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Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849
American short story writer, poet, critic, editor, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Poe's essays. See also, Edgar Allan Poe Criticism, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Criticism, and "The Fall of the House of Usher" Criticism.
Though Poe's fame rests primarily on his brilliant short stories, he is also a major figure in the field of literary criticism. His fictional inventiveness is matched by his theoretical innovations, which not only provided a justification for his creation of the genres of science fiction and the detective story, but also attempted to create a tradition of uniquely American literary criticism that would free the American literary world from its colonial dependence on England. Though the rigid standards demanded by Poe in his construction of a worthy national literature alienated many of his contemporaries, he is now recognized as an influential figure in the development of American as well as European literary traditions.
Born in Boston in 1809 to an English actress, Poe was left an orphan before the age of three. He was brought up by his foster parents, John and Frances Allan, in Richmond, Virginia. His early life was therefore spent as part of the southern gentry. He distinguished himself academically both at school and at the university, but his expectations to live the life of a southern gentleman were compromised by his deteriorating relationship with John Allan, which left him in a financially precarious position. In 1827 Poe left Richmond and went to Boston in an attempt to create an independent life for himself. He enlisted in the army and simultaneously published his first book of poetry, Tamerlane, and Other Poems, which did not earn him any literary recognition. After being honorably discharged from the army in 1829, he entered West Point with Allan's consent. But Allan's continued refusal to allow him sufficient funds to maintain himself, combined now with his refusal to allow Poe to resign from the Academy, forced Poe to gain a dismissal by deliberately violating regulations. Left once more to fend for himself, Poe went to New York and then to Baltimore, and tried to become a part of the successful literary circle centered in New England. However, though several of his short stories were published, he was unable to gain either literary recognition or financial security.
In 1835, a year after Allan's death, Poe moved back to Richmond and became the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. This marked the beginning of his career as a literary critic. For the next decade, though he continued to publish short stories and poetry, his chief occupation remained that of a journalist. However, this professional consistency did not ensure financial stability since literary journalism was not a well-paying field. Furthermore, Poe's strong critical opinions frequently generated conflict with magazine proprietors who wanted to retain editorial control over their publications. As a result, he was forced to move from magazine to magazine in search of a better income and more critical freedom. After being dismissed from the Messenger in 1837, he worked for Burton's Gentleman's Magazine from 1839 to 1840. He then moved to Graham's Magazine (1841-42), and finally to the Broadway Journal, where he worked as chief editor until early 1846, when the journal folded. Though he constantly dreamed of launching his own magazine, the closest he came to fulfilling this ambition was to become the proprietor of the Broadway Journal for a short time. He could not, however, make the magazine as successful as he wished—his capabilities as an editor were undercut by his limitations as a business manager.
Since Poe's critical output is largely in the form of journalistic essays prompted by specific events of literary publication, it is difficult to point to any single work as being central to his literary theory. As a book reviewer, Poe commented upon a wide range of literary works ranging from Longfellow's Ballads to Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop. At the same time, he also wrote purely theoretical pieces like "The Poetic Principle" and "The Philosophy of Composition." These two kinds of critical writings are closely interrelated, since the general literary principles developed by Poe in his theoretical essays provided the basis for his critical judgments in his book reviews. Poe thus functioned as a working critic who constantly tested his literary principles against the touchstone of actual literary productions.
Three of Poe's central critical tenets are unity, the creation of a total effect, and originality. Poe's concept of unity differs from the traditional Aristotelian idea of dramatic unity in terms of time, space, and action. For Poe, a unified literary work is one in which every detail, with respect to both style and content, directly contributes to the creation of the total effect of the piece. This emphasis on unity leads to a number of corollary literary principles—the rejection of any verbal ornamentation that merely display the writer's virtuosity without adding intrinsically to the total effect, the preference for shorter works like the lyric and the short story over the longer epic or novel, since the latter are too bulky to allow for such tight construction, and the importance of maintaining generic purity. The focus on unity also leads to Poe's characterization of the artistic process as a self-conscious act of almost mechanical construction; his "Philosophy of Composition" is, in fact, a methodical presentation of the steps involved in the construction of his poem "The Raven." According to Poe, only such careful manipulation of literary raw material can ensure the totality of effect that is the trademark of any good piece of literature.
For Poe, the primary aim of any literary work is to create a mood or an atmosphere that allows the reader to experience the "probable but impossible." Such an affective view of literature does not allow any scope for the utilitarian perspective that dominated the American literary scene during most of the nineteenth century. Poe's ideas on this subject are formulated in oppositional terms which often lead to extremist statements like his "heresy of the Didactic," wherein he denounces all literary works whose chief concerns are moral rather than aesthetic. This view should be distinguished, however, from the later ideas of Oscar Wilde and English aestheticism, since Poe did recognize the presence of moral truth at the core of the best literature. In his more mature and balanced criticism Poe is able to reconcile the moral and the affective aspects of literature and praises works wherein the former is carefully woven into the fabric of the overall literary effect.
Poe's attack on didacticism in literature forms a part of his reviews of Longfellow's poetry. These reviews also contain Poe's controversial views on artistic originality and plagiarism. Poe's eagerness to expose alleged cases of literary plagiarism has frequently led to accusations of psychological instability, and numerous Poe scholars have attempted to explain this obsession with reference to his personal life. Poe's extremely complex definition of originality makes it one of his most knotty critical concepts. However, in the context of his avowed desire to create a uniquely American literary tradition and his view of literature as a reflection of the unperceived "Ideal" rather than a mimetic reproduction of the natural world, Poe's concept of originality can be seen as an integral part of his overall theoretical perspective, rather than as evidence of a psychological aberration.
Contemporary reception of Poe as a literary critic is marked by controversy and ambiguity. While recognized as an astute editor whose perceptive reviews significantly increased the circulation of the Southern Literary Messenger, Poe also aroused strongly negative reactions through his harshly critical reviews that frequently included personal remarks and accusations of plagiarism. During his lifetime he achieved a degree of notoriety during the "Longfellow war," when his attacks on the unofficial poet laureate of America generated a tremendous controversy. Certain scholars perceive this conflict in terms of a North-South division and view Poe as the representative of a southern literary tradition fighting against the domination of the New England literary circle. While southern men of letters did eagerly claim Poe as their literary ancestor in the post-bellum period, such sectarian sentiments did not enable any careful analysis of Poe's critical writings. In the twentieth century there have been numerous attempts to re-evaluate Poe's position in the history of literary criticism. Most scholars see him as the American spokesperson for Romanticism and argue that his emphasis on originality and aesthetics, along with his open admiration for Shelley and Keats, clearly places him in the tradition of English Romanticism. Others, focusing on Poe's scientific predilections in Eureka and his very rational perception of literary production, view him as a successor to the Enlightenment. While Poe may not fit neatly into any preconceived category of literary criticism, and though scholars continue to debate the value of his theoretical contributions, he remains an important critical figure who has left an undeniable mark on American literary criticism.
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"Letter to Mr. , in 1831." (criticism) 1831
Marginalia. (criticism) 1846
The Philosophy of Composition. (essay) 1846
"The Poetic Principle." (essay) 1848
Eureka: A Prose Poem (essay) 1848
The Literati: Some Honest Opinions about Authorial Merits and Demerits, with Occasional Works of Personality. (criticism) 1850
*This list includes Poe's nonfiction works. For a complete list of Poe's major writings, see .
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SOURCE: "Poe as a Literary Critic," in Poe as a Literary Critic, edited by N. Bryllion Fagin, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1946, pp. 1-15.
[The following essay is a contemporary unpublished critique of Poe as a literary critic which was found and published by Fagin in 1946. The essay condemns Poe as a petty, self-contradictory critic who had no literary standards and who used his book reviews to air his personal likes and dislikes.]
