Washington Allston

It is frustrating to be given only a selection of Washington Allston’s “The Sylphs of the Seasons” in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry, since it is the strongest poem in the compilation thus far. The basic premise is that each of the seasons argues to the narrator its charms, and he is then to choose his favorite from among them. (If any information is given about who this narrator is, it is not included in the selection.) The selection includes the case for Autumn and for Winter. The poem is written entirely in eight line stanzas with an AABCCCB rhyme scheme, the A and C lines in iambic tetrameter, the B lines in iambic trimester. It can get a little wearying, but Allston mostly wields it competently, and I admit to some friendliness simply on the grounds that he didn’t use heroic couplets.

The poem has the same commitment to moralizing that has been present in so many of these selections. Here, for instance, is the Sylph of Autumn:

‘Twas I, when thou, subdued by woe,
Didst watch the leaves descending slow,
To each a moral gave;
And as they mov’d in mournful train,
With rustling sound, along the plain,
Taught them to sing a seraph’s strain
Of peace within the grave.

I am not much moved by this, I think because I have no sense of who the narrator is. (I stress that I do not know if this is the fault of Allston or of John Hollander, who made the selections for this volume.) Because the narrator is faceless, this moral appears as universal. To see this in the leaves becomes the universal experience of autumn. But the moralism of nature is always more personal than this. Nature needs the aid of individual experience to put on such garb, and the poem (or selection) lacks that necessary element. So it lacks some credibility.

But there are portions I enjoy, as these three stanzas spoken by the Sylph of Winter:

Though Autumn grave, and Summer fair,
And joyous Spring demand a share
Of Fancy’s hallow’d power,
Yet these I hold of humbler kind,
To grosser means of earth confin’d,
Through mortal sense to reach the mind,
By mountain, stream, or flower.

But mine, of purer nature still,
Is that which to thy secret will
Did minister unseen,
Unfelt, unheard; when every sense
Did sleep in drowsy indolence,
And Silence deep and Night intense
Enshrowded every scene;

That o’er thy teeming brain did raise
The spirits of departed days
Through all the varying year;
And images of things remote,
And sounds that long had ceas’d to float,
With every hue, and every note,
As living now they were:

The crucial moment is in the second stanza: the enjambment of the third line. The spillover, the way it is not contained within the natural boundaries of the form, accentuates the mystic power of Winter’s ministry. As it happens, I think Allston is wrong here: the appeal that Winter makes to us is precisely through our senses. The austere minimalism of the winter landscape does not bring our senses to “sleep in drowsy indolence.” Just the opposite—it invigorates them. It is rather more the messy abundance of spring that is likely to berate my senses into a stupor. But no matter: that small moment of poetic craft makes the falsehood believable.

The poem ends on a disappointing note, with the narrator failing to choose between the seasons:

“Oh blessed band, of birth divine,
What mortal task is like to mine!”—
And further had I spoke,
When, lo! there pour’d a flood of light
So fiercely on my aching sight,
I feel beneath the vision bright,
And with the pain I woke.

Such tepid indecision, combined with the “reveal” (which may not be such in the context of the full poem) that it is all a vision, undermines what is good in the words of the Sylphs.

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