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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Fitz-Greene Halleck
By Bayard Taylor (1825–1878)
 
Address at the dedication of the Halleck Monument at Guilford, Connecticut, July 8th, 1869. From ‘Critical Essays and Literary Notes.’

WE have been eighty years an organized nation, ninety-three years an independent people, more than two hundred years an American race; and to-day, for the first time in our history, we meet to dedicate publicly, with appropriate honors, a monument to an American poet. The occasion is thus lifted above the circle of personal memories which inspired it, and takes its place as the beginning of a new epoch in the story of our culture. It carries our thoughts back of the commencement of this individual life, into the elements from which our literature grew; and forward, far beyond the closing of the tomb before us, into the possible growth and glory of the future.  1
  The rhythmical expression of emotion, or passion, or thought, is a need of the human race coeval with speech, universal as religion, the prophetic forerunner as well as the last-begotten offspring of civilization. Poetry belongs equally to the impressible childhood of a people and to the refined ease of their maturity. It is both the instinctive effort of nature and the loftiest ideal of art; receding to farther and farther spheres of spiritual beauty as men rise to the capacity for its enjoyment. But our race was transferred, half-grown, from the songs of its early ages and the inspiring associations of its past, and set here face to face with stern tasks which left no space for the lighter play of the mind. The early generations of English bards gradually become foreign to us; for their songs, however sweet, were not those of our home. We profess to claim an equal share in Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare, but it is a hollow pretense. They belong to our language, but we cannot truly feel that they belong to us as a people. The destiny that placed us on this soil robbed us of the magic of tradition, the wealth of romance, the suggestions of history, the sentiment of inherited homes and customs, and left us, shorn of our lisping childhood, to create a poetic literature for ourselves.  2
  It is not singular, therefore, that this continent should have waited long for its first-born poet. The intellect, the energy of character, the moral force,—even the occasional taste and refinement,—which were shipped hither from the older shores, found the hard work of history already portioned out for them; and the Muses discovered no nook of guarded leisure, no haunt of sweet contemplation, which might tempt them to settle among us. Labor may be prayer, but it is not poetry. Liberty of conscience and worship, practical democracy, the union of civil order and personal independence, are ideas which may warm the hearts and brains of men; but the soil in which they strike root is too full of fresh, unsoftened forces to produce the delicate wine of song. The highest product of ripened intellect cannot be expected in the nonage of a nation. The poetry of our colonial and revolutionary periods is mostly a spiritless imitation of inferior models in the parent country. If here and there some timid, uncertain voice seems to guess the true language, we only hear it once or twice; like those colonized nightingales which for one brief summer gave their new song to the Virginian moonlights, and then disappeared. These early fragments of our poetry are chanted in the midst of such profound silence and loneliness that they sound spectrally to our ears. Philip Freneau is almost as much a shade to us as are his own hunter and deer.  3
  In the same year in which the Constitution of the United States was completed and adopted, the first poet was born,—Richard Henry Dana. Less than three years after him Fitz-Greene Halleck came into the world,—the lyrical genius following the grave and contemplative Muse of his elder brother. In Halleck, therefore, we mourn our first loss out of the first generation of American bards; and a deeper significance is thus given to the personal honors which we lovingly pay to his memory. Let us be glad, not only that these honors have been so nobly deserved, but also that we find in him a fitting representative of his age! Let us forget our sorrow for the true man, the steadfast friend, and rejoice that the earliest child of song whom we return to the soil that bore him for us, was the brave, bright, and beautiful growth of a healthy, masculine race! No morbid impatience with the restrictions of life, no fruitless lament over an unattainable ideal, no inherited gloom of temperament, such as finds delight in what it chooses to call despair, ever muffled the clear notes of his verse, or touched the sunny cheerfulness of his history. The cries and protests, the utterances of “world-pain,” with which so many of his contemporaries in Europe filled the world, awoke no echo in his sound and sturdy nature. His life offers no enigmas for our solution. No romantic mystery floats around his name, to win for him the interest of a shallow sentimentalism. Clear, frank, simple, and consistent, his song and his life were woven into one smooth and even thread. We would willingly pardon in him some expression of dissatisfaction with a worldly fate which in certain respects seemed inadequate to his genius; but we find that he never uttered it. The basis of his nature was a knightly bravery, of such firm and enduring temper that it kept from him even the ordinary sensitiveness of the poetic character. From the time of his studies as a boy, in the propitious kitchen which heard his first callow numbers, to the last days of a life which had seen no liberal popular recognition of his deserts, he accepted his fortune with the perfect dignity of a man who cannot stoop to discontent. During his later visits to New York, the simplest, the most unobtrusive, yet the cheerfulest man to be seen among the throngs of Broadway, was Fitz-Greene Halleck. Yet with all his simplicity, his bearing was strikingly gallant and fearless; the carriage of his head suggested the wearing of a helmet. The genial frankness and grace of his manner in his intercourse with men has suggested to others the epithet “courtly”; but I prefer to call it manly, as the expression of a rarer and finer quality than is usually found in the atmosphere of courts.  4