In the latter part of 1849 the citizens of Richmond, Virginia, saw passing to and fro in the street a notable-looking stranger whose personal appearance at once invited attention. He was a man a little under the medium height, slender, active, graceful in all his movements, and with quiet and scrupulously courteous manner. The face was a singular one. As he passed, you unconsciously turned round to look again at him. The complexion was pale, almost sallow. The brow was broad, rather than high, and edged by short dark hair circling around the temples which were strongly developed. The eyes were dark and piercing; the nose well shaped; the upper lip disappeared under a heavy black mustache which concealed the entire expression of the mouth. His dress was plain, neat, and in perfectly good taste.
This notable personage was the famous Edgar A. Poe, the author of "The Raven," of a wonderful series of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and of some of the fiercest, most savage, and most unfair literary criticism ever published in America. He was then on his last visit to Richmond, where he had commenced his literary career nearly twenty years before as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, and the object of his visit was to deliver his lecture on "The Poetic Principle," which I had the pleasure of hearing. The lecturer stood in a graceful attitude, leaning one hand on a small table beside him, and his wonderfully clear and musical voice speedily brought the audience under its spell. Those who heard this strange voice once, never afterwards forgot it. It was certainly unlike any other that I have ever listened to: and the exquisite, if objectionable "sing-song," as he repeated "The Raven," Hood's "Fair Inez" and other verse, resembled music. It would be impossible indeed to convey any idea of the manner in which he uttered the line from Shelley "I arise from dreams of thee," or of his low and awestruck tones full of nameless horror, when he repeated from his "Raven"
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Filled me, thrilled me with fantastic terrors never felt before!
The lecture ended in the midst of applause, and Poe disappeared soon afterwards, going northward—to fall a victim in Baltimore to disease and die suddenly.
Each chance encounter with remarkable persons is apt to individualize one's views concerning them; and the personnel of a human being generally illustrates his mental and moral character. In the case of Mr. Poe this rule seemed to be reversed. He impressed you as a gentle, kindly and altogether amiable person, and yet—to sum up the truth concerning him in a single phrase—he was none of these. But with his mere personal character and his shifting, unsettled career, this paper has no concern.
Of his literary character however we have a right to speak, and may do so without being charged with malice or unkindness. Every author surrenders his intellectual organization as manifested in his published writings to the scrutiny of the world; and the "critical" writings of Mr. Poe are so much the more fairly amenable to this nomination and dissection, since he was himself a most bitter and unscrupulous critic, sparing nobody, and scattering on all sides the poisoned and flaming arrows of his invective.
In this character—that of the literary critic—Mr. Poe seems not to have attracted proportionate attention. His wonderful genius as a weird poet, and story teller, has dazzled everybody. Of these poems and narratives—"The Raven," "Lenore," "Annabel Lee," "The Gold Bug," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "Ligeia" and other strange fictions—there can be but one opinion: that they are the productions of a remarkable mind. They in fact elude description—especially the prose narratives—and are a "new sensation." For a wondrous power of analysis, a weird and strange fancy, and a startling combination of the supernatural and the matter-of-fact, they are probably unsurpassed, if indeed they have been equalled by any other writer in any country. They are sui generis and "due to none." The bitterest enemies of the author—and he had some as bitter as ever man had—were and are compelled to recognize in these works the presence of a vast and sombre genius, unclassified and defying classification.
Such a classification is certainly not meant to be attempted here. The object of this brief paper will be to speak of Mr. Poe as a literary critic, in which character he is far more intelligible—and certainly an altogether different personage. In his poems and wild narratives—take as an illustration "Arthur Gordon Pym"—he is a sort of Merlin wandering away into the strange world of dreams, and his figure is lost sight of in mists peopled with phantoms, evoked by a wave of his shadowy wand. In his literary criticisms he is Mr. Edgar A. Poe of Philadelphia or New York, a man of flesh and blood, a commonplace editor of commonplace journals, with bitter dislikes, strong admirations; a writer of squibs; ambitious of praise from people far inferior to him; a warm friend sometimes—often a bitter enemy. To those unacquainted with Mr. Poe's writings these charges may seem exaggerated and unkind. Unfortunately they are just, and are stated less strongly than the truth would warrant. It is impossible to read the series of criticisms collected in his works under the title The Literati, and fail to see that invective is the author's favorite style. He searches for weak points in every writer, completely discarding, it would seem, the just maxim that true criticism is appreciation; and when the failing is found, the critic pounces upon it with obvious pleasure, enforces it without mercy, and generally winds up his criticism with some stinging jest full of bitterness and contempt for the writer he is reviewing. You read all this with a sort of wonder, asking yourself why Mr. Poe assumed this Ishmael-like character. He was charged with envy indeed—which seems incredible in a man of such genius—and one who knew him well and admired him greatly said that his cheek grew pale at praise of others.
Another explanation is that he fancied a critic should be severe, and we certainly find in his Literati a prevailing tone of depreciation, and the severity of a judge reciting the crimes of a prisoner before pronouncing sentence. Take an example or two. Of Mr. William Ellery Channing's poems, he writes—"His book contains about sixty three things which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all!" This would seem to be a sufficient annihilation of the unfortunate Mr. Channing, but his critic adds that the poet is of the "Bobby Button School" and that "nobody ever heard of him." Mr. Poe's critical notices abound in similar sneers, in which the writer seems struggling to express his contempt. Often the hostility is conveyed in a phrase, or negligent "fling" at his subject, as where he gravely speaks of "Mr. Thomas Dunn Brown"—not even hinting at the fact that he is referring to Mr. Thomas Dunn English. Over Mr. Headley's work on the Sacred Mountains of Holy Writ he makes merry, after a grim fashion: representing the author as standing up gravely and solemnly before each famous mountain and making a speech about it!
His commendation of certain writers seemed to be arbitrary and to result from personal feeling, like his denunciation. He praised warmly sometimes, but there was no certainty that he would not denounce the same book or author a month afterwards, or commend after assailing. Quoting the criticism of an English writer that Bulwer was "the most accomplished writer of the most accomplished era of English letters," he says "Mr. Ward . . . could never have put to paper in his sober senses anything as absurd as the paragraph quoted above, without stopping at every third word to hold his sides or thrust his pocket handkerchief into his mouth. As a novelist Bulwer is far more than respectable, though generally inferior to Scott, Godwin, D'Israeli, Miss Burney, Sue, Dumas, Dickens, the author of Ellen Wareham and the author of Jane Eyre and several others. From the list of foreign novels I could select a hundred which he could neither have written or conceived. . . . His 'Athens' has all the happy air of an Etonian prize-essay, revamped. His essays leave no doubt on anybody's mind that they are essays indeed. His criticism is really beneath contempt."
This would seem to indicate Mr. Poe's opinion of Lord Lytton with distinctness: but he returns to the subject and writes—"We have long learned to reverence the fine intellect of Bulwer. We take up any production of his pen with a positive certainty that, in reading it, the wildest passions of our nature, the profoundest of our thoughts, the brightest visions of our fancy, and the most ennobling and lofty of our aspirations will, in due time, be enkindled within us. From the brief tale to the most ponderous and labored of his novels all is richly and glowingly intellectual—all is energetic, or astute, or brilliant, or profound. . . . Viewing him as a novelist he is unsurpassed by any writer living or dead. Who is there uniting in one person the imagination, the passion, the humor, the energy, the knowledge of the heart, the artist-like eye, the originality, the fancy, and the learning of Edward Lytton Bulwer? In a vivid wit—in profundity and a Gothic massiveness of thought, in style—in a calm certainty and definiteness of purpose—in industry—and above all in the power of controlling and regulating by volition his illimitable faculties of mind—he is unequalled—he is unapproached."
Was Mr. Poe jesting?
