Fable for Critics Whittier to Cooper

A Fable for Critics [Whittier to Cooper]

by James Russell Lowell

James Fenimore Cooper, 1822, John Wesley Jarvis

James Fenimore Cooper, 1822, John Wesley Jarvis

Famous writers mentioned in this section—click on the name to move to that part of the poem:

 

 

‘There is Whittier, whose swelling and vehement heart
Strains the strait-breasted drab of the Quaker apart,
And reveals the live Man, still supreme and erect,
Underneath the bemummying wrappers of sect;
There was ne’er a man born who had more of the swing
Of the true lyric bard and all that kind of thing; 880
And his failures arise (though he seem not to know it)
From the very same cause that has made him a poet,—
A fervor of mind which knows no separation
‘Twixt simple excitement and pure inspiration,
As my Pythoness erst sometimes erred from not knowing
If ’twere I or mere wind through her tripod was blowing;
Let his mind once get head in its favorite direction
And the torrent of verse bursts the dams of reflection,
While, borne with the rush of the metre along,
The poet may chance to go right or go wrong, 890
Content with the whirl and delirium of song;
Then his grammar’s not always correct, nor his rhymes,
And he’s prone to repeat his own lyrics sometimes,
Not his best, though, for those are struck off at white-heats
When the heart in his breast like a trip-hammer beats,
And can ne’er be repeated again any more
Than they could have been carefully plotted before:
Like old what’s-his-name there at the battle of Hastings
(Who, however, gave more than mere rhythmical bastings),
Our Quaker leads off metaphorical fights 900
For reform and whatever they call human rights,
Both singing and striking in front of the war,
And hitting his foes with the mallet of Thor;
Anne haec, one exclaims, on beholding his knocks,
Vestis filii tui, O leather-clad Fox?
Can that be thy son, in the battle’s mid din,
Preaching brotherly love and then driving it in
To the brain of the tough old Goliath of sin,
With the smoothest of pebbles from Castaly’s spring
Impressed on his hard moral sense with a sling? 910

‘All honor and praise to the right-hearted bard
Who was true to The Voice when such service was hard,
Who himself was so free he dared sing for the slave
When to look but a protest in silence was brave;
All honor and praise to the women and men
Who spoke out for the dumb and the down-trodden then!
It needs not to name them, already for each
I see History preparing the statue and niche;
They were harsh, but shall you be so shocked at hard words
Who have beaten your pruning-hooks up into swords, 920
Whose rewards and hurrahs men are surer to gain
By the reaping of men and of women than grain?
Why should you stand aghast at their fierce wordy war, if
You scalp one another for Bank or for Tariff?
Your calling them cut-throats and knaves all day long
Doesn’t prove that the use of hard language is wrong;
While the World’s heart beats quicker to think of such men
As signed Tyranny’s doom with a bloody steel-pen,
While on Fourth-of-Julys beardless orators fright one
With hints at Harmodius and Aristogeiton, 930
You need not look shy at your sisters and brothers
Who stab with sharp words for the freedom of others;—
No, a wreath, twine a wreath for the loyal and true
Who, for sake of the many, dared stand with the few,
Not of blood-spattered laurel for enemies braved,
But of broad, peaceful oak-leaves for citizens saved!

‘Here comes Dana, abstractedly loitering along,
Involved in a paulo-post-future of song,
Who’ll be going to write what’ll never be written
Till the Muse, ere he think of it, gives him the mitten,— 940
Who is so well aware of how things should be done,
That his own works displease him before they’re begun,—
Who so well all that makes up good poetry knows,
That the best of his poems is written in prose;
All saddled and bridled stood Pegasus waiting,
He was booted and spurred, but he loitered debating;
In a very grave question his soul was immersed,—
Which foot in the stirrup he ought to put first:
And, while this point and that he judicially dwelt on,
He, somehow or other, had written Paul Felton, 950
Whose beauties or faults, whichsoever you see there,
You’ll allow only genius could hit upon either.
That he once was the Idle Man none will deplore,
But I fear he will never be anything more;
The ocean of song heaves and glitters before him,
The depth and the vastness and longing sweep o’er him.
He knows every breaker and shoal on the chart,
He has the Coast Pilot and so on by heart,
Yet he spends his whole life, like the man in the fable,
In learning to swim on his library table. 960

