Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 977
SOURCE: "Preface to the First Edition of the Poems," in Poems and Prose Writings, Vol I, Baker and Scribner, 1850, pp. ix-xi.
[In the following preface to his first collection of poems, first published in 1827 and reissued in 1850 with a second volume of his poetry, Dana expresses his...
(The entire section contains 22906 words.)
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- Critical Essays
SOURCE: "Preface to the First Edition of the Poems," in Poems and Prose Writings, Vol I, Baker and Scribner, 1850, pp. ix-xi.
[In the following preface to his first collection of poems, first published in 1827 and reissued in 1850 with a second volume of his poetry, Dana expresses his hopes for the public's favorable reception of his work, and comments on the partly factual source for "The Buccaneer. "
It is not without hesitation that I give this small volume [The Buccaneer and Other Poems] to the public; for no one can be more sensible than I am how much is necessary to the production of what may be rightly called poetry. It is true that something resembling it is oftentimes borne into instant and turbulent popularity, while a work of genuine character may be lying neglected by all except the poets. But the tide of time flows on, and the former begins to settle to the bottom, while the latter rises slowly and steadily to the surface, and moves forward, for a spirit is in it.
It is a poor ambition to be anxious after the distinction of a day in that which, if it be fit to live at all, is to live for ages. It is wiser than all, so to love one's art that its distinctions shall be but secondary: and, indeed, he who is not so absorbed in it as to think of his fame only as one of its accidents had better save himself his toil; for the true power is not in him. Yet the most self-dependent are stirred to livelier action by the hope of fame, and there are none who can go on with vigour, without the sympathy of some few minds which they respect.
I will not say of my first tale ["The Buccaneer"] as Miss Edgeworth sometimes does of her improbabilities, "This is a fact"; but this much I may say: there are few facts so well vouched for, and few truths so fully believed in, as the account upon which I have grounded my story.
I shall not name the island off our New England coast upon which these events happened, and these strange appearances were seen; for islanders are the most sensitive creatures in the world in all that relates to their places of abode.
I have changed the time of the action—which was before the war of our Revolution—to that of the great contest in Spain; as the reader will see, in my making use of the Christian name of Lord Wellington in a way to allude to the popular belief, during the early ages, in the return of King Arthur to the world.—In putting my hero on horseback, in not allowing him to die quietly in his bed, and, indeed, in whatever I thought might heighten the poetical effect of the tale, I have not hesitated to depart from the true account. Nor am I even certain that I have not run two stories into one; it being many years since these wonderful events were told to me. I mention this here, lest the islanders might be unnecessarily provoked at my departures from the real facts, when they come to read my tale, and the critics be put to the trouble of useless research in detecting mistakes.
Of the second story ["The Changes of Home"] I would only say, that, having in it nothing of the marvellous, and being of a less active character than the first, I shall not be disappointed though it should fail of being generally estimated according to its relative merit.
Of the remaining pieces, the first four have appeared in the New York Review, and are here republished with the consent of my friend Bryant, who was the editor of that late work;—"The Husband's and Wife's Grave," "The Dying Raven," "Fragment of an Epistle," and "The Little Beach-Bird." The others are, "A Clump of Daisies," "The Pleasure-Boat," and "Daybreak."
One of these, "Fragment of an Epistle," is taken from a letter which I wrote to amuse myself while recovering from a severe illness. I must be pardoned giving it as a fragment. The lines are much more broken than is usual in the octosyllabic verse, though Milton has taken great liberties in this respect in his two exquisite little poems in the same measure. This he could have done neither through ignorance nor carelessness. Lord Byron has justly spoken of "the fatal facility" of this measure; and he might as truly have remarked upon its fatal monotony, unless varied in all possible ways. So far from abrupt pauses not being allowable in it, there is scarcely a measure in the language which becomes so wearisome without them; as every one must have experienced in reading Scott, notwithstanding his rapidity and spirit.
I am fully aware of the truth of Sir Walter Raleigh's remark in the Preface to his History of the World:—"True it is, that the judgements of all men are not agreeable; nor (which is more strange) the affection of any one man stirred up alike with examples of like nature: But every one is touched most with that which most nearly seemeth to touch his own private; or otherwise best suiteth with his apprehension." I therefore do not look to see all pleased,—content if enough are gratified to encourage me to undertake something more than this small beginning; which is of size sufficient, if it should fail to be thought well of, and large enough to build further upon, should it be liked. Let me end, then, in the words of old Cowell:—"That which a man saith well is not to be rejected because he hath some errours. No man, no book, is void of imperfections. And, therefore, reprehend who will in God's name, that is with sweetness and without reproach."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2330
SOURCE: Review of Poems and Prose Writings, in The American Monthly Review, Vol. IV, No. VI, December, 1833, pp. 468-80.
[In the following excerpt, the author favorably reviews Dana's poetry and prose, calling him "one of the best writers of the day. "]
Mr. Dana is a poet in the true sense of the term. He combines a striking originality and reach of thought with beautiful and expressive language. But the former power far exceeds the latter. Indeed he seems himself to be aware of this; for he says of his own poetry that it lacks "something of that melody of voice and harmony of expression, which so win upon us unawares." As a poetical thinker, Mr. Dana has no superior,—hardly an equal in the country; as a mere versifier, we could point out several, who are his superiors. At times he is admirably apt and beautiful in his expressions; at others, apparently negligent, and certainly unsuccessful. He frequently reminds us of Mr. Burchell in The Vicar of Wakefield, who "had something short and dry in his address, and seemed not to understand ceremony, or to despise it." At such moments we feel half-disposed to place him upon the debateable ground between the poets of prose and the poets of verse . . . , but straight some touching passage, some dazzling burst of true poetry reinstates him among "the great, the glorious few." Upon this point however, we do not wish to be dogmatical; but we think that the passages, which we shall presently quote, will bear us out in our estimate of Mr. Dana's poetry.
The first poem in the volume is "The Buccaneer;" a wild ballad of the same school as Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, and founded, we presume, upon tradition. Matthew Lee, the hero of the tale, after scenes of piracy and murder upon the high seas, and of revelry and remorse upon land, is at length carried off by a Spectre Horse. It is a story of that fearful and unearthly kind, which is not much to our taste. As a poem, it contains many fine passages and descriptions.
The other principal poems in the collection are "Changes of Home," "Factitious Life," and "Thoughts on the Soul." We shall not, however, analyze these poems. We think we can give our readers a better idea of Mr. Dana's style, by devoting to quotations that space, which would be occupied by a formal analysis. We therefore give entire the next piece in the volume.
THE HUSBAND'S AND WIFE'S GRAVE.
HUSBAND and wife! No converse now ye hold,
As once ye did in your young day of love,
On its alarms, its anxious hours, delays,
Its silent meditations, its glad hopes,
Its fears, impatience, quiet sympathies;
Nor do ye speak of joy assured, and bliss
Full, certain, and possessed. Domestic cares
Call you not now together. Earnest talk
On what your children may be, moves you not.
Ye lie in silence, and an awful silence;
'Tis not like that in which ye rested once
Most happy—silence eloquent, when heart
With heart held speech, and your mysterious frames,
Harmonious, sensitive, at every beat
Touched the soft notes of love.
A stillness deep
Insensible, unheeding, folds you round;
And darkness, as a stone, has sealed you in.
Away from all the living, here ye rest:
In all the nearness of the narrow tomb,
Yet feel ye not each other's presence, now.
Dread fellowship!—together, yet alone.
Is this thy prison-house, thy grave, then, Love?
And doth death cancel the great bond that holds
Commingling spirits? Are thoughts that know no bounds,
But self-inspired, rise upwards, searching out
The eternal Mind—the Father of all thought—
Are they become mere tenants of a tomb?—
Dwellers in darkness, who the illuminate realms
Of uncreated light have visited and lived?—
Lived in the dreadful splendor of that throne,
Which One, with gentle hand the veil of flesh
Lifting, that hung 'twixt man and it, revealed
In glory?—throne, before which even now
Our souls, moved by prophetic power, bow down
Rejoicing, yet at their own natures awed?—
Souls that Thee know by a mysterious sense,
Thou awful, unseen Presence—are they quenched,
Or burn they on, hid from our mortal eyes
By that bright day which ends not; as the sun
His robe of light flings round the glittering stars?
And do our loves all perish with our frames?
Do those that took their root and put forth buds,
And their soft leaves unfolded in the warmth
Of mutual hearts, grow up and live in beauty,
Then fade and fall, like fair, unconscious flowers?
Are thoughts and passions that to the tongue give speech,
And make it send forth winning harmonies,—
That to the cheek do give its living glow,
And vision in the eye the soul intense
With that for which there is no utterance—
Are these the body's accidents?—no more?—
To live in it, and when that dies, go out
Like the burnt taper's flame?
O, listen, man!
A voice within us speaks the startling word,
"Man, thou shalt never die!" Celestial voices
Hymn it around our souls: according harps,
By angel fingers touched when the mild stars
Of morning sang together, sound forth still
The song of our great immortality:
Thick clustering orbs, and this our fair domain,
The tall, dark mountains, and the deep-toned seas,
Join in this solemn, universal song.
—O, listen, ye, our spirits; drink it in
From all the air! 'Tis in the gentle moonlight;
'Tis floating in day's setting glories; Night,
Wrapt in her sable robe, with silent step
Comes to our bed and breathes it in our ears:
Night, and the dawn, bright day, and thoughtful eve,
All time, all bounds, the limitless expanse,
As one vast mystic instrument, are touched
By an unseen, living Hand, and conscious chords
Quiver with joy in this great jubilee:
—The dying hear it; and as sounds of earth
Grow dull and distant, wake their passing souls
To mingle in this heavenly harmony.
Why is it that I linger round this tomb?
What holds it? Dust that cumbered those I mourn.
They shook it off, and laid aside earth's robes,
And put on those of light. They're gone to dwell
In love—their God's and angels'. Mutual love
That bound them here, no longer needs a speech
For full communion; nor sensation strong,
Within the breast, their prison, strive in vain
To be set free, and meet their kind in joy.
Changed to celestials, thoughts that rise in each,
By natures new, impart themselves though silent.
Each quickening sense, each throb of holy love,
Affections sanctified, and the full glow
Of being which expand and gladden one,
By union all mysterious, thrill and live
In both immortal frames:—Sensation all,
And thought, pervading, mingling sense and thought!
Ye paired, yet one! wrapt in a consciousness
Twofold, yet single—this is love, this life!
Why call we then the square-built monument,
The upright column, and the low-laid slab,
Tokens of death, memorials of decay?
Stand in this solemn, still assembly, man,
And learn thy proper nature; for thou seest,
In these shaped stones and lettered tables, figures
Of life: More are they to thy soul than those
Which he who talked on Sinai's mount with God,
Brought to the old Judeans—types are these Of thine eternity.
I thank Thee, Father,
That at this simple grave, on which the dawn
Is breaking, emblem of that day which hath
No close, Thou kindly unto my dark mind
Hast sent a sacred light, and that away
From this green hillock, whither I had come
In sorrow, Thou art leading me in joy.
This truly beautiful poem unites in it many of Mr. Dana's characteristic excellences and defects;—fine trains of thought, and fine, glowing, poetical expression, with occasionally something abrupt, unmusical and obscure. . . .
Mr. Dana has the rare merit of thinking for himself, and of thinking well. The truth is he writes from the feelings of his own heart. As you read, you cannot doubt, that the author's soul was in the matter; that he felt every line, every word, as his pen wrote it down;—and if the secret were revealed, we should doubtless learn, that many of these fine passages were written in moments of intense excitement. It cannot have been otherwise. Consequently, Mr. Dana's poetry is entirely free from that vapid and idle babble,—"mere words with oftentimes no symptom of idea,"—which some good people would fain pass upon a credulous world as poetry. And herein lies the great secret of his power in description. It gives him a wonderfully graphic touch. A bold outline—light here, and shadow there—and you have the picture finished, with a truth to nature, really wonderful. . . .
The character of Mr. Dana's mind is like that of Coleridge, of whom he is evidently a great admirer. He even goes so far as to say; "To profess to differ from Coleridge may be safe, but to profess to hold him to be incomprehensible, would now savor less of a profession, than a confession." We must, therefore, confess, that at times Coleridge is quite incomprehensible to us; and we profess, that at others he uses a very cumbrous phraseology to express an idea, where simple and direct language would have stood him in better stead. We maintain that a clear and definite idea can be clearly and definitely expressed; and if language is the medium of thought, this is self-evident. It must be acknowledged, however, that at times the fault lies with the reader and not with the author. An author may seem obscure merely because the reader, from want of familiarity with the subject, is not capable of understanding him; and yet every sentence in the book may be in itself perfectly intelligible. We take it, that the Mécanique Céleste is a very obscure book to most people;—by them, not comprehended, yet in itself not incomprehensible. Some minds are not mathematical; others not metaphysical; others not poetical. Hence what is as clear as noon-day to one, to another is as shadowy and indistinct as twilight; and it must be confessed that readers are apt to accuse an author of being obscure, when the obscurity is in the dimness of their own vision. Upon this point, however, we will not digress farther; though we think this a topic upon which a very interesting essay might be written. But in conclusion, we would say to all who treat of deep and metaphysical matters in poetry, in the words of one of Mr. Dana's heroes to his wife; "You should be more definite, my dear. You forget, that every one's thoughts do not take the same road with yours."
