November 5, 2012

Birth of Allston: censure not the Poet's art

Though he is most often associated with Massachusetts, the poet/painted Washington Allston was born on a plantation near Waccamaw, South Carolina on November 5, 1779. While in school in Rhode Island, he became interested in Art; by the time he graduated from Harvard in 1800, he was also interested in poetry and delivered a class poem.

After graduating, Allston spent some time at the Royal Academy in London. He then continued his studies in Paris and Rome before returning to the United States in 1809. Only two years later, he returned to Europe and there published his first book, Sylphs of the Seasons, in 1813. By 1818, he returned to the Boston area and remained there for the rest of his life.

In addition to the title poem in Allston's first book, Sylphs of the Seasons included several poems with religious themes, references to classical mythology, as well as lines dedicated to works of Art. Allston was considered by many to be among the first American poets attempting to show the Old World that creative culture existed in the United States. Moreover, there were some Americans who considered poetry a wasted effort. One of the poems in Allston's first collection, "To a Lady Who Spoke Slightingly of Poets," gets defensive:

Oh, censure not the Poet's art,
Nor think it chills the feeling heart
    To love the gentle Muses.
Can that which in a stone or flower,
As if by transmigrating power,
    His gen'rous soul infuses;

Can that for social joys impair
The heart that like the lib'ral air
    All Nature's self embraces;
That in the cold Norwegian main,
Or mid the tropic hurricane
    Her varied beauty traces;

That in her meanest work can find
A fitness and a grace combin'd
    In blest harmonious union,
That even with the cricket holds,
As if by sympathy of souls,
    Mysterious communion;

Can that with sordid selfishness
His wide-expanded heart impress,
    Whose consciousness is loving;
Who, giving life to all he spies,
His joyous being multiplies
    In youthfulness improving?

Oh, Lady, then, fair queen of Earth,
Thou loveliest of mortal birth,
    Spurn not thy truest lover;
Nor censure him whose keener sense
Can feel thy magic influence
    Where nought the world discover;

Whose eye on that bewitching face
Can every source unnumber'd trace
    Of germinating blisses;
See Sylphids o'er thy forchead weave
The lily-fibred film, and leave
    It fix'd with honied kisses;

While some within thy liquid eyes,
Like minnows of a thousand dies
    Through lucid waters glancing,
In busy motion to and fro,
The gems of diamond-beetles sow,
    Their lustre thus enhancing:

Here some, their little vases fiil'd
With blushes for thy check distill'd
    From roses newly blowing,
Each tiny thirsting pore supply;
And some in quick succession by
    The down of peaches strowing:

There others who from hanging bell
Of cowslip caught the dew that fell
    While yet the day was breaking,
And o'er thy pouting lips diffuse
The tincture—still its glowing hues
    Of purple morn partaking:

Here some, that in the petals prest
Of humid honeysuckles, rest
    From nightly fog defended,
Flutter their fragrant wings between,
Like humming-birds that scarce are seen,
    They seem with air so blended!

While some, in equal clusters knit,
On either side in circles flit,
    Like bees in April swarming,
Their tiny weight each other lend,
And force the yielding cheek to bend,
    Thy laughing dimples forming.

Ner, Lady, think the Poet's eye
Can only outward charms espy,
    Thy form alone adorning—
Ah, Lady, no: though fair they be,
Yet he a fairer sight may see,
    Thy lovely soul exploring:

And while from part to part it flies
The gentle Spirit he descries,
    Through every line pursuing;
And feels upon his nature shower
That pure, that humanizing power,
    Which raises by subduing.

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