Christopher Cranch: Criticism by Edgar Allan Poe

Godey's, 1846

The Reverend C. P. Cranch is one of the least intolerable of the school of Boston transcendentalists � and, in fact, I believe that he has at last "come out from among them," abandoned their doctrines (whatever they are) and given up their company in disgust. He was at one time one of the most noted, and undoubtedly one of the least absurd contributors to "The Dial," but has reformed his habits of thought and speech, domiciliated himself in New York, and set up the easel of an artist in one of the Gothic chambers of the University.

About two years ago a volume of "Poems by Christopher Pease Cranch" was published by Carey and Hart. It was most unmercifully treated by the critics, and much injustice, in my opinion, was done to the poet. He seems to me to possess unusual vivacity of fancy and dexterity of expression, while his versification is remarkable for its accuracy, vigor, and even for its originality of effect. I might say, perhaps, rather more than all this, and maintain that he has imagination if he would only condescend to employ it, which he will not, or would not until lately � the word-compounders and quibble concoctors of Frogpondium [[Boston]] having inoculated him with preference for Imagination's half sister, the Cinderella, Fancy. Mr. Cranch has seldom contented himself with harmonious combinations of thought. There must always be, to afford him perfect satisfaction, a certain amount of the odd, of the whimsical, of the affected, [page 19:] of the bizarre. He is as full of absurd conceits as Cowley or Donne, with this difference, that the conceits of these latter are Euphuisms beyond redemption � flat, irremediable, self-contented nonsensicalities, and in so much are good of their kind; but the conceits of Mr. Cranch are, for the most part, conceits intentionally manufactured, for conceit's sake, out of the material for properly imaginative, harmonious, proportionate, or poetical ideas. We see every moment that he has been at uncommon pains to make a fool of himself.

But perhaps I am wrong in supposing that I am at all in condition to decide on the merits of Mr. C.'s poetry, which is professedly addressed to the few. "Him we will seek," says the poet �

"Him we will seek, and none but him,
Whose inward sense hath not grown dim;
Whose soul is steeped in Nature's tinct,
And to the Universal linked;
Who loves the beauteous Infinite
With deep and ever new delight,
And carrieth where'er he goes
The inborn sweetness of the rose,
The perfume as of Paradise �
The talisman above all price �
The optic glass that wins from far
The meaning of the utmost star �
The key that opes the golden doors
Where earth and heaven have piled their stores �
The magic ring, the enchanter's wand �
The title-deed to Wonder-Land �
The wisdom that o'erlooketh sense,
The clairvoyance of Innocence."

This is all very well, fanciful, pretty and neatly turned � all with the exception of the two last lines, and it is a pity they were not left out. It is laughable to see that the transcendental poets, if beguiled for a minute or two into respectable English and common sense, are always sure to remember their cue just as they get to the end of their song, which, by way of salvo, they then round off with a bit of doggerel about "wisdom that o'erlooketh sense" and "the clairvoyance of Innocence." It is especially observable that, in adopting the cant of thought, the cant of phraseology is adopted at the same instant. Can Mr. Cranch, or can anybody else, inform me why it is that, in the really sensible opening passages of what I have here quoted, he employs the modern, and only in the final couplet of goosetherumfoodle makes use of the obsolete terminations of verbs in the third person singular, present tense?

One of the best of Mr. Cranch's compositions is undoubtedly his poem on Niagara. It has some natural thoughts, and grand ones, suiting the subject; but then they are more than half-divested of their nature by the attempt at adorning them with [column 2:] oddity of expression. Quaintness is an admissible and important adjunct to ideality � an adjunct whose value has been long misapprehended � but in picturing the sublime it is altogether out of place. What idea of power, of grandeur, for example, can any human being connect even with Niagara, when Niagara is described in language so trippingly fantastical, so palpably adapted to a purpose, as that which follows?

"I stood upon a speck of ground;
Before me fell a stormy ocean.
I was like a captive bound;
And around
A universe of sound
Troubled the heavens with ever-quivering motion.
"Down, down forever � down, down forever �
Something falling, falling, falling;
Up, up forever � up, up, forever,
Resting never,
Boiling up forever,
Steam-clouds shot up with thunder-bursts appalling."

It is difficult to conceive anything more ludicrously out of keeping than the thoughts of these stanzas and the petit-ma�tre, fidgety, hop-skip-and-jump air of the words and the Liliputian parts of the versification.

