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the epic was still less in accordance with the spirit of the times and the manners of the people. These, like history, must represent the true character of man, as it existed in past ages, and historical writings cannot be produced without historical events for subjects. In the infancy of nations there is no past for the contemplation of the historian, unless he shall look for it beyond the limits of his own country; and the ripeness of a literature being in a great measure proportioned to its age, this but rarely happens.
But the lyric being that species of verse which is distinguished by predominance of feeling, and by which the poet directly expresses the emotions of his heart, it is natural that this should be the character of his first compositions. Accordingly, we find that the ode was the earliest species of poetry ever adopted. So far back as the days of King David, it was the medium of thanksgiving to the Almighty for his benefactions to man, and was also employed to offer up petitions for aid, in times of trouble and distress. Many of these odes were composed by David himself, and were collected by the Jewish sanhedrim in the book of Psalms.
A chief reason, however, which influences the early poet in the selection of the lyric style, is the unlimited freedom which it possesses ; for the lyric writer, inspired with the beauty and fascination of his subject, and borne away by the force of excitement, may neglect grammatical niceties, and ordinary methods of expression, and disdain the strictness of rule, though, he cannot disregard the dictates of reason.
But few attempts have been made by our poets at epic composition, and the only efforts of any importance as to length, of which we have a knowledge, are the productions of Barlow and Emmons. As it does not come properly within our province to discuss their characters, we will merely remark, en passant, that the COLUMBIAD—when we consider the nature of the subject, and that its publication followed so closely the times of which it treats-is a respectable composition. The FREDONIAD, a palpable and decided failure.
The poetry of the United States, being yet in its infancy, is principally, therefore, of the lyric style. Of the song, a species of lyrical composition which is often set to music, great numbers exist of purely American origin, the best of which, we venture to assert, may challenge a comparison with some of the celebrated productions of the English lyre. The great latitude of subject which the song admits, and the comparative freedom from that restraint which binds the poet in epic or dramatic writing, may make it appear, at first sight, an easy species of composition; and the error is not unnatural. But in the words of Buckingham,
“Though nothing seems more easy, yet no part
Of poetry requires a nicer art.”
For the verses should be natural, graceful, and harmoniousthe sweetness of poetry and music should be skilfully combined-grossness and vulgarity studiously avoided, and the feeling of the poet expressed in language of purity and virtue. The feeling represented should itself be poetical—the imagery which accompanies it, beautiful-and the expression, refined and eloquent. To combine all the qualities which are necessary to constitute a lyric poem of the first merit, requires genius of no common order; and though its exhibition is of rare occurrence-wonderfully so, when we consider the immense number of lyrical writings that are constantly showered upon the world—we trust we shall be able to show, before we have concluded, that American poets have appeared, although few in number, who may justly claim a share of the divine attribute.
We were speaking of the simple habits of our ancestors, and the consequent character of their attempts at poetical composition, when we were led into a short digression by some reflections upon the nature of lyric poetry. By glancing at these early productions, and comparing them with those of the present day, we may observe the great revolution which has taken place in our poetical literature.
According to Mr. Kettell, the first essay of the kind on this side of the Atlantic, was a description of New England, in Latin hexameter; the author was a clergyman-by name, William Morell. This poem has been preserved in the Memoirs of the Historical Society of Massachusetts, in which colony it was written, in the year 1623. The first poetical production in the English language, however, was a version of the Psalms of David, published in 1640; and the book in which it was contained was the first ever printed in the United States. The metrical translation which had previously been used was not considered sufficiently faithful to the original; it was, therefore, deemed expedient to prepare a more literal version, and the most eminent divines of the country were employed upon the work. It seems to have been the object of the translators to adhere as closely to the Hebrew original as the nature of their task would admit; and the reader will perceive, from the following specimen of their labours, that they neither failed in their endeavours to give a faithful paraphrase, nor in their adherence to the laws of metre. How much of the royal psalmist's poetic fire they may have caught, will admit of more question.