‘There swaggers John Neal, who has wasted in Maine
The sinews and cords of his pugilist brain,
Who might have been poet, but that, in its stead, he
Preferred to believe that he was so already;
Too hasty to wait till Art’s ripe fruit should drop,
He must pelt down an unripe and colicky crop;
Who took to the law, and had this sterling plea for it,
It required him to quarrel, and paid him a fee for it;
A man who’s made less than he might have, because
He always has thought himself more than he was,— 970
Who, with very good natural gifts as a bard,
Broke the strings of his lyre out by striking too hard,
And cracked half the notes of a truly fine voice,
Because song drew less instant attention than noise.
Ah, men do not know how much strength is in poise,
That he goes the farthest who goes far enough,
And that all beyond that is just bother and stuff.
No vain man matures, he makes too much new wood;
His blooms are too thick for the fruit to be good;
‘Tis the modest man ripens, ’tis he that achieves, 980
Just what’s needed of sunshine and shade he receives;
Grapes, to mellow, require the cool dark of their leaves;
Neal wants balance; he throws his mind always too far,
Whisking out flocks of comets, but never a star;
He has so much muscle, and loves so to show it,
That he strips himself naked to prove he’s a poet,
And, to show he could leap Art’s wide ditch, if he tried,
Jumps clean o’er it, and into the hedge t’other side.
He has strength, but there’s nothing about him in keeping;
One gets surelier onward by walking than leaping; 990
He has used his own sinews himself to distress,
And had done vastly more had he done vastly less;
In letters, too soon is as bad as too late;
Could he only have waited he might have been great;
But he plumped into Helicon up to the waist,
And muddied the stream ere he took his first taste.

‘There is Hawthorne, with genius so shrinking and rare
That you hardly at first see the strength that is there;
A frame so robust, with a nature so sweet,
So earnest, so graceful, so lithe and so fleet, 1000
Is worth a descent from Olympus to meet;
’Tis as if a rough oak that for ages had stood,
With his gnarled bony branches like ribs of the wood,
Should bloom, after cycles of struggle and scathe,
With a single anemone trembly and rathe;
His strength is so tender, his wildness so meek,
That a suitable parallel sets one to seek,—
He’s a John Bunyan Fouque, a Puritan Tieck;
When Nature was shaping him, clay was not granted
For making so full-sized a man as she wanted, 1010
So, to fill out her model, a little she spared
From some finer-grained stuff for a woman prepared,
And she could not have hit a more excellent plan
For making him fully and perfectly man.
The success of her scheme gave her so much delight,
That she tried it again, shortly after, in Dwight;
Only, while she was kneading and shaping the clay,
She sang to her work in her sweet childish way,
And found, when she’d put the last touch to his soul,
That the music had somehow got mixed with the whole. 1020

‘Here’s Cooper, who’s written six volumes to show
He’s as good as a lord: well, let’s grant that he’s so;
If a person prefer that description of praise,
Why, a coronet’s certainly cheaper than bays;
But he need take no pains to convince us he’s not
(As his enemies say) the American Scott.
Choose any twelve men, and let C. read aloud
That one of his novels of which he’s most proud,
And I’d lay any bet that, without ever quitting
Their box, they’d be all, to a man, for acquitting. 1030
He has drawn you one character, though, that is new,
One wildflower he’s plucked that is wet with the dew
Of this fresh Western world, and, the thing not to mince,
He has done naught but copy it ill ever since;
His Indians, with proper respect be it said,
Are just Natty Bumppo, daubed over with red,
And his very Long Toms are the same useful Nat,
Rigged up in duck pants and a sou’wester hat
(Though once in a Coffin, a good chance was found
To have slipped the old fellow away underground). 1040
All his other men-figures are clothes upon sticks,
The dernière chemise of a man in a fix
(As a captain besieged, when his garrison’s small,
Sets up caps upon poles to be seen o’er the wall);
And the women he draws from one model don’t vary.
All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.
When a character’s wanted, he goes to the task
As a cooper would do in composing a cask;
He picks out the staves, of their qualities heedful,
Just hoops them together as tight as is needful, 1050
And, if the best fortune should crown the attempt, he
Has made at the most something wooden and empty.

