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Concerning high-water marks

in Eckermann's conversations with Goethe, the poet is described as once showing his admirer a letter from Zelter which was obviously witten in a fortunate hour. Pen, paper, handwriting, were all favorable; so that for once, Goethe said, there was a true and complete expression of the man, and perhaps one never again to be obtained in like perfection. The student of literature is constantly impressed with the existence of these single autographs, these high-water marks as it were, of individual genius.

‘It is in the perfection and precision of the instantaneous line,’ wrote Ruskin in his earlier days, ‘that the claim of immortality is made.’ Dr. Holmes somewhere counsels a young author to be wary of the fate that submerges so many famous works, and advises him to risk his all upon a small volume of poems, among which there may be one, conceived in some happy [98] hour, that shall live. After the few great reputations there is perhaps no better anchorage in the vast sea of fame than a single sonnet like that of Blanco White. Since, at the best, one's reputation is to be determined by one's high-water mark, why not be content with that alone? If all but the one best work must surely be forgotten, why should the rest be called into existence? Let it perish with prize poems and Commencement orations, if one can only determine in advance which is the single and felicitous offspring possessing that precise quality which the physicians name ‘viability’ —the capacity to keep itself alive.

Happily, this is not so difficult as one might suppose. It often takes a great while to determine the comparative merit of authors,— indeed, the newspapers are just now saying that the late Mr. Tupper had a larger income from the sales of his works than Browning, Tennyson, and Lowell jointly received,—but it does not take so long to determine which among an author's works are the best; and it is probable that the ‘Descent of Neptune’ in the Iliad, and the ‘Vision of Helen’ in the Agamemnon [99] of Aeschylus, and Sappho's famous ode, and the ‘Birds’ of Aristophanes, and the ‘Hylas’ of Theocritus, and the ‘Sparrow’ of Catullus, and the ‘De Arte Poetica’ of Horace were early recognized as being the same distinct masterpieces that we now find them. It is the tradition that an empress wept when Virgil recited his ‘Tu Marcellus eris;’ and it still remains the one passage in the Aeneid that calls tears to the eye. After all, contemporary criticism is less trivial than we think. ‘Philosophers,’ says Novalis, ‘are the eternal Nile-gauges of a tide that has passed away, and the only question we ask of them is, “How high water?” ’ But contemporary criticism is also a Nile-gauge, and it records highwater marks with a curious approach to accuracy.

There was never a time, for instance, when Holmes's early poem, ‘The Last Leaf,’ was not recognized as probably his best, up to the time when ‘The Chambered Nautilus’ superseded it, and took its place unequivocally as his high-water mark. At every author's reading it is the crowning desire that Holmes should [100] read the latter of these two poems, though he is still permitted to add the former. From the moment when Lowell read his ‘Commemoration Ode’ at Cambridge, that great poem took for him the same position; while out of any hundred critics ninety-nine would place the ‘Day in June’ as the best of his shorter passages, and the ‘Bigelow Papers,’ of course, stand collectively for his humor. Emerson's ‘The Problem’—containing the only verses by a living author hung up for contemplation in Westminster Abbey—still stands as the highwater mark of his genius, although possibly, so great is the advantage possessed by a shorter poem, it may be superseded at last by his ‘Daughters of Time.’ No one doubts that Bayard Taylor will go down to fame, if at all, by his brief ‘Legend of Balaklava,’ and Julia Ward Howe by her ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ It is, perhaps, characteristic of the even and well-distributed muse of Whittier that it is less easy to select his high-water mark; but perhaps ‘My Playmate’ comes as near to it as anything. Bryant's ‘Waterfowl’ is easily selected, and so is Longfellow's ‘Wreck of the [101] “Hesperus,” ’ as conveying more sense of shaping imagination than any other, while ‘Evangeline’ would, of course, command the majority of votes among his longer poems. In some cases, as in Whitman's ‘My Captain,’ the high-water mark may have been attained precisely at the moment when the poet departed from his theory and confined himself most nearly to the laws he was wont to spurn—in this case, by coming nearest to a regularity of rhythm.