A somewhat similar metre is adopted by Mr. C. in his "Lines on Hearing Triumphant Music," but as the subject is essentially different, so the effect is by no means so displeasing. I copy one of the stanzas as the noblest individual passage which I can find among all the poems of its author.

"That glorious strain!
Oh, from my brain
I see the shadows flitting like scared ghosts.
A 1ight � a light
Shines in to-night
Round the good angels trooping to their posts,
And the black cloud is rent in twain
Before the ascending strain."

Mr. Cranch is well educated, and quite accomplished. Like Mr. Osborn, he is musician, painter and poet, being in each capacity very respectably successful.

He is about thirty-three or four years of age; in height, perhaps five feet eleven; athletic; front face not unhandsome � the forehead evincing intellect, and the smile pleasant ; but the profile is marred by the turning up of the nose, and, altogether is hard and disagreeable. His eyes and hair are dark brown � the latter worn short, slightly inclined to curl. Thick whiskers meeting under the chin, and much out of keeping with the shirt-collar � la Byron. Dresses with marked plainness. He is married.

Also in THE LITERATI OF NEW YORK CITY. � NO. III.

On Cranch from "The Rationale of Verse": One of our finest poets, Mr. Christopher Pearse Cranch, begins a very beautiful poem thus:

Many are the thoughts that come to me
In my lonely musing; And they drift so strange and swift
There's no time for choosing Which to follow; for to leave
Any, seems a losing.

"A losing" to Mr. Cranch, of course- but this en passant. It will be seen here that the intention is trochaic;- although we do not see this intention by the opening foot as we should do, or even by the opening line. Reading the whole stanza, however, we perceive the trochaic rhythm as the general design, and so after some reflection, we divide the first line thus:

Thus scanned, the line will seem musical. It is highly so. And it is because there is no end to instances of just such lines of apparently incomprehensible music, that Coleridge thought proper to invent his nonsensical system of what he calls "scanning by accents"- as if "scanning by accents" were anything more than a phrase. Whenever "Christabel" is really not rough, it can be as readily scanned by the true I laws (not the supposititious rules) of verse, as can the simplest pentameter of Pope; and where it is rough (passim) these same laws will enable any one of common sense to show why it is rough and to point out instantaneously the remedy for the roughness.

A reads and re-reads a certain line, and pronounces it false in rhythm-unmusical. B, however, reads it to A, and A is at once struck with the perfection of the rhythm, and wonders at his dulness in not "catching" it before. Henceforward he admits the line to be musical. B, triumphant, asserts that, to be sure the line is musical- for it is the work of Coleridge- and that it is A who is not; the fault being in A's false reading. Now here A is right and B wrong. That rhythm is erroneous (at some point or other more or less obvious), which any ordinary reader can, without design, read improperly. It is the business of the poet so to construct his line that the intention must be caught at once. Even when these men have precisely the same understanding of a sentence, they differ, and often widely, in their modes of enunciating it. Any one who has taken the trouble to examine the topic of emphasis (by which I here mean not accent of particular syllables, but the dwelling on entire words), must have seen that men emphasize in the most singularly arbitrary manner. There are certain large classes of people, for example, who persist in emphasizing their monosyllables. Little uniformity of emphasis prevails; because the thing itself- the idea, emphasis- is referabie to no natural- at least to no well comprehended and therefore uniform-law. Beyond a very narrow and vague limit, the whole matter is conventionality. And if we differ in emphasis even when we agree in comprehension, how much more so in the former when in the latter too! Apart, however, from the consideration of natural disagreement, is it not clear that, by tripping here and mouthing there, any sequence of words may be twisted into any species of rhythm? But are we thence to deduce that all sequences of words are rhythmical in a rational understanding of the term?- for this is the deduction precisely to which the reductio ad absurdum will, in the end, bring all the propositions of Coleridge. Out of a hundred readers of "Christabel," fifty will be able to make nothing of its rhythm, while forty-nine of the remaining fifty with some ado, fancy they comprehend it, after the fourth or fifth perusal. The one out of the whole hundred who shall both comprehend and admire it at first sight- must be an unaccountably clever person- and I am by far too modest to assume, for a moment, that that very clever person is myself.

In illustration of what is here advanced I cannot do better than quote a poem:

Pease porridge hot pease porridge cold
Pease porridge in the pot- nine days old.

