Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
Nathaniel Parker Willis (18061867)
NATHANIEL P. WILLIS is a native of Boston, and was graduated at Yale College in 1827, at the age of 20. In 1828 he published a volume entitled Sketches, consisting of pieces which had appeared in various publications, most of them written during his college life. He has since his graduation been editor of the Token and Legendary. These he has relinquished, and has recently established a work entitled The American Monthly Magazine, of which he is editor.
No American poet has obtained so much distinction at so early an age, as this writer. The edition of one thousand copies of his poems, published under the title of Sketches during the last year, was sold with a rapidity that has attended the sale of few poetical productions in this country. But success of this kind often arises from adventitious causes, and these may have contributed to give Mr Willis, in his literary career, an eclat which his productions alone would not have given him. If his youth and personal qualities have led the public to exaggerate his positive literary merits, the envious malice with which he has been assailed, by those who would be too much honored by resentment, has not done less to elevate a reputation they sought to depress.
In our opinion, Mr Willis is a writer of decided talent, and capable of realizing the anticipations of his admirers. His poetry displays great delicacy of perception, and refinement of feeling, with a command of language which enables him to clothe his thoughts in the sweetest and most graceful forms of expression. These are rich gifts, and are possessed in a sufficient degree to raise the author by the aid of study and effort, to the highest distinction. But he has hitherto exerted his powers in a manner, and on subjects, rather calculated to gratify a youthful than a mature taste. He has seldom lifted his aim above the circle of his own age and society, to the high mark of masculine intellect. Whenever he has done so, as in his Scripture Sketches and his Unwritten Philosophy, he has displayed a force of talent, adequate to the execution of any task which he may propose to himself, in the department of belles lettres writing.
We will not deny that an author is at liberty to select his readers from the various ranks in society. If he chooses to use his efforts to affect a particular class, and is content to receive such reputation or reward as they can offer, we may question his judgment, but cannot impugn his right. We will therefore, only suggest to Mr Willis, what indeed many others have need to consider, more than himself, that literary reputation of any considerable value or duration, can be conferred only by men. Reputation of the kind we speak of, exists in public opinion. Who form public opinion? Men, certainly, of sense and education. Whoever therefore wishes to obtain the power to control public opinion, or in other words, seeks to establish a lasting reputation, must address himself to such men. They will examine his merits and determine his character. There is no escape from this. Character, good or bad, established on any other basis, passes away like leaves on a stream; but once settled in the mind of intelligent men, it is soon communicated to others, and diffused over the community. If unfavorable, it is as a millstone about the neck of the possessor; if favorable, it is an instrument by which the laudable ends of ambition, and the pure purposes of philanthropy may be easily secured.
In the choice of subjects, and the manner of treating them, an author, therefore, of liberal ambition, should consider, not what may please or offend a particular circle of friends, or a few youthful associates, but what will move cultivated and ripened intellect. Let him in imagination, arraign every line he writes, before a tribunal of such minds, and let him sternly execute the sentence, which in such a view of his productions, he can honestly pronounce.
The subjoined extracts will satisfy every reader of taste and feeling, that the writer in question has no reason to shrink from this severe systemand that he is fully capable of sustaining himself under it.
We are induced to make these monitory remarks, from a conviction of the authors capabilities, and the interest with which we, in common with many of his countrymen, look to his literary career. He is brought forward at an unusually early period of life, into the arena of literary exertion; and as from our personal knowledge of his character, we are confident his talents will not be wasted by inaction, so we hope they may not fail of success through misdirection.