In his desultory career as a magazine writer—in which he often forgot today what he wrote yesterday—Mr. Poe occasionally betrayed some of the secrets of his literary work-shop, and laid bare to the public the heart of his own mystery. In "How to Write a Blackwood Article" he makes the editor of that magazine say to Miss Psyche Zenobia, the aspiring authoress, "Above all it is necessary that your article have an air of erudition, or at least afford evidence of extensive general reading. I'll put you in the way of accomplishing this point. See here!—by casting your eye down almost any page of any book in the world, you will be able to perceive at once a host of little scraps of either learning or bel-espirit-ism, which are the very thing for the spicing of a Blackwood article. You might as well note down a few while I read them to you. I shall make two divisions; first, Piquant Facts for the Manufacture of Similes; and second, Piquant Expressions to be introduced as occasion may require. . . . You may make a great deal of that little fact. You see, it is not generally known, and looks recherché. You must be careful and give the thing with a downright improviso air!"
This advice, satirically attributed to Mr. Blackwood, Mr. Poe gravely followed, as his voluminous notebooks, Marginalia and other similar collections of scraps indicate. He seems to have carefully gleaned from almost every book which he read, whatever might prove useful to him—in which there was certainly nothing to find fault with—and these facts, quotations, and "little scraps" he afterwards introduced into his writings with the "downright improviso air" which he recommends. His object seems to have been to attain the reputation of a man of vast reading and erudition. An instance is given:
Now the words of Ezekiel are—Venathati eth-har Seir lesh immanah ushemamah vehichrati mimmennu over vasal: literally Venathati, and I will give; eth-har, the mountain; Seir, Seir, etc. I am sustained in the translation of over vasal by Gesenius S 5—vol 2—p. 570, Leo's Trans. There is something analogous in the Hebrew-Greek phrase at Acts, 9:28 (the Greek passage is quoted). The Latin versatus est is precisely paraphrastic."—"He must use a silk cord as they do in Spain with all grandees of the blue blood, the sangre azula."—"Pour savoir ce qu'est Dieu," says Belefeld, "il faut être Dieu même."
These extracts are taken from two consecutive pages, and convey the impression that Mr. Poe was familiar with Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and French—which is doubtful. He probably enjoyed the grave discussion of the Hebrew passage in Ezekiel, and laughed as he intimated that he was sustained by Gesenius! Of this industrious manner in which he used his voluminous notebooks, introducing their contents with the "downright improviso air" of a writer drawing on his memory, only, his works generally contain the evidence.
Nothing pleased this man of genius, busying himself with small things, more than minute criticism and dissection of the style of some eminent writer. He seemed to relish highly this apparent sitting in judgment. The tone of the judge addressing the criminal was pleasant to him. "This passage," he seemed to say, "appears to you, Sir, who read it carelessly, a very fine passage indeed—but let me show you how blundering it is, and how easily I could improve it." An instance is given in which he arraigns Lord Macaulay at the bar. The following paragraph from Macaulay is selected for dissection:
Government is to Mr. Southey one of the fine arts. He judges of a theory as a public measure, of a religion, a political party, a peace or a war, as men judge of a picture or a statue, by the effect produced on his imagination. A chain of associations is to him what a chain of reasoning is to other men; and what he calls his opinions are in fact merely his tastes.
This passage will probably be regarded as sufficiently clear, vigorously written, and if marked by the mannerism of its great author, still excellent English. Mr. Poe considers it "inaccurate, pleonastic, awkward, unpleasant and faulty"; passes each phrase of the paragraph in review; and declares that it should have been written thus:—
With Southey governing is a fine art. Of a theory or a public measure—of a creed, a political party, a peace or a war—he judges by the imaginative effect; as only such things as pictures or statues are judged of by other men. What to them a chain of reasoning is, to him is a chain of association; and as to his opinions they are nothing but his tastes.
It is scarcely necessary to say that the original is more vigorous—it is certainly better English. To judge by the imaginative effect is an undesirable change of "the effect produced on his imagination";—and what to them a chain of reasoning is violates the idiom of the language, and is certainly "awkward and unpleasant":—terms applied by Mr. Poe to the original.
This brief criticism of a critic has not been inspired by malevolence or any desire to detract from Mr. Poe's personal or literary reputation generally. His personal character has been scarcely touched upon; and the absurdest of all absurd things would be to call in question the genius of the man who wrote the "Raven," "The Gold Bug" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Had Mr. Poe confined himself to poetry and the realm of weird fiction he would have remained an unapproachable master, ruling the domain of Wonderland without a rival. He did not confine himself to this high ground of letters, but descended into the valley to busy himself with the petty spites and rivalries of the hour, as a literary critic. He chose this character of a severe critic and assailed everybody. It is only fair that he should be criticised in turn, as a critic.
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SOURCE: Introduction to Selections from Poe's Literary Criticism, F. S. Crofts & Co., 1926, pp. vii-xix.
[In the following essay, Moore argues that Poe's main ambition was to be a magazine proprietor. He therefore examines Poe primarily as a journalist who was committed to the growth of the American magazine culture and, through it, the construction of an American literary criticism distinct from the English critical tradition.]
As soon as Fate allows I will have a magazine of my own, and will endeavor to kick up a dust.
—Poe to P. P. Cook, 1839.
That Poe was apparently first of all a journalist—neither a poet nor a writer of fiction—cannot well be doubted. Those of his contemporaries who knew him and left some record of their knowledge almost invariably owed their acquaintance with Poe to his journalistic activities of one sort or another. It is safest to say he was apparently first a journalist, for some of his biographers and students treat him as though he were primarily lover, or poet, or solitary dreamer. In examining the much-vexed treatments of Poe, it is necessary to proceed with some method. There are about Poe and his works books that may be called possible only, books that may be called probable, books that may be called actual. Woodberry's biography of Poe remains, after all psycho-analytical flurries, the actual book about Poe; while the heralded Edgar Allan Poe of J. W. Krutch wavers somewhere between the realms of the possible and the probable, for it begins with an hypothesis and concludes with the same hypothesis, the author (not the reader) having acquired astonishing certitude in the course of his book about a highly undemonstrable proposition. Mr. Krutch looks for clues to Poe's nature in the poems and the tales for the most part. Here, he believes, is the unconscious revelation of the sexual deficiencies or abnormalities that Poe would fain have concealed. Now, Poe's stories and poems do show not merely a lack of, but an aversion to, physical passion, and it is easy to agree with a student who suspects sexual peculiarities in Poe. The whole matter is at best ingenious speculation—never to be susceptible of proof. It would be almost as easy to build an account of Hawthorne—based upon his somber tales and novels—as a specimen of sexual abnormality; it would be easy if we did not know of Hawthorne's entirely wholesome marriage and family-life. One cannot be so ardently sure of Poe's case as Mr. Krutch is.
On the other hand, a study of Poe's reviews and other journalistic work affords plain, unhypothetic indications of his nature and his preoccupations—at least his conscious preoccupations if not his subconscious. In a letter where there seems little reason to believe that Poe could have been striking an attitude—as he was prone to do in his public utterances—he formulates his own "ultimate purpose."
Holding steadily in view my ultimate purpose,—to found a magazine of my own, or in which at least I might have a proprietary right,—it has been my constant endeavor in the mean time, not so much to establish a reputation great in itself as one of that particular character which should best further my special objects, and draw attention to my exertions as editor of a magazine. . . .
Setting aside, for the present, my criticisms, poems, and miscellanies (sufficiently numerous), my tales, a great number of which might be termed fantasy pieces, are in number sixty-six. They would make, perhaps, five of the ordinary novel volumes. I have them prepared in every respect for the press; but, alas, I have no money, nor that influence which would enable me to get a publisher—although I seek no pecuniary remuneration. My sole immediate object is the furtherance of my ultimate one. I believe that if I could get my tales fairly before the public, and thus have an opportunity of eliciting foreign as well as native opinion respecting them, I should by their means be in a far more advantageous position than at present in regard to the establishment of a magazine. In a word, I believe that the publication of the work would lead forthwith either directly through my own exertion, or indirectly with the aid of a publisher, to the establishment of the journal I hold in view.