We now pass to the second part of this volume; a reprint of the Tales and Essays, which were published about ten years ago, in a series of numbers entitled The Idle Man. That title has been dropped in this reprint, and we are very sorry for it. The Idle Man is a work, which has long been upon our shelves; and one upon which we have always set a high value. When first published it did not meet with the encouragement it deserved, and was consequently discontinued before the completion of the contemplated series. We cannot conceive why the author has stripped off its old, familiar title. By so doing he has nearly destroyed its personal identity; not in reality, for the work is substantially the same as before; but to the imagination, which plays such freaks with our reason. We beg the author, if he sets any value on old associations, to restore the old title.
The tales and sketches, which compose this portion of the volume, are all of them finely written, though, to use a hackneyed phrase of our craft, "of different degrees of merit." The most powerful is "Paul Felton"; a tale, which makes you shudder as you read. Its horrors are not, however, those of loathsome disease, and hospitals, and the charnel house, which make up, so to speak, the stock-horrors of most modern tale-bearers, who deal in the terrific. It deals mostly with the mind; the mysterious workings of a morbid soul, which turns to poison what should nourish it, and broods over its own dark and fearful fancies, until the phantoms of the imagination assume a real existence, and urge their master;—now their slave—to despair and madness. A perfect analysis of this tale would form a long and elaborate chapter in moral philosophy, and consequently we shall spare our readers the perusal. We must say, however, that we have seldom, if ever, read a tale of such fearful power over the soul. The unimaginative, and those who are blessed with pure and quiet minds, will read nothing therein but supernatural horrors, and will turn away in fear, perhaps in disgust, from "the struggles of that wretched man." But he, whose mind has been touched with the morbid and sickly feelings so vividly portrayed in these pages, and through whose soul the agony thereof has passed like the blast of the desert, will see here no supernatural horrors, but a portrait of what may be, and learn therefrom to cast out the lurking demon from his soul, ere that demon seek "seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and enter in and dwell there." This we conceive to be the moral of "Paul Felton." . . .
We hardly know which is finest, Mr. Dana's poetry or his prose. The same spirit, the same character of powerful and original thought belongs to both; and stamps Mr. Dana as one of the best writers of the day. We may well be proud of him; and we hope, that he will receive from his own countrymen such unequivocal marks of their high esteem, as will cheer him on in the noble career of literary life, wherein he has already won such enviable laurels.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3098
SOURCE: A review of Poems and Prose Writings, in The New Englander, Vol. IX, No. XXXIII, February, 1851, pp. 28-35.
[In the following favorable review, the author praises Dana's poetic diction, his style, and his artistic character.]
Our first remark is, that Mr. Dana's language is made up in a great degree of Saxon. It is free, more than that of most authors, from Latinisms, Gallicisms, from modern conventionalisms, and all pert and dainty expressions. He eschews, as by instinct, such words as "emanate," "develop," "position," "responsibility," "elevated," "exposition," etc., unless in cases where they may be absolutely needed to give the sense. It is hardly necessary to say that his pages are never disfigured by "stand-points," "hand-books," "being done," "transpired" in the sense of happen, "governmental," and that large class of words, which, if found in the dictionaries, are not wanted to express any idea, and whose occurrence gives pain to a delicate ear. By making use of this pithy, sturdy old Saxon, Mr. Dana is able to address a larger number of readers. Those who are familiar only with the English language, can feel the full force of his style, can relish what they could not if it were mixed up with elements that are only half naturalized. By this means he can, also, give us more thoughts. More ideas will be crowded into a page, than if the common proportion of words were transplanted from the Latin or French soil. We have thoughts, ideas, beautiful images, instead of two or three dim conceptions on a page, wrapped up in a wordy dress. There is, besides, in the style, a force, a homely, sinewy strength, which are so natural to the Anglo-Saxon, and which he can not possibly have, who goes away from home for a stock of words. To our minds, there is a kind, gentle, home-feeling about these old monosyllables which leads us back to the hearth-stones of our rude ancestors in Kent and Suffolk. How barren of these dear remembrances and associations is such a stilted genius as Dr. Johnson, or his "painful" imitators in our days! The writer who wishes to make the deepest and most abiding impression on our hearts, must clothe his thoughts in the language of Alfred. At the same time, we would not imply that a writer may not, on fitting occasions, and in a becoming measure, use all the elements of our noble, composite language. How inseparable the Latin terminations are in some of the marvelous passages in Paradise Lost, or in that divine prototype and epos, the Apocalypse, or in the vision of Daniel! No stringing together of Saxon syllables could express the majesty of Him, before whom "thousand thousands ministered."
Again, Mr. Dana's style and manner of thinking show the utmost familiarity with the early writers in the English language. He dwells among them as with old friends with whom he has often taken sweet counsel. He looks up to them with reverent affection. There is a heart-kindliness beneath their stern looks, a freshness of feeling, an unexpected breaking out of beautiful thoughts from under the crust of their quaint phrases, which no one knows how to relish better than our author, which no one had described in more loving and befitting terms. We recognize this familiarity with the writers of the seventeenth century by the occurrence of such phrases as these: "to do the service of all or any who happened not to be at hand;" "very like to honest out-of-door flowers;" "tangled and by-path overgrowings;" "it is ten to one;" "that love of nature which all the old are so full of and so sincere in;" "we are not making excuses for these givings in," etc. We might copy any number of such phrases, where very expressive little words are joined by hyphens, so common in some of the writers of Elizabeth's time, and which are so contrary to Dr. Blair's rules for forming rotund sentences. Where this love for the old authors is hearty, and is under the control of a pure taste and sound judgment, where it is not carried to an extreme, and is joined to a due appreciation of existing styles of thought and writing, the effect is very happy. It gives an antique richness to the diction. The thoughts come to us with the authority of a well known stamp. They have not the suspicious look of recent coinage. They have somewhat of the golden yellow of the old masters. We pick them out with the same instinct that we go to the corner where a Titian or a Claude hangs among hundreds of lesser lights, and our hearts are drawn to the writer whose thoughts have been fused, as it were, in this antique mould, who throws aside what is uncouth and unsavory in the ancient, and what is ambitious and finical in the modern, and sweetly blends what is true and precious of two generations which are widely apart. If we mistake not, this is characteristic of Mr. Dana's style and thoughts. His works could have been written in no century but the nineteenth, yet they have much of the air and spirit of the seventeenth.
Another characteristic, which we will name, is a musical flow and cadence in many of the prose sentences, as if the author were meditating poetic measures. There is a class of writers, that pay great attention to the structure of their sentences. Possessing a cultivated taste and an ear more or less musical, they elaborate their style and round their periods with the nicest care. That form is chosen, and those words are sought which will be most effective, or which will strike most pleasantly on the ear. But after all their pains, they have not the art to hide the art. They are like men of a managing disposition. The artifice comes to light. The trick is apparent. We see that the author meant to make that sentence emphatic, to set off another with his choicest flowers, to point a third with his sharpest antithesis, and to see how a fourth would awaken admiration by its delicious cadences. But there is another class of authors who have melody in the soul as well as music in the ear. Their memory is a storehouse of beautiful conceptions. Their feelings are attuned to the finest harmonies. They have gazed on truth in its delicate and almost evanescent relations. They are familiar with those subtler elements which the common eye overlooks. To them it has been given to hear voices which others can not hear, to discover harmonies in nature and in the depths of their own souls, to which others are blind. Accordingly, when they put their thoughts into poetry or prose, we are often struck with the outflow of sweet sounds. In the poetry, there is a music besides that of the numbers. In the prose, there is nothing artificial, nothing intended for effect, but the sentence moves along as if self-inspired, as if endowed with an innate melody. There is a most exact fitness between the thought and the expression. Both appear to have come out of the depths of a musical soul. How poetical is much of Milton's prose! How "involuntary," we may say, did his spirit "move harmonious numbers!" We think, also, that this quality strikingly characterizes much of Mr. Dana's prose. Had we space, we could quote many sentences which have a kind of natural music, where there is a sweet accordance between the thought and the form of the sentence.
Leaving the less important matter of style and diction, we may say, that Mr. Dana's works are strikingly characterized by sincerity. This is true alike of the prose and the poetry. They come from the heart. They are not the product of passion, of over-wrought sensibility, as much of Lord Byron's poetry is. Neither are they the results of a powerful intellect, working in the absence or in the subjection of the affections. They are not formed according to the rhetoric and logic of the schools. Yet they are better than anything which mere passion or mere intellect can create. They have an order which no formal logic ever taught. The thoughts are unfolded from within outward. To use a term which we do not like, they are evolved, rather than argued. One grows out of another. They are held together by a natural affinity, or by veins of sentiment or feeling more than by a chain of deductive reasoning. It is for this very reason that Mr. Dana strikes us as one of the most original authors. He writes from a full heart. If we may say it without irreverence, he can not but speak what he has felt. His thoughts appear to be a part of himself, to have grown up with him. They may be like what others have uttered, but in passing through his soul, they have been shaped and colored and stamped with his own individuality. In opening these volumes, we feel that we are reading the author's works, not those of any body else. They are the sincere, honest utterance of a deeply meditative spirit. They are the golden ore in the vein, not the sweepings of some industrious miner, or the casual drift of some wintry torrent. This may account in part for the small number of Mr. Dana's works. Some seem disposed to complain that two not very large volumes contain the whole of them. But heart-work is not very prolific. It will hardly do to call genius prodigal. Original trains of thought are rare. The blended product of sterling thought and a rich experience are rarer still. Some men write several thousand sermons. But how few come from the depths of their own experience! Of how small a number can it be said with truth, they are the transcript of the writer's own inward life! A busy observation or a retentive memory are forced to meet most exigencies. It is only at long intervals that thoughts break forth from the soul, fresh and strong, like the plants of spring, bursting into life through an inherent vigor.
We may, again, mention as characteristic of much which Mr. Dana has written, that they have a melancholy or sorrowful tone. They dwell, to a great degree, on the "night side" of nature and providence. We have heard it alleged as a defect, that they make the reader sad if not misanthropic, that they disturb his equanimity with painful pictures of the crimes and wretchedness of man, that some, both of his poems and prose pieces, lead us into the awful depths of man's depraved spirit, where there is nothing but "sights and sounds of woe," and whence we gladly escape into the sweet upper air. This melancholy tone is one cause, we have no doubt, why some readers have been repelled from the author's pages. But is it really a defect? In answer, we may say, that the charge does not apply to all of Mr. Dana's works. There are pieces of a cheerful and hopeful tone. Some of the small poems are animated by a joyous though chastened spirit. The views taken of society as it is, and as it may be hereafter, are not all sombre. Especially is a brightness thrown over the aspect of things, so far as a pure Christian faith shall have sway. Still, it is to be acknowledged, that a sad if not a despondent tone characterizes much of what Mr. Dana has written. But if this is the honest and genuine result of the author's modes of thought and feeling, would we have it otherwise? Ought he not to preserve his individuality? If his experience has been different from that of most others, if he has looked more profoundly into the mysteries of his own being, if his spirit has been pained by the tricks and hollow conventionalities of much which appears in modern society, if he has gazed with a more thoughtful eye on time, death and eternity, if he has listened oftener than most others "to the still, sad music of humanity," can we blame him for giving utterance to his feelings? Cowper's poetry is regarded by many as dark and cheerless. But would a wise man desire to have it altered? Some of Mr. Wordsworth's admirers think that a profounder apprehension of the mysteries of a Christian faith on his part would have stamped some of his poetry with a more solemn and abiding impress. "The Churchyard among the mountains" is not all which the student of Christianity would desire. A deep thinker, with a poetic temperament, is often necessarily sad. Consider the Othello and the Hamlet. Homer is the "tearful" poet. His was a sorrowing spirit. At the same time, we must confess, that in some of Mr. Dana's pieces we should have preferred a less sombre hue. We are drawn towards Mr. Wordsworth because he can extract a kindly lesson from all things and all men. The "motherly spirit of humanity" pervades all which he wrote. He can not chastise our "repudiating" countrymen without mingling in a hopeful view. We have great reverence for England, the old home of most of our fathers; we delight to dwell upon her laws, her gentle manners, her integrity. We look with admiration on the great lights of the seventeenth century. Still, we should not carry this reverence quite as far as Mr. Dana does. We should probably see more good than he does in revolutionary and republican France. In looking at her disorders and almost infinite confusion, we are touched with pity. Her masses have been more sinned against than sinning. Notwithstanding the gorgeous church that has had them professedly in charge for ages, they have been like sheep on the mountains without a shepherd. When we look at the atheism of continental Europe, we are angry rather with the degenerate, inefficient churches, both Catholic and Protestant, than with the forsaken, and deluded people.
