The Literary Maiden

A compendium of obscure 19th century writing.

Category: 19th century

“Ambition” by John Neal

Here’s a poem, “Ambition,” penned by 19th-century author, poet, and all-around charismatic American ruffian John Neal. You will find two versions of the poem. The first one appears in an 1842 volume of poetry, whereas the second one is an earlier version dating to 1817. In both versions I find the last sentence of the last stanza to be of particular interest, as I think the different lines uniquely shape the conclusion of the poem. To me, the earlier version clarifies what he’s attempting to illustrate in the later version. You will find other noticeable differences throughout, especially in stanza two. 

By John Neal
From The Poets and Poetry of America, 1842, ed. Rufus W. Griswold

I loved to hear the war-horn cry,
And panted at the drum’s deep roll;
And held my breath, when—flaming high—
I saw our starry banners fly,
As challenging the haughty sky;
They went like battle o’er my soul:
For I was so ambitious then,
I burn’d to be a slave—of men.

I stood and saw the morning light,
A standard swaying far and free;
And loved it like the conquering flight
Of angels floating wide and bright,
Above the stars, above the fight
Where nations warr’d for liberty:
And though I heard the battle-cry
Of trumpets in the hollow sky.

I sail’d upon the dark-blue deep,
And shouted to the eagle soaring;
And hung me from a rocking steep,
When all but spirits were asleep;
And, O, my very soul would leap
To hear the gallant waters roaring;
For every sound and shape of strife
To me was but the breath of life.

But I am strangely alter’d now,—
I love no more the bugle’s voice—
The rushing wave—the plunging prow—
The mountain, with his clouded brow—
The thunder, when his blue skies bow,
And all the sons of God rejoice,—
I love to dream of tears and sighs,
And shadowy hair, and half-shut eyes.

From The Portico, Volume 3, pp. 252-253

I’ve loved to hear the war-horns cry,
And panted at the drums deep roll,
And held my breath, when flaming high,
I saw our starry banners fly,
As challenging the haughty sky.
They talk’d of battle to my soul;
For I was so advent’rous then
I burn’d to be—the slave of men.

I’ve look’d upon the morning light,
Flushing its standard far and free,
And seen it struggle with the night,
And loved it—for it told of fight,
And every flash that triumph’d bright,
Seem’d glance of glorious Liberty.
For I was fanciful and wild
As youthful Freedoms freest child.

I’ve sail’d upon the dark blue deep,
I’ve shouted to the eaglet soaring,
And hung me from a rocking steep,
When all but my spirits were asleep;
And oh! my very soul would leap
To hear its gallant waters roaring.
For every sound that told of life,
To me, was but the breath of strife.

But I am strangely alter’d now,
I love no more the bugles voice—
The rushing wave—the plunging prow—
The mountains tempest clouded brow—
The daring—the exulting flow
Of all that made me once rejoice.
I’ve learn’d to talk of tears and sights—
And locks of gold—and dying eyes.

“Awake, My Lyre” by James Gates Percival

Awake, My Lyre
By James Gates Percival
From The Dream of a Day, and Other Poems by James Gates Percival, pp. 168-169

AWAKE, my lyre, awake!
Breathe aloud the choral strain;
From thy heavy slumber break;
Wake to life and joy again.

Hark! how on thy trembling strings
Songs of hope and love rebound;
Brushed as by an angel’s wings,
How the vocal chords resound.

Now thy long deep sleep has flown;
Spirit burns along thy wire:
How the swelling peals roll on,
Full, instinct with living fire.

O! be silent never more;
Soar to day’s eternal blue;
Through the solemn midnight pour
Notes that fall like starry dew.

As on eagle’s pinions, take
High to heaven thy sweep again;
Light and music o’er us shake,
Like a shower of golden rain—
Awake, my lyre, awake!
Breathe aloud the choral strain.