Poe did not only formulate his purpose but achieved a large part of it with surprising vigor. He wished to have a journal of his own—that is, to be himself both editor and proprietor, and he proceeded with striking success to edit The Southern Literary Messenger, and then Graham's Magazine, and then The Broadway Journal. He became proprietor as well as editor of The Broadway Journal but failed afterward to make it a success, having probably little capacity as a business manager though great capacity as an editor. Poe was a magazine editor. There his effort, his interests, and his success lay. In the foregoing excerpt, it is to be noted that he regards his short stories as the readiest means of gaining a reputation in the world of magazines. He had thought out carefully the requirements of magazine literature and found himself in general sympathy with these requirements. He tells what he has concluded about the matter in a paragraph later published in Marginalia.
The increase, within a few years, of the magazine literature, is by no means to be regarded as indicating what some critics would suppose it to indicate—a downward tendency in American taste or in American letters. It is but a sign of the times—an indication of an era in which men are forced upon the curt, the condensed, the well-digested—in place of the voluminous—in a word, upon journalism in lieu of dissertation. We need now the light artillery rather than the Peacemakers of the intellect. I will not be sure that men at present think more profoundly than half a century ago, but beyond question they think with more rapidity, with more skill, with more tact, with more of method, and less of excrescence in the thought. Besides all this, they have a vast increase in the thinking material. They have more facts, more to think about. For this reason, they are disposed to put the greatest amount of thought in the smallest compass and disperse it with the utmost attainable rapidity. Hence the journalism of the age, hence, in especial, magazines. Too many we cannot have, as a general proposition; but we demand that they have sufficient merit to render them noticeable in the beginning, and that they continue in existence sufficiently long to permit us a fair estimation of their value.
Poe may have been reserved and somewhat lonely because of his peculiar nature but he was certainly in the thick of American letters of his day, not half so much the Dreamer (as a sentimental female biographer will have him) as the extremely busy and unusually effective journalist. Poe is not even that pathetic denationalized figure so dear to readers of his poems, the figure so un-American, the figure somehow crippled by the dreadful America in which it existed. There are no two ways about it;—Poe wanted to be an eminent "magazinist"; he labored diligently among a throng of fellows in the most populous region of North America; he almost realized his ambition of becoming a proprietor-editor.
To be sure, he also suffered poverty, was without intimate friends, continually ruined his most promising opportunities by insane orgies of drunkenness. These things which throw a shadow over his professional successes can hardly be said to prove him un-American or essentially out of harmony with his environment. In fact, if we adopt the view of Poe as a surprisingly successful journalist, whose heart was in his magazine work, and as a man who perceived early, and sympathized heartily with, the American desire for short, swift magazine fiction and verse, then Poe emerges as one of the most American of the writers of his period. And Poe was American not only in his championship of "the curt, the condensed" in literature but equally in his employment of the sensational (thus demonstrating himself an instinctive journalist!) in his articles and disclosures about hypnotism, mesmerism, and secret ciphers.
In another way, unsuspected by readers who do not know Poe's critical reviews, he shows himself a representative American (representative of the minority of the better reviewers). He never loses an opportunity to deride the subservience of American criticism to contemporary English criticism in the English and Scotch reviews or quarterlies. He urges—and himself exemplifies—an independence in literary judgments; he eagerly declares independence. Further, Poe shows in such a review as his of Irving's Astoria an ardent interest in the western lands of America very characteristic of the Americans of that day. In one review he hotly debates the question of slavery, naturally concluding with an emotional plea for the preservation of the happy status quo. That was to be expected of Poe; but the writing of the articles reveals a journalistic alertness to events, such as readers of "Annabel Lee" or "The Pit and the Pendulum" are prone to overlook.
There is, finally, a passage in an ironic little article entitled Secrets of the Magazine Prison-House, a passage with patent autobiographic reference to remind readers that Poe, experiencing the pinches of a meager profession, yet adhered strongly to it from predilection.
.. . A young author, struggling with Despair itself in the shape of a ghastly poverty, which has no alleviation—no sympathy from an every-day world, that cannot understand his necessities, and that would pretend not to understand them if it comprehended them ever so well—this young author is politely requested to compose an article, for which he will "be handsomely paid." Enraptured, he neglects perhaps for a month the sole employment which affords him the chance of a livelihood, and having starved through the month (he and his family) completes at length the month of starvation and the article, and despatches the latter (with a broad hint about the former) to the pursy "editor" and the bottle-nosed "proprietor" who has condescended to honor him (the poor devil) with his patronage. A month (starving still), and no reply. Another month— still none. Two months more—still none. A second letter, modestly hinting that the article may not have reached its destination—still no reply. At the expiration of six additional months, personal application is made at the "editor and proprietor's" office. Call again. The poor devil goes out and does not fail to call again. Still call again;—and call again is the word for three or four months more. His patience exhausted, the article is demanded. No—he can't have it—(the truth is, it was too good to be given up so easily)—"it is in print," and "contributions of this character are never paid for (it is a rule we have) under six months after publication. Call in six months after the issue of your affair, and your money is ready for you—for we are business men ourselves—prompt." With this the poor devil is satisfied, and makes up his mind that the "editor and proprietor" is a gentleman, and that of course he (the poor devil) will wait as requested. And it is supposable that he would have waited if he could—but Death in the meantime would not. He dies, and by the good luck of his decease (which came by starvation) the fat "editor and proprietor" is fatter henceforward and for ever to the amount of five and twenty dollars, very cleverly saved, to be spent generously in canvasbacks and champagne.
There are two things which we hope the reader will not do as he runs over this article: first, we hope that he will not believe that we write from any personal experience of our own, for we have only the reports of actual sufferers to depend upon; and second, that he will not make any personal application of our remarks to any Magazine publisher now living, it being well known that they are all as remarkable for their generosity and urbanity, as for their intelligence and appreciation of Genius.
But Poe himself aspired to become an "editor and proprietor"! He wished to be different from the sort he referred to so sarcastically above. Indeed Poe had something of a vision of what he might make of his projected magazine.
In short, I could see no reason why a magazine, if worthy the name, could not be made to circulate among twenty thousand subscribers, embracing the best intellect and education of the land. This was a thought which stimulated my fancy and my ambition. The influence of such ajournai would be vast indeed, and I dreamed of honestly employing that influence in the sacred cause of the beautiful, the just, and the true.
In consideration of the way in which magazine work engrossed Poe, it seems somewhat more natural to attribute his literary theories—especially the theory that comparative brevity is essential in fiction or poetry, and his literary practice, which harmonized marvelously with his theory—to journalistic expediency than (as J. W. Krutch prefers) to psychologic and artistic limitations. Nothing proves that Poe, in his attempt at an aesthetic, was only trying to rationalize his own shortcomings. Perhaps he approved of short stories and lyric poems because he was unable to compose long novels and epics; but as a journalist by inclination may he not with great likelihood have preferred the short to the long, have admired it more, have desired more to excel in it?
