Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
John Neal (17931876)
JOHN NEAL is a native of Portland, Maine. He received a common school education, and was put apprentice to a shop keeper at twelve years of age. Behind the counter he continued till he was past twenty-one. During this time he gave no indications of possessing that ability, for which he has afterwards become in some degree remarkable. At about eighteen, he tried his hand at poetry, but could make nothing of it; and the only paragraph in prose, which he ever attempted during his minority, except letters and advertisements, was a political squib, which found its way into one of the eastern newspapers. He removed to Baltimore in 1815. At this time, his powers began to develop themselves; he studied law, wrote poetry, novels, criticisms, and history, and after practising for a short time at the bar, left this country for England, in 1823. During his absence, he contributed largely to several of the British periodicals. He returned in 1827, and has since that time lived in Portland. In January, 1828, he began The Yankee, a weekly journal, which he still conducts.
Mr Neal must be allowed to be among the most remarkable of our writers, whether of poetry or prose. He is gifted with an almost magical facility of literary composition. What to others is a work of careful study, and severe labor, is to him a pastime. His writings have in most cases been thrown off with a rapidity that almost surpasses belief. Seventy Six, his best novel, was the work of odd hours, and executed in less than a month. In other cases, he has rewritten a tale from ten to forty times, and in his own judgment, never failed to spoil it as a story, if he had leisure sufficient, or felt any anxiety for its success.
We here offer a catalogue of his various productions.
About 500 pages octavo, of prose and poetry chiefly however, criticism, published in The Portico, a monthly journal, conducted by Tobias Watkins, at Baltimore.
Keep Cool, a novel in two volumes.
The Battle of Niagara, a poem.
Goldau, a poem, with others.
Otho, a tragedy, (entirely re-written in The Yankee for 1828.)
Allens History of the American Revolution, beginning with the chapter upon the declaration of Independence, and continuing to the end of the volume.
Newspaper essays, and criticisms to the amount of three or four volumes, octavo, chiefly in the Baltimore Telegraph, and Allens Journal of the Times.
Logan, a novel in two large volumes, republished in England in four.
Randolph, a novel in two volumes.
Seventy Six, a novel in two volumes.
Errata, a novel in two volumes.
Brother Jonathan, a novel in three volumes, published in England.
Criticisms on literature, and the Fine Arts, reviews, essays, stories, biographical sketches, &c, altogether, about three good sized octavos, in the different periodicals of Great Britain, chiefly Blackwoods Magazine, the European and Monthly.
Yankee for 1828, contains from six to ten octavos of original matter by the editor.
His novels are the most striking of his works, and perhaps afford the fairest proofs of his talents, as well as of his peculiarities. They certainly baffle the powers of criticism. They are like nothing of the kind ever before seen, being alike remarkable for incoherence and wildness in plan, and for occasional passages of great splendor and eloquence.
The Battle of Niagara and Goldau, are his chief poems. There is not much of story in either. The narrative is altogether subordinate to the description, and has no precision or distinctness of outline. The narrative, however, is not what the author mainly relied upon for the interest of his poetry. His strength is laid out on the appendages of the tale, and the descriptive passages which his poems afford in abundance, are uncommonly bold and sometimes magnificent. They are high wrought, brilliant and striking, and the objects are surrounded with every possible association of rich and dazzling imagery. His fancy however, is apt to run riot, and his conceptions are often invested in such a cloudy assemblage of thoughts, that his pictures have a confused, vague, and dreamy character. He overloads them with an exuberance of metaphor and similitudes, in such a manner as to obscure, rather than illustrate them; we cannot see heaven for the very stars. His fervor and impetuosity take away the faculty of seeing with distinctness the objects before him, and he is therefore perpetually deviating from the straight-forwardness of his direction; he is blinded by the swiftness of his course, like a charioteer wrapt in a cloud of smoke from his own axletree. The faults indeed of his poetry, are the faults of the man, of his constitution. We have his own words upon this pointIt is no merit in me to compose rapidly. I claim no praise for it. I wish I could move more slowly, less capriciously; but I cannot. Had I a dozen hands, I could keep them all employed when I am writing poetry. I know such things only expose me to the reiterated charge of vanity, and perhaps folly; but I cannot help saying, that when fairly absorbed in the contemplation of a subject, my whole soul is in a tumult. I feel myself shut out from the world; a strange kindling comes over me, a kind of mental exhilaration, a drunkenness of heart that I cannot describe, scarcely wish to experience again; but hope I shall never lose the memory of.
Mr Neals poetry has not been so popular as that of many others who never possessed his power. The circumstance may be partly ascribed to the false taste in which his works are mostly composed, and partly to this, that it is addressed to the fancy, rather than the feeling; not that he wants poetical sensibility, or a delicate and refined conception of what is beautiful and tender and moving in the works of nature, or the emotions in the human bosom, for he has all these; and he has besides a passionate and overpowering sense of grandeur and sublimity. But his poetry is wanting in natural sentiment; it does not touch the heartit does not awaken our sensibilities, or stir up from their recesses the thoughts that lie too deep for words. If he is less read, however, than he might seem to deserve, he has been fully aware of the peculiar quality in his poetry, which has occasioned it. I know its faults, says he, they are innumerable and great. It has no calm, tranquil prettiness of character. It is no neutral, no hermaphroditesuch, as you cannot blame, t is true, but you may sleep over in reading. It is poetry, or it is the most outrageous nonsense; one or the other it must be. Poetry it is, doubtless, and with all its blemishes, poetry of a high rank. It is not, however, in a sufficiently close accordance with those models which will continue to direct public taste, to enjoy a great degree of favor. It is still true, in our opinion, that Neals finest passages have seldom been excelled.