Now those of my readers who have never heard this poem pronounced according to the nursery conventionality, will find its rhythm as obscure as an explanatory note; while those who have heard it will divide it thus, declare it musical, and wonder how there can be any doubt about it.

Pease / porridge / hot / pease / porridge / cold /
Pease / porridge / in the / pot / nine / days / old. /

The chief thing in the way of this species of rhythm, is the necessity which it imposes upon the poet of travelling in constant company with his compositions, so as to be ready at a moment's notice, to avail himself of a well-understood poetical license- that of reading aloud one's own doggerel.

In Mr. Cranch's line,

Many are the / thoughts that / come to / me,

the general error of which I speak is, of course, very partially exemplified, and the purpose for which, chiefly, I cite it, lies yet further on in our topic. ,p> The two divisions (thoughts that) and (come to) are ordinary trochees. The first division (many are the) would be thus accented by the Greek Prosodies (many are the), and would be called by them astrologos. The Latin books would style the foot Paeon Primus, and both Greek and Latin would swear that it was compoded of a trochee and what they term a pyrrhic- that is to say, a foot of two short syllables- a thing that cannot be, as I shall presently show.

But now, there is an obvious difficulty. The astrologos, according to the Prosodies' own showing, is equal to five short syllables, and the trochee to three- yet, in the line quoted, these two feet are equal. They occupy, precisely, the same time. In fact, the whole music of the line depends upon their being made to occupy the same time. The Prosodies then, have demonstrated what all mathematicians have stupidly failed in demonstrating- that three and five are one and the same thing. After what I have already said, however, about the bastard trochee and the bastard iambus, no one can have any trouble in understanding that many are the is of similar character. It is merely a bolder variation than usual from the routine of trochees, and introduces to the bastard trochee one additional syllable. But this syllable is not short. That is, it is not short in the sense of "short" as applied to the final syllable of the ordinary trochee, where the word means merely the half of long.

In this case (that of the additional syllable) "short," if used at all, must be used in the sense of the sixth of long. And all the three final syllables can be called short only with the same understanding of the term. The three together are equal only to the one short syllable (whose place they supply) of the ordinary trochee. It follows that there is no sense in accenting these syllables with [a crescent placed with the curve to the bottom]. We must devise for them some new character which shall denote the sixth of long. Let it be the crescent placed with the curve to the left. The whole foot (many are the) might be called a quick trochee.

We now come to the final division (me) of Mr. Cranch's line. It is clear that this foot, short as it appears, is fully equal in time to each of the preceding. It is, in fact, the caesura- the foot which, in the beginning of this paper, I called the most important in all verse. Its chief office is that of pause or termination; and here- at the end of a line- its use is easy, because there is no danger of misapprehending its value. We pause on it, by a seeming necessity, just so long as it has taken us to pronounce the preceding feet, whether iambuses, trochees, dactyls, or anapaests. It is thus a variable foot, and, with some care, may be well introduced into the body of a line, as in a little poem of great beauty by Mrs. Welby:

I have / a lit / tle step / son / of on / ly three / years old. /

Here we dwell on the caesura, son just as long as it requires us to pronounce either of the preceding or succeeding iambuses. Its value, therefore, in this line, is that of three short syllables. In the following dactylic line its value is that of four short syllables.

Pale as a / lily was / Emily / [Gray]. /

I have accented the caesura with brackets by way of expressing this variability of value.

I observed just now that there could be no such foot as one of two short syllables. What we start from in the very beginning of all idea on the topic of verse, is quantity, length. Thus when we enunciate an independent syllable it is long, as a matter of course. If we enunciate two, dwelling on both we express equality in the enunciation, or length, and have a right to call them two long syllables. If we dwell on one more than the other, we have also a right to call one short, because it is short in relation to the other. But if we dwell on both equally, and with a tripping voice, saying to ourselves here are two short syllables, the query might well be asked of us- "in relation to what are they short?" Shortness is but the negation of length. To say, then, that two syllables, placed independently of any other syllable, are short, is merely to say that they have no positive length, or enunciation- in other words, that they are no syllables- that they do not exist at all. And if, persisting, we add anything about their equality, we are merely floundering in the idea of an identical equation, where, x being equal to x, nothing is shown to be equal to zero. In a word, we can form no conception of a pyrrhic as of an independent foot. It is a mere chimera bred in the mad fancy of a pedant.