Whatever the effect of journalistic ideals was upon Poe's creative writing, the quantity and the quality of his magazine work as such—his reviews—both are remarkable. The criticisms and reviews have never been completely collected for issue in volumes, though Harrison's "Virginia" edition is sufficiently full. In this edition, the so-called criticism occupies more space than either the short stories or the poems, for reviewing was Poe's regular business, stories and poems a sort of avocation. Considering the time and place, Poe's reviews are just as extraordinary as his other writings, though the lapse of years has inevitably impaired their current interest more than that of his creative work. The historic importance of his magazine articles is considerable. First, they reveal (what Poe pretended to scorn) the habits of the reviewers of the day; there is fulsome praise of certain very distinguished female poets; there is an exploiting of personality and frequent uncritical diatribe. Then they show, at their best, the turn that Poe himself was trying to give to that absurd type of criticism,—the attempt always to appraise the shortcomings as well as the excellence of a book, the readiness to commend writers even when the public stamp of approval was not upon them. Poe estimates with positiveness the value of a great number (in fact, nearly all) of writers of his day in America. He feels it a duty to expose mediocrity just as much as to discover genius. Consequently, the most interesting approach to the typical writing of the early nineteenth century in America is probably in these articles by Poe on certain literary nonentities.
The only other critical writer of the period with whom Poe can profitably be compared is obviously James Russell Lowell. Lowell's literary essays give very little of the flavor of American writing of the day, for he did not venture much on reviewing of minor contemporaries. Perhaps he did not consider them worth his attention. Whatever the reason, Lowell writes on safe and approved literary subjects almost always. He lacked something of Poe's boldness and energy and originality of literary creed. But Lowell possessed, of course, humor, in which Poe is often deficient, a genuine scholarly acquaintance with great writers such as Poe never had, and an easy elegance of style quite impossible to Poe. Lowell is pleasanter reading, but Poe is—though something of a poseur—both original and dynamic.
The selected essays of Poe in this book [Selections from Poe's Literary Criticism] are intentionally those upon American writers. Poe wrote many more criticisms and book-reviews of American books and writers than of English or any others, and it is not difficult to represent his methods and theories adequately by selections altogether upon American subjects. . . .
The first division of the book includes Poe's two most successful essays on literary theory—"The Poetic Principle" and The Philosophy of Composition. The latter, purporting as it does to be an account of the manner in which Poe composed "The Raven," is still a theoretic piece since it clearly expounds his idea of the way in which a poem as such should be composed by a poet as such. The mooted question whether or not Poe wrote as a hoax this recipe for making poems—this question is not of much importance. Hoax or no hoax, the essay shows the habit of Poe's mind as well as anything he ever wrote.
The next division comprises good examples of Poe's careful critical work, particularly in the essays on Bryant and Longfellow. Poe wrote many times upon both those poets—now enthusiastically, now severely. It is very instructive to one studying Poe's development or evolution as a critic to work through chronologically his various essays upon Bryant, or upon Longfellow, or Bulwer, or Hawthorne, for Poe never tired of returning to the discussion of these authors. Lowell was also the subject of more than one of Poe's reviews. The essay on Channing is grouped with the other three merely because it is a painstaking piece of writing upon a contemporary versifier. Channing was no favorite with Poe, and this essay is one of the masterpieces of destruction for which Poe was almost infamous in the eyes of his world.
The third division contains two examples of Poe's reviews of prose writers. The essay on Hawthorne is notable both for sound observations upon Hawthorne and for Poe's most explicit manifesto regarding the province and technique of the prose tale, in writing which he and Hawthorne were surely adepts. In the criticism of Cooper, Poe makes an interesting classification of novelists and an unusually just estimate of Cooper's virtues and deficiencies.
The three essays from the series known as The Literati stand together for no better reason than that they were originally associated in publication. In certain respects, these are the most typical cases of Poe's reviewing here presented. Willis and Halleck were two far more popular writers—or at any rate far better liked—than Poe himself; two writers who represented the American taste in literature in the second quarter of the nineteenth century admirably. Poe, like everyone else, admired them, though he did not so far lose his sense of poetic values as to rank them with Bryant or Longfellow. The essay on Margaret Fuller is worthy of perusal as a case of Poe's tendency to over-eulogize female writers and as his only at all sympathetic treatment of any of the transcendentalist writers of the day.
The set of short pieces from Poe's Marginalia (or as one might better call it—Choice Bits Selected from Poe by Poe!) is purposely miscellaneous to show something of Poe's diversity (perhaps superficiality) of interests. Finally, the "Letter to Mr.——," published in 1831 as a foreword to a volume of Poe's poems, is such a characteristic if intemperate outburst of the ideas which continually shaped the later writing of Poe that it deserves inclusion.
There are often several authentic, though very different, texts of a given essay by Poe, for he was nowhere more the artist than in his tireless revision of style— even of punctuation. He was also accustomed to republish in a magazine with which he had lately become connected, such articles from those originally issued in other magazines (somewhat revised) as he thought worthy. An editor can at best try to give the text of an essay as it appeared at a certain date in a certain periodical. There has been some preposterous editing of Poe. For example, two or three of Poe's essays on Longfellow have been jumbled and spliced in curious ways to comprise a single essay on Longfellow too often reprinted thus in popular editions of Poe's works. There is an essay similarly fabricated from three reviews (at widely different dates) on Hawthorne. Poe had materially changed his estimate of Hawthorne as the years passed; so the fabrication is a royal hodge-podge. The essays on Hawthorne and Longfellow in the present collection actually appeared as they here stand at the date assigned. Since Poe was inclined to modify his opinions, even to reverse them, an appended date is necessary and significant.
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SOURCE: "Poe as a Literary Critic," in Nation, Vol. 155, No. 18, October 13, 1942, pp. 452-3.
[Wilson attempts to rescue Poe's reputation as a literary critic by focusing on the latter's development of general critical principles that explain his specific criticisms of contemporary writers.]
Poe at the time of his death in 1849, had had the intention of publishing a book on "The Authors of America in Prose and Verse." He had already worked over to a considerable extent the material of his articles and reviews; and the collection of critical writing printed by Griswold after his death is something between a journalistic chronicle like Bernard Shaw's dramatic notices and a selected and concentrated volume like Eliot's "The Sacred Grove."
Poe as a critic has points of resemblance both with Eliot and with Shaw. He deals vigorously and boldly with books as they come into his hands day by day, as Shaw did with the plays of the season, and manages to be brilliant and arresting even about works of no interest; he constantly insists, as Eliot does, on attempting, in the practice of this journalism, to formulate general principles. His literary articles and lectures, in fact, surely constitute the most remarkable body of criticism ever produced in the United States.
Henry James called it "probably the most complete and exquisite specimen of provincialism ever prepared for the edification of men." But though Poe had his share of provincialism, as all American writers did in that period, the thing that most strikes us today is his success in holding himself above it. Intellectually he stands on higher ground than any other American writer of his time. He is trying to curb the tendency of the Americans to overrate or overpraise their own books, and at the same time he is fighting a rearguard action against the over-inflation of British reputations and the British injustice to American writers; and he has also a third battle: to break down the monopolistic instincts of the New Englanders, who tended to act as a clique and to keep out New Yorkers and Southerners. On one plane Poe grapples realistically with the practical problems of writers in the United States of that time—the copyright situation and the growth of the American magazines, with their influence on literary technique; and on another plane he is able to take in the large developments of Western literature.
With his general interest in method, he has definite ideas about the procedures in a variety of departments of literature—fiction, poetry, satire, travel, criticism. And he can be elevated, ironic, analytical, as the subject in hand requires. His prose is as taut as in his stories, but it has cast off the imagery of his fiction to become simply sharp and precise—our only first-rate classical prose of this period. His mind is a livid but incandescent shaft that is leveled at the successive objects in the American literary landscape like the searchlight on the Albany night boat that picks out the houses along the Hudson; and as there we are induced to stare at even undistinguished places which have been plucked out of the darkness into a spectral intensity of relief, so here we must read even the essays on insignificant figures whose dead features the critic makes radiant even while he is speeding them to oblivion. When we have put the whole picture together, we see it as clearly—to change the figure—as the geography of a landscape on the moon under an unattainably powerful telescope. There is no other such picture in our literature.
