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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836–1907)

A POET in verse often becomes a poet in prose also, in composing novels; although the novelist may not, and in general does not, possess the faculty of writing poems. The poet-novelist is apt to put into his prose a good deal of the same charm and the same picturesque choice of phrase and image that characterize his verse; while it does not follow that the novelist who at times writes verse—like George Eliot, for example—succeeds in giving a distinctly poetic quality to prose, or even wishes to do so. Among authors who have displayed peculiar power and won fame in the dual capacity of poet and of prose romancer or novelist, Sir Walter Scott and Victor Hugo no doubt stand pre-eminent; and in American literature, Edgar Allan Poe and Oliver Wendell Holmes very strikingly combine these two functions. Another American author who has gained a distinguished position both as a poet and as a writer of prose fiction and essays is Thomas Bailey Aldrich.

It is upon his work in the form of verse, perhaps, that Aldrich’s chief renown is based; but some of his short stories in especial have contributed much to his popularity, no less than to his repute as a delicate and polished artificer in words. A New Englander, he has infused into some of his poems the true atmosphere of New England, and has given the same light and color of home to his prose, while imparting to his productions in both kinds a delightful tinge of the foreign and remote. In addition to his capacities as a poet and a romancer, he is a wit and humorist of sparkling quality. In reading his books one seems also to inhale the perfumes of Arabia and the farther East, blended with the salt sea-breeze and the pine-scented air of his native State, New Hampshire.

He was born in the old seaside town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, November 11th, 1836; but moved to New York City in 1854, at the age of seventeen. There he remained until 1866; beginning his work quite early; forming his literary character by reading and observation, by the writing of poems, and by practice and experience of writing prose sketches and articles for journals and periodicals. During this period he entered into associations with the poets Stedman, Stoddard, and Bayard Taylor, and was more or less in touch with the group that included Walt Whitman, Fitz-James O’Brien, and William Winter. Removing to Boston in January, 1866, he became the editor of Every Saturday, and remained in that post until 1874, when he resigned. In 1875 he made a long tour in Europe, plucking the first fruits of foreign travel, which were succeeded by many rich and dainty gatherings from the same source in later years. In the intervals of these wanderings he lived in Boston and Cambridge; occupying for a time James Russell Lowell’s historic house of Elmwood, in the semi-rural university city; and then established a pretty country house at Ponkapog, a few miles west of Boston. This last suggested the title for a charming book of travel papers, ‘From Ponkapog to Pesth.’ In 1881 he was appointed editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and continued to direct that famous magazine for nine years, frequently making short trips to Europe, extending his tours as far as the heart of Russia, and gathering fresh materials, for essay or song. Much of his time since giving up the Atlantic editorship has been passed in voyaging, and in 1894–5 he made a journey around the world.

From the beginning he struck with quiet certainty the vein that was his by nature in poetry; and this has broadened almost continually, yielding richer results, which have been worked out with an increasing refinement of skill. His predilection is for the picturesque; for romance combined with simplicity, purity, and tenderness of feeling, touched by fancy and by occasional lights of humor so reserved and dainty that they never disturb the pictorial harmony. The capacity for unaffected utterance of feeling on matters common to humanity reached a climax in the poem of ‘Baby Bell,’ which by its sympathetic and delicate description of a child’s advent and death gave the author a claim to the affections of a wide circle; and this remained for a long time probably the best known among his poems. ‘Friar Jerome’s Beautiful Book’ is another of the earlier favorites. ‘Spring in New England’ has since come to hold high rank both for its vivid and graceful description of the season, for its tender fervor of patriotism, and for its sentiment of reconciliation between North and South. The lines on ‘Piscataqua River’ remain one of the best illustrations of boyhood memories, and have something of Whittier’s homely truth. In his longer narrative pieces, ‘Judith’ and ‘Wyndham Towers,’ cast in the mold of blank-verse idyls, Mr. Aldrich does not seem so much himself as in many of his briefer flights. An instinctive dramatic tendency finds outlet in ‘Pauline Paulovna’ and ‘Mercedes’—the latter of which, a two-act piece in prose, has found representation in the theatre; yet in these, also, he is less eminently successful than in his lyrics and society verse.

No American poet has wrought his stanzas with greater faithfulness to an exacting standard of craftsmanship than Mr. Aldrich, or has known better when to leave a line loosely cast, and when to reinforce it with correction or with a syllable that might seem, to an ear less true, redundant. This gives to his most carefully chiseled productions an air of spontaneous ease, and has made him eminent as a sonneteer. His sonnet on ‘Sleep’ is one of the finest in the language. The conciseness and concentrated aptness of his expression also—together with a faculty of bringing into conjunction subtly contrasted thoughts, images, or feelings—has issued happily in short, concentrated pieces like ‘An Untimely Thought,’ ‘Destiny,’ and ‘Identity,’ and in a number of pointed and effective quatrains. Without overmastering purpose outside of art itself, his is the poetry of luxury rather than of deep passion or conviction; yet, with the freshness of bud and tint in springtime, it still always relates itself effectively to human experience. The author’s specially American quality, also, though not dominant, comes out clearly in ‘Unguarded Gates,’ and with a differing tone in the plaintive Indian legend of ‘Miantowona.’

If we perceive in his verse a kinship with the dainty ideals of Théophile Gautier and Alfred de Musset, this does not obscure his originality or his individual charm; and the same thing may be said with regard to his prose. The first of his short fictions that made a decided mark was ‘Marjorie Daw.’ The fame which it gained, in its separate field, was as swift and widespread as that of Hawthorne’s ‘The Gentle Boy’ or Bret Harte’s ‘Luck of Roaring Camp.’ It is a bright and half-pathetic little parody on human life and affection; or perhaps we should call it a parable symbolizing the power which imagination wields over real life, even in supposedly unimaginative people. The covert smile which it involves, at the importance of human emotions, may be traced to a certain extent in some of Mr. Aldrich’s longer and more serious works of fiction: his three novels, ‘Prudence Palfrey,’ ‘The Queen of Sheba,’ and ‘The Stillwater Tragedy.’ ‘The Story of a Bad Boy,’ frankly but quietly humorous in its record of the pranks and vicissitudes of a healthy average lad (with the scene of the story localized at old Portsmouth, under the name of Rivermouth), a less ambitious work, still holds a secure place in the affections of many mature as well as younger readers. Besides these books, Mr. Aldrich has published a collection of short descriptive, reminiscent, and half-historic papers on Portsmouth,—‘An Old Town by the Sea’; with a second volume of short stories entitled ‘Two Bites at a Cherry.’ The character-drawing in his fiction is clear-cut and effective, often sympathetic, and nearly always suffused with an agreeable coloring of humor. There are notes of pathos, too, in some of his tales; and it is the blending of these qualities, through the medium of a lucid and delightful style, that defines his pleasing quality in prose.

His later publications included ‘A Sea Turn’ (1902), ‘Ponkapog Papers’ (1903), the poetical drama ‘Judith of Bethula’ (1904), ‘Paulina Paulovina’ (1907), the ‘Songs and Sonnets’ (1907). Until the end his work continued to show the same fastidious art. Aldrich died in Boston on March 19, 1907. His last poetical work was his exquisite tribute to Longfellow written for the Centenary celebration in Cambridge, which was penned only a few weeks prior to his death. His ‘Life’ by Ferris Greenslet appeared in 1908.