Fitz-Greene Halleck

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Fitz-Greene Halleck died at a ripe old age in 1867. On the evening of February 2d, 1869, Bryant delivered an address on the life and writings of Halleck. The address was given before the New York Historical Society and was printed the next day in the New York Evening Post. Here is an interesting extract from the address:

"When I look back upon Halleck's literary life I cannot help thinking that if his death had happened forty years earlier, his life would have been regarded as a bright morning prematurely overcast. Yet Halleck's literary career may be said to have ended then. All that will hand down his name to future years had already been produced. Who shall say to what cause his subsequent literary inaction was owing? It was not the decline of his powers; his brilliant conversation showed that it was not. Was it, then, indifference to fame? Was it because he had put an humble estimate on what he had written, and therefore resolved to write no more? Was it because he feared lest what he might write would be unworthy of the reputation he had been so fortunate to acquire?

"I have my own way of accounting for his literary silence in the latter half of his life. One of the resemblances which he bore to Horace consisted in the length of time for which he kept his poems by him that he might give them the last and happiest touches. He had a tenacious verbal memory, and having composed his poems without committing them to paper, he revised them in the same manner, murmuring them to himself in his solitary moments, recovering the enthusiasm with which they were first received, and in this state heightening the beauty of the thought or of the expression. I remember that once in crossing Washington Park I saw Halleck before me and quickened my pace to overtake him. As I drew near I heard him crooning to himself what seemed to be lines of verse, and as he threw back his hands in walking I perceived that they quivered with the feeling of the passage he was reciting. I instantly checked my pace and fell back, out of reverence for the mood of inspiration which seemed to be upon him, and fearful lest I should intercept the birth of a poem destined to be the delight of thousands of readers.

"In this way I suppose Halleck to have attained the gracefulness of his diction, and the airy melody of his numbers. In this way I believe he wrought up his verses to that transparent clearness of expression which causes the thought to be seen through them without any interposing dimness, so that the thought and the phrase seem one, and the thought enters the mind like a beam of light. I suppose that Halleck's time being taken up by the tasks of his vocation, he naturally lost by degrees the habit of composing in this manner, and that he found it so necessary to the perfection of what he wrote that he adopted no other in its place.

"Whatever was the reason that Halleck ceased so early to write, let us congratulate ourselves that he wrote at all. Great authors often overlay and almost smother their own fame by the voluminousness of their writings. So great is their multitude, and so rich is the literature of our language, that for frequent readings we are obliged to content ourselves with mere selections from the works of best and most beloved of our poets, even those who have not written much. It is only a few of their works that dwell and live in the general mind. Gray, for example, wrote little, and of that little one short poem, his Elegy, can be fairly said to survive in the public admiration, and that poem I have sometimes heard called the most popular in our language."