We find in Mr. Dana's works, both in the poetry and the prose, a true perception of inanimate nature, of the wondrous changes which are going on around us. His descriptions are remarkably clear and distinct. He hits upon the exact expression which is needed. His language is so apposite, that we see the point of the application or the force of the comparison at once. The word itself, or the phrase, is a picture. There is no need of a long enumeration of particulars. The imagination of the reader is set busily at work. Mr. Dana sees these various objects in their poetic light, freed from their ordinary prosaic dress. They are revealed in true yet fresher and nobler aspects. They are real objects, the same which we every day behold, yet transfigured, as it were, by the light which comes from the poet's imagination. We everywhere see what it is so hard to describe, the difference between what is called a fine description and the magic pen of genius. There are no unmeaning or common-place epithets. Every word is apt, and it seems instinct with a mysterious life. Let us take two stanzas at random:
But when the light winds lie at rest,
And on the glassy, heaving sea,
The black duck, with her glossy breast,
Sits swinging silently,—
How beautiful! no ripples break the reach,
And silvery waves go noiseless up the beach.
And where the far-off sand-bars lift
Their backs in long and narrow line,
The breakers shout, and leap, and shift,
And toss the sparkling brine
Into the air; then rush to mimic strife:
Glad creatures of the sea, and full of life!
In a poet who reflects so profoundly on the great problems of life, death and immortality, it is refreshing to meet with sweet and soothing lessons from outward nature. What a relief are the moon and the waves of the sea amid the terrific stanzas of the "Ancient Mariner"! There is nothing strange, however, in this. Every great poet loves nature. However he may delight in inward meditation, his joy is also to hold communion with visible forms, with all that wondrous panorama which the goodness of God has spread out before us. How transcendently sublime are some of Shakspeare's brief allusions to the starry heavens! How beautiful are some of his images which he seems carelessly to borrow from various objects in nature. These, no less than human passions, come and go at his bidding.
The works of Mr. Dana, in the moral impression which they are fitted to produce, deserve the heartiest praise. It is literature consecrated to the worthiest objects. There is no line, which, the author dying, would wish to blot. It is an offering of genius laid on the altar of heavenly truth. Many things could have been written only by one who had felt the preciousness of the great "Sacrifice," who knows not where to solve the bitter doubts which harass the human soul except in the message of Him who is the Light of the world. In reading many of these pages, one feels that he is in companionship, not merely with the "sweet singers" of earth, but with those who have attuned their harps in heaven. . . .
The productions of Mr. Dana are admirably fitted, both in style and thought, to do good to those who are learning to think and to write. Nothing can be more free from pretence and affectation. The critical remarks, for example those upon the poems of Thomson, are eminently just and considerate. The article suggested by Pollok's Course of Time, we have always regarded as a model of candid, yet profound and discriminating criticism. Such reviews teach how necessary it is to meditate long and feel deeply, before one sits in judgment on a work of genius or of original investigation. We feel thankful that we have in the English language such specimens of reviewing as that of Mr. Dana on Hazlitt's English Poets, and that of Coleridge on Wordsworth's Excursion. In mentioning the works which do honor to American literature, and which are likely to live while the language is spoken, we do not know why the list should begin and end with a few historical writers like Mr. Prescott and Mr. Irving. The poetry of Mr. Dana and Mr. Bryant constitute a solid addition to the treasures of our noble language. They repay in some degree the great debt which we owe to England. They will be read ages hence with delight and profit.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5626
SOURCE: "Richard Henry Dana," in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. LVIII, No. 347, April, 1879, pp. 769-76.
[In the following excerpt Stoddard provides a critical overview of Dana's literary career, noting especially the influence of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" on "The Buccaneer."]
To rightly understand an author, and the place he occupies in the literature of his country, we must not only understand the events of his life and the order in which his works were written, we must also understand the literary conditions under which they were produced, and which conspired to make them what they were. To judge the authors of the last century by the standards of the present century is to judge them uncritically and unjustly: they wrote according to their light, and whether it was greater or lesser, it was certainly other than our light. They belonged to their day and generation, as we belong to ours, and if we cherish the hope of being appreciated by those who come after us, we should seek to appreciate those who came before us, and who made what we are possible. It is a fashion among young writers to sneer at their elders, as if they were unworthy of serious consideration. I have heard these confident gentlemen declare that the prose of Irving was poor, and the poetry of Bryant dull and monotonous. I have asked them if they were familiar with early American literature, if they had read the prose writers who preceded Irving and the poets who preceded Bryant, and they have generally admitted that they had not, thereby placing themselves out of court. If a crass ignorance prevails in regard to these writers, who are among the most distinguished that we have, what instrument yet invented can measure the ignorance which prevails in regard to others of less note—such men, for example, as Richard Henry Dana? That he wrote something once upon a time a well-informed reader might possibly recollect, but precisely what it was not one in a hundred could tell. And yet he ranked in his day (and justly) among the foremost writers in America. . . .
Richard Henry Dana was exceedingly delicate as a child, as was also William Cullen Bryant, and the two young poets were largely benefited by water—the latter by the enforced use of a cold spring which gushed from the under-world near the homestead of his father at Cummington, and the former by the fresh and briny air of the ocean at Newport, whither he was sent when he was about ten years old. Studiously inclined, he was not able to study much, so he passed his time mostly out-of-doors, rambling along the rock-bound coast, and listening to the roar of the breakers. The wind came to him with healing on its wings, and the tumultuous waves strengthened his love of solitude. No other American poet was ever so moulded by the ocean; which haunted him like a passion, insensibly blending with his thoughts and emotions. That he was a poet did not dawn upon him in childhood, as it did upon the young dreamer at Cummington, nor was there any thing in our literature to suggest the possibility of an American poet. Poets by courtesy there were, of course, for, like the poor, they are always with us. Dwight had published his "Conquest of Canaan," Barlow his "Vision of Columbus," and Freneau a collection of his patriotic poems. These swallows, however, no more made a summer than the little beach birds which Master Dana saw flitting before him in his daily rambles along the shore at Newport.
The traditions of the Dana family were scholarly, and in his seventeenth year, when his health was sufficiently restored, Richard Henry Dana was sent to Harvard College, as his father and grandfather were before him, where he pursued his studies until his twentieth year, when he became involved in a college rebellion, and was compelled to leave his course unfinished. He returned to Newport, where he devoted himself for the next two years to classical literature, and the little that was worth reading in American literature, which may be said to have begun with Salmagundi. An experiment in the shape of a periodical, the Monthly Anthology, languished until it reached ten volumes, and is worthy of remembrance if only on account of the zeal of the club which projected it (the Anthology Club), and which had the satisfaction, such as it was, of footing the bills for publishing it. Clearly the Monthly Anthology was not wanted, though the best pens in Boston wrote for it. What the little world of American readers wanted was not literature pure and simple, but literature with a purpose, which purpose at this time was a political one. Our fathers were bitter politicians, and their best writings were on political subjects. Their mania affected their children, one of whom, a boy of thirteen, perpetrated a volume of political verse which led the conductors of this luckless Monthly Anthology to question whether it could really have been the production of so young a person. "The Embargo" soon passed into a second edition, and the name of its author, William Cullen Bryant, was introduced to the attention of his admiring countrymen. It was read by the son of Judge Dana in the intervals of his classical studies at Newport, whence he soon removed to Baltimore, and to the study of law in the office of General Robert Goodloe Harper.
There was a marked literary element in Boston in the first decade of the century, as was shown by the persistent attempt to establish a periodical in that city, and notwithstanding its want of success, its projectors never lost heart or hope. Prominent among them were William Tudor, a graduate of Harvard and a travelled man, George Ticknor, the future historian of Spanish literature, and John Quincy Adams. They cultivated literature (not exactly on oatmeal) by giving suppers, at which they discussed their contributions to the Monthly Anthology, and to which they occasionally invited their friends, among others Richard Henry Dana and Washington Allston. A South Carolinian by birth, Allsten had spent his childhood at Newport, where he doubtless knew young Master Dana, and where he certainly knew Malbone, the miniature painter, whose influence determined him in his choice of the profession he adopted. He painted in oils before he was seventeen, at which age he entered Harvard College, where his attention was divided between his pencils and his books. Before he was invited to the suppers of the Anthology Club he had travelled in England, where he became a student of the Royal Academy, after which he proceeded to Rome. While at Rome he made the acquaintance of Coleridge, who was on his way back to England from Malta, where he had proved unsatisfactory as a secretary to Sir Alexander Bell. The young American painter was fascinated by the English poet, of whom he declared in later life that to no other man did he owe so much intellectually. "He used to call Rome the silent city," Allston wrote, "but I never could think of it as such while with him; for, meet him when or where I would, the fountain of his mind was never dry, but, like the far-reaching aqueducts that once supplied this mistress of the world, its living stream seemed specially to flow for every classic ruin over which we wandered. And when I recall some of our walks under the pines of the Villa Borghese, I am almost tempted to dream that I had once listened to Plato in the groves of the Academy." To his talents as a painter, which were eminent, Allston added the dangerous talent of writing poetry, in which he was not eminent, though it was once the fashion to say that he was. He was the honored guest of the Anthology Club, at whose symposia his verses were read and admired, at least by his friend Richard Henry Dana, who reviewed them when they were published a few years later. They were connections, Allston having married a sister of Dr. Channing.
Though he had been admitted to the bar both in Boston and Baltimore, and was in a certain sense a lawmaker, having been elected to the Legislature of Massachusetts, Richard Henry Dana failed to sustain the legal reputation of his family. He followed his profession for a few years, and finally quitted it for literature, which was slowly but surely striking root in New England, watered, so to say, by the hopeful young arboriculturists of the defunct Monthly Anthology, headed by William Tudor, who, with a courage in keeping with his name, projected a periodical which should (and did) take its place. This was the North American Review, which appeared in May, 1815, and still survives in a green and flourishing old age. It was managed by a club, as its predecessor had been, who gave suppers as they had done, at which they read the papers that they had written, or that had been sent to them, and decided upon their merits and demerits. Richard Henry Dana was a member of this club, which was presided over by Tudor, who was the actual editor of the North American Review for upward of two years, and by far the largest contributor, three-fourths of the first four volumes coming from his facile pen. He was succeeded by Edward Tyrell Channing, a cousin of Richard Henry Dana, under whom its literary character was more assured. To this gentleman, or more exactly, perhaps, to the club of which he was president, there were sent two poems, which were read before the club, as the verses of Allston had been read before the Anthology Club, and which its members declared could not have been written by an American, they were so stately and well sustained. They were the productions of the young man whose youth had been questioned by the crities of the Monthly Anthology some seven or eight years before, and who had lately been admitted to the bar in Great Barrington. The longest and most important of these poems—a meditation upon the universality of death, was written when he was about eighteen, and left by him among his papers, where it was discovered by his father while he was at college, who thought it was worthy of publication, and accordingly sent it to the North American Review. The doubt which had been cast upon its paternity was apparently solved, but really increased, by the information which the manuscript appeared to convey, that the author, whose name was Bryant, was a member of the Massachusetts Senate. This intelligence excited the curiosity of Richard Henry Dana, who immediately walked from Cambridge to Boston, where the Senate was then in session, in order to obtain a sight of the eleventh Muse, lately sprung up in America, Mistress Anne Bradstreet having been considered in her day the tenth Muse. He went, he saw, and was not convinced. The plain middle-aged gentleman who was pointed out to him could not be the new poet whom he was seeking. He was right—he was not the poet, but he was the poet's father, Dr. Bryant, of Cummington. Such was the history of "Thanatopsis" in its exodus from manuscript to the pages of the North American Review.
Superficial students of literary history are often surprised at the disproportion between the reputation of certain writers and the intellectual value of their writings, and are consequently unjust in their judgments of both. Readers of to-day who are not familiar with our early literature—the literature of seventy years ago, for example—wonder, and not unnaturally, at the estimation in which their fathers held the fathers of our present race of writers. Contemporary critics were too favorable to them, they think, and they are not altogether in the wrong, but they forget that the contemporary critics were coguizant of literary conditions that no longer exist, the consideration of which materially influenceed their decisions. Our fathers were worthy people, but their sympathy with literature was slight; they tolerated rather than encouraged it. The young gentlemen who sustained the Monthly Anthology sustained it at their own cost, and were out of pocket for the frugal suppers upon which its continuance depended. The North American Review paid its contributors nothing for years, and when it did begin to pay them, the honorarium was ridiculously small. They wrote, not because they had any thing to gain, but because they had something to say, the saying of which was its own exceeding great reward. They wrote under many difficulties, not the least of which was an invidious comparison with English writers, who so habitually asserted their superiority that few Americans thought of disputing it. The disesteem with which authorship was then regarded was frankly stated by Richard Henry Dana in the North American Review (September, 1817), in a notice of the poems of his friend Allston, which were originally published in England. "One generation goes on after another as if we were here for no other purpose than to do business, as the phrase is. The spirit of gain has taught us to hold other pursuits as mere amusements, and to associate something unmanly and trivial with the character of their followers. If a work of taste comes out, it is made a cause of lament that so much talent should be thus thrown away; and the bright and ever-during radiance in which it is in mercy hiding our dull commonness is neither seen nor felt. We hold every thing lightly which is not perceived to go immediately to some practical good—to lessen labor, increase wealth, or add to some homely comfort. It must have an active, business-like air, or it is regarded as a dangerous symptom of the decay of industry amongst us. To be sure, we read English poetry; but for the same reason that we take a drive out of town, because we are tired down by business, and must amuse ourselves a little to be refreshed and strengthened for work to-morrow. And, besides, we say the English can afford to furnish us with poetry. They are an old, wealthy people, and have a good deal of waste material on hand. And so it comes about, naturally enough, that poets are set down as a sort of intellectual idlers, and sober citizens speak of them with a shake of the head, as they would talk of some clever idler about town, who might have been a useful member of society, but, as to any serious purpose, is now lost to the world." If it required courage to state thus plainly the conditions by which authorship was then surrounded, it required more courage to prosecute it under such conditions, and I for one honor the single-minded men who did so, chief among whom I place Richard Henry Dana.