‘Don’t suppose I would underrate Cooper’s abilities;
If I thought you’d do that, I should feel very ill at ease;
The men who have given to one character life
And objective existence are not very rife;
You may number them all, both prose-writers and singers,
Without overrunning the bounds of your fingers,
And Natty won’t go to oblivion quicker
Than Adams the parson or Primrose the vicar. 1060

‘There is one thing in Cooper I like, too, and that is
That on manners he lectures his countrymen gratis;
Not precisely so either, because, for a rarity,
He is paid for his tickets in unpopularity.
Now he may overcharge his American pictures,
But you’ll grant there’s a good deal of truth in his strictures;
And I honor the man who is willing to sink
Half his present repute for the freedom to think,
And, when he has thought, be his cause strong or weak,
Will risk t’other half for the freedom to speak, 1070
Caring naught for what vengeance the mob has in store,
Let that mob be the upper ten thousand or lower.

‘There are truths you Americans need to be told,
And it never’ll refute them to swagger and scold;
John Bull, looking o’er the Atlantic, in choler
At your aptness for trade, says you worship the dollar;
But to scorn such eye-dollar-try’s what very few do,
And John goes to that church as often as you do,
No matter what John says, don’t try to outcrow him,
‘Tis enough to go quietly on and outgrow him; 1080
Like most fathers, Bull hates to see Number One
Displacing himself in the mind of his son,
And detests the same faults in himself he’d neglected
When he sees them again in his child’s glass reflected;
To love one another you’re too like by half;
If he is a bull, you’re a pretty stout calf,
And tear your own pasture for naught but to show
What a nice pair of horns you’re beginning to grow.

‘There are one or two things I should just like to hint,
For you don’t often get the truth told you in print; 1090
The most of you (this is what strikes all beholders)
Have a mental and physical stoop in the shoulders;
Though you ought to be free as the winds and the waves,
You’ve the gait and the manners of runaway slaves;
Though you brag of your New World, you don’t half believe in it;
And as much of the Old as is possible weave in it;
Your goddess of freedom, a tight, buxom girl,
With lips like a cherry and teeth like a pearl,
With eyes bold as Herë’s, and hair floating free,
And full of the sun as the spray of the sea, 1100
Who can sing at a husking or romp at a shearing,
Who can trip through the forests alone without fearing,
Who can drive home the cows with a song through the grass,
Keeps glancing aside into Europe’s cracked glass.
Hides her red hands in gloves, pinches up her lithe waist,
And makes herself wretched with transmarine taste;
She loses her fresh country charm when she takes
Any mirror except her own rivers and lakes.

‘You steal Englishmen’s books and think Englishmen’s thought,
With their salt on her tail your wild eagle is caught; 1110
Your literature suits its each whisper and motion
To what will be thought of it over the ocean;
The cast clothes of Europe your statesmanship tries
And mumbles again the old blarneys and lies;—
Forget Europe wholly, your veins throb with blood,
To which the dull current in hers is but mud:
Let her sneer, let her say your experiment fails,
In her voice there’s a tremble e’en now while she rails,
And your shore will soon be in the nature of things
Covered thick with gilt drift-wood of castaway kings, 1120
Where alone, as it were in a Longfellow’s Waif,
Her fugitive pieces will find themselves safe.
O my friends, thank your god, if you have one, that he
‘Twixt the Old World and you set the gulf of a sea;
Be strong-backed, brown-handed, upright as your pines,
By the scale of a hemisphere shape your designs,
Be true to yourselves and this new nineteenth age,
As a statue by Powers, or a picture by Page,
Plough, sail, forge, build, carve, paint, make all over new,
To your own New-World instincts contrive to be true, 1130
Keep your ears open wide to the Future’s first call,
Be whatever you will, but yourselves first of all,
Stand fronting the dawn on Toil’s heaven-scaling peaks,
And become my new race of more practical Greeks.—
Hem! your likeness at present, I shudder to tell o’t,
Is that you have your slaves, and the Greek had his helot.’

