In his youthful ESSAY ON CRITICISM, Alexander Pope contended that only a demonstrated talent for creative writing gives a man the right to assess the literary productions of others. The history of criticism, of course, affords some notable exceptions. We are happy to accept the credentials of such distinguished literary critics as Aristotle, Longinus, George Saintsbury, or, to cite a modern example, I. A. Richards, even though none of these men has produced a substantial work of creative literature. Sometimes the reverse happens. The critical essays of Wordsworth, for example, are sometimes dismissed as the left-handed scribblings of a poet whose own practice repudiates his theory. But the criticism of Edgar Allan Poe is another matter. For whatever it may be worth, he meets the criterion of Pope; he had produced a number of poems and short stories before turning to criticism in the years that followed 1830. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that his criticism is often vituperative, narrow, derivative, or vague, he writes it with the authority of an accomplished master of composition, and it is here that he has something of value to say.
Most of Poe’s critical essays appeared in The Southern Literary Messenger and Graham’s Magazine, both of which he edited for brief periods between 1835 and 1842. Before he began his work as an editor and reviewer, however, he set forth a kind of prospectus of his critical theory in a “Letter” which first appeared as the preface to his POEMS of 1831 (later published with slight revisions in the Southern Literary Messenger for July, 1836). The essay is youthful, impudent, and slight, but it definitely adumbrates the major themes of Poe’s maturer criticism. And it is riddled with a number of inconsistencies. Like Pope, Poe begins by asserting that poets alone possess the ability to judge poetry—and shortly after cites a critical opinion of Aristotle. He denounces the reverence paid to foreign writers in preference to American ones, and he delivers a tirade against Wordsworth and Coleridge; but he concludes his essay with a definition of poetry that is lifted verbatim, and without acknowledgement, from the BIOGRAPHIA LITERARIA. His attack on Wordsworth is spiteful and even sophomoric. At one point he quotes a passage from Wordsworth’s Advertisement to the LYRICAL BALLADS of 1798 and embellishes it with jeering, parenthetical interspersions of his own. Nevertheless, in his complaints about the didactic implications of Wordsworth’s statements on poetry, he begins to suggest the direction of his own views—that poetry should seek to communicate pleasure rather than truth. He tells us also that music is essential to poetry because of its indefiniteness and that poetry is therefore the combination of music with a pleasurable idea.
In the reviews that began with his editorship of the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835, Poe exercised his vituperative energies with considerable gusto, but at the same time he worked toward increasing refinement and precision in his formulation of literary principles. First of all, he sought to persuade the public that criticism of the literary art is a science, founded on the fixed and immutable laws of human reason and emotion, rather than simply an expression of opinion which might include any vague generalization about the work under scrutiny. He denounced especially the chauvinistic tendency of American reviewers, who gave indiscriminate praise to native writers and to books on “American” themes, regardless of their artistic quality, and who instinctively denounced any book with a foreign subject. For his own part, Poe gave no quarter to his own countrymen. He struck with a scalpel at Theodore S. Fay’s NORMAN LESLIE, a novel by the influential editor of the NEW YORK MIRROR, mercilessly dissecting its preposterous plot and extravagant language. Yet while the review of NORMAN LESLIE is largely an ad hoc expose of Fay’s inadequacies as a novelist, Poe’s other reviews are often buttressed by an appeal to critical and literary principles, to considerations which transcend the work in question and which therefore provide a sounder criterion for judgment. His examination of poems by Joseph Drake and Fitz-Greene Halleck in 1836, for example, moves beyond the immediate subject for review into a discussion of poetry in itself. Poetic sentiment, he says, is the sense of the beautiful, the sublime and the mystical; and the only means of evaluating the merits of a poem is by gauging its power to elicit this sentiment in the reader. He introduces, therefore, the principle that becomes a...
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