His contributions to the North American Review were not numerous, but they marked, if they did not originate, an era in the history of criticism in America. One paper in particular—a review of Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets (March, 1819)—was too remarkable to be readily accepted. It was remarkable for the originality, not to say the audacity, of the writer, who did not hesitate to reverse the judgments of Hazlitt, but who gave substantial and convincing reasons for reversing them, and for the soundness of his own judgments. Here is one, the reader felt, who is not content to let the English critics think for him, but who is abundantly able to think for himself, and who, besides, is throughly equipped with scholarship. Reading has made him a full man, and a man, therefore, to be feared. He questioned the supremacy which had been conferred by common consent on Pope. He declared that his much-bepraised epistle of Eloisa to Abelard was a gross production: that it was hot with lust and cold with false sentiment, far-sought antithesis, forced apostrophes, and all sorts of artificialities in the place of natural feeling and plain truth. The justice of this criticism might have been, and no doubt was, controverted by those who had taken Pope upon trust, accepting him as a precious intellectual legacy from the past century; but they could not controvert the justice of the verbal criticism on Pope's poetry, his incorrect use of words, his fondness for stock phrases, the paucity of his rhymes, and the nearness to each other of couplets terminating with the same rhyme, his rhymes to the eye rather than to the ear, and other flagrant violations of the minor morals of verse, which, however, in his case could hardly be considered minor ones, since his verse consisted for the most part of little else than these. "He has a deal too much of what was wont to be called poetic language for no other reason than that it would make intolerable prose."
Not less independent were other critical estimates of this new Zoilus, who said, for example, that the diction of Thomson swarmed with words that should seldom be met with except in a dictionary or a court letter of compliment; who contended that Gray's "Elegy" was not his greatest poem, and remarked that he would rather have written "The Bard;" who thought but little of the poetry of Goldsmith, whose fame would rest upon his two plays, his Citizen of the World, and his Vicar of Wakefield; who preferred Campbell's "O'Connor's Child" to his "Pleasures of Hope," which abounded with that language of no definite meaning which is styled elegant; and who warned Hazlitt and his master, Leigh Hunt, that if they undertook to banish such gentlemen as Crabbe into the kitchen, they would soon have the parlor all to themselves. These singnlarities of opinion (to call them by no harsher name) were overshadowed by a monstrous heresy which dared to place Wordsworth among the great poets of England—Wordsworth, whose tendious "Excursion" the great Jeffrey had crushed five years before with his famous "This will never do." This will never do, echoed the readers of the North American Review, who might probably have overlooked the slight which had been put upon the little Queen Anne's man, but could never overlook the glorification of the puerile poet of the Lakes. The scholastic conscience of New England was shocked by this paper; a strong party rose up against its author, who had the whole influence of Cambridge and literary and fashionable Boston to coutend with. He was also in a minority in the club, who permitted him to write but one more paper for the North American Review, and upon the safe subject of Irving's Sketch-Book; which he could not easily have made offensive to their sensitive palates.
It is not easy to go back in thought sixty years, and put ourselves in the place of those who seriously objected to a dispassionate discussion of the relative merits of English poets in a publication devoted to just such discussions. We must try to do so, nevertheless, or we shall be unjust toward them, for, after all, they believed that the interests of literature were likely to suffer if such new-fangled opinions were permitted to pass unchallenged. We had no literature to speak of, and if we were to have any, it ought to begin in accordance with recognized modes of thought and forms of expression; in other words, it ought not to violate settled canons of taste. Their forefathers believed in Pope, therefore they believed in him; the English critics did not believe in Wordsworth, therefore they did not believe in him. This is what they meant, I think, by their opposition to this famous criticism, the writing of which demanded greater originality and intellectual fearlessness than the conductors of the North American Review were disposed to stand by. Disowned as it was, however, its critical influence was as distinctly felt as the poetic influence of "Thanatopsis," which was an outgrowth from Wordsworth. "I shall never forget," wrote Richard Henry Dana, after the storm which he had raised had subsided—"I shall never forget with what feeling my friend Bryant, some years ago, described to me the effect produced upon him by his meeting for the first time with Wordsworth's Ballads. He lived, when quite young, where few works of poetry were to be had—at a period, too, when Pope was the great idol of the Temple of Art. He said that upon opening Wordsworth a thousand springs seemed to gush up at once within his heart, and the face of nature of a sudden to change into a strange freshness and life. He felt the sympathetic touch from an according mind, and you see how instantly his powers and affections shot over the earth and through his kind."
The mention of Irving's Sketch-Book in a preceding paragraph affords a clew to the next work of Richard Henry Dana, which was undoubtedly suggested by it—The Idle Man. The American original of both was Salmagundi, which was the first successful attempt to transplant the essay literature of England in the New World, the last being The Lorgnette of "Ik Marvel." The author of The Idle Man was familiar with the writings of Irving, and admired them, though not so warmly as the uncritical majority of his countrymen. The style of the Sketch-Book was less to his taste than the style of Salmagundi and Knickerbocker's History of New York. It was conceived after some wrong notion of subdued elegance—a too elaborate elaboration, and was more noticeable for wit and humor than for sentiment or pathos. This judgment, added to the gravity of his genius, determined the composition of The Idle Man, which was issued in numbers in New York in 1821-22. It was so little read that the writer was warned by his publisher that he was writing himself into debt; so he abandoned it on the publication of the first number of the second volume, and with it all serious connection with the prose literature of his country, limiting himself thereafter to the occasional writing of critical papers.
The author of The Idle Man and the author of "Thanatopsis" contracted a friendship through that incomparable poem, which was of great intellectual advantage to both. If any thing could have relieved the sombreness of that unlucky work, it would have been the poems which the latter contributed to it. The retired lawyer at Cambridge and the active lawyer at Great Barrington corresponded with each other upon what was nearest to their hearts, which it hardly need be said was not law, but literature, of which they were the most earnest representatives in America. One of the most important results of their correspondence was an invitation to the poet to write a poem for the Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard—an invitation which he wisely accepted, and which produced the best poem that was ever recited before a college society—"The Ages." This was in 1821, his twenty-seventh year. When he went to Cambridge to deliver the poem he lodged at the house of his friend, and while staying there prepared for the press a small collection of his poetical writings, making several changes in "Thanatopsis," and adding the beginning and end as we have them now, no doubt by the advice of his critical host. Four years later he abandoned the law, and went to New York, where he started the New York Review, which is notable in the history of our literature as containing the first poems that Richard Henry Dana is known to have written.
When Master Dana was dreaming beside the sea at Newport, a young English poet at Stowey, an inland town in England, was writing a mysterious poem, of which the sea was the background.
Left an orphan at an early age, he had been educated at Christ's Hospital, where he made the acquaintance of Charles Lamb, had enlisted in a cavalry regiment, where he had proved a very awkward recruit, had married one of three sisters who were milliners, had published a volume of poems of more promise than performance, and had betaken himself to the consumption of opium. The poem in question, "The Ancient Mariner," was probably composed while he was stimulated by this pernicious drug, which was the bane of his after-life. It was published in the same volume as the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth, which were such a revelation to the young Bryant, whose genius does not appear to have been touched by the imagination of Coleridge. Not so Richard Henry Dana, to whom Coleridge was made known by the admiration of their common friend A liston, and who read all that he had written in verse and prose, and assigned him a high place in his unlucky paper on the English poets. Whatever the select few who read the Lyrical Ballads may have thought of "The Ancient Mariner," it created no impression on the English public, and was accepted by no English poet, except, perhaps, Wordsworth, who occasionally liked the verse of others, though he always preferred his own. It germinated in America, however, in the mind of Richard Henry Dana, and by some association, which he himself could hardly have explained, inspired his longest and most important poem—"The Buccaneer."
"The Buccaneer" resembles "The Ancient Mariner" in that the supernatural is an element in both, and that they turn upon the commission and punishment of crime. The crime of the ancient mariner is trival, humanly speaking, and is followed by consequences in which others are more concerned than himself; the crime of the buccaneer is dreadful, and consequences fall upon him alone, and not on others who were equally guilty with him. There is an air of verisimilitude about both poems, in spite of the impossible incidents with which they deal, which gives them a high place among purely imaginative works. The facts upon which the American poet has grounded his story are well vouched for, he claimed in his preface, and few truths were so fully believed in as the events that he narrated, though he admitted that he had not hesitated to depart from the truth in order to heighten the poetical effect by putting his hero on horseback instead of allowing him to die quietly in his bed. In other words, he had taken a story out of the Pirate's Own Book, and saved it from being merely horrible by adding a supernatural element to it.
The conception of "The Buccaneer" is better than the execution, which is lacking in ease and fluency. It is simple and severe in its style, Bryant wrote, in the North American Review, and free from that perpetual desire to be glittering and imaginative which dresses up every idea which occurs in the same allowance of figures of speech. As to what is called ambition of style, the work does not contain a particle of it; if the sentiment or image presented to the reader's mind be of itself calculated to make an impression, it is allowed to do so by being given in the most direct and forcible language; if otherwise, no pains are taken to make it pass for more than it is worth. There is even an occasional homeliness of expression which does not strike us agreeably, and a few passages are liable to the charge of harshness and abruptness. Yet altogether there is power put forth in this little volume, strength of pathos, talent at description, and command of language. The power of the poem was warmly acknowledged by Wilson, in Blackwood's Magazine, but the style was thought by him to be colored by that of Crabbe, of Wordsworth, and of Coleridge. "He is no servile imitator of those great masters, but his genius has been inspired by theirs, and he almost places himself on the level on which they stand in such poems as the 'Old Grimes' of Crabbe, the 'Peter Bell' of Wordsworth, and 'The Ancient Mariner' of Coleridge. 'The Buccaneer' is not equal to any one of them, but it belongs to the same class, and shows much of the same power in the delineations of the mysterious workings of the passions and the imagination." The poem differs from most modern poems in that it contains no passage which can be enjoyed by itself, separate from the context, either as a piece of description or sentiment-no passage, for example, like that in "The Ancient Mariner" in which the unearthly music heard by that strange personage is compared to the noise of a hidden brook in the leafy month of June, and no statement of a moral fact which fixes itself in the memory, like
He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The general impression which the poetry of Richard Henry Dana leaves upon the mind is that he is not so much a poet as a man of vigorous intellect who had determined to be a poet, and that he reached this determination too late in life. He moves like one who is shackled by his measures, whether they are simple, as in "The Buccaneer," or of a higher order, as in "The Husband's and Wife's Grave" and "The Dying Raven."
The literary career of Richard Henry Dana may be said to have practically ended with the publication of the little volume containing "The Buccaneer" (1827), though he afterward added to it about as many more poems as were contained therein (nine in all), and brought out a collected edition of his works in two volumes. What he might have written if he had followed the example of his friend Bryant, with whom poetry was a life-long passion, can only be conjectured. That a greater measure of success than was meted out to him would have encouraged him is probable; for, as he wrote in the preface to "The Buccaneer" (and almost prophetically, it now seems), "the most self-dependent are stirred to livelier action by the hope of fame; and there are none who can go on with vigor without the sympathy of some few minds which they respect." He felt, with his master, Coleridge,
Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object can not live.
Fortunately for himself, if not for literature, Richard Henry Dana never knew
What ills the scholar's life assail—
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.
Born a gentleman, like his father before him, he inherited a good estate at Cambridge, a portion of which he sold in order to build himself a house elsewhere. His early love of the sea led him to select a site on the south side of Cape Ann, where he could look out upon the broad billows of the Atlantic. The lawn upon which it is built stretches to the edge of a steep gravelly cliff, below which lies a sandy beach of semicircular shape, isolated on the right by a projecting ledge that runs out beyond it into the sea, and on the left by the base of a precipitous hill. The house faces the south, and is sheltered on the north by a wooded hill. A thrifty farmer, anxious to turn his acres to advantage, would not have chosen the spot for a residence, or, choosing it, would not have left it, as our scholar and poet did, in a state of nature, covered with ancient forestry, and tenanted by crows, hawks, with occasionally an eagle, and multitudes of little beach birds haunting the surges and calling along the sands. It has a noble outlook, for the light-houses of Salem, Boston, and Marblehead can be seen from its window, as well as the passing hulls of Atlantic steamers; and it has a poetic interest in the rocky headland already mentioned, which is nautically known as "Norman's Woe," and is celebrated by Longfellow in his "Wreck of the Hesperus." Here, in full sight of the sea, the author of "The Buccaneer" passed his summers among his books, and friends, and his grandchildren: for he married in his early manhood, and perpetuated his name in a son, who achieved as much reputation as his father, though not exactly in the pleasant walk of letters which their ancestress Mrs. Anne Bradstreet laid out nearly two hundred years before, but in the sterner and more beaten highway of the law. A delicate child, the health of Richard Henry Dana improved when he was past fifty, and the current of his years bore him slowly onward to a ripe old age.