But Poe had tweaked the beard of Longfellow and had made people laugh at a Channing, and the lurking rancor of New England seems to have worked against the acceptance of his criticism. There is an anecdote in W. D. Howells's book, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, which shows both the attitude of New England and the influence of this attitude on others. Howells had visited Boston for the first time when he was twenty-three, and he had gone to see Emerson in Concord. Poe had been dead ten years.
After dinner [says Howells] we walked about in [Emerson's] "pleached garden" a little, and then we came again into his library, where I meant to linger only till I could fitly get away. He questioned me about what I had seen of Concord, and whom besides Hawthorne I had met, and when I told him only Thoreau, he asked me if I knew the poems of Mr. William Ellery Channing. I have known them since, and felt their quality, which I have gladly owned a genuine and original poetry; but I answered then truly that I knew them only from Poe's criticisms: cruel and spiteful things which I should be ashamed of enjoying as I once did. "Whose criticisms?" asked Emerson. "Poe's," I said again. "Oh," he cried out, after a moment, as if he had returned from a far search for my meaning, "you mean the jingle-man." I do not know why this should have put me to such confusion, but if I had written the criticisms myself I do not think I could have been more abashed. Perhaps I felt an edge of reproof, of admonition, in a characterization of Poe which the world will hardly agree with; though I do not agree with the world about him, myself, in its admiration. At any rate, it made an end of me for the time, and I remained as if already absent, while Emerson questioned me as to what I had written in the Atlantic Monthly.
That Emerson's opinion of Channing was not so very different from Poe's is shown by an entry in his journal for 1855:
Ellery Channing's poetry has the merit of being genuine, and not the metrical commonplaces of the magazines, but it is painfully incomplete. He has not kept faith with the reader; 'tis shamefully insolent and slovenly. He should have lain awake all night to find the true rhyme for a verse, and he has availed himself of the first one that came; so that it is all a babyish incompleteness.
The prejudice of New England against Poe was supported by the bad reputation that had been given him by Griswold's mendacious memoir. It was not so long ago that it was possible for President Hadley of Yale to explain the refusal of the Hall of Fame to admit Poe among its immortals on the ground that he "wrote like a drunkard and a man who is not accustomed to pay his debts"; and it was only last year that Professor A. H. Quinn showed the lengths to which Griswold had gone by producing the originals of Poe's letters and printing them side by side with Griswold's falsifications.
We have often been told of Poe's criticism that it is spiteful, that it is pretentious, that it is vitiated by Poe's acceptance of the sentimental bad taste of his time. In regard to the first two of these charges it must be admitted that these essays give us unpleasant moments; they do have their queer knots and wrinkles; they are neurotic as all Poe's work is neurotic; and the distortions do here sometimes throw us off as they do not do in the stories, because it is here a question of judgment, whereas in his fiction the distortion itself is the subject of the story. It is true, as Joseph Wood Krutch has said, that there is constantly felt in Poe's criticism the same element of obsessive cruelty that inspires his tales of horror. Yet in his criticism Poe does try to hold this in check—with an occasional effect of inconsistency, in judgment as well as in tone, as when he will begin by telling us that certain passages in some book he is reviewing are among the best things of their kind to be found in contemporary writing, and then go on to pick the poet to pieces slowly, coldly, and at a length of many pages. It is also true that Poe pretends sometimes, or at least sometimes lets us infer, that he has read things he has not read. The psychology of the pretender is always a factor to be reckoned with in Poe.
The child of a fascinating actress who had died when he was two years old, he had been adopted by a Scotch merchant in Richmond, brought up as a Southern gentleman, and then cast off with no job and no money at the end of his first year of college, during which his adoptive father had failed to pay even his necessary expenses, so that he could associate, as he said, "with no students except those who were in a similar situation with myself." Poe had always been in the false situation of not being Allan's son and of knowing that in the society he was bred to his parents had been déclassés; and now he was suddenly deprived of his role of a well-heeled young Southern gentleman with prospects of inheriting a fortune, and found himself a poor man with no backing who had to survive in the American Grub Street. He had the confidence of faith in superior abilities, and the reports of his work at his English school and at the University of Virginia show that he excelled as a student. But his studies had been aborted at the same time as his social career, and a shade of the uncertainty of the "gentleman" was communicated also to the "scholar." Perhaps, also, though Poe's mind was a first-rate one, there was in him a dash of the actor who delights in elaborating a part.
Out of this consciousness of being a pretender, at any rate, with its infliction of a habitual secretiveness, came certainly Poe's love of cryptograms, his interest in inventing and solving crimes, and his indulgence in concocting and exposing hoaxes. If Poe sometimes plays unavowed tricks by cheating the reader a little about what he has written or read, the imposture is still almost as gratuitous, as innocent, and as unimportant as Stendhal's disguises and aliases and his weakness for taking ladies from the provinces through Paris and misinforming them about the public monuments. And with this we must also write off Poe's rather annoying mania of accusing his contemporaries of plagiarism—a harsh name he is in the habit of brandishing to indicate borrowings and echoes of a kind which, whether more or less abject, is usually perfectly harmless. Poe himself was certainly guilty—in his imitation of chivers, for example—of borrowings equally harmless. But these, too, touched off the pretender.
As for the charge of Poe's acquiescence in the mawkish bad taste of his period, it is deserved to only a slight degree. He more often ran counter to this taste, as when he came down on Fitz-Greene Halleck; and, for the rest, his excessive enthusiasm for poets like Mrs. Osgood is attributable to the same sort of causes as, say, the praises of Bernard Shaw for the plays of Henry Arthur Jones: the writer who is potentially a master sees in the inferior writer a reflection of the kind of thing that he wants to do himself, but the possibilities of which will hardly be plain to anyone else till the master himself has made them actual.
We must recognize these warpings of Poe's line; but we must not allow them as serious impugnments of the validity of his critical work. His reading was wide and great, and his culture was derived from a plane of the world of thought and art which had hardly been visited by Longfellow with his patient persistent transposition of the poetry of many lands and ages into terms of his own insipidity or by Lowell with his awful cosy titles for his collections of literary essays: My Study Windows and Among My Books. The truth is that literary America has always resented in Poe the very superiority which made him so quickly an international figure.
He may have been a difficult person, though certain people seem to have got on very well with him; but it seems hard to explain the virulence with which Griswold pursued him after his death and the general hostility toward him which has haunted us ever since, except on the ground that he puts us out by making so much of our culture seem second-rate. In our childhood we read "The Gold Bug" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," and everybody knows "Annabel Lee" and "Ulalume" and "The Bells" and "The Raven"; but Poe is not, as he is with the French and as he ought to be with us, a vital part of our intellectual equipment. It is rare that an American writer points out, as Waldo Frank once did, that Poe belongs not with the clever contrivers of fiction like O. Henry and S. S. Van Dine but, in terms of his constricted personality, with the great inquiring and versatile minds like Goethe. So that it is still worth while to insist on his value.
In the darkness of his solitary confinement Poe is still a prince.
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SOURCE: "From Poe to Valery," in To Criticize the Critic, by T. S. Eliot, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1948, pp. 33-4.
[One of the best-known and most influential poets of the twentieth century, Eliot is equally noted as a literary critic and theorist. In the following excerpt, he argues that Poe's essays on the art of poetry help to rationalize the latter's own poetic technique, but that they cannot be taken as general principles. For Eliot's critique of Poe as a poet and short-story writer, see .]
Imperfections in "The Raven" . . . may serve to explain why The Philosophy of Composition, the essay in which Poe professes to reveal his method in composing "The Raven"—has not been taken so seriously in England or America as in France. It is difficult for us to read that essay without reflecting, that if Poe plotted out his poem with such calculation, he might have taken a little more pains over it: the result hardly does credit to the method. Therefore we are likely to draw the conclusion that Poe in analysing his poem was practising either a hoax, or a piece of self-deception in setting down the way in which he wanted to think that he had written it. Hence the essay has not been taken so seriously as it deserves.