PSALM CXXXVII. “1. The rivers on of Babilon,
there when wee did sit downe,
wee remembered Sion.
upon the willowe tree,
led in captivitee
ask’t mirth us waste who laid,
unto us then they said:
in strangers land, then let
if minde thee doe not I,
Jerusalem my joy.
unto the ground said they,
Jerusalem her day.
daughter of Babilon,
rewarded us upon.
that taketh up, that eke
The reverend translators of the Psalms seemed to have been themselves aware of the hirsuteness of their productions, as the preface to their publication indicated; for, said they, “if the verses are not alwaies so smoothe and elegant as some may desire and expect, let them consider that God's altar needs not our polishing," &c.
The original psalm, of which the foregoing is a version, is full of divine feeling, and in the hands of a true poet, whose inspirations are not fettered to the drudgery of a literal translation, it is susceptible of a perfect paraphrase. The tone of beauty and melancholy, which so eminently characterises the original, may be infused into every line of the English version;
VOL. XVII.-NO. 37.
and, so far from this freedom of translation detracting from the sacred character of the subject, it would rather be a protection from the profane ridicule of the frivolous and unthinking.
A word here on the subject of translations. Many of our youthful aspirants for the honours of Parnassus, begin their career by poetical versions from Latin authors; and most of them seem to think that a rigid adherence to their original is necessary to preserve the resemblance between it and the translation. This is a great error. Before a translation can be produced, which may lay claim to the smallest merit as an imitation, it will be necessary closely to investigate the relations which exist between the two languages. When Latin is rendered into English, it does not follow that a word should be adopted which corresponds literally in signification with the original; but the meaning that the Latin authors intended to convey must first be considered, and then the words, which will carry the same meaning in the English language, should be used in the translation. The ideas of the original author should be translated as well as the words, even in prose; and in a poetical version, the translator should endeavour to imitate, as well as to render. Thus, for example, take a line from Horace,
“Creditur, ex medio quia res arcessit, habere
Sudoris minimum”which is translated (we believe by Addison) as follows,
“To write on vulgar themes is thought an easy task”— In this way the sense of the author is duly respected, and his refinement preserved inviolate-whereas a literal translation of the line would be the extreme of coarseness and vulgarity. We proceed, in further proof of our position, to the quotation of another version of the 137th psalm. It is by Halleck. The reader may make his own comparison.
“We sat us down and wept,
Where Babel's waters slept,
We hung our harps in air,
On the willow boughs which there,
• The foes, whose chain we wore,
Were with us on that shore, Exulting in our tears that told the bitterness of wo.
'Sing us,' they cried aloud,
'Ye, once so high and proud, The songs ye sang in Zion ere we laid her glory low.'
66 And shall the harp of heaven,
• To Judah's monarch given, Be touched by captive fingers, or grace a fettered hand?
No! sooner be my tongue
Mute, powerless, and unstrung,
“May this right hand, whose skill
Can wake the harp at will,
Forget its godlike power,
If for one brief, dark hour,
" Daughter of Babylon !
Blest be that chosen one,
He from the mother's breast
Shall pluck the babe at rest,
Before we remark at large upon the works, whose titles are placed at the head of this article, we will take occasion to mention a few of the poets of this country, who are most distinguished in lyrical composition.
We regard James G. Percival as one of the few poets in the world, who, standing in the first rank of a bad school of poetry, has succeeded in imparting an universal fascination to many of his compositions. It does appear to us that he who adopts the style of the Lakists as his model, is generally devoid of the true spirit of poetry. He seeks by metaphysical abstractions, and depth of learning, to compensate for the absence of a poetical imagination. He drags forth hidden resemblances, and combines forced associations, which, in nine instances out of ten, will be found dissimilar to each other; and his writings are shrouded in a veil of mystery, which the reader may seek in vain to penetrate.
These, in our opinion, are the distinguishing characteristics of the Lake poets, and if Percival may claim some exemption from the general attributes of his class, it is because he possesses a natural genius, that, despite of himself, shines through the mist with which he envelops it. A rich poetical imagination, coupled with the faculty of abstract reflection and reasoning, may sometimes succeed in giving interest to a bad species of composition, or an ill chosen subject; but a combination of these two faculties of the mind is so rare a circumstance, that the world of letters has almost ceased to look for it. The productions of even such a writer are often unintelligible to an ordinary mind; and there are hundreds of passages in the works of Shelley, take, for instance, the “Revolt of Islam,” which we defy the most profound metaphysician in the universe to elucidate.
The poetry of Percival bears evident marks of hasty composition. It seems to have been sent to the press, precisely as it