A Review of Charles Fenno Hoffman’s “The Thaw King” From the New-York American, 1831
by Ann Neilson
After researching the “Thaw-King” for my previous post, I stumbled across this, in my opinion, incredible (and generously lengthy) review of the poem, found in the New-York American of April 16, 1831. I wanted to mainly copy it here for my personal sake; but, if anyone else is also able to derive joy from reading archaic reviews, by all means please do enjoy this. If anything, it offers interesting commentary of New York culture during the 1830s. -Ann
THE THAW-KING’S VISIT TO NEW YORK: 1 vol. 18mo., bds.—Our editorial table presents so meagre an appearance to-day, that for the want of more solid materials for our weekly review, we are obliged to have recourse to a queer, dapper-looking little volume under this title; with which, from our not having seen it elsewhere, we are inclined to believe that we have been especially favored; and, indeed, between the reader, ourselves and the printer’s devil, shrewdly suspect of being a lure to draw us from some grave matter that rightfully ought to come under our editorial inquisition the while. This quaint little tome, which is a sort of personification in rhyme of the great waking up of physical and moral nature occasioned by “a general thaw” in this worshipful city, pretends to a marvellous insight into affairs,—municipal, political fashionable. Our ingenious author after, with divers other feats, making his hero, “the Thaw King,” assist the Corporation in clearing the streets, by setting the semi-frozen gutters a gurgling with what he emphatically calls,
“—————Streams as black
As the ink of a libeller’s pen;”
tells us in verse, which no one must mistake for dogrel, that—
“The Thaw King entered the City Hall,
And peeped in the Court of Sessions,
And melted the hearts of a jury all
When he heard the Recorder **** call,
From his favorite digressions.”
He then lounges about the courts and offices, practising upon young Attorneys and deputy sheriffs until evening, when, it happening to be
“———Monday night, he chanced to light,
In the Common Council Chamber,”
and hears a debate among various “membres de conseil” about “supplying the city with pure water. Upon the Recorder’s eulogising the softness of Manhattan, the Thaw-King plumply tells his honor,
“That he finds that water so devilish hard,
He with much ado can thaw it.”
We next see this bustling personage engaged in a vital struggle with “The Caucus King” at Tammany Hall, in which venerable edifice our author, finding plenty of poetical in the political machinery there ready to hand, accomplishes some exceeding elevated flights of imagination. We afterwards follow the Thaw-King into Wall street, where we are much edified by his melting from the heart of a stock jobber a premise of some scrip in the Haerlem Railroad at an advance of only fifty per cent ad hour after the books are closed. Among other wanton exercises of his power here,
“He sees a beggar, gaunt and grim,
Excite a miser’s choler;
And he laughs, while he melts the soul of him,
To fling the wretch a dollar.”
He now, as night again comes on, assumes the guise of a steamy sort of a vapor, and insinuates himself into a crowded ball room, where we will leave him floating about for a while, after recounting the following failures of his power upon this scene of action:—
“He enters into a lady’s eyes,
And thrusts at a dandy’s heart:
But the vest that is made by Frost, defies
The point of the Thaw-King’s dart.
And the baffled spirit pettishly flies
On a pedant, to try his art;
But his aim is equally foiled by the dust-
y lore that envelopes the man of must.
And next he tries with a lover’s sighs
To melt the heart of a belle,
But around her waist there’s a stout arm placed
Which shields that lady well:
And that waist! oh! that waist—it is one that you would
Like to clasp in a waltz, or wherever you could.
Her figure was fashioned tall and slim,
But with rounded bust and shapely limb;
And her queen-like step as she trod the floor—
And her look as she bridled in beauty’s pride;
Was such as the Tyrian heroine wore
When she blushed alone on the conscious shore,
The wandering Dardan’s unwedded bride.
And the Thaw-King gazed on that lady bright,
With her form of love, and her looks of light,
Till his spirits began to wane;
And his wits he put to rout,
And entering into a poet’s brain,
He thawed these verses out:—
“They are mockery all, these skies—these skies—
“Their untroubled depths of blue—
“They are mockery all—those eyes, those eyes
“That seem so warm and true.