Poe's other essays in poetic aesthetic deserve consideration also. No poet, when he writes his own art poétique, should hope to do much more than explain, rationalize, defend or prepare the way for his own practice: that is, for writing his own kind of poetry. He may think that he is establishing laws for all poetry; but what he has to say that is worth saying has its immediate relation to the way in which he himself writes or wants to write: though it may well be equally valid to his immediate juniors, and extremely helpful to them. We are only safe in finding, in his writing about poetry, principles valid for any poetry, so long as we check what he says by the kind of poetry he writes. Poe has a remarkable passage about the impossibility of writing a long poem—for a long poem, he holds, is at best a series of short poems strung together. What we have to bear in mind is that he himself was incapable of writing a long poem. He could conceive only a poem which was a single simple effect: for him, the whole of a poem had to be in one mood. Yet it is only in a poem of some length that a variety of moods can be expressed; for a variety of moods requires a number of different themes or subjects, related either in themselves or in the mind of the poet. These parts can form a whole which is more than the sum of the parts; a whole such that the pleasure we derive from the reading of any part is enhanced by our grasp of the whole. It follows also that in a long poem some parts may be deliberately planned to be less 'poetic' than others: these passages may show no lustre when extracted, but may be intended to elicit, by contrast, the significance of other parts, and to unite them into a whole more significant than any of the parts. A long poem may gain by the widest possible variations of intensity. But Poe wanted a poem to be of the first intensity throughout: it is questionable whether he could have appreciated the more philosophical passages in Dante's Purgatorio. What Poe had said has proved in the past of great comfort to other poets equally incapable of the long poem; and we must recognize that the question of the possibility of writing a long poem is not simply that of the strength and staying power of the individual poet, but may have to do with the conditions of the age in which he find himself. And what Poe has to say on the subject is illuminating, in helping us to understand the point of view of poets for whom the long poem is impossible. . . .
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SOURCE: "Edgar Allan Poe," in The South in American Literature: 1607-1900, Duke University Press, 1954, pp. 528-50.
[In the following excerpt, Hubbell examines Poe's career as the book reviewer for the Southern Literary Messenger.]
Poe published in the Messenger tales and poems that won the admiration of Tucker and Philip Pendleton Cooke, but it was only by his book reviews that he attracted wide attention. Where he had served his apprenticeship as a reviewer is not known, but from the outset he was master of a vigorous critical method which owed much to a study of Coleridge and the British quarterlies. He could not prevent White from printing much inferior material in the body of the magazine, but in his reviews he soon made it evident that here at last was an American critic with the equipment and the courage to appraise by nonprovincial standards the work of poetasters and sentimental novelists accustomed to indiscriminate praise. His standards were too high to please his contemporaries, but he was not lacking in the editorial intuition for what would attract attention to the magazine. When he dissected Theodore Fay's pretentious and widely advertised Norman Leslie, he must have known that his review would attract attention in New York, for Fay was one of the editors of the New-York Mirror. During his connection with the Messenger, according to Poe's estimate, the circulation of the magazine rose from seven hundred to over five thousand. It was largely through his work that a struggling Southern monthly had become for the moment the best literary magazine in the United States. White, however, never gave him a free hand in accepting or rejecting manuscripts; and though Poe had probably saved the Messenger from early extinction, he was not willing to let it be stated in his columns that Poe was its editor. He finally made up his mind to part with Poe, but the poet's occasional drinking was not the determining factor. White wrote to Beverley Tucker on December 27, 1836: ".. . I am cramped by him in the exercise of my own judgement, as to articles I shall or shall not admit into my work. It is true that I neither have his sagacity, nor his learning—but I do believe I know a handspike from a saw." No, the Messenger was his private property, and he would run it to suit himself. He must have been very stupid, however, if he did not know that he could never find another editor of Poe's competence. Poe, for his part, seeing the profits of his labors going into the proprietor's pockets, had begun to dream of founding a magazine of his own. Like many another Southern writer since his time, he believed that he would fare better in one of the Northern cities. It was already obvious that the important literary centers would be found in the North. There perhaps he would find more time, too, for the creative work he wished to do. . . .
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SOURCE: "Edgar Allan Poe," in Classic Americans: A Study of Eminent American Writers from Irving to Whitman, Russell & Russell, Inc., 1959, pp. 263-307.
[In the following essay, Canby argues that Poe's egomania combined with his interest in contemporary scientific thought can help to explain the uneven nature of his critical writings. While Poe was logical when delineating general literary principles, Canby maintains, his self-obsession made his critique of specific authors arbitrary and unreliable.]
To leave the society of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau for the Philadelphia, the New York, the Rich mond, of Poe is to pass from a quiet village of philosophic Greeks to an active, hustling present, from retirement out of space, and often out of time, to the more familiar world that lives in the moment. And to leave these men for Poe is to exchange elevation for intensity, and the study of man for the practice of art. There is not in the range of literature a wider dissimilarity than that which separates everything that Emerson and Thoreau were and could and wished to be, from this man Poe and his work.
The New Englanders were deeply religious—even Hawthorne; to Poe religion—except the religion of beauty—was meaningless. They were either philosophers, or ready with the least excuse to philosophize, and the goals they set themselves in art were philosophic or ethical—an understanding of the spiritual and moral nature was what they essentially sought. Poe's purpose in writing was to amuse, to interest, to impress, and to enlighten, which last is very different from seeking enlightenment. The others, even Hawthorne, and certainly Melville, were "seekers." Poe was a journalist. Poe the neurotic fits best and easiest into the familiar curves of modern living, Poe the writer is nearest to our norm; the New Englanders belonged to a culture so different from our megalopolitan civilization that they might well have come from that star which Poe was always seeking. Professionals in the life of the soul, they often seem amateurs—sometimes of genius—in the craft of writing. An amateur in scholarship and philosophy, and cursed with hot lunacies, Poe nevertheless, as a man of letters, was the true professional. He is more normal—as an artist—than Thoreau or Emerson or Melville.
I shall return to this comparison, which is fundamental. Of Poe himself, the most poignant fact is that he was unfortunate. Unfortunate men who are touched with greatness become notorious, whether or not they achieve fame. They make legends for themselves, and legends are made for them that are colored or interpreted differently by each generation that follows. They are no more complex than happier men of genius, but they seem so, because, having contradictions in themselves, they induce contradictions in others. If, as with Poe, the misfortune is congenital, interpretation is confused between the man and his works. One, of course, explains the other, but in Poe's case the variety of contributory circumstances presents so many possible causes for so many extraordinary results that criticism runs this way and that. Every book on Poe has its thesis, and both his art and the man himself are lost in exegesis and argument.
We know, in fact, almost too much about Poe—or rather, too many Poes—for a clear picture of the man and an easy comprehension of his work. There is no mystery left in him except the supreme mystery of neuroticism and no mystery in his work except the mystery of art, and yet it is as a man of mystery that he is constantly presented. Contradictory, extraordinary, perverse, he certainly is, but not mysterious except in so far as the sources of beauty are always mysterious. Few writers have left more abundant evidence of the workings of their minds. Few writers have had the nature of their minds, with the impact of circumstances upon them, so elaborately analyzed and explained.
