James Russell Lowell’s A Fable for Critics appeared in 1848, three years after Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and three years before Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Born the same year as Melville and Walt Whitman, Lowell was twenty-nine years old and had already gained something of a reputation as poet and antislavery essayist.
Writing in the age of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lowell believed that native American literature had come of age. He argues this in a section of A Fable for Critics, echoing Emerson’s “The American Scholar” address of eleven years earlier and looking ahead to Whitman’s famous preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. “Forget Europe wholly,” he advised the American writer.
Eventually, A Fable for Critics has come to be read—though rarely all the way through—for its satire. The author flippantly exhibits his contemporaries: Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Richard Henry Dana, Sr., and many lesser-known writers. With his young man’s irreverence and capacity for industry, Lowell produced in this 2,100-line poem a number of choice verbal thrusts that have always delighted readers: “There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,/ Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.” Of James Fenimore Cooper he wrote, “the women he draws from one model don’t vary,/ All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.”
Lowell often makes acute judgments, as in the quotations above, but the poem has serious defects. It is no systematized essay in verse in the manner of Alexander Pope but, rather, a rambling and digressive caricature. Unfortunately, too, many of the objects of Lowell’s satire have so declined in reputation that the point of the satire is lost. Lowell’s clattering anapestic tetrameter and his sometimes embarrassing rhymes (as in “philosopher” and “loss of her”) prove hard to endure, even in a poem intentionally comic.
The structure of the poem is also problematic. Lowell chose the long way around to get at his satire. Ostensibly the poem merely describes various American writers parading past the not too interested personage of Phoebus Apollo. The writers are in the form of cackling fowls led by “Tityrus Griswold” (Rufus W. Griswold, an influential anthologist of the day). This rather mechanical scheme offers little excitement or sense of direction.
Lowell had precedents for this sort of lampooning. Literary ancestors of A Fable for Critics are such works as Pope’s The Dunciad (1728-1743), Lord Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), and Leigh Hunt’s The Feast of the Poets (1814), to which it bears the greatest resemblance. Lowell’s work itself served as model when a related Lowell, the poet Amy Lowell, decided to produce her own Critical Fable in 1922.
Lowell wrote his satire “con amore,” to use his term. His high spirits are immediately evident in the title page and the introduction. The elaborate title page, ostensibly no more than an imitation of wordy, old-fashioned book format, is actually the beginning of the rhymed couplets: “Reader! walk up at once (it will soon be too late), and buy at a perfectly ruinous rate A Fable for Critics.”
In the rhymed introduction that follows, a candid Lowell limits his purpose and forestalls possible censures. The poem, he avers, is a mere “trifle,” full of digressions and written in “neither good verse nor bad prose.” It is a jeu d’esprit whose verbal portraits are both cynical and faithful. Lowell attached a considerably longer essay in rhyme to the second edition. Here, in the spirit of exuberance that pervades the work from beginning to end, he remarks on the mixed critical reception of the first edition.
(The entire section is 1599 words.)