“To Elizabeth” by Charles Lane

Here we have a simple poem written by the 19th century Transcendentalist Charles Lane. Lane was friends (rather acquaintances after all was said and done) with Amos Bronson Alcott, who is best known as being the father of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott.

I find this poem to be of particular importance as we receive a glimpse of Lane’s poetic voice. This poem was dedicated to Elizabeth Alcott, or “Lizzie,” on her birthday, and was written during the family’s stay at the Fruitlands.*

*A failed Utopian communal living experiment. Lane and Alcott were hopeful when they first established the community; however, towards the end of its short run, enmity grew between the two and their friendship was nearly severed.

To Elizabeth
Charles Lane
From Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands, compiled and edited by Clara Endicott Sears

Of all the year the sunniest day
Appointed for thy birth
Is emblem of the longest stay
With us upon the earth.

Now dressed in flowers
The merry hours
Fill up the day and night.
May your whole life
Exempt from strife
Shine forth as calm and bright.


“Lecture Extraordinary on Nosology” by James Gates Percival

Thanks to the resourceful Life and Letters of James Gates Percival by Julius H. Ward, I am able to place a new, humorous article by Percival before the public (new in that it has most likely not seen the light of day since its publication in this book). Before jumping into the satirical article, there are a few terms/names I want to go over briefly in case they seem unfamiliar to any readers.

Nosology is the classification of diseases based on their symptoms—at least, this is the concept that Percival would have been familiar with by 1833. In the case of Percival’s article, he discourses the term in a humorous, punny manner. Please note especially the chart that he provides.

Phrenology is the study of the skull. This was incredibly popular during the 1800s and was used to determine, examine, and interpret the mental faculties of asylum patients, for example. This article, provided by Encyclopædia Brittanica, beautifully describes and discusses the pseudo-science. Near the end of the article, you will find a list of the “meanings” of different areas of the skull and brain. Writers like Edgar Allan Poe were interested in this science during its heyday, and Poe was known to critique other writers by commenting on their phrenological composition, probably to their great dismay. Here, Percival sardonically exclaims that “nosology…is the true phrenology.” It may be surmised that Percival saw through the baffling and flawed pseudo-science, thus dismissing two physical and mental health practices ahead of his contemporaries.

John Neal (b. 1793—d. 1876) was a 19th century author, editor, poet, and artist, known for his turbulent, aggressive, petulant, temperamental, and eccentric personality. As a writer, he was criticized by his contemporaries for being inconsistent, tangental, and erratic in his novels. This is indicated in the footnote written by Percival at the end of this essay, likening Neal to the “accidental organ,” which is “Rubification” (which means to “make red”). He goes on to describe Neal as an “eagle,” which flies waveringly and bumps into many obstacles, unable to control its flight path. Percival does not seem to esteem Neal as either a writer or a person.

“Lecture Extraordinary on Nosology”
By James Gates Percival
Published anonymously in the Daily Herald of August 17, 1833


“Tickets not Transferable!

“Gentlemen! the nose is the most prominent feature in this bill.

‘Ο Νους κατ’ àληθες φρένες
‘The nose is the true seat of mind.’