The oldest writer in America, he lived through several dynasties of literature—the reigns of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey; Byron, Moore, and Scott; Hazlitt, Lamb, and Macaulay; Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, and other English worthies; and he saw at home the rise of American literature, and what of brightness has been shed over it by the genius of Irving, Bryant, Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, and other lesser lights in their several orbits of glory. All this he saw—a grave, scholarly, reverend man whom Time seemed to have forgotten. But the graybeard travels in divers paces with divers persons, ambling with some, trotting with others, and galloping at last with all. He crept with our old poet, but finally overtook him, and cast over him the shadow which he will one day cast over all mankind, and which we in our ignorance call Death. He found him in his winter residence in Boston, on the 2d of February last, and he was gathered to his fathers in peace, the greatest of his name.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038
SOURCE: "Criticism, Magazines, and Critics," in The Origins of American Colonial Thought, 1810-1835, A. S. Barnes and Company, Inc., 1961, pp. 164-205.
[In the following excerpt, Charvat provides an overview of Dana's work as a literary critic and examines the critical value of Dana's unpublished lectures on Shakespeare.]
Dana was a . . . militant romantic . . . , and his utterances were loud as well as strong. His life was full of stridencies and contradictions, beginning with his expulsion from Harvard in 1807. This literary rebel was a confirmed Federalist and a trinitarian tending toward high-church Episcopalianism. As poet and novelist he was of the Gothic school, and his son records that from boyhood his father's interest was in "the Gothic mind and the Gothic poetry, architecture, legends and superstitions." As a critic he followed Coleridge, Schlegel, Lamb, and Hartley Coleridge, though he imitated no one.
His work in the North American began in 1817 with a review of his friend Allston's Sylphs of the Seasons, in which he praised the work of Wordsworth and Crabbe. He disliked moralism. Gardiner had said in the Monthly Anthology, "Neither painter nor poet should describe a quagmire." Dana replied, "Nothing is vulgar but vice." In 1818 he criticized Maria Edgeworth's Readings in Poetry, a book for children, for not making the subject attractive by choosing poems of real merit. She would make of boys "little, matter-of-fact men and unbreeched philosophers"; she ignores the imagination and the poetic sense as factors in the education of children.
In the 1819 review of Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets, which resulted in his resignation at the end of the year, he established his critical position. In the first place, he was almost alone in his appreciation of Hazlitt's prose style. Second, he urged the study of the older romantic poets, especially Spenser. Third, he denied that Pope was a poet in either subject matter, versification, or diction. Fourth, he set down concreteness of diction as a principle. Fifth, he perceived the newness of Wordsworth's moral treatment of nature: "A moral sense is given to everything, and material things become teachers of the mind and ministers of good to the heart."
His last article in the North American was a rather rambling review of The Sketch Book, in which he admired Irving's style and wit. In the United States Review and Literary Gazette, which favored romanticism, he discussed the "Gothic" in the work of Mrs. Radcliffe and C.B. Brown, at a time when Gothicism was not popular with critics. In the Spirit of the Pilgrims, a Calvinistic organ founded by Lyman Beecher in 1828, he revealed his religious orthodoxy in various reviews, particularly that of Pollok's Course of Time, although he also took this occasion to reaffirm his doctrine of poetic diction. His belligerent championship of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the preface to his Poems and Prose Writings, Boston, 1833, has already been noted. The preface to the first edition of his Poems (1827) also contains critical matter.
His lectures on Shakespeare, first delivered in 1834, and often thereafter, have been forgotten because they are unpublished, but they deserve to be remembered not only for their historical primacy, but for their excellence, as well as for the fact that they are very likely the first American treatment of Shakespeare in the manner of Schlegel and Coleridge. In the introductory lecture, he stated that the purpose of poetry is "to unseal our eyes to the beauty, grandeur, and secret spiritual meanings of the outer world, and make us feel the correspondence between that outer world and our inner selves." Inasmuch as "Old English literature . . . is peculiarly a literature of thought and feeling, rules of rhetoric alone [will not] lead into a knowledge of them." Most men of affairs have difficulty in appreciating poetry. "To feel poetically, the whole being must be brought into a peculiar state; . . . and no one has such a mastery over himself as to change his entire state and the movements of his spiritual frame, in a moment and at will." Reading too much criticism is a "disturber of that wise passiveness .. . so essential to the recipient conditions." To read criticism properly one "must be of mature intellect enough to sit in judgment upon the critic judge. . . . Some [critics] instead of trying an original work by the principle of self-congruity and the laws of our common nature, betake themselves to certain standing rules of rhetoric." The contribution of poetry to life is happiness, contentment, amusement, and deepened concepts of living. It can free men of affairs from the bondage of the material.
In Lecture II he talked of the influence of society on poetry. Poetry is best when society is homogeneous, as in the Ballad Age. Too much personal reflection is bad for it. Too much philosophizing on man and nature is dangerous to the poetic state. It has robbed even the great Wordsworth of spontaneity. Lectures HI and IV are a discussion of Shakespeare's female characters, with a few side remarks against woman suffrage and equal rights. Lecture V is a treatment of the supernatural in Shakespeare. Success in this field depends on the sympathy between author and reader. It is always based on a universal principle: it proceeds from the known to the unknown. Lecture VI defends the realism of stage murders and violence. Lectures VII and VIII concern Macbeth and Hamlet.
These were fresh doctrines in American criticism. They embody not only a new attitude toward poetry but a new conception of criticism. And since they were uttered in public lectures they have importance in the study of the literary education of the American public. To a public brought up on Blair and Karnes these must have been startling declarations.
Dana therefore deserves to be known as the first appreciative critic and student of Elizabethan drama, and as such he was a forerunner of Lowell, who, in the next decade, wrote enthusiastic essays on the old English dramatists; of G. C. Verplanck, who published an edition of Shakespeare between 1844 and 1846, and who claimed to be of the school of Schlegel and Coleridge; and of H. H. Furness of Philadelphia. Dana worked by sympathy and insight, not by rules, and he insisted on enjoyment, not analysis, as the object of the study of literature.
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SOURCE: "America's First Romantics: Richard Henry Dana, Sr. and Washington Allston," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XLV, No. 1, March, 1972, pp. 3-30.
[In the following excerpt, Hunter addresses Dana's early espousal of romanticism and his later conversion to evangelical Christianity.]
Like so many writers and artists of their generation, Dana and [Washington] Allston inherited a world view at odds with the one they adopted in their early manhood. They were torn between a traditional body of ideas which assumed the existence of universal truths and the exciting but private psychological visions of Coleridgean idealism. Unable to reconcile a yearning for the subjective intuitions of the imagination with this culturally imposed need for truths verified by universal experience, they became mired in uncertainty. How could they achieve the absolute moral and metaphysical knowledge enjoined both by the lingering Puritan tradition and by the natural law philosophies of the Enlightenment when their whole way of conceiving experience drifted irresistibly in the direction of Coleridgean idealism? American romantic thought emerged from this peculiar conjunction of enlightenment values and English romanticism. The careers of Dana and Allston demonstrate that the problems which made creative work so difficult for early American writers were rooted less in cultural deprivations than in the intellectual difficulty of reconciling romantic and especially Coleridgean ideas about the mind with traditional requirements for a universal, public philosophy. Neither Dana nor Allston could give up the quest for universally valid truths. And yet both believed that truth is discovered not by the understanding and common sense but by the imagination. How then could they discover absolute truth in a subjective realm illumined by reason but also made unpredictable by the workings of the unconscious mind?
While the experiences of Allston and Dana were not literally true for all creative men of their generation, an understanding of their intellectual development illuminates the careers of their contemporaries and makes more understandable the achievements of Emerson and Melville.
Before the War of 1812, several young Boston intellectuals were casting about for a philosophy which would be more vital, spiritual, and organic than the one bequeathed them by their elders. Boston's staid Monthly Anthology (1803-1811) was infiltrated by this tiny band of rebels. The friendships which nourished this first American challenge to the dogmas of the eighteenth century were formed at Harvard. In Washington Allston's rooms off the Harvard yard, Allston, Richard Dana's elder brother Edmund Trowbridge Dana, and Arthur Maynard Walter gathered to share their enthusiasm for the poetry of Churchill and Southey and the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe and George Coleman. United by their dissatisfaction with instruction at Harvard and their eagerness for European culture and literary experimentalism, they made plans for a European tour. Allston sailed for England in 1801 and was joined a year later by Dana and Walter. After their return to America in 1804, Dana and Walter were invited to join the Anthology Society. The Society, which wrote and published the Monthly Anthology, was made up of young men eager to combine their professional careers with avocations as men of letters. Generally speaking, the members were political conservatives, religious liberals, and united in their conviction that they were responsible for teaching their public what was proper for it to read.
The Society's clubability was abruptly broken, however, by the essays which Dana and Walter wrote. These essays, brief and fragmentary though they are, suggest a strong commitment to an early form of romanticism. Their essays might be judged as having little importance were it not for the fact that Washington Allston, on his return to America, published a volume of poems, Sylphs of the Seasons (1813) in which he restated the literary and esthetic values asserted by Dana and Walter. Moreover, when Richard Dana, Sr. became a critic for the Anthology's successor, the North American Review, he made their cause his own, providing the first fully reasoned defense of literary romanticism written by an American.
Although no Edmund T. Dana—Allston correspondence exists, it is possible to reconstruct the circumstances which led to the emergence of romaticism in America in the second decade of the nineteenth century. At the turn of the century Harvard was intellectually stagnant. The Unitarian synthesis which managed, for several decades, to humanize Lockean empiricism and check native Arminianism with large doses of Scottish common-sense philosophy was consolidated only after the Danas, Allston, and Walter had left. Repelled by what they knew of Locke, disgusted by the boastful rationalism of the campus Deists, and excited by their extracurricular readings of Southey and the Gothic novelists, they responded to the siren calls for a more ideal and organic art coming from English literary circles.
The Danas' most obvious source of news about the English writers was Washington Allston, who had met Coleridge in Rome in 1806. They became friends, and Allston's enthusiasm for Coleridge's ideas spread to his American circle of friends. This influence is most apparent in the critical essays which Richard Dana wrote for the North American Review.
Domestic economic and political turmoil also contributed to the willingness with which certain young Federalists, like the Danas and Allston, abandoned the literary, esthetic, and metaphysical beliefs of their fathers. The fortunes and influence of their families had diminished in their youth. While it may seem surprising to find declassed Federalists in the role of cultural revolutionaries, it is to just such individuals that one ought to look for the first expressions of the romantic point of view. The Jeffersonian democrat was so hostile to things English that he could not read sympathetically the early English romantic poets; Federalists in good standing (one thinks of the economically secure or upwardly mobile Federalists who made up the bulk of the Anthology's list of contributors—Joseph Stevens Buckminister, William Tudor, and George Ticknor) were so committed to upholding class values and the republic of letters against the threats of democracy that they had little patience with the individualism and subjectivism of the romatic point of view. So it was a small band of younger Federalists, lacking the wealth and social standing which might have imprisoned them in traditional assumptions, who first formulated the romantic vision for Americans.
The ideas shared by Allston, the Dana brothers, and A. M. Walter were a blend of traditional values and bold iconoclasm. The Monthly Anthology rebels could not wholly escape the assumptions which held together the rationalistic world view they wished to deny. They believed that God was the loving and guiding power upholding the universe; they never questioned the existence of an absolute and unambiguous truth. No agonizing alienation experience prefaced their adventures into romantic idealism. They never knew the feeling of being abandoned in an indifferent, mechanistic universe which played such an important part in English and European romantic thought. When doubts overtook them, they questioned their ability to know the truth but never the existence of that truth or of its divine author. In other words, the strength of Protestantism shaped this first American explication of romantic idealism. It prevented the early romantics' notions about God's immanence in the universe from lapsing into pantheism, and colored their boldest expositions of the powers of the imagination with undertones of anxiety and guilt.
Basic to all their literary ideas was the assumption that the variety of nature is the central fact of the universe and the prime evidence of God's presence. They felt that the universe is not as static and orderly as Newton declared; neither was man as rational as Locke believed. They insisted that God's presence is evidenced not by order and symmetry but by the untold variety of his creations. They loved a rough, untended nature, were fascinated by madmen and eccentrics, and admired most those poems and paintings which conveyed a unique, passionate, and private vision of life. Men in the eighteenth century, they complained, had been blind to the moral and spiritual significance of nature. They wished that men would once again learn to "feel the high control / Of him, the Mighty Power, that moves / Amid the waters and the groves, / And through his vast creation proves / His omnipresent soul."
The literary ideas expressed by the rebels in the Monthly Anthology followed logically from their belief in the significance of nature's variety. It stood to reason that if writers and artists were faithful to nature they must abandon the pedantries of eighteenth-century psychological theories and the rules of composition laid down in Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric. The Danas argued that nature is violated when fiction, poetry, and art are harnessed to the exposition of false notions about the uniformity of human passions and associations. The new romantics pleaded for a masculine, impassioned and individualistic art. True poets, said Walter, are inspired by a "divine spirit, a kind of fury, a madness and enthusiasm." They are the makers of new forms and the arbiters of their own rules.
