Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

George W. Cutter


William Turner Coggeshall, The Poets and Poetry of the West: With Biographical and Critical Notices 303-306 (Columbus, Ohio: Follett, Foster and Company, 1860):

GEORGE WASHINGTON CUTTER was born in Kentucky, we believe, though precisely where or when, we have been unable to ascertain. Nor, though his life has been eventful, have we found any source of facts and figures from which to make it appear significant on paper. The reader must therefore content himself with what vague information we can give him. Mr. Cutter appears to be about forty-five years old; is large, well proportioned, and imposing, and has a full, flush countenance, whose handsome expression the small-pox, doing its worst, has but little impaired. He is a lawyer by profession, and was at one time a member of the Indiana Legislature. But both the appearance of the man and the spirit of his poetry evince too strong a temperament for the tame, "even tenor" of a civilian's life; and accordingly, when the Mexican war broke out, he joined the army as a Captain of volunteers, and served a brilliant campaign; a spirited reminiscence of which he has given us in the poem of "Buena Vista," which he is said to have written on the field after the battle. Mr. Cutter has been twice married; first to Mrs. Alexander Drake the actress; and next to "Althea," whose portrait is the frontispiece of his last volume. We believe he is at present a member of the Washington bar.

The volume entitled "Poems, National and Patriotic," published in 1857, at Philadelphia, contains perhaps all the poems that Mr. Cutter has thought worthy of preservation, though there are extant two other previous collections of his writings. This is a book of two hundred and seventy-nine pages, consisting of quite a lengthy preface and sixty-nine poems, of which latter, "The Captive" is first in order and extent, but not first in rank, by any means. It is an Indian poem, and, like most Indian poems is very un-Indian indeed-making Tecumseh, the secretive and reticent savage, talk page after page of heavy tragedy, as though he had learned the whole civilized art of how not to say it. Tecumseh shows himself versed, too, in ancient mythology, when he says,

"All goddess-like the fabled birth
    Of Pallas from the brain!"


"When softly rose the Queen of Love
    All glowing from the sea!"

A classic Indian was Tecumseh, truly—aye, and a traveled Indian, forsooth; else how should he fancy that

"The moon was piled like a broken wreath
    Of snow on an Alp of cloud?"

But, by these little phenomena of Tecumseh in "The Captive," we are led at once to the fact that Mr. Cutter is not a poet of art, but a poet born. It is not his business, any more than it is the bobolink's, to construct sweet tones into consistent tunes. The tones may come of themselves, and link themselves together, and sing themselves, if they will; but they get little help from Mr. Cutter, that is clear. The poetic spirit with which he is possessed, takes him and does with him whatsoever it will. He feels more poetry than he writes. Now and then the pent lightning within him flashes forth full into the dark of language, and dazzles all; but for the most part he has not half told himself, because he has never studied expression. Poetry may be born, it is true; but it is not born into language: expression is an achievement of high art, wherein "there is no excellence without great labor." And, from the manifestations of genius in Mr. Cutter's poems, there can be no doubt that, had he patiently and assiduously applied this labor, America could have boasted a real, live lyric poet. "The Song of Steam," penned in an hour of such high inspiration as sometimes comes with a power of miracles, is, we think, a fair indication of his capacity. And this opinion is corroborated by "The Song of Lightning," and by passages all through his writings-horizon-flashes of that lightning which wanted but the fit medium of language in order to illumine and electrify the world. Many of these passages are equal, as far as they go, to "The Song of Steam," but they do not go far; they are not sustained; the divine element of patience is not in them-the principle "to labor and to wait."

"The Song of Steam" has been as popular perhaps as any other lyric of the century; and it will be popular as long as steam itself is popular. It is the whole sublime power of that element wrought out into thunderous verse. Sublimity, indeed, is Mr. Cutter's forte. Hence war and the glorious fatherland are his principal themes. It is the subtile electricity of poetry and the hot energy of battle mingling in his veins. He loves, in his own language, to be

"Where muskets ring and sabers flash
    And round the mingling squadrons reel!"

For, he says,

"There is stern pleasure in the shock of war,
The wheeling squadron and the bayonet's jar,
When martial lines their gleaming fronts enlarge,
And the earth reels beneath their fiery charge!"

And let us cite a few other examples of Mr. Cutter's sublimity:

"And they shook the black and starless air
    With a wild and fearful yell!"


"We'll view the glittering iceberg roll
    Where the ocean is frozen white,
    As we slacken sail at the sunless pole
By the glare of the northern light."


"And when the latest trump of God,
    Dissolving death's mysterious chain,
Shall rend the marble and the sod,
    To give each form its soul again;
There's not within this broad domain
    A single rood of sea or earth,
But, dyed with many a murderer's stain,
    Will give a slaughtered Indian birth!"


"Father of light, and life, and form!
    Who dwelt before the birth of time,
When chaos, like a mighty storm,
    Starless and boundless, rolled sublime."

And for a striking instance of sustained grandeur, see the poem "Invocation." But we need not multiply citations; the reader will at once see the predominance of this element in all Mr. Cutter's poems.

There is another trait closely allied to genuine sublimity, which distinguishes most of Mr. Cutter's poetry, and that is perspicuity: you can see through it and tell what he is driving at. Now, this is a great excellence, and a rare excellence, too. The transcendental, the mystic prettytudes of the modern school have not affected him; the Tennysonophobia has not reached his blood at all. He has gone to Burns, and Byron, and Dante, and the Grand Old Masters. Though his muse is unequal sometimes prosy—yet he is always intelligible; never talks in riddles like an insane sibyl. His dreamy mystery of delicious words, so prevalent in all latter-day poetry, saying much to signify nothing, has no adaptation to Mr. Cutter's genius: it would have emasculated his sublimity entirely. A school of poetry which is all expression, he had not, as we have said, the patience to excel in.

Next to "The Song of Steam," which is Mr. Cutter's masterpiece, his best poem is "The Song of Lightning," composed in the same vein. Indeed, there is little to choose between the two; and if the latter had been published first, it is doubtful which would have attained the greater popularity.

"E Pluribus Unum," another of Mr. Cutter's most popular poems, shows that, if he had given the study and labor he ought, he might have produced us the one great national song which we yet lack.

Mr. Cutter is the most intensely patriotic poet we have. The poem "Never" might be profitably read and reread by the political madmen of these times. And as further lessons in the same doctrine, "Washington's Birthday," and "God and Liberty."

But it must not be supposed that Mr. Cutter is all patriot and warrior; no, to be poet, he must be lover, too. These two stanzas show what our poet feels about that subject:

"Who hath not knelt at beauty's feet,
    And felt the very air more mild,
The sky more soft, the earth more sweet,
    When woman sighed-when woman smiled?

"Who hath not felt love's sway sublime,
    Till joy could only speak in tears
And tasted, in a breath of time,
    The rapture of a thousand years?"

And for further limits of the warrior-poet's heart, read "Love's Remonstrance," "To ____," "Fanny Lemoine," and "To Althea."

On the whole, it may be concluded, that Mr. Cutter has the sufficiency, but not the efficiency, of a great poet. The sufficiency is of nature, but the efficiency, of art; and while the poet who, like Mr. Cutter, though instinct with the one, is impatient of the other, may, in felicitous moments, write certain immortal verse, yet the name which outlasts the centuries-the name whose letters do not fall back into the alphabet for thousands of years-must have something more than a mere verse or two to sustain it,-must have magnified itself by patience, and apotheosized itself by the omnipotence of toil.