We know now, thanks especially to Mr. Hervey Allen's summaries, the story of his relations with the Allan family in reasonable completeness, and can understand the frustrations of a boy who expected to combine the arrogant, chivalrous independence of a Southern gentleman with the pursuit of beauty, and found himself penniless and unclassed. We know enough of his adolescence to guess the effect upon his sex life of his foster father's infidelities. And if Mr. Krutch's theory of sexual impotence (whether real or of the brain) with a consequent singularity in his relations with women, still awaits more knowledge of Poe's youth, it is sufficiently substantiated in his later life and work to serve as a handle for criticism. We know well enough now that Poe the drunkard and opium-taker was simply a psychic victim saving himself from a nervous crisis—that he drank as a woodchuck takes to his hole, from fear, and then irresistibly. We have rid ourselves of the superficial nonsense about artistic temperament and the immorality of genius. We have accepted—to the detriment of clear criticism, which suffers from the overemphasis, and yet very usefully—the modern ideas of complexes, inferiorities, egomanias, in Poe's case easily accounted for. We understand that Poe was a neurotic, and if we do not know what neuroticism is, we know how it works. We are aware not merely that Poe was abnormal, but why, and that knowledge had to be gained before his reputation could be cleared from the moral obsessions of those who discussed it, and his egregious vanities and incredible megalomanias assigned to cause.
But no man can be restored to an approximation of what he was, or his work criticized as a whole and in its relation to the flow of literary history, solely by abnormalities. He eats, he is cared for by the pathetic Mrs. Clemm and her ever-emptying basket, he works for money, he nurses his ambitions, he is gentle, he is irritable, he is ill, he is mean. These familiar traits do not make him the man he is, unless they are all. Nor does the merely skilful in his work explain its genius, where there is genius to be explained. But these normalities of life and literature do constitute the representational elements of the picture. They define it in terms of normal human effort, and, so defining it, explain more than partisans are willing to admit. The design for the composition may depend upon something deeper—and if in Poe that depth is neurotic, in neuroticism may be found a key to his inspiration. Nevertheless, to see Poe not as he wished to be seen, or as the dark forces sometimes compelled him to become, but as he prevailingly was, it is essential to retreat from the psychic ground his recent critics have trod so confidently, and begin again with aspects of his life that may seem trivial to the psychological critic but which to him were all-important. For a first glimpse of Poe it is wisest to consider him as neither drunkard, neurotic, nor erratic genius, but as a hard-working journalist of the third and fourth decades of the American nineteenth century.
Intellectually and from the broadest view it was a curiously dual society. The thirties and forties were astir with spiritual and ethical unrest. Free land and freedom from restraint in a society rapidly democratizing were having their inevitable effect upon the tense sectarians who swarmed in America. The convalescence from Calvinism was well under way, and relaxed nerves tingled to every suggestion. Intelligence was keen and aroused, minds untrained, the country at large undisciplined. From New England westward it was all isms, and all but the deep South was speckled with strange cults. Philosophers went transcendental and scientists toyed with phrenology.
Yet in the cities, and especially in Philadelphia and New York, the sophisticated, worldly life of urban Europe was being imitated with an ardor born of a consciousness of provincialism. Philadelphia in 1840 was in its wish psychology much more cosmopolitan and more cultivated than it is today. Journalism was rampantly active and especially literary journalism. From small beginnings, Graham's and Godey's attained a national circulation. The Saturday Evening Post, and especially The Ladies' Home Journal, were already present in the imagination, indeed they needed only better transportation, postal privileges, high-speed printing plants, and advertising to be there—more sentimental, more fastidious, more literary, but in the blend of uplift and interest much like what they actually became. Thoreau, printing his "Waiden" as much from a sense of duty as from a hope of cash and reputation, was a century away from the American Grub Street where men's inventions were stimulated by expectation of immediate success. Thanks to the pirating of British and Continental books, the native author was heavily handicapped if he wished to publish a volume, but the timely magazine escaped this competition and was an ever widening field, unfailing, if never rich.
It is true that Poe's sole reality was his self, but this self was an ego of extraordinary magnitude and even greater sensitiveness, which demanded recognition. In the journalistic world of commercial writing he was as much at home as in Eblis, and with it and in it his normal thoughts were so deeply engaged that in his waking moments it is as a journalist that he seems most intensely alive. In contrast with the New Englanders, always reluctant to leave their rural Parnassus, he was certainly happiest in the hurly-burly of production and consumption where professional literature is usually made. The contempt for the writing trade that Cooper expressed and Irving felt, was utterly foreign to his mind. He was an insider, and often by necessity, and not always unwillingly, a hack. He planned no more soul revolutions and retreats into nature than does the feature writer today. Instead, his inventiveness tirelessly wrought new methods of plot development, devised poems that would take with elocutionists, discovered journalistic genres like the detective story and the literary personality (which go on and on), perpetrated hoaxes in order to make the front page, guessed at the publicity value of personal attack, and set out directly, not hesitantly like Hawthorne, to amuse, to interest, to harrow, the reader.
He was, as is now well known, an excellent editor, and a study of his methods and results will make it abundantly clear that his editing was much more than a means of getting his own work published. He knew how to plan a magazine, he knew how to get contributions, he knew how to get new subscribers. His lifelong dream of a national magazine, literary in quality, general in interest, was sound, and except for his nervous disabilities, would certainly have been realized. We should have had a Harper's a quarter of a century before its time, nor would Poe's periodical have begun, like Harper's, in slavish dependence upon overseas. The neurotic upset whatever the inventive and executive faculty got under way, yet there is no question as to Poe's transcendent ability in journalism. Professionally speaking, he was an editor and journalist first and foremost, and the effect of his profession upon his enduring contributions to literature is of the highest critical importance.
He would, I think, have been a journalist under any conditions permitting journalism—most certainly so today. There is no mistaking the steady flow of interest from his college years onward to his death while on a last attempt to launch his own magazine. Poetry with him "was not a purpose but a passion" and the same in less measure might be said of scientific speculation. That poetry (with some dabbling in science perhaps) would have been "the field of my choice," as he says in the Preface to his '45 poems, would doubtless have been true, if Allan had left him the Southern gentleman of independent means that he expected to be. But that he would have kept away from journalism, never satisfied his craving for immediate returns of praise, never used his abundant invention to fool, perplex, terrify, and fascinate the public generally, must be incredible to anyone who follows through what was essentially a career of journalism. If he had got that government job, if he had taken to teaching, sooner or later he would have been back in Grub Street again, seeking for someone to finance his magazine!
No one is born a journalist. It is a profession made by teaching a quick and articulate mind to satisfy the curiosity of the public. Or rather by adapting the work of that mind to the public need, for the mind, the self, can, and in good journalists often does, stand contemptuously aloof. Poe's faculty of expression was perfectly adapted to journalism; indeed it was very largely conditioned by it. His tricks of puffery, his constant plagiarism from his own writing, his insistent bluffing, his powers of lucid exposition, his indefatigable invention (only a journalist could have invented the detective story), his complete freedom from intellectual conscience, his meticulous craftsmanship, are all attributes of the journalist, particularly the free lance journalist. He had the short breath of the journalist, always ending this side of possible weariness. He had the wide and not too discriminating interests of the editorial type of mind. He differed from other literary journalists of eminence in the nineteenth century chiefly in that he had unusual powers of creation, wrote far worse than the average when he wrote badly, had such a sense of form as comes to only one or two in a generation, and was too vain to be able to distinguish with any consistency his fudge and bunkum from the efforts of his genius.
It is often assumed that the trash Poe wrote was forced out of him by circumstance. I doubt it. The fudge was essentially Poe's, and Lowell was generous in his estimate of "Three fifths of him genius, and two fifths sheer fudge." The same impulses that led him toward journalism account for much of his trash.
Perhaps two thirds of Poe's work is not worth reprinting at this distance of time, and of this two thirds not more than a half has any value whatsoever except as an instance of successful pioneering, or for its biographical reference. His fudge is of several sorts. There is the sheer hack work of most of his literary portraits, too many of his reviews, and pieces like "The Elk," which read as if they had been written for a school reader. The man had to live—but the pompous assurance of omniscience and omnipotence makes trash of this kind offensive to later generations. Read his "blurb" on Bayard Taylor, or the review of his admired Mrs. Osgood's poems, which descends