Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
Richard H. Dana (17871879)
RICHARD H. DANA was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied at the college in that place. He has been a lawyer, and was for a time one of the editors of the North American Review. He lives at present in his native town.
Mr Danas poetry is of recent date, but his prose works have for some years made the public familiar with him, as a writer of the first order. His articles of criticism in the North American Review, may be classed with the ablest which have appeared in that journal. The Idle Man, a work which was issued in numbers in 1821 and 2, brought him still further into notice, and although from the peculiar character of this performance, it was not relished by a very extensive class of readers, we think the public will agree with us in pronouncing it the production of an eminently poetical mind. The qualities of this very original work offer a fruitful theme for speculation and comment, yet as it does not come formally within the limits which the nature of our undertaking has prescribed to us, we shall proceed to speak of the volume of poems which he published in 1827.
Of these The Buccaneer is the most striking, and in our opinion the best. There is a boldness in the outline of this poem, and a strength of conception in the incidents, which bespeak genius of no common stamp. The elements of the work are of a description to put to a rigorous test the powers of the writer. The feelings engendered in the darkest recesses of the human heart, and the workings of the stronger and sterner passions of our nature, demand great boldness in the mind that would explore their mysteries, and superior skill in the hand that would subdue them to the purposes of poetry. The spirits of the air come not at the bidding of common mortals; it is only the potent wand of the true enchanter which can summon them from their abodes and command them to do his pleasure. Mr Dana had approached this subject evidently with a correct appreciation of the daring nature of his attempt, and the execution of his task indicates a careful study of his materials. His subject is one, which in its main features, has been turned to frequent use in poetry, yet he has treated it in a manner peculiarly his own.
It may be objected to the poem, that it deals too deeply and too exclusively with guilt, remorse and despair, and that the darker shades of the human character, prevail too exclusively in the delineation of the hero. We shall not undertake to show that the author would have failed to produce so good a poem, by giving the tale a less tragical cast, and creating a degree of sympathy for the fate of the leader; but that he has not done this is an evidence of that independence of genius, which strikes into paths not open to ordinary adventurers. Another writer with the substance of this narrative in his hands would have thrown in the common allotment of redeeming qualities to make the character of the Buccaneer less odious. He would have been endowed with one virtue sufficiently prominent and striking to overshadow so many of his thousand crimes as to make him poetically endurable. Our author however felt a consciousness of his ability to finish his work on his own plan, and he has succeeded in the attempt. The picture which he has drawn is full of deep and abiding interest. The gloominess of a depraved heart, the growth and operation of those harassing emotions which sometimes prey within the human bosom, are pourtrayed in vivid colors and with strong effect.
The most striking defects of the poem relate more to the manner, than the matter. There is an abruptness in the progress of the narrative, which sometimes appears like a want of connexion in the incidents, as if the minor developements, here and there, yet remained to be supplied. The style is remarkable for its plainness and severity; it has no labored elevation or brilliancy, but is at the same time neat and expressive. The language is on the whole in good keeping with the subject. Its simplicity is well adapted to the representation of vehement passions, and is suited to the severe and naked grandeur of those feelings which it is the object of the narrative to depict. Notwithstanding the deficiency of ornament in the style, the descriptions are in a high degree striking and picturesque.
The Changes of Home, which is the only other piece of comparative importance in the volume, is a poem of great beauty, but it is less characteristic and original than The Buccaneer. It has still much of the authors peculiarity. In point of subject, it stands in a sort of antithesis to its companion. Instead of stepping into the midst of wrathful and terrific passion the author here aims at moving our sympathies by a picture of calm and tender sadness,by a delineation of those feelings of melancholy, which awaken in the heart when the recollection turns back upon the events of earlier days, and the objects of remembrance are clothed in the shadows of twilight. The subject is not of an ambitious nature, and is moreover, one which has been so common a theme for poetical contemplation that it might have been apprehended the ground was preoccupied, and the stock of thoughts which it affords, already appropriated, and displayed in every variety of combination and coloring which they would bear. In the present case, however, the powers of the author have sustained him against these disadvantages, and he has accordingly produced a work remarkable for freshness and originality. His skill in the expression of strong and lively feeling, has found ample scope for exercise; and the pictures he has drawn of the finer sensibilities of our nature, come home to the bosom in a stirring tone, and with impressive power. The poem has throughout, a strain of touching pathos, and is executed in its details with great softness of coloring.
After what we have said of Mr Danas poetry, we need hardly add that he ranks very high in our estimation. He has more distinct, peculiar character, than most, perhaps any other, of our poets. What he has already done, may be said to have effected much towards giving an independence to the literature of the country. We think a pen like his, should not be idle.