MR. PIAIT'S POEMS.* THIS volume is one among not a
few recent proofs that America is acquiring a poetical literature that is distinctly her own. It is, we should say, to the development of the genius of second and third-class poets that the peculiar characteristics of national life are most essential. A poet of the first order may make anything human or divine his own, as a Milton may sing of the wars in heaven, or a Shakespeare find subjects in every age and every country. But such poets arise but once or twice in the history of any nation ; some nations never produce them at all. And when they come, they seem to stand by themselves, and to belong to the
whole world, rather than to one country. It is by the rarity or the abundanceof writers of an inferior order that the value and extent of the poetical genius of a nation must be estimated. In the pro- duction of theses. vast advantage must belong to an old country in which culture is widely spread and becomes hereditary through the abundance of accumulated and stationary wealth. But in this sense America is becoming very quickly old; the vastness and rapidity of its material and intellectual development are producing in generations or, we may almost say, in decades the results which it has required centuries in Europe to bring about. Hitherto, for the most part, it has been content to import its literature, and in a still greater measure the subjects of its literature, from England. It could hardly have been otherwise. A busy country where leisure and culture were comparatively rare, or where, at all events, they were seldom found in conjunction, having at hand the endless resources of a great literature written in its own language, would naturally find it easier and, we may add, cheaper to import than to pro- duce. Contrary influences have not, of course, been wanting. The older generation of American poets has shown a disposition to seek subjects more and more from local and national sources. This die- position has received an immense development from the events of the last few years. A great war, fought for a quarrel which every man could understand, fought by the people themselves, and not by mercenaries, and so bringing out an amount of personal devotion which can scarcely be paralleled in history, has produced, among other results, an extraordinary quickening of poetical genius. In fact, it has given a great subject, and if great poets make their subjects, lesser poets are often made by them. Some of the most beautiful poetry in our language, far beyond, we are inclined, to think, anything that has yet come from the other aide of the Atlantic, may be found written on war subjects in Mr. James Russell Lowell's last volume. This inspiration has even been powerful enough to put something like a human sound into the egotistic affirmations of Mr. Walt Whitman. And to the volume before us it manifestly gives much of whatever value it has. We quote in illustration of our remarks a poem—" The Mower in Ohio "—which strikes us as being full of genuine power. It has, indeed, many roughnesses and even weaknesses of execution. If we may venture on a bold simile, it is like a Western clearing, • Western Windows, and other Poems. By John James Plan. New York: Hurd and Houghton. London: Sampson Low and Co. 1859.
where the soil is fertile and the crop luxuriant, but where we may come here and there across a stump that has never been rooted up. Generally, these faults may be summed up by saying that the writer does not show a thorough mastery of the difficulties of rhyme. The faults come almost invariably, as the reader will observe, in the second line of the stanza. The weakness needs only time and patience for its cure :—
" The bees in the clover are making honey, and I am making my hay : The air is fresh, I seem to draw a young man's breath to-day.
The bees and I are alone in the grass : the air is so very still, I hear the dam, so loud, that shines beyond the sullen mill.
Yes, the air is so still that I hear almost the sounds I can not hear— That, when no other sound is plain, ring in my empty ear:
The chime of striking scythe; the fall of the heavy swathes they sweep—
They ring about me, resting, when I waver half asleep ; So still I am not sure if a cloud, low down, unseen there be, (Jr if something brings a rumour home of the cannon so far from me : Far away in Virginia where Joseph and Grant, I know, Will tell them what I meant when first I bade my mowers go !
Joseph he is my eldest one, the only boy of my three
Whose shadow can darken my door again, and lighten my heart for me.
Joseph he is my eldest, how his scythe was striking ahead ! William was better at short heats, but Jo in the long-run led.
William he was my youngest ; John, between them, I somehow see, When my eyes are shut, with a little board at his head in Tennessee.
But William came home one morning early, from Gettysburg, last July (The mowing was over already, although the only mower was I): William, my captain, came home for good to his mother ; and I'll be bound We were proud, and cried to see the flag that wrapt his coffin around ; For a company from the town came up ten miles with music and gun : It seemed his country claimed him then—as well as his mother—her
But Joseph is yonder with Grant to-day, a thousand miles or near. And only the bees are abroad at work with me in the clover here.
Was it a murmur of thunder I heard that humm'd again in the air ? Yet, may be, the cannon are sounding now their onward to Richmond there.
Bat 'under the beech by the orchard, at noon, I sat an hour it would seem—
It may be I slept a minute, too, or waver'd into a dream.
For I saw my boys, across the field, by the flashes as they went, Tramping a steady tramp as of old, with the strength in their arms unspent ;
Tramping a steady tramp, they moved like soldiers that march to the beat
Of music that seems, a part of themselves, to rise and fall with their feet ;
Tramping a steady tramp, they came with flashes of silver that shone, Every step, from their scythes that rang as if they needed the stone—
(The field is wide and heavy with grass)—and, coming toward me they beamed With a shine of light in their faces at once, and—surely I must have dream'd !