And, therefore, gentlemen, nosology, or the science of the nose, is the true phrenology.
“He who knows his nose foreknows; for he knows that which is before him. Therefore nosology is the surest guide to conduct.
“Whatever progress an individual may make, his nose is always in advance. But society is only a congeries of individuals,—consequently its nose is always in advance, therefore its proper guide.
“The nose, rightly understood, will most assuredly work wonders in the cause of improvement; for it is always going ahead, always first in every undertaking, always soonest at the goal.
“The ancients did not neglect the nose. Look at their busts and statues! What magnification and abduction in Jove! What insinuation and elongation in the Apollo (εκηβολος)! Then nous (intellect) was surely the nose; gnosis (knowledge), noses; and Minos, my nose. Well might the great judge, when regarding this most prominent member of his judgment-seat, exclaim,—’My nose! Ecce Homo!
“Gentlemen! here is a bad nose,—a very bad nose. What intussusception, what potation, and, as a necessary consequence, alas! what rubification! But I have seen such noses, ah! yes, many such noses! Beware of them! They are bad noses,—very bad noses, I assure you!
“Gentlemen! when you choose your partners for life, look out for the nose. Beware of too great penetration and Romanotion, if you would not be henpecked by the one or butted by the other. O yes,—look out for the nose.
“Do not, I pray you, consider me by any means irreverent, if I say that nosology will prove highly favorable to the cause of religion. This is indeed an awful subject, and I would not touch it on slight grounds; but I sincerely believe that what I say is true,—nosology will prove highly favorable to the cause of religion! Does not the nose stand forth like a watchman on the walls of Zion, on the lookout for all assailants; and when our faces are directed upwards in devotion, does not the nose ascend the highest, and most especially tend heavenwards?
“Nosology, too, has a very important bearing on the great law of descent; that law, which, like the lever of Archimedes, will lift the world. Is not the nose the chief seat of all defluxions, and what are defluxions but a flowing down by the great law of descent? Who shall gainsay it?
“This system of nosology was first concocted by Dr. Schnorr; then perfected by Dr. Shnieser; and is now being retailed by your humble servant at command, Dr. Schaefer,—all from the promontory of noses; all genuine descendants of the Man with the Nose.
“But, mark me, gentlemen! nosology is being retailed free gratis. The citizens of New Haven need not therefore fear, that some eight or nine hundred dollars will thereby escape from their pockets within a few weeks. Dr. Schaefer does not shave, whatever his name would seem to indicate.
“Nosology is a manly science. It stands out in the open light. It does not conceal itself behind scratches and periwigs; nor does, like certain false teachers, mentioned by St. Paul, go about rom house to house, leading astray silly women. 
“Finally, gentlemen! you may rest assured that nosology will not quietly submit to insult. Noli me tangere! Who ever endured a tweak of the nose? It will know how to take vengeance. As Jupiter metamorphosed the inhospitable Lycians into frogs, so its contemners will suddenly find themselves βαρβαρóφωυοι!
“Gentlemen, permit me to exhibit to you a nosological table, in which all the organs are exactly localized. Such of you as are desirous of a copy will be furnished by your humble servant on the most reasonable terms; and I would advise you all to procure a copy, especially for my advantage.


*This is a satirical sally in another vein.
“John Neal is edifying the public, in his Yankee, with his usual free-and-easy remarks on all our literary characters, and that, too, without seeming to care where or how he hits. We believe Neal has talents, but not enough to authorize him to assume such a dictatorship over authors. He has no genius, or if he has, it has run wild without curb or rein. Genius should be capable of continued and lofty enthusiasm. It should fix upon the sun, and soar to it by one long and steady flight. It should imitate the strong-eyed


eagle. Neal may be an eagle, but he is an eagle with his eyes put out, soaring, sinking, dashing, fluttering, now up, now down, now here, now there, criss-cross, every way.


“We will now consider this sketch on a perpendicular plane, to accommodate it to the eagle; but only reduce it to a horizontal plane, and it will suit a figure perhaps more applicable to his excellency, namely, that of an owl lost in the sunshine, driving after all the little sparrows, and all the little sparrows chirping after him; bumping against a stump, thumping against a hemlock, knocking against a rail fence, and last of all, we fear, beating his brains out against the breast of a bold eagle. To speak our mind freely, we think the Yankee, with all its boldness and cleverness, is the most egregious piece of humbug that was ever put off upon a gullible public.

“A. B. C.”

Velasco: A Tragedy, in Five Acts by Epes Sargent

November, 1837, Epes Sargent’s revenge tragedy, Velasco: A Tragedy, in Five Acts, premiered in Boston. The play was received with approval and published in book form in 1838. Unlike Sargent’s other major play, The Bride of Genoa, this work can be found online. Withholding spoilers, I’ll cover the major plot points in the play and briefly discuss it. You’ll find a small excerpt from the play at the end of this post.

