arm of Pathfinder.”
few of the shorter poems, in the American Magazines. These already directed the eyes of the public to this new star, shining with a pale, steady lustre, yet growing intense as we look upon it, and far unlike the brassy glare of some wandering and much-worshipped meteors.
“My love and admiration have belonged to the great American people, as long as I have felt proud of being an Englishwoman, and almost as long as I have loved poetry itself. But it is only of late that I have been admitted to the privilege of personal gratitude to Americans, and only to-day that I am encouraged to offer to their hands an American edition of a new collection of my poems, about to be published in my own country. This edition precedes the English one by a step, a step eagerly taken, and with a spring in it of pleasure and pride—suspended, however, for a moment, that by a cordial figure I may kiss the soil of America, and address my thanks to those sons of the soil, who, if strangers and foreigners, are yet kinsmen and friends, and who, if never seen, nor perhaps to be seen by eyes of mine, have already caused them to glisten by words of kindness and courtesy.” There is much in this sentence to wash out the ignorance, flippancy, and contempt of British writers and travellers; who have, indeed, done themselves a greater wrong than us, by encouraging in themselves the practical infidelity and inhumanity of denying any goodness or virtue to so large a portion of the human race. Miss Barrett is of too generous, too richly endowed and philosophical a turn of mind to favor such injustice. She confidently turns to this much-abused and ill-represented America, and pours out before us the wealth of her mind; and, as in all similar cases where the heart of man deals with man, she will receive in return the generosity she brings with her. In claiming for Miss Barrett the rank of an original poet in English literature, we have of course implied that her merits, however distinct and unquestionable, are of a class that requires some study and preparation in the reader before he can fully appreciate them. This is a condition with every new writer, however it may be overlooked by the mass of readers who affect to understand metre, cadence, and reach of thought in a moment. Hence original authors are con
demned, while imitators thrive. The great impulses in literature descend from the author, to whose sovereign height the people travel slowly up, getting partial glimpses by the way: critics should be the Mentors to warn the public of mountebanks and pretenders, and ever renew the flagging attention by calling it upward to the pure eminences. What are we to expect in this authoress 4 How are we to receive her ? We must prepare our minds for poetry of a different school from that of Eliza Cook or Mrs. Ellis, and sharpen our eyesight to something of a finer texture than the warm and easily worn, though beautiful and graceful, drapery of Mrs. Hemans. And perhaps, with every disposition of the reader to admire and enjoy, he may lack the peculiar studies and discipline of thought and feeling to enter into the habits of mind of this writer, whose subtle style may always remain vague and dim to the popular apprehension. Miss Barrett “soaring in the high region of her fancies, with her singing robes about her,” will be found breathing too rare an atmosphere for those who are willing to look no further in a book than for amusement. We warn the readers at libraries, and the loungers at booksellers' counters, against opening these volumes at random, and confidently pronouncing upon their worth. Let them be silent if they cannot understand. There are two methods which that intellectual chemist, the critic, may apply as the tests of a new work of invention, the synthetic and the analytie ; and though these different processes should in the end verify each other, yet there will generally be a greater apparent generosity in the use of the former than the latter. Perhaps the former should be reserved only for those authors in whom we have confidence of genius working with perfect truth and simplicity. In such cases we take the poet's own word, and proceed with him in the development of his work, satisfied that while we are ursuing genius we are following nature. Here let the author teach the critic. In the mass of works this would be evidently a misapplied mode of criticism. The departure from any law of natural growth would soon be detected, and the reviewer and the author would have to part oompany. We may venture to decide dogmatically at a glance upon most new publications; but we ought to beware of treating in this way the work of genius. The most evident characteristic of Miss Barrett's poetry is its subjectivity; but she possesses this quality in a different sense from that in which it is generally and unhappily known in modern philosophy. It is not the self-torturing or diseased spirit of a mind recoiling from the outer world of God, man, and nature, and painfully turned upon itself. There is no self-willed arrogance, or spiritual pride, or morbid consciousness, in this high metaphysical abstraction, but a lofty spirituality, purified from ordinary life and common thoughts by the discipline of study and sorrow.
*Till oft converse with heavenly habitants
No ordinary or grossly nurtured mind could long sustain such topics as the conversation of Seraphim, or venture to portray the sublimities of angels and the song of the morning stars. Miss Barrett has been educated by AEschylus and the Hebrew prophets.
But the prevalent trait of her mind, to which this pursuit of intellectual sublimity is secondary, is its truly feminine cnaracter. None of the diversified accomplishments of a muse learned, cultiwated, various, pursuing ancient and modern art through the works of the masters of every land, and familiar with all, suffer us for a moment to be diverted from the happy gracefulness, the naturalness of movement, the easy, self-consciousness of womanhood. Learned women are notorious for becoming bold and masculine; but there are few men who could bear about them so many of the rich spoils of books and antiquity, without awkwardness and pedantry. The secret lies in this: what with most men and with other women is apt to be a mere matter of acquisition, something foreign and accidental hung upon the original framework of the mind, with her, by a long and natural process of assimilation, has become part of the texture of the mind itself. Milton's stern grasp of the facts and images of poetical antiquity was not more his own, rightfully appropriated by his manly intellect, and standing out firm, definite, colossal, than is the gentler spirit in which, as with a veil, this feminine mind wears the figure and countenance of an Athenian sybil. Miss Barrett is still young, but we may gather from the
fact of a very o publication of a vol. ume of poems, and the evidences in her translation of Prometheus, and the volume of the Seraphim, that she has lon been patiently devoted to the calm an diligent pursuits of learning, “in the quiet and still air of delightful studies.” She has read Plato, Mr. Horne, in his Spirit of the Age, tells us, from beginning to end, and the Hebrew Bible from Genesis to Malachi. There are occasionally to be seen in a parenthesis of her prefaces, or by the side of a fine rhythmical line of her poems, a few of these Hebrew characters, which the reader passes by with reverence. There is nothing affected or disjointed in this. There is no impediment to the thought, which may indeed pursue a subtler current to task the mind, but never offends. How these studies were followed we may learn from certain graceful revelations in these volumes, in a poem commemorating some wine of Cyprus given to the poetess by H. S. Boyd, author of “Select Passages from the Greek and others,” from which she passes, by a very happy turn of sentiment, to the studies of which the fragrant draught is the symbol.
And I think of those long mornings Which my Thought goes far to seek, When, betwixt the folio's turnings, Solemn flow'd the rhythmic Greek. Past the pane, the mountain spreading, Swept the sheep-bell's tinkling noise, While a girlish voice was reading, Somewhat low for at's and ot's
Then what golden hours were for us!—
Oh, our AEschylus, the thundrous !
Our Euripides, the human—
And his touches of things common,
Our Theocritus, our Bion,