For I sat alone in the clover-field, the bees were working ahead. There were three in my vision—remember, old man : and what if Joseph were dead !
But I hope that he and Grant (the flag above them both, to boot) Will go into Richmond together, no matter which is ahead or afoot!
Meantime, alone at the mowing here—an old man somewhat gray— I must stay at home as long as I can, making myself the hay.
And to another round—the quail in the orchard whistles blithe— But first I'll drink at the spring below, and whet again my scythe."
"Riding to Vote—the Old Democrat in the West," is another war-poem, inferior to this, but showing the same characteris- tics.
Another set of subjects is peculiarly connected with Mr. Piatt's own locality in the States. The great westward move- ment which in the course of the last half-century has changed forests and prairies into settlements, and even into great cities, shows many phases of life, which the poet may readily seize. The emigrants themselves were men of the rifle and the plough, and not of the pen, but the rapid growth of society has already pro- duced the vates sacer who will not suffer them to pass into obli- vion. The best poem of this class is "The Pioneer's Chimney." In some respects it shows more poetical culture and power than the one we have quoted. It is written in blank verse, and it does not fail to satisfy in no common degree that crucial test. The "Pioneer's Chimney" is the ruin—ruins are as rapidly produced in the States as is every other necessary or ornament of civili- zation—of the dwelling of one of the first settlers—a kindly old man :—
" Familiar by the reverend name, Of Uncle Gardner in our neighbourhood: His love had grown to common property, By ties that Nature draws from man to man, And so at last had claimed the bond of blood."
For many years the old man cultivates his farm, while the settle- ment continues to grow about him.
"He heard the voice that tells men they are old, Yet not the less he moved his usual rounds, Walked his old paths ; nor idle, sweated still With scythe or sickle in the hay or wheat ; Followed his plough when in the April sun The blackbird chattered after, and the crow Far off looked anxious for the new-dropped corn ; And gave the winter hours their services, With sheep abroad on slopes that, slanting south, Breathe off the snow and show a warming green, With cattle penned at home or bounding flail."
When he is far advanced in age, the old man mortgages his farm to help a son, a merchant in a neighbouring city, in some venture. The venture fails, and father and son are ruined. The doubts and fears that visit him as he walks about his land, while the issue is still undecided, are described with uncommon beauty and power. The "familiar brook"
"Murmured with a long and low lament Some undercurrent of an exile's song, That is not on his lips, but in his heart, Nothing was as it had been ; something vague, That Present of the Future which is born Within the bosom, whispering what will be, Met him, and followed him, and would not cease To meet and follow him; it seemed to say 'The place that knew you shall know you no more.'
And oftentimes he saw the highway stirred With slowly-journeying dust, and passing slow The many that forever in our laud Were going further, driven by goads unseen, Or not content, and looking for tho new ; And then he thought of how in those dear days He, too, had ventured, and again he saw With steadfast eyes forgotten faces, known When he was young, and others, dear to him, From whom he parted with regret, but firm In the strong purposes that build the world."
This last is a fine line. The same thoughts follow him in sleep. In his dreams,—
" With lagging team, the last Of many that in yonder meadows foaled
Grew and became a portion of the place—
Journeying far away, and never more Reaching his journey's end (a weary road, Whose end came only with the waking day),
He seemed to pass—and always 'twos the same—
Through new-built villages of joyous homes, Homes not for him,—by openings recent-made, But not for him,—by cultivated farms, Of other men ;—and always 'twos the same.
Thus, when he woke and found the dream a dream, And through his window shone the sun, and brought The faint rich smell of the new-tasselled corn, More fragrant from the dew that weighed it down He murmured of his fields—' For other men ; They are not mine. The mortgage will be closed; The mortgage goes wherever I shall go.'"
He dies before the actual end comes.
There are numerous poems describing Western scenery and life. We trust that the reader will now have seen enough of Mr. Piatt's quality to be anxious to judge of them for himself. We cannot find space for more than one extract. It gives very finely the calm glow of a day in the Indian summer :—
" The forests climbing up the northern air,
Wear far an azure slumber through the light, Showing in pictures strange The stealthy wand of change; The corn shows languid breezes, here and there— Faint heard o'er all the bottoms wide and bright.
"Wind-worn along their sunburnt gables old, The barns are full of all the Indian sun, In golden quiet wrought, Like webs of dreamy thought, And in their winter clasp serenely fold The green year's earnest promise harvest won.
"With evening bells that gather, low or loud, A village, through the distance, poplar-bound, O'er meadows silent grown And lanes with crisp leaves strewn, Lifts up one spire, aflame, against a cloud That slumbers eastward, slow and silver-crowned."