  Halleck was loyal to himself as a man, and he was also loyal to his art as a poet. His genius was essentially lyrical, and he seems to have felt instinctively its natural limitations. He quietly and gratefully accepted the fame which followed his best productions, but he never courted public applause. Even the swift popularity of the Croaker series could not seduce him to take advantage of the tide, which then promised a speedy flood. At periods in his history when anything from his pen would have been welcomed by a class of readers whose growing taste found so little sustenance at home, he remained silent because he felt no immediate personal necessity of poetic utterance. The German poet Uhland said to me: “I cannot now say whether I shall write any more, because I only write when I feel the positive need; and this is independent of my will, or the wish of others.” Such was also the law of Halleck’s mind, and of the mind of every poet who reveres his divine gift. God cannot accept a mechanical prayer; and I do not compare sacred things with profane when I say that a poem cannot be accepted which does not compel its own inspired utterance. He is the true priest of the human heart and the human soul who rhythmically expresses the emotions and the aspirations of his own.  5
  It has been said of Halleck as of Campbell, that “he was afraid of the shadow which his own fame cast before him.” I protest against the use of a clever epigrammatic sentence to misinterpret the poetic nature to men. The inference is that poets write merely for that popular recognition which is called fame; and having attained a certain degree, fear to lose it by later productions which may not prove so acceptable. A writer influenced by such a consideration never deserved the name of poet. It is an unworthy estimate of his character which thus explains the honest and honorable silence of Fitz-Greene Halleck. The quality of genius is not to be measured by its productive activity. The brain which gave us ‘Alnwick Castle,’ ‘Marco Bozzaris,’ ‘Burns,’ and ‘Red Jacket,’ was not exhausted; it was certainly capable of other and equally admirable achievements: but the fortunate visits of the Muse are not to be compelled by the poet’s will; and Halleck endured her absence without complaint, as he had enjoyed her favors without ostentation. The very fact that he wrote so little, proclaims the sincerity of his genius, and harmonizes with the entire character of his life. It was enough for him that he first let loose the Theban eagle in our songless American air. He was glad and satisfied to know that his lyrics have entered into and become a part of the national life; that
  Sweet tears dim the eyes unshed,
And wild vows falter on the tongue,”
when his lines, keen and flexible as fire, burn in the ears of the young who shall hereafter sing, and fight, and labor, and love, for “God and their native land!”
  6
  It is not necessary that we should attempt to determine his relative place among American poets. It is sufficient that he has his assured place, and that his name is a permanent part of our literary history. It is sufficient that he deserves every honor which we can render to his memory, not only as one of the very first representatives of American song, but from his intrinsic quality as a poet. Let us rather be thankful for every star set in our heaven, than seek to ascertain how they differ from one another in glory. If any critic would diminish the loving enthusiasm of those whose lives have been brightened by the poet’s personal sunshine, let him remember that the sternest criticism will set the lyrics of Halleck higher than their author’s unambitious estimate. They will in time fix their own just place in our poetic annals. Halleck is still too near our orbit for the computation of an exact parallax; but we may safely leave his measure of fame to the decision of impartial Time. A poem which bears within itself its own right to existence, will not die. Its rhythm is freshly fed from the eternal pulses of beauty, whence flows the sweetest life of the human race. Age cannot quench its original fire, or repetition make dull its immortal music. It forever haunts that purer atmosphere which overlies the dust and smoke of our petty cares and our material interests—often indeed calling to us like a distant clarion, to keep awake the senses of intellectual delight which would else perish from our lives. The poetic literature of a land is the finer and purer ether above its material growth and the vicissitudes of its history. Where it was vacant and barren for us, except perchance a feeble lark-note here and there, Dana, Halleck, and Bryant rose together on steadier wings, and gave voices to the solitude: Dana with a broad, grave undertone, like that of the sea; Bryant with a sound as of the wind in summer woods, and the fall of waters in mountain dells; and Halleck with strains blown from a silver trumpet, breathing manly fire and courage. Many voices have followed them; the ether rings with new melodies, and yet others come to lure all the aspirations of our hearts, and echo all the yearnings of our separated destiny: but we shall not forget the forerunners who rose in advance of their welcome, and created their own audience by their songs.  7
