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NATHANIEL PARKER WILLIS.
THERE is a want of naturalness in Mr. Willis's writings which will inevitably affect their continuance, and we have doubts whether any of his numerous prose works will remain permanent portions of Literature.
There are two descriptions of popularity which are essentially different; the first is founded on the human heart, the other is merely supported by the conventionalities of the present time. Popularity is, therefore, not a sure test; we should then first inquire what kind of popularity an author possesses before we decide upon his relative chance of immortality.
How many great celebrities have passed away? Who was so popular as Churchill in his own day? Yet he is now seldom read or quoted. His popularity was built on a figment of Human Nature, and not based on the breath of the Heart of Man. He was a satirist, and not a poet; the personal dies with the man and his victim, but the universal will live for ever. In like manner, to descend to the present day, we can come pretty near a prophetic glance into the future, by carefully selecting the characteristics of any author, and judging him by that unerring standard. We may give as an instance Mr. Thackeray, whose productions are now so generally read and lauded ; the
slightest glance at him will convince the critic that when the peculiar phase of society he treats on shall pass away, he will likewise go with it. It is also worthy of observation that the very fact which might in some cases preserve it becomes its destroyer. It might naturally be supposed that it would be prized as a record of the past; but it seems as though the interest died away with the thing described.
On this ground we fear that Mr. Willis will not be an enduring writer. The persiflage and piquancy of his style, which are now so enticing, will in a few years become the obscurers of his fame, just as the pertness and vivacity of the blooming girl become intolerable in the matron. Posterity demands something substantial, condensed, and truthful. It is a very close-judging critic, and all personal considerations are lost upon it. Appeals to feeling are unknown; it is the Rhadamanthus of authors. The present race, on the other hand, are too apt to overlook the solid merits of a work, and be taken by the tinsel of the outside garb; they choose beauty, grace, or accomplishment, before virtue or truth. Many honorable, noble natures sit in the judgment-seat and discourse most excellent music, but their audiences grow weary and thin away, till they themselves depart unheeded ; while the dancing girl, organgrinder, tumbler, or Punch and Judy, have a ready and numerous crowd of listeners.
However much this may be deplored, it cannot be helped. The present race is not instructed by its contemporaries, but by its ancestors. The writers of the day only amuse ; the living man is listened to only as long as he is entertaining or exciting; but the grave sanctifies the voice of the dead, and arrests the
traveller's attention. The Siste Viator of the sepulchre is the “open sesame” to the attention of the world.
We have thought it necessary to make these preliminary remarks, lest our estimate of so popular an author as Mr. Willis should be considered harsh or unjust. It will be seen we try our American men of genius by the highest standard. It is no child's plaything that they have to bend, but the Bow of Ulysses ; and we feel sure, upon a little consideration, they will consider it as a compliment rather than a detraction or reproach. We want them to be fellow-laborers with Marlow, Shakspeare, Milton, and Halley, and men of that calibre, and not the playfellows of the minnesinger and the troubadour.
To quote the verse of Watts :
“ Were I so tall as reach the pole,
And grasp the ocean with a span,
That is the standard of the man.”
It is not his popularity by which we must measure the author, but the intellect he puts forth. This is a perpetual landmark not washed away by every strong tide of opinion, always ebbing and flowing, but unmoved and visible to all.
Intellect is even more unvarying than faith. Plato, Euclid, Aristotle, and the Greek dramatists, remain undiminished, like the pyramids. Time consolidates the achievements of poetry, philosophy, and mathematics. All minds, even now, bow to the masters of thought; but the religious faith of these great
men is now too childish for even the boy, and we read it now, and regard it, as a fable or an absurdity.
This fact will lead us to a better estimate of our living authors than we shall attain without keeping it fully in view. We are aware there is a certain instinct in our nature, which seems to forbid or modify any admiration of one with whom we are in the habit of frequent intercourse. Our egotism steps in and places before the brightness of their inner mind, the blinding or intercepting screen of those personal infirmities or necessities which are part and parcel of human nature, and the absence of which places a man out of the pale of humanity itself. All see and feel the palpable injustice of this mode of judging, but inevitably fall into it.
The poet felt this when he said:
“Let fame, which all hunt after in their lives,
Live registered upon their brazen tombs."
The grave seems to be the only pedestal on which a man shows to advantage.
Mr. Willis first became popular with a class on account of his sacred poems. These are still much admired. Our first impression was with his admirers, but our more matured judgment is bound to state that they lack the very soul of sacred poetry, simplicity and earnestness. They are too elegant to be sublime, and breathe more of the perfumer's shop than the fragrant incense of the altar.
A few quotations will illustrate our meaning, and we hope establish our judgment; at all events, it will enable the reader to decide upon either our discretion or our candor.
We select a passage from “The Healing of the Daughter of Jairus.” The touching simplicity of this is known to every reader of the Bible. Mr. Willis thus renders it:
“ They passed in.
This short passage displays almost every peculiarity which sacred poetry should not possess. It is pretty, very pretty ; but as far from truth and nature as a French milliner is from the Venus de Medicis. We have italicized a few of the most glaring violations of propriety.
We give one more extract to complete the picture : it immediately follows the previous quotation.
“ Like a form