Here a gentleman present, who had in his attic
More pepper than brains, shrieked, ‘The man’s a fanatic,
I’m a capital tailor with warm tar and feathers,
And will make him a suit that’ll serve in all weathers; 1140
But we’ll argue the point first, I’m willing to reason ‘t,
Palaver before condemnation’s but decent:
So, through my humble person, Humanity begs
Of the friends of true freedom a loan of bad eggs.’
But Apollo let one such a look of his show forth
As when [Greek: aeie nukti eoikios], and so forth,
And the gentleman somehow slunk out of the way,
But, as he was going, gained courage to say,—
‘At slavery in the abstract my whole soul rebels,
I am as strongly opposed to ‘t as any one else.’ 1150
‘Ay, no doubt, but whenever I’ve happened to meet
With a wrong or a crime, it is always concrete,’
Answered Phoebus severely; then turning to us,
‘The mistake of such fellows as just made the fuss
Is only in taking a great busy nation
For a part of their pitiful cotton-plantation.—
But there comes Miranda, Zeus! where shall I flee to?
She has such a penchant for bothering me too!
She always keeps asking if I don’t observe a
Particular likeness ‘twixt her and Minerva; 1160
She tells me my efforts in verse are quite clever;—
She’s been travelling now, and will be worse than ever;
One would think, though, a sharp-sighted noter she’d be
Of all that’s worth mentioning over the sea,
For a woman must surely see well, if she try,
The whole of whose being’s a capital I:
She will take an old notion, and make it her own,
By saying it o’er in her Sibylline tone,
Or persuade you ’tis something tremendously deep,
By repeating it so as to put you to sleep; 1170
And she well may defy any mortal to see through it,
When once she has mixed up her infinite me through it.
There is one thing she owns in her own single right,
It is native and genuine—namely, her spite;
Though, when acting as censor, she privately blows
A censer of vanity ‘neath her own nose.’

Here Miranda came up, and said, ‘Phoebus! you know
That the Infinite Soul has its infinite woe,
As I ought to know, having lived cheek by jowl,
Since the day I was born, with the Infinite Soul; 1180
I myself introduced, I myself, I alone,
To my Land’s better life authors solely my own,
Who the sad heart of earth on their shoulders have taken,
Whose works sound a depth by Life’s quiet unshaken,
Such as Shakespeare, for instance, the Bible, and Bacon,
Not to mention my own works; Time’s nadir is fleet,
And, as for myself, I’m quite out of conceit’—

‘Quite out of conceit! I’m enchanted to hear it,’
Cried Apollo aside. ‘Who’d have thought she was near it?
To be sure, one is apt to exhaust those commodities 1190
One uses too fast, yet in this case as odd it is
As if Neptune should say to his turbots and whitings,
“I’m as much out of salt as Miranda’s own writings”
(Which, as she in her own happy manner has said,
Sound a depth, for ’tis one of the functions of lead).
She often has asked me if I could not find
A place somewhere near me that suited her mind;
I know but a single one vacant, which she,
With her rare talent that way, would fit to a T.
And it would not imply any pause or cessation 1200
In the work she esteems her peculiar vocation,—
She may enter on duty to-day, if she chooses,
And remain Tiring-woman for life to the Muses.’