“Each tranquil star in the one that lies,
“Each meteor glance that at random flies
“The other’s lashes thro’.—
“They are mockery all, these flowers of Spring
“Which her airs so softly woo—
“And the love to which we would madly cling,
“Ay! it is mockery too.
“The winds are false which the perfume stir,
“And the looks deceive to which we sue,
“And love but leads to the sepulchre,
“Which flowers spring to strew.”
An affecting custom, by the way, is that same strewing the grave with flowers, and one which Geoffrey Crayon, in his beautiful article on it in the Sketchbook, should have recollected, is common to many parts of New England, as well as to the sequestered church-yards of Britain, and the gay cemetery of “Pere la Chase.” As for these vernal airs and flowers, we have not as yet been much subjected to their witching influence; though one can hardly take up a country paper that is not redolent of paragraphs upon the season, and sentimental vegetation seems to be progressing with prodigious rapidity in the crania of their editors. These rural gentlemen, who may hear the carol of the blue-bird as it pecks the buds on the maple bough beneath their window, have a decided advantage over those who can only watch nature as she develops herself in a flower-pot, or revels in a bouquet upon some lovely bosom; and yet the city, with its formal alleys of brick, its rattling carts, and smoke of anthracite, is not wihout the “attractions of the season.”—How different an appearance, for instance, do the airy figures, whose gay bonnets and light-colored dresses, already flutter in Broadway, give to that carnival promenade, from the sombre mantles that swept it but the other day? And the Park—that beautiful area which, though carved up like an apple pie to a country inn, is still grateful in its green to the dust-vexed eye of the burghor!—what drawing-room, enlivened by the gay tracery of Brussels, or made noiseless to the step by the downy texture of Turkey, can boast at such a carpet? Even Wall-street, which seldom owns a brighter visitant than yellow doubloons, seems to acknowledge the presence of the rival sunbeams. The broker, as he crosses the street, poises himself on the curbstone, to look at the blue sky above him, and delay the moment ere he must descend into his billious labaratory [sic]. The merchant checks his gait, while hurrying on ‘Change, to snuff the air as it comes fresh from Brooklyn heights, unconscious of a “South ferry.” The underwriter smirks along the pavement as if premiums were “being” distilled upon him from the favoring skies; and they, the Leviathians of this pecuniary deep, who have realized in a plum the fruit of years of toil, loiter under the old sycamores opposite the Soda Fountain, as if they could never tear themselves from these smiling realms of gold and good humor! Everywhere, indeed, do you see the effects of the disfranchisement from the chains of winter; and he who would have the hardihood to penetrate into such a perilous region, would probably find that the all-pervading influence of nature was like the myrmidons of Alderman Strong, not unknown even at the Five Points!
Here you may see the pale invalid, still afraid to discard his furred pelisse, stealing along the sunny side of the street, heedful of rude contact, and almost shrinking from the gay child that frolics by him; and, tottering on his track, the bowed form of some old pilgrim, who sallies from his easy chair to gulp a mouthful of the air his lungs, for the nonce, receive unfiltered through flannel : there you may detect the nervous gait of the dyspeptic, doggedly pursuing his accustomed route, as if walking with Disease for a wager, and perhaps jostling the fragile form of the smiling consumptive who hangs affectionately on some stout arm near him. Vain flitters round a yawning grave unnoticed by the thousands who flaunt by them in all the insolence of health and worldly security!—Nor are sounds wanting to tell us here that the call of spring is abroad throughout the land: not to mention the twitter of the martins, as like lawyers on a circuit they perform their mazy gyrations around the Bridewell, there are a thousand tuneful noises which salute the ear with wondrous power. Though the sweep and the milkman are silent, and the rusk-boy hath not commenced his lay, when thou, fair reader, first [salliest?] out to glad the eyes and tire the fingers of shop-boys at Vandervoort’s and Fountain’s, yet other seasonable ejaculations supply their place; and the cry of “white wine,” from the grey headed Communipaw negro, who trundles a churn on a barrow before him, must at some time have reminded thee that buttermilk is an excellent cosmetic: And who, that has achieved a score of years in this goodly city, is not familiar with the recitation of Straw-aw-aw, pronounced by a once jetty, but now “a sable-silvered” singer, ensconced upon a moving stack, erst propelled by a Bucephalous which time has turned into a Rosinante? Now the ear is regaled with the blithe carol of some young voice, as its owner warbles a variation to her “morning’s practising,” while ranging her hyacinths at the open window; and again it is set on edge by the tread-mill tones ground sharply from the machines of those foreign operatives, who rove the streets as did their predecessors the Troubadours, the highways.