These young men also called for a new kind of literary criticism. They could not accept the view held by other Anthology writers that the critic's function was to act as a judge, sentencing to oblivion those who broke Blair's rules. Criticism must be generous and sympathetic for only if the artist feels free to construct his imaginary worlds in his own way can he approach in art the wonderful variety of nature. Man's intellectual nature most resembles God's in the variety it can produce, Richard Dana declared. "If we will have such products, we must neither limit, nor direct the power."
We do not know the direction in which Edmund Dana and A. M. Walter might have developed their proto-romantic ideas. Walter died in 1807 and Dana, after withdrawing from the Anthology Club in 1809, never again wrote for publication. Only Richard Dana and Washington Allston went on to struggle with the moral and esthetic implications of their belief that nature and the imagination offer truths unknown to the understanding. Their early familiarity with Coleridge's version of romanticism determined the direction in which they explored romantic beliefs. In his Biographia Literaria Coleridge distinguished two kinds of romantic thought: first, Wordsworth's discovery of a supernatural presence and universal truths in nature and common experience, and second, Coleridge's rendering of psychological experiences which suggest the workings of supernatural agents. Dana and Allston were drawn to Coleridge's psychological explorations. But the more deeply each explored the psychological states which kindled the transforming powers of the creative imagination, the less they felt able to declare universal truths. English intellectual traditions allowed for a separation of private and public experience; American traditions did not. In spite of the Antinomian strains in American thought, behavior and experience of all sorts were measured against public and community norms. Imprisoned in intellectual traditions which declared the existence of universally valid truths and the poet's responsibility to spell these out, Dana and Allston could not sustain for long such subjective visions. The history of the first phase of American romanticism can be told in terms of their efforts to reconcile their original commitment to romantic idealism with their equally strong commitment to the discovery of universal truths.
In the spring of 1821, Richard Henry Dana, Sr. decided to publish his own miscellany. He had thought himself in line for the editorship of the North American Review when his cousin, Edward Tyrell Channing, retired from that post to accept the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric at Harvard in 1819. But the majority of the Review's proprietors were so alarmed by the forthright defense of literary romaticism in Dana's review of Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets and by his attack on those popular pedagogues, Maria and Richard Edgeworth, that they denied him the position. Hoping to find a national audience for his ideas and to conceal his identity from Boston's "unimaginative critics," Dana published his miscellany in New York under the pseudonym, the Idle Man.
Dana tried to develop a short story form that would dramatize his ideas about human emotions and the power of the creative imagination. In his review articles he had been especially critical of the way in which novelists like Laurence Sterne, Samuel Richardson, Washington Irving, and Charles Brockden Brown portrayed emotions. Writing under the influence of the eighteenth-century moral philosophers, these novelists assumed that it was possible to unravel the tangle of human motives and actions. They wrote about the most mysterious and irrational of human feelings and then claimed to make them reasonable by tedious analysis and blunt, sometimes hypocritical, moralizing. Dana hoped to portray psychological experience honestly, to preserve the variety and mystery of human emotions by relying on the mood, tone, setting, and dialogue rather than the self-analytical soliloquies and letters used by the novelists he criticized. He wanted to involve the reader's imagination rather than his understanding.
He began this experiment in short fiction in a highly optimistic mood, confident that the imagination could enable men to see the spiritual meanings in nature. In an essay which he called "Musings," Dana wrote an ecstatic explanation of how the traditional dualism between matter and spirit, man and God could be overcome if only one surrendered to the powers of the imagination. To experience this union one must first learn to see and feel nature as one did when a child. Dana assumed that if a child were permitted to develop according to the laws of his own nature and without too much officious regulation by adults, he would grow up obedient to the natural and "holy movements of the soul." It is society that blinds us to nature's spiritual content. We are taught to check our feelings and passions, to deny our imaginations, and to force our moral natures to march along the well-trod paths of convention. Society, Dana insisted, makes us choose: we must either "become like others, cold and wise," or we become madmen and moral outlaws. In order to behold the universal spirit while nature "lays by its particular and short-lived and irregular nature, and puts on the garments of spiritual beings, and takes the everlasting nature of the soul," one must open oneself to those childlike feelings of awe and love which kindle the imagination. In some mysterious way this wonder-filled passivity gives life to the imagination; out of the "living sea" of images stored up within the unconscious mind, it creates a new "two-fold" life resplendent with symbolic and spiritual meanings. In the transports of imaginative insight, a man becomes a part of the eternal ongoing of nature—he becomes as innocent and pure as the universal spirit that flows through him.
The innocent face of nature gives him an open and fair mind; pain and death seem passing away, for all about him is cheerful and in its spring. His virtues are not taught him as lessons, but are shed upon him and enter into him like the light and warmth of the sun; . . . Freedom and order, and beauty and grandeur, are in accordance in his mind, and give largeness and height to his thoughts; he moves among the bright clouds; he wanders away into the measureless depths of the stars, and is touched by the fire with which God has lighted them. All that is made partakes of the eternal, and religion becomes a perpetualdelight.
Dana could not sustain for long this passionately optimistic form of romantic transcendentalism. When he put his faith to the test of fictional dramatization, his confidence in the redeeming powers of the imagination collapsed with astonishing suddenness. Once he set his characters into their social context, made lovers and husbands of them, and forced them to confront a "real" world full of conflict, temptation and evil, he discovered the moral preposterousness of the romantic injunction to feel deeply and follow the heart.
At the outset he had assumed that society corrupts the heart and kills the imagination; the problem then, was how to keep the feelings and the imagination alive to spiritual truths. In the battle against society's corroding flood of convention, Dana put his faith in the redeeming power of nature and romantic love. In "Musings" he said that men could recover that innocent love of nature which would open the way to transcendent truths. But a story which he had published in the previous number cast doubt on this possibility. In "Edward and Mary," Edward, an ardent and receptive student of nature, confesses that nature alone cannot satisfy his longings for truth and love. Men "are made for other purposes than to have our interests begin and end in [nature]. .. . "T o the dilemma posed by the conflicting demands of society and nature, Dana declared that men must choose society and the risks of alienation from nature and God. If nature alone is insufficient, perhaps the bonds created by love and marriage can shelter and sustain the natural movements of the soul. In "Edward and Mary," Dana insisted that were it not for Mary's love, Edward's romantic nature would either be crushed by the leaden-hearted world or distorted into madness. Just as nature leads her worshipper from sensation to idea, so sexual passion, Dana suggested, will lead from pleasure to spirituality.
Once Dana put spiritual salvation on this shaky foundation, his entire metaphysical structure began to topple. Not only did he lose confidence in man's ability, with the aid of nature and romantic love, to preserve the feeling and innocence which kindles the imagination, but he also began to question whether the imagination, if it survived, could lead to truth at all. Dana's interest in human psychology, in madness, and visionary experience, led him to think of the connection between passion and the imagination in a way ultimately disastrous to the transcendental metaphysics of "Musings." He believed that the imagination is both seer and creator—a source of spiritual enlightenment and a power which transforms sensations into new, quite private visions. The problem was how to insure a harmony between absolute truth and the visions which the imagination created from the materials of the unconscious mind. For obviously, if these visions are nothing more than projections of one's own soul, then the imagination cannot bring one into harmony with God. If each man reads into nature his own peculiar lesson according to his own peculiar mood, then the romantic imagination can yield startling insights into human psychology but it cannot teach ultimate truth. What assurance has the man of imagination that he does not mistake his own delusions for truth?
The reader is hardly prepared for the sudden reversal in Dana's ideas about the imagination. In a period of less than eight months he abandoned the optimism of his "Musings." His last stories reveal an anxiety about guilt and death and a growing conviction that man is alienated from God not by society but by his own nature.
The wreck of Dana's romantic transcendentalism is apparent in "Paul Felton," the last short story he wrote for The Idle Man. Paul was brought up to love nature and the classics: from the first he learned the unity of mind and sense and the spirituality of nature; from the second he learned the mysteries of the human heart. Even so, Paul is often unmoved by nature. "Sometimes he would sit alone on one of the peaks in the chain of the neighbouring hills, and look out on the country beneath him, as if imploring to be taken to a share of the joy which it seemed sensible to, as it lay in the sunshine. . . . [Nature] heard him not, but left him to cares, and the waste of time, and his own thoughts." In romantic literature such alienation from nature is the sure sign of a sick soul. Esther, Paul's beautiful and adoring wife, provides him no peace or happiness.
Paul is a man of deep feelings, introspection, and imagination, but it is precisely these romantic virtues that bring about his moral ruin. His assumption that truth lies beyond the mask of sensible reality leads him into a towering, destructive egotism. Paul is driven into an obsessive absorption with the processes of his own mind. He urges on his passions, gives them rein "that he might feel all the self torture they would bring," and endlessly examines his motives. His personality becomes so involuted that "at last his mind seemed given for little else than to speculate upon his feelings, to part or unite them, or to quell them only again to inflame them." No longer the master of his emotions, Paul moves erratically and violently from moods of ecstasy to black despair. In what modern readers will recognize as a bizarre attempt to portray a paranoid-schizophrenic personality, Dana tells us that Paul is convinced that he is possessed by Satan. "Violent passions and dreadful thoughts had now obtained such a mastery over Paul, that they came and went like powers independent of his will; and he felt himself as a creature lying at their mercy." His imagination is so possessed by these visions that nature is transformed into a battleground between the forces of good and evil. Paul believes that Satan commands him to kill his wife of whom he is insanely jealous. He does so, and in a moment of lucidity, realizing the enormity of what he has done, the shock kills him.
Dana prefaced this tale with lines from Wordsworth:
Who thinks and feels
And recognizes ever and anon
The breeze of Nature in his soul,
Why need such men go desperately astray,
And nurse the "dreadful appetite of death?"
The answer which this story suggests radically reverses the ideas Dana defended in "Musings." In Paul Felton, Dana created a character blessed with sensitivity and imagination. Yet he is cursed; his sin of rapt self-absorption is the consequence of obeying the romantic injunction to view experience in a passionate, subjective way; his capacity to transform the world according to the fevered imaginings of his brain is the risk run by those who find no way to distinguish their truths from transcendent ones. Nature only mirrors to the eye of her beholder the state of his own soul. How is one to discover transcendent truths if the passions aroused by nature and love lead only back upon the self—a self alienated from God, not by some Adamic guilt but by man's otherness. Because Dana had no answer to that question, because he was abused by critics for creating moral monsters, and because of his grief over his wife's death, he stopped writing.
In 1826, when the revival movement led by Lyman Beecher swept through Boston and Cambridge, Dana was left in its wake, a penitent at the mourner's bench. Out of a soul-searing confrontation with the God of the evangelists, Dana forged a new philosophical and esthetic point of view—one that fused elements of his earlier romanticism with the precepts of evangelical Christianity. Dana's conversion confirmed his growing suspicion that the conflict between the flesh and the spirit, between the visions welling up from the unconscious and the yearning for the absolute, could not be resolved by romantic methodologies. Thus, when he took up his pen again it was as a contributor to Beecher's Spirit of the Pilgrims. However, his religious essays and poetry were more than a mere justification of the principles of Trinitarian Christianity. They must be understood in the light of his earlier views of nature and the imagination, for Dana found in Christianity a higher ground for the romantic vision. In the doctrine of original sin he discovered an explanation for man's alienation from nature and God. He had abandoned the optimistic romanticism of his "Musings" because he needed to believe that the imagination is powered by an inspiration more trustworthy than the poet's unconscious mind. Redemption, he felt, promised the poet an infusion of God's creative love and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While it would be misleading to say that Dana turned to Christianity in order to find a higher discipline for the romantic imagination, that was certainly the result. Revealed religion offered him a way to escape the twin dangers of pantheism and Paul Felton's mad vision of the world as the projection of his own mad dreams.
In an essay written to prove the insidiousness of Unitarian theology, Dana summed up the intellectual history of many men in his and later generations. They had fled from the sterile, overly rationalized world view of the Unitarians into a spiritually attractive but morally dangerous transcendentalism. Their quest for a passionate, suprarational experience of God led, Dana argued, either to pantheism or egotism. In terms that savagely indicted views he had defended nine years before, Dana dismissed the whole effort to worship God in his creation as mawkish sentimentality. "Our creator and final Judge," he declared, "is fairly idealized and sentimentalized out of his own creation, providence, and rule. Creation, and not the Creator, is the life and the spirit to us. . . . " Without the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, man can have no experience of God for "nothing is perceived as it is in itself, but becomes the embodied presentation of the illusions within." The rationalist deludes himself when he worships reason in the guise of the first cause; the pantheist only thinks he worships God in nature. In truth they both worship only themselves. The rationalists lord "it over the material world, as if no God created and sustained it," and the romantic idealists look "through all spiritual existences and relations, as if no revelation were needed wherewith to behold them." Both err in not making God, as revealed in the Bible and by the Holy Spirit, the source of all moral, metaphysical, and spiritual truth.
Dana did not hesitate to draw from these reflections the logical conclusion: only the redeemed man can be a true poet for only he can surrender himself to his imagination in the confidence that the transformation that occurs will conform to a higher reality.