Miranda meanwhile has succeeded in driving
Up into a corner, in spite of their striving,
A small flock of terrified victims, and there,
With an I-turn-the-crank-of-the-Universe air
And a tone which, at least to my fancy, appears
Not so much to be entering as boxing your ears,
Is unfolding a tale (of herself, I surmise, 1210
For ’tis dotted as thick as a peacock’s with I’s),
Apropos of Miranda, I’ll rest on my oars
And drift through a trifling digression on bores,
For, though not wearing ear-rings in more majorum,
Our ears are kept bored just as if we still wore ’em.
There was one feudal custom worth keeping, at least,
Roasted bores made a part of each well-ordered feast,
And of all quiet pleasures the very ne plus
Was in hunting wild bores as the tame ones hunt us.
Archæologians, I know, who have personal fears 1220
Of this wise application of hounds and of spears,
Have tried to make out, with a zeal more than wonted,
‘Twas a kind of wild swine that our ancestors hunted;
But I’ll never believe that the age which has strewn
Europe o’er with cathedrals, and otherwise shown
That it knew what was what, could by chance not have known
(Spending, too, its chief time with its buff on, no doubt)
Which beast ‘twould improve the world most to thin out.
I divide bores myself, in the manner of rifles,
Into two great divisions, regardless of trifles:— 1230
There’s your smooth-bore and screw-bore, who do not much vary
In the weight of cold lead they respectively carry.
The smooth-bore is one in whose essence the mind
Not a corner nor cranny to cling by can find;
You feel as in nightmares sometimes, when you slip
Down a steep slated roof, where there’s nothing to grip;
You slide and you slide, the blank horror increases,—
You had rather by far be at once smashed to pieces;
You fancy a whirlpool below white and frothing,
And finally drop off and light upon—nothing. 1240
The screw-bore has twists in him, faint predilections
For going just wrong in the tritest directions;
When he’s wrong he is flat, when he’s right he can’t show it,
He’ll tell you what Snooks said about the new poet,[3]
Or how Fogrum was outraged by Tennyson’s Princess;
He has spent all his spare time and intellect since his
Birth in perusing, on each art and science,
Just the books in which no one puts any reliance,
And though nemo, we’re told, horis omnibus sapit,
The rule will not fit him, however you shape it, 1250
For he has a perennial foison of sappiness;
He has just enough force to spoil half your day’s happiness,
And to make him a sort of mosquito to be with,
But just not enough to dispute or agree with.

These sketches I made (not to be too explicit)
From two honest fellows who made me a visit,
And broke, like the tale of the Bear and the Fiddle,
My reflections on Halleck short off by the middle;
I sha’n’t now go into the subject more deeply,
For I notice that some of my readers look sleep’ly; 1260
I will barely remark that, ‘mongst civilized nations,
There’s none that displays more exemplary patience
Under all sorts of boring, at all sorts of hours,
From all sorts of desperate persons, than ours.
Not to speak of our papers, our State legislatures,
And other such trials for sensitive natures,
Just look for a moment at Congress,—appalled,
My fancy shrinks back from the phantom it called;
Why, there’s scarcely a member unworthy to frown
‘Neath what Fourier nicknames the Boreal crown; 1270
Only think what that infinite bore-pow’r could do
If applied with a utilitarian view;
Suppose, for example, we shipped it with care
To Sahara’s great desert and let it bore there;
If they held one short session and did nothing else,
They’d fill the whole waste with Artesian wells.
But ’tis time now with pen phonographic to follow
Through some more of his sketches our laughing Apollo:—

‘There comes Harry Franco, and, as he draws near,
You find that’s a smile which you took for a sneer; 1280
One half of him contradicts t’other; his wont
Is to say very sharp things and do very blunt;
His manner’s as hard as his feelings are tender,
And a sortie he’ll make when he means to surrender;
He’s in joke half the time when he seems to be sternest,
When he seems to be joking, be sure he’s in earnest;
He has common sense in a way that’s uncommon,
Hates humbug and cant, loves his friends like a woman,
Builds his dislikes of cards and his friendships of oak,
Loves a prejudice better than aught but a joke, 1290
Is half upright Quaker, half downright Come-outer,
Loves Freedom too well to go stark mad about her,
Quite artless himself, is a lover of Art,
Shuts you out of his secrets, and into his heart,
And though not a poet, yet all must admire
In his letters of Pinto his skill on the liar.

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