The play, comprising of a cookie-cutter plot, besprinkled with two-dimensional politics and sometimes sub-par humor, threatens its own demise in sinking into the depths of forgotten drama. However, Sargent’s exceptional literary voice, outside of his vague humor, redeems these mundane qualities. The main plot revolves around the love story of Velasco and Izidora. Sargent purports the play to be historical, although “many of its scenes and situations are purely imaginary” (9). According to The Dramatic Mirror, and Literary Companion, Vol. 1, the play was based on “an incident in the life of the celebrated Spanish champion, Don Rodrigo Diar de Bivar” (64). The Dramatic Mirror further illustrates the tale, explaining, “This renowned hero, to avenge an insult offered to his father, slew, in single combat, the aggressor, Don Gomez of Gormaz, being, at the same time, betrothed to his daughter, Donna Ximenar. The Lady appealed to the Spanish monarch for redress; but was, subsequently, if we may credit popular tradition, united to the Campeador” (64). They criticize that Sargent absolutely took “poetical liberties” in the execution of this historical tale, just as Sargent acknowledges in his “Advertisement.” It may be agreed, therefore, that although Don Rodrigo Diar de Bivar’s tale faintly echoes the plot of Sargent’s work, Sargent personifies these historical figures and manipulates them into characters of his own design, paired with a lackluster plot.

This plot is as follows. Velasco and Izidora reunite after Velasco’s absence and vow to marry. Izadora, already engaged to a gentleman by the name of Hernando, breaks off her engagement in order to be with Velasco. Hernando proceeds to conspire and break Velasco and Izidora’s engagement through whatever means possible. Julio, Izidora’s brother, sees through Hernando’s plot and warns both his sister and their father, Gonzalez, of the foreshadowed doom. To further disrupt the unification of Velasco and Izidora, and through Hernando’s dastardly doing, Velasco’s father, De Lerma, shows dishonor towards Izidora’s father, Gonzalez. In order to clear De Lerma’s name, Velasco offers to settle the score between his father and Gonzalez. This is where Velasco and Izidora’s relationship begins to take a major tumble. Two houses are now divided, and Velasco has vowed to reclaim honor to his father’s name by placing honor and chivalric duty before love. As the genre suggests, this tragedy does not end well.

As previously mentioned, the plot is pretty basic. However, based on Sargent’s intelligent dialogue and expert stage directions, it is easy to see why this play was received well during its time. (Although, it feels like many plays were received well during the Victorian era.) It succeeds in carrying a classic air, whether it be due to the language or some vague charm about it that I still can’t pinpoint. Therefore, while in the mood of giving it more credit than I fear is due, Sargent’s play should be ranked outside of “Victorian” literature and placed amongst its successful forebears in drama. The stock plot, superb dialogue, sometimes humorous speech, inclusion of politics, and love story mixed with tragedy equal the proper ingredients to make a successful play, after all. The only thing it’s missing is a paranormal scene—or is it? Read to find out! It’s worth a couple hours of your time.

Here’s a very short excerpt taken from the beginning of the play, to allow you to test the waters.

Before the Castle of De Lerma—Time, sunset.
(Enter Velasco in the full costume of a knight of the eleventh century, followed by Alfonzo, his squire.)

Home! home, at last, Alfonzo! There they shine,
The old ancestral bulwarks, in the rays
Of the declining sun! A year has passed
Since last I gazed upon them—there they rise,
The same, as when a careless child I play’d
Beneath their mighty shadows. How each nook
Prates of the olden time! The very air
Is fragrant as the breath of infancy!
Old towers! I bring you no unworthy inmate,
No spotted scutcheon, no inglorious name!
Alfonzo! By the calendar, what day?
Is it not Santiago’s?

Ay, my lord.

This day completes my term of banishment.

(If you’re interested in reading more of what the Dramatic Mirror had to critically say, click here.)