In a poem entitled "Thoughts on the Soul" which he read at Andover in 1829, Dana described the powers of the soul in terms he had once used when discussing the creative imagination. The soul must create—that is its essential and eternal character. All experience is transmuted by the soul to the shape of its essence. "On it goes, for ever ever on, / Changing, all down its course, each thing to one / With its immortal nature." If unredeemed, the poet creates a world of terror and insanity. Like Paul Felton, "the fiends of his own bosom people air / With kindred fiends that haunt him to despair." If, on the other hand, the poet knows Christ as his redeemer, his soul's creative power is absorbed into the flow of God's fecund love. He no longer exhausts himself in an uncertain quest for the symbolic meaning of nature. All is revealed to him. Sweeping aside the ever-popular notion that nature can be read as a symbol of transcendent truths, Dana insisted that the poet must know the symbol maker before the symbols.
"From nature up to nature's God," no more
Grope out his way through parts, nor place before
The Former the thing formed: Man yet shall learn
The outward by the inward to discern,—
The inward by the Spirit.
Restored to his proper union in God, the redeemed poet shares in God's creative power. Because he is cleansed of sin, the poet no longer needs to fear the egoistic demons of his unconscious. He can plumb the depths of his soul secure in the knowledge that the imagination is governed by a higher power. Dana still insisted, as he had in his earliest writings, that the thoughts and images out of which poetry is made arise from the subterranean depths of the unconscious mind. But the unconscious held no terrors for him now. As in the Biblical account of creation, so within the poet's mind—void and chaos take on form under the mysterious impulse of God's "life-giving, forming and informing principles. . . ."
Historians of the American mind have long assumed that romantic thought was shaped by the peculiar conjunction of Enlightenment ideas and strains of English romanticism. But too often we have sought for explanations of the meagerness of American literature between 1800 and 1836 in general cultural conditions rather than in the dilemmas inherent in such a transition. The careers of Dana and Allston remind us that the leap from Locke to Coleridge—from enlightenment epistemology to romantic psychology—was fraught with considerable hazards. The unevenness of their careers, marked by bursts of creativity and lapses into despair, can be explained by the difficulty they had in reconciling a cultural tradition which demanded obedience to external codes of behavior and experience with the lure of Coleridge's private visions. In other words, that traditional cultural dualism inherent in Puritan theology—in the conflict between Arminian and Anti-nomian—reappeared in an acute form for those American writers and artists who leaped rather heedlessly into Coleridgean idealism.
As young men dissatisfied with the spiritual and emotional aridity of Locke's epistemology, Allston and Dana eagerly embraced Coleridge's theories about the imagination. They moved quickly from a rather Unitarian view which assumed that nature was an expression of God's love, to an exploration of the way the imagination transforms experience into the shapes of the unconscious mind. Both men found this journey into the unmapped territory of the unconscious mind terrifying and untenable. Whether one explains their abandonment of these explorations as a lingering Puritanism or a tardy conversion to common-sense ideas, the conclusion is the same: they felt that the imagination, if unrestrained by some external and universal standard of truth, could only lead to nihilism and madness. For if the world we experience has only the significance we give to it, it can have any meaning and thus has no meaning at all.
Although Dana's Holy Spirit and Allston's supervising Higher Power seem a world away from the metaphysical and epistemological principles assumed by Emerson, Thoreau, and later romantic writers, the differences are by no means as great as they first appear. All shunned those experiences which had a wholly private significance. The symbolism of Emerson and Thoreau was not rooted in a personal transmutation of experience but in an assumed correspondence between the laws of nature, the laws of the mind and a transcendental reality. Because the second generation of American romantic writers came to Coleridge only after a thorough indoctrination in Scottish common-sense philosophy they screened out his disturbing insights into the psychological origins of the workings of the imagination. They were attracted by his analysis of the teleological principles which govern mind and matter and not by "Christabel" and "Kubla Khan." They admired the Coleridge who fleshed out common-sense ideas about the correspondences between idea and nature rather than the Coleridge who insisted upon a deeply personal, even opium-induced, transformation of experience into the stuff of the private self. They never had to work their way clear of the psychological subjectivism which tormented Dana and Allston because their way was eased by Scottish realism.
It is ironic but hardly accidental that Melville condemned the transcendentalists for ignoring the dilemma Dana had so effectively dramatized thirty years before in "Paul Felton." Melville's Pierre, like Dana's Paul Felton, is driven to madness, murder, and suicide by the realization that nature has only those meanings which we project upon it. As a rule American romantics shied away from this dilemma. Like Dana and Allston, later romantics developed elaborate strategies for skirting this implicit subjectivism. Allston and Dana were by no means the last romantics to attempt to harness the imagination to an external and universal standard of truth.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4571
SOURCE: "The Richard Henry Danas: Father and Son," in Law and Letters in American Culture, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 241-72.
[In the following excerpt, Ferguson compares Dana's early romanticism with his later thoughts on legal theory, contrasting the gothic story "Paul Felton" (1822), with the essay "Law as Suited to Man " (1835).
Some individuals personify the wholeness of an age; others reflect the incompleteness of its parts. Daniel Webster, in the first category, spoke confidently for the nineteenth century and symbolized its conventions. The Richard Henry Danas, father and son, were more shadowy figures caught up in changes that they only partially understood. As traditional as Webster in politics and social matters, they accepted many of the new impulses sweeping through nineteenth-century intellectual thought, and those impulses were complex. It was not just that Webster admired Pope over all other poets while the Danas preferred Wordsworth. The whole manner in which Americans approached politics, society, and literature was changing. Webster belonged to old ways of thinking. The Danas fell somewhere between the old and the new and faced uncomfortable choices in consequence. Those choices, rather than specific achievements, are what make the Danas interesting. Their failures underscore the contradictions between neoclassical and romantic in republican culture, and their successes illustrate the slow and painful growth of a peculiarly American romanticism. For if Webster embodied the configuration of law and letters, the Danas represented its collapse, and they were the first to realize as much. . . .
Francis Dana (1743-1811) and Richard Henry Dana, Sr. (1787-1879), entered the legal profession with [large] aspirations. In fact, the three Danas span the entire period of the configuration of law and letters, and their respective decisions reveal a great deal about the changing nature of nineteenth-century intellectual life. Francis Dana typified the early American lawyer's grasp of his culture. Admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1767, he played a minor but distinct role in the Revolution. He was a member of the Continental Congress, chairman of the committee on the army that brought vital political support to Washington at Valley Forge, secretary to John Adams during the original peace negotiations in France and Holland, and then ambassador to Russia. Only poor health kept him from serving as one of the framers in Philadelphia in 1787, and a year later he was instrumental in the Massachusetts convention that ratified the Constitution of the United States. Eventually, Francis Dana became chief justice of the supreme judicial court of Massachusetts, a position he held for fifteen years from Washington's presidency into the second administration of Jefferson. As chief justice he sustained "an elegance but little known in those days," riding circuit in the finest of carriages, and his grand jury charges epitomized New England Federalism in its days of glory. An admiring Richard Henry Dana, Jr., captured the total effect: "His whole style was that of a great magistrate, & he sustained the dignity of the office with no little of the aristocratic bearing."
Unfortunately, Francis Dana's success also magnified failure in the next generation. Richard Henry Dana, Sr., never recovered from the disastrous speculations of an older brother who dissipated family fortunes in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Indeed, much of Dana Sr.'s writing dealt with the shock of this lost status. Of his father the chief justice he noted, "I can never think of his exalted character without a sense of my own littleness." The merest memory, he added, "makes the present tasteless, & takes away the vigour of my hope in what is to come." Written in 1819, these words came not from a pining adolescent but from a man of thirty-two, and they expressed a final determination to reject the law for a private life as "The Idle Man" in literature.
This decision was a public admission of defeat in 1819. Contemporaries like George Ticknor, Edward T. Channing, William Hickling Prescott, and Alexander Everett also abandoned the law for various literary pursuits, and Henry Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Francis Parkman followed suit a generation later, but these men relied upon independent wealth or another vocation for status, and most had both. Dana Sr. could name only an honorary assistantship at the North American Review, and even this tenuous association—"all gentlemen and no pay"—was taken away in 1819 when failure to succeed in the logical sequence of editors prompted his resignation. By 1822 he had just the smallest of patrimonies, an occasional lecture series, and his own writings to fall back upon. "I am a miserable cripple," he had announced earlier, revealing the hypochondria that would support another half-century of idleness. The boy of twelve who remembered Washington's death would live to see Rutherford B. Hayes elected president, and every year brought fresh complaints and new failures. "I was shabbily enough treated in my honest endeavours for an humble place," he told his son later. Alas, "the life of the mind, through long disappoinment, had become permanently languid." In 1848 Lowell's A Fable for Critics sounded a final note of satire over all of this pathos: "That he once was the Idle Man none will deplore, / But I fear that he will never be anything more. . . ."
Richard Henry Dana, Sr., had been the first modern American critic, the first to value the romantic impulses in nineteenth-century literature, and he had used those impulses to justify his retreat from public life. Since romanticism stressed a creative imagination yearning for natural simplicity, the editor of The Idle Man easily separated a private life of the mind from the corrupting and vulgar world of work and society. Indeed, the distinction governed the elder Dana's writings and entered into the psychological legacy of the son. . . .
For the working artist, . . . there is always an enormous gap between theoretical understanding and creative application. The Danas, both father and son, mastered the meaning of romanticism but never its working implications and never its voice. They failed because the emerging modes of expression at work in nineteenth-century American culture required new ways of regarding the self—ways that unsettled everything the Danas stood for in republican society. Neoclassicism assumed an identity that reached through civic action toward the presumed identity of other men and women. Romanticism, concerned more with ego and self-expression, compelled a prior discovery and assertion of personal identity. As the first suggested relation, so the second implied opposition, and the difference underlined absolute philosophical divisions. Were truths self-evident or were truths evident to the self? The Danas could never decide, and their uncertainty meant that the configuration of law and letters no longer answered such questions. . . .
Richard Henry Dana, Sr., could legitimately call his own works "a part of our literary history." Between 1817 and 1827 he wrote America's first sustained critique of romanticism, penned the country's most perceptive reviews, praised Charles Brockden Brown's genius before other critics found even merit, and helped create the genre of American gothic fiction. Too, Dana Sr. lived long enough to see his most unpopular evaluations turn into conventional doctrine. He knew the satisfaction of having been right all along: "Much that was once held to presumptuous novelty" in the Era of Good Feeling became, in his words, "little better than commonplace" by 1850. The precursor, however, took no satisfaction in what followed. "Emerson & the other Spiritualists, or Supernaturalists, or whatever they are called, or may be pleased to call themselves" were a bad influence; "madness is in their hearts," wrote Dana Sr. There was, in short, a basic failure in sympathy that illustrates how thoroughly republican culture tangled the notions of neoclassic and romantic. Dana Sr., the purveyor of a European romanticism, saw not a counterpart in American transcendentalism but rather an extreme manifestation that exceeded essential controls. Neoclassical in form, those controls were part of a political orthodoxy that no early republican could ignore—part of the long contest between order and originality in American literature. Dana Sr. earned a special place in that contest by laboring to combine the incompatible.
Every major tenet of romanticism receives attention in Dana Sr.'s early North American Review articles. An essay from 1817, "Old Times," chooses feeling and imagination over affected refinement and cold rationality, nature over society, ancient custom over modern practice. The writer wants a mind as organic and creative as the earth itself, and he looks for the "wild and adventurous starting up in the midst of the common objects of life." A review of Washington Allston's poetry from the same year makes poetry the highest ideal of a culture, rejects didacticism in literature, and applauds balladic simplicity. Again the contrast is between the freedom, energy, and spontaneity of man in nature against the confinement, artificiality, and "hot stir of pent society."
Two more reviews from 1818 and 1819 turn abstract premise into explicit accusation. Here Dana Sr. censures critics who condemn Wordsworth and Coleridge in the name of Pope; they substitute profession for sincerity, wit for feeling, ornament for simple reflection, and reason for natural impulse. The true critic hopes instead for awakened associations, "living forms struggling to break forth," and "a holier calm" from "the riot of the imagination."
The same ideas carry into the poems and stories of the 1820s. "The Changes of Home," "Factitious Life," "The Early Spring Book," "The Moss Supplicateth for the Poet," and "Daybreak" all extol in verse the simple, organic, natural world in which "the whole man lived his feelings." Like many another romantic poet, Dana Sr. employs pastoral settings, aeolian harps, and mystic hieroglyphs to convey one central message: "How simply nature teaches truth!" His fictional protagonists also turn to nature as a special source of meaning. Looking to the "blessed and silent communion" of the elements, Tom Thornton, in the story of that name, wants to "mingle with the air, and be all a sensation too deep for sound,—a traveller among the stars, and filled with light." Edward Shirely of "Edward and Mary" combines a distaste for the world at large with delight in the purifying influences of nature. In this account of threatened love, nature invariably sympathizes with the hero's shifts in mood. In "Paul Felton," Paul walks the hills, looking for sympathy in nature. Nature is "power, and intellect, and love, made visible," and it allows Paul moments of truth: "He was as part of the great universe, and all he looked upon, or thought on, was in some way connected with his own mind and heart." In each story spontaneous impulses cut across careful reason, and external landscapes merge with stages of mind to emphasize the organic link between man and nature.