And now it is worth the while of him who is afflicted with “the nothing to do,” to saunter along South street, and see the lighters come in to the wharves with freights gathered from every shore that knows a keel,—the rich tribute of many a clime to the enterprise of his native city. Or if tired of watching the small craft as they ply to and fro upon the mincing waves, and regardless of the green slopes he may see across the hazy river reaching away toward Gowannus, let him at least observe the stirring “note of preparation” among the tall Indiamen, as about to sail they, “stand like greyhounds in the slips.” Some of these appearances are thus described at the opening of the Thaw King, which should have been before quoted:—
“——He comes on the wings of the warm southwest
In the saffron hues of the sunbeam drest,
And lingers awhile on the placid bay
As the ice cakes languidly steal away,
To drink these gems which the wave turns up,
Like Egyptian pearls in the Roman’s cup.
Then hies to the wharves, where the hawser binds,
The impatient ship from the wistful winds,
And slackens each rope till it hangs from on high,
Less firmly pencilled against the sky;
And sports in the stiffened canvases there
Till its folds float out in the wooing air:
Then leaves these quellers of Ocean’s pride
To swing from the pier on the lazy tide.”
The Battery, however, at this season, begins to be the most attractive spot in this ‘fairy city of the heart,’ as Byron calls that New York of the old world, the pride of the Adriatic. There is no longer to be sure the shady hollow, which once gave this noted promenade the semblance of a hanging garden in summer, when at high noon its matress of greensward was generally strown with sleeping Priapi in the shape of a drunken sailor or two; our Procustean Corporation having levelled the area up at the same time that the observatory,—so celebrated in the days of Salamagundi for the marvellous consumption of peanuts within its precincts,—was levelled down. But Castle Garden, though it too seems to have had its day, so amply compensates for the want of both, that even even [sic] the fastidious race of peanut eaters, —a remnant of which is now only occasionally seen in some solitary crancher in the pit of the theatre,—would readily have moved his household gods from “the flagstaff” thither.
The Battery has also increased so in size of late years, that it is now as much more comely in appearance, than formerly, as is the portly figure of an Alderman that the yet maturing person of his Assistant. Nature has now more breathing room there than twenty years since, and shows the effect of giving her fair play. The young willows have already begun to put on their “green and yellow melancholy” livery, and in a fortnight will supply chaplets enough for all the dispairing lovers of the last season. Hear how affectionately the thaw king lingers upon this the first spot he touches in his vernal visit to the city.
“He reaches the Battery’s grassy bed,
And the earth smokes out from beneath his tread:
And he turns him about to look wistfully back
On each charm that he leaves on his beautiful track;
Each islet of green which the bright waters fold,
Like emerald gems from their bosom rolled.
The sea just peering the headlands thro’,
Where the sky is lost in its deeper blue,
And the thousand barks which securely sweep
With silvery wings, round the land-locked deep.
He loiters awhile on the springy ground,
To watch the children gambol around,
And thinks it hard that a touch from him
Cannot make the aged as lithe of limb—
That he has no power to melt the rime—
The stubborn frost that is made by Time—
And sighing, he leaves the urchins to play,
And launches at last on the world of Broadway”—
Where we now leave his molting majesty to the doubtless sure discomfiture of the reader, who, worthy man, has all along kept up with us in the hope of at last finding “reason” as well as “rhyme” among these Humors of Spring.*
*May refer to the collective title of which a series of articles was written under by Hoffman, entitled “Humors of a Young Man About Town.”-Ann