  Thus it is that in dedicating a monument to Fitz-Greene Halleck to-day, we symbolize the intellectual growth of the American people. They have at last taken that departure which represents the higher development of a nation,—the capacity to value the genius which cannot work with material instruments; which is unmoved by Atlantic Cables, Pacific Railroads, and any show of marvelous statistical tables; which grandly dispenses with the popular measures of success; which simply expresses itself, without consciously working for the delight of others; yet which, once recognized, stands thenceforth as a part of the glory of the whole people. It is a token that we have relaxed the rough work of two and a half centuries, and are beginning to enjoy that rest and leisure out of which the grace and beauty of civilization grow. The pillars of our political fabric have been slowly and massively raised, like the drums of Doric columns; but they still need the crowning capitals and the sculptured entablature. Law, and Right, and Physical Development build well, but they are cold, mathematical architects: the Poet and the Artist make beautiful the temple. Our natural tendency, as a people, is to worship positive material achievement in whatever form it is displayed; even the poet must be a partisan before the government will recognize his existence. So much of our intellectual energy has been led into the new paths which our national growth has opened, so exacting are the demands upon working brains, that taste and refinement of mind, and warm appreciation of the creative spirit of beauty, are only beginning to bloom here and there among us, like tender exotic flowers. “The light that never was on sea or land” shines all around us, but few are the eyes whose vision it clarifies. Yet the faculty is here, and the earnest need. The delight in art, of which poetry is the highest manifestation, has ceased to be the privilege of a fortunate few, and will soon become, let us hope, the common heritage of the people. If any true song has heretofore been sung to unheeding ears, let us behold, in this dedication, the sign that our reproach is taken away,—that henceforth every new melody of the land shall spread in still expanding vibrations, until all shall learn to listen!  8
  The life of the poet who sleeps here represents the long period of transition between the appearance of American poetry and the creation of an appreciative and sympathetic audience for it. We must honor him all the more that in the beginning he was content with the few who heard him; that the agitations of national life through which he passed could not ruffle the clear flow of his song; and that, with a serene equanimity of temper which is the rarest American virtue, he saw, during his whole life, wealth and personal distinction constantly passing into less deserving hands, without temptation and without envy. All popular superstitions concerning the misanthropy or the irritable temper of genius were disproved in him: I have never known a man so independent of the moods and passions of his generation. We cannot regret that he should have been chosen to assist in the hard pioneer work of our literature, because he seemed to be so unconscious of its privations. Yet he and his co-mates have walked a rough, and for the most part a lonely track, leaving a smoother way broken for their followers. They have blazed their trails through the wilderness, and carved their sounding names on the silent mountain peaks; teaching the scenery of our homes a language, and giving it a rarer and tenderer charm than even the atmosphere of great historic deeds. Fitz-Greene Halleck has set his seal upon the gray rock of Connecticut, on the heights of Weehawken, on the fair valley of Wyoming, and the Field of the Grounded Arms. He has done his manly share in forcing this half-subdued nature in which we live, to accept a human harmony, and cover its soulless beauty with the mantle of his verse.  9
  However our field of poetic literature may bloom, whatever products of riper culture may rise to overshadow its present growths, the memory of Halleck is perennially rooted at its entrance. Recognizing the purity of his genius, the nobility of his character, we gratefully and affectionately dedicate to him this monument. There is no cypress in the wreath which we lay upon his grave. We do not meet to chant a dirge over unfulfilled promises or an insufficient destiny. We have no willful defiance of the world to excuse, no sensitive protest to justify. Our hymn of consecration is cheerful, though solemn. Looking forward from this hallowed ground, we can only behold a future for our poetry, sunnier than its past. We see the love of beauty born from the servitude to use; the recognition of an immortal ideal element gradually evolved from the strength of natures which have conquered material forces; the growth of all fine and gracious attributes of imagination and fancy, to warm and sweeten and expand the stately coldness of intellect. We dream of days when the highest and deepest utterances of rhythmical thought shall be met with grateful welcome, not with dull amazement or mean suspicion. We wait for voices which shall no more say to the poet, “Stay here, at the level of our delight in you!”—but which shall say to him, “Higher, still higher! though we may not reach you, yet in following we shall rise!” And as our last prophetic hope, we look for that fortunate age when the circle of sympathy, now so limited, shall be coextensive with the nation, and when, even as the poet loves his land, his land shall love her poet!  10
 
 
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