The praise generally bestowed on the admirable selections in the ‘Library of American Literature,’ by Mr. Stedman and Miss Hutchinson, is a proof that there is a certain consensus of opinion on this subject. Had they left out Austin's ‘Peter Rugg,’ or Hale's ‘A Man Without a Country,’ there would have been a general feeling of discontent. It would have been curious to see if, had these editors been forced by public opinion to put in something of their own, they would have inserted what others would regard as their high-water mark. I should have predicted that it would be so; and that this would be, in Stedman's case, the stanzas beginning—

Thou art mine; thou hast given thy word,

[102] and closing with that unsurpassed poetic symbol of hopeless remoteness—
As the pearl in the depths of the sea
From the portionless king who would wear it.

In the case of Miss Hutchinson, her exquisite little poem of ‘The Moth-Song’ will be equally unmistakable. When Harriet Prescott Spofford's first youthful story, ‘Sir Rohan's Ghost,’ originally appeared, Lowell selected from it with strong admiration, in the Atlantic Monthly, the song, ‘In a Summer Evening;’ and it still remains the most unequivocal product of her rare but unequal genius. The late Helen Jackson placed the poem called ‘Spinning’ at the head of her volume of ‘Verses,’ not because it was that which touched the greatest depths, but because it seemed to be universally accepted as her fullest, maturest, and most thoughtful product. Aldrich's noble Fredericksburg sonnet, in a somewhat similar way, stands out by itself; it seems to differ in kind rather than degree from the ‘airy rhyme’ of which he is wont to be the ‘enamored architect;’ its texture is so firm, its cadence so grand, that it seems more and more [103] likely to rank as being, next to Lowell's Ode, the most remarkable poem called out by the Civil War. It is such writing as Keats pronounced to be ‘next to fine doing, the top thing in the universe;’ and we must not forget that Wolfe, before Quebec, pronounced fine writing to be the greater thing of the two.

The crowning instances of high-water marks are in those poems which, like Blanco White's sonnet, alone bear the writer's name down to posterity. How completely the truculent Poe fancied that he had extinguished for all time the poetry of my gifted and wayward kinsman, Ellery Channing; and yet it is not at all certain that the one closing line of Channing's ‘A Poet's Hope,’ —

If my bark sinks, 'tis to another sea,

may not secure the immortality it predicts, and perhaps outlive everything of Poe's. Wasson's fine poem, ‘Bugle Notes,’ beginning,—
Sweet-voiced Hope, thy fine discourse
Foretold not half Life's good to me,

will be, unless I greatly mistake, as lasting as the seventeenth-century poems among which it [104] naturally ranks. The mere title, ‘Some Lover's Clear Day,’ of Weiss's poem will endure, perhaps, after the verses themselves and all else connected with that unique and wayward personality are forgotten. It is many years since I myself wrote of ‘that rare and unappreciated thinker, Brownlee Brown;’ and he is less known now than he was then; yet his poem on Immortality, preserved by Stedman and Hutchinson, is so magnificent that it cheapens most of its contemporary literature, and seems alone worth a life otherwise obscure. It is founded on Xenophon's well-known story of the soldiers of Cyrus's expedition. ‘As soon as the men who were in the vanguard had climbed the hill and beheld the sea, they gave a great shout . . . crying θάλαττα! θάλαττα!

The Cry of the ten thousand.

I stand upon the summit of my life:
Behind, the camp, the court, the field, the grove,
The battle and the burden; vast, afar,
Beyond these weary ways, Behold, the Sea!
The sea o'erswept by clouds and winds and wings,
By thoughts and wishes manifold, whose breath
Is freshness, and whose mighty pulse is peace.
Palter no question of the horizon dim,--
Cut loose the bark; such voyage itself is rest,
Majestic motion, unimpeded scope, [105]
A widening heaven, a current without care,
Eternity!—deliverance, promise, course!
Time-tired souls salute thee from the shore.

Who knows but that, when all else of American literature has vanished into forgetfulness, some single little masterpiece like this may remain to show the high-water mark, not merely of a single poet, but of a nation and a generation?

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