Yet these writings perplex because they promise so much more than they give. Original in intent, they are imitative in effect. They fail through a basic paradox: the poems and stories of Richard Henry Dana, Sr., are romantic in theory but neoclassic in practice, and the combination robs each point of view of its intrinsic worth. The same paradox, of course, applies to other writers in the first decades of the nineteenth century, but Dana Sr.'s stature as a romantic theorist poses the problem in its purest form. How could such a critic fail to see the gap between assertion and execution in his own work? Why do neoclassical premises remain so firmly entrenched in poems and stories that strive so hard for something else? The negatives traditionally used to explain literary weakness in the early national period do not apply in this case. Neither parochial nor utilitarian, the publications of Dana Sr. show that he possessed the time, the opportunity, the literary sophistication, and the desire to achieve much in poetry and fiction.
Conflicting aims hurt Dana Sr. far more than inadequate means. He writes for a world that requires him to be too many things at once. A romantic critic, he is also gentlemen of letters with the responsibility of defining man's place in society. As republican citizen, he believes in social subordination as a basis of ordered liberty, and his dutiful expression of that belief is profoundly neoclassical in scope and tone, adding decorum, propriety, duty, hierarchy, and control to the cardinal virtues of imagination and natural impulse. These unlikely combinations breed contradiction and crop up everywhere in Dana Sr.'s stories, poems, and reviews.
The published works are a battleground of conflicting values. One celebration of "the wild and adventurous" insists upon the necessity of order and constraint in master-servant relations. The reviewer who wants passions to be "living, sentient, speaking, acting beings" also confesses to "fears of being unduly sprightly . . . sacrificing our dignity and decorum." Feelings are vital, but the most natural impulse must bow to social convention. Thus, a call for honest feeling does not excuse Washington Irving for allowing a husband to show public affection in "The Wife." Still other parts of The Sketch Book lack proper refinement because Irving stoops to describe passion outside of love. Dana Sr. admires Charles Brockden Brown for accomplishing what he himself cannot: "Instead of living as only one of the multitude of keen and clever men at the bar, and then dying and being forgotten, [Brown] is going down . . . as the earliest author of genius in our literature." But no amount of originality can justify the bad taste of Brown's free-thinking tracts or the vulgarity of that moment in Ormond when the beautiful Constantia Dudley washes foul linen.
Greater writers would soon turn the ambiguities between personal feeling and social conformity into high art. Less gifted, Richard Henry Dana, Sr., nonetheless glimpses the possibility; he is the first to understand that the American story involves an unending adjustment of twin obsessions, impulse and order. Predictably, his heroes are divided men. They cling to decorum and nicety during the sharpest of inward crises, and cling they must since insanity lies close to the surface in Dana Sr.'s fiction. Characters who lose sight of the prescribed forms of conduct go mad. Protagonists like Tom Thornton, Edward Shirley, and Paul Felton have romantic temperaments, but their safety depends upon a neoclassical equilibrium that guards against the dangers of introspection. Romanticism has taught Dana Sr. that imagination can be a perilous thing:
The imagination grows forgetive, and the mind idles, in its melancholy, among fantastic shapes; all it hears or sees is turned to its own uses, taking new forms and new relations, and multiplying without end; and it wanders off amongst its own creations, which crowd thicker round it the farther it goes, till it loses sight of the world, and becomes bewildered in the many and uneven paths that itself had trodden out.
More simply, "turning the mind long inward upon itself means "making ourselves miserable" most of the time. Social interaction alone can correct the resulting imbalance. "To know ourselves," Dana Sr. explains, "we must be content, sometimes, to go out of ourselves." Happiness requires recognition of one's "double character"; one's "outer and inner machinery" must balance.
"Paul Felton" (1822), a minor masterpiece in the American gothic between Brown and Poe, tells what happens when man's inner machinery takes over. Accepting the romantic postulate that imagination guides perception, Dana Sr. writes a nightmare of the imagination run wild. Paul Felton has been raised in melancholy isolation by his widowed father, a background that inhibits meaningful intercourse with the world. Incapable of balancing outer and inner priorities, he retreats inward where everything is "pent-up and secret action." Soon all is "at war and in opposition in his character," and his mind welcomes extremes, "not knowing how to measure its joys when they came." This mind is "in a peculiar degree single," which means that the passion of the moment utterly controls what Paul comprehends. Gradually, obsessions rob Paul of all sense of reality and turn him into a homicidal maniac. He murders his wife, Esther, who, as the symbol of social interaction, has tried to save him. It is Esther who delivers the author's overall indictment of Paul: "You have brooded all alone over your melancholy thoughts, till they have bewildered you."
Inner bewilderment is such a source of terror in "Paul Felton" because it happens so easily and because Paul differs only in degree from the more social beings around him. As the story makes clear, everyone experiences unwilled mental aberrations, which suddenly appear "like visitants from hell." This is the organic mind receiving and projecting associations. Left alone, however, the mind uses these sensations too freely and quickly becomes an engine of delusion. Paul separates himself from "what is homely and substantial in this world we live in" and, hence, fails to protect himself from intrinsic impulses. "I would not be what I am," he mourns, rightly fearing his own inner psyche. The rest is an ugly, inevitable sequence. In accepting an organic theory of the mind, Dana Sr. understands that the imagination welcomes delusion and thrives on madness. Paul easily manufactures a private hell as real as the external world, and that hell expands in his narcissistic enjoyment of the act of creation.
"Paul Felton" recounts the mind's helpless pleasure in its own madness when all avenues of escape have been sealed off. Even Paul's classical education and his love of nature hurt more than they help. The former supplies a certain clarity and simplicity, but it also alienates Paul from modern society. Nature presents even graver problems; she is indifferent, leaving Paul "a withered thing amid her fresh and living beauty." Worse, she sometimes stimulates the darker recesses of his mind. A desolate wasteland directly behind the house of Paul and Esther accentuates each feeling of isolation and delusion. Moreover, "a spider" in the madman's eye feeds on a correspondence in nature. When Paul plans the murder of Esther, he is deep in the wilderness, literally supported by "some giant spider" of a pine tree. Man and nature have come together, but in horror and catastrophe instead of transcendence and a higher reality.
The reversal of romantic aspirations is surely deliberate. Dana Sr. accepts a vital link between the imagination and the natural realm, but he fears the way "quickly associating processes of the mind" magnify emotion, and he sees too much of a blank wilderness, "the place of death," to rest easily in nature. New ideas compete with old solutions. Dana Sr. wants an objective truth to secure the subjective reality that he has come to believe in. Caught between combination and contradiction, he is the first American writer to face the epistemological problems of nineteenth-century thought. Where is absolute order in a contingent universe? When do feelings represent fact? What is truth? "Paul Felton" ushers these questions into American fiction, where they lead to either a quest for ultimate meaning or a search for particular order. The isolated hero quests for meaning, social man searches for his place, and the two vie for position in every major work of the American Renaissance. Paul Felton, alas, is an early uncertain mixture of both. The man who would challenge the universe shrinks from the impropriety of a ride in his fiancée's carriage. He is the isolato as public figure, a stance that begins in confusion and ends in madness because it has "too much to do with the senses." Something beyond mere perception must clarify Paul's world, something that will fix meaning and establish order.
That something is the early American's regard for the law—the only answer Dana Sr. gives to the writer's problems. "Law as Suited to Man" in 1835, almost two decades after the lawyer rejects his profession, tries to resolve the incongruity between subjective thought and objective order by inserting the legal philosophy of Edmund Burke. In itself the attempt is a firm indication of the citizen still at work in the romantic theorist. Torn between unacceptable alternatives, Dana Sr. wants to prove "there is nothing without us which fails of reaching that which lies within." He answers the great questions of romanticism with one of his own: "And must not Law, then, give form and pressure to every part of man?" Properly understood, the law joins mind and matter, allowing "no jarring nor discordant influences within or without." Reciprocity is the key to harmony here, a reciprocity that effectively externalizes the romantic's psychological theories of correspondence. Burke has traced not only "the Teachings of law into man's finer nature" but also "the delicate, electric aura which this individual nature gives back, and diffuses through every fiber of the great, general frame." Accordingly, the law is an infinite abstraction "producing congruity, and giving continuity" between "outer political rule" and "the finest feelings in man's individual being." It meets man everywhere and on every level, its divine purpose being "to bring man into the likeness of the pattern." As for so many other early American intellectuals, the law gives Dana Sr. a principle of unity in an uncertain world; it secures "the resemblances and relations of things to each other" and ties "the upper and lower, the inward and outward world to one great end." The language sounds familiar because it is what lawyers since Thomas Jefferson had been using to order American culture.
Even so, "Law as Suited to Man" belongs to 1835. The essay consciously imposes traditional solutions upon new problems, and as such it illustrates the special dilemma of the legal mind of the 1830s better than any other document of the period. Indeed, the contradictions here suggest an impossibility beyond mere difficulty. The republic, literature, and law—all of the controlling constants—change suddenly into variables in the Jacksonian era. When Dana Sr. deplores "the very absence of checks and balances, and settled orders," he also unwittingly announces a formal break in the bonds that once held law to literature. Each theoretical affirmation in "Law as Suited to Man," and there are many, is qualified by a list of perceived ills.
Practice so violates theory in this description of America that one senses a permanent disjunction. Put another way, the republican man of letters no longer encompasses reality in 1835. His patterns of discourse do not reach the new levels of psychological process that now appear as part of every understanding. A new self-consciousness has brought another dimension to the conflation of moral and legal perspectives and with devastating implications. In "Law as Suited to Man" Dana Sr. tries to build a house with paint and brush. He desperately needs the citizen's more elementary context, but the aspirations of romanticism, which question or ignore a writer's institutional affiliations, prevent a simple return to old ways of thinking. Despite every explanation to the contrary, the legal philosopher and the romantic critic remain absolute opposites in Dana Sr.'s essay, split between social assertion and psychological insight.
"There is nothing more serious than poetry," says the literary critic in "Law as Suited to Man," a statement in support of individual creativity that no other American of his generation dared to make. This side of Dana Sr. writes to keep the mind alive, the imagination in motion, the fancy in play, and all principles of association in action. And yet the same essayist deserts "man, in his short-lived, individual character" in favor of "the person abstracted from these, and representative of permanent Law." He hopes instead to help each well-defined class find its place—"all brought about by and carried through the harmonizing Orders of a great general Law." The civic humanist of an earlier day could join these differences by making self-fulfillment a question of citizenship. Not so the intellectual of the 1830s, who began to see an increasing gulf between self and society. In 1835, the year "Law as Suited to Man" appeared, Ralph Waldo Emerson was thirty-one and ready to write that "things are not huddled and lumped, but sundered and individual." For Richard Henry Dana, Sr., the same notion meant a terrifying "principle of severance" and the certainty of communal paralysis.
Taken together, Emerson and Dana Sr. capture a crucial moment in American intellectual thought. Paradigms of social and psychological process often merge or even clash without crisis, but here they are reconstituting in a way that requires a direct reversal in modes of thought. In celebrating "the new importance given to the single person," Emerson claims that man explains society instead of the other way around. "The world is nothing, the man is all," he announces, thus becoming the first American really to accept the romantic within romantic theory. Much is at stake in this acceptance, and not least is Emerson's immediate deduction that the law be seen as an internal matter: "In yourself is the law of all nature."
The very basis of law has become a subject of dispute in Jacksonian America. By 1835 the question is no longer if law is suited to human life but how. Courtrooms are treating the law less and less as an eternal set of principles derived from natural law and more and more as an independent instrument of social policy that lawmakers have created. This change is Dana Sr.'s greatest fear. Assuming a definitive link between natural law and man-made or positive law, "Law as Suited to Man" returns again and again to the contradiction between eighteenth-century legal philosophy and nineteenth-century judicial positivism. Either the law "presses upon every part of the ductile spirit of man," or it is just a machine, "supplying conveniences and furnishing levers and springs to help on the more general purposes of man." Either it has "a necessitated beginning and continuance in our very nature," or it is "a mere arbitrary institution set up by man himself, out of convenience and choice." Either "it bodies itself forth in orders of men," or it is "a caterer to the self-conceit of man." These distinctions mark the difference between order and chaos in "Law as Suited to Man." For if legal positivism turns the law into a more flexible social instrument, it also traps law within the civic milieu, rendering it useless as a philosophical bridge between levels of existence. Gone is the "kindly adaptation" between outward forms and inward needs. Lost are fitness in gradation and a relationship in orders.
Painfully, the writer knows that his solutions no longer solve. The predictions of "Law as Suited to Man" counter its preferences. In this, the last original essay the elder Dana published, America suffers from a "mad restlessness which sets at naught all Law," and at fault is "the want of an agreement between the ordinary courses of Providence and our outward public Form of Law." These truths, once admitted, render the prescriptive tones and remedies of the traditional man of letters obsolete. For the writer who would connect law and literature, expression has lost all context except in a glorification of the past. Hence, the past for Dana Sr. becomes richly variegated marble; the present, "an uncouth, dead mass of pudding stone." As for the future, it contains "some fearful rebuke," and the prophet faces it only to prepare his children for "a world to which we would not trust ourselves." A final image of Dana Sr. as writer appears in his son's journal, where he takes pen to paper only to stop paralyzed "in the anxious, uncertain state . . . which interrupts all his labors now; a sense that it is his duty to work, & a morbid sensitiveness which makes every day & every hour an unfit time to work at." His subject? Musing upon the experiences of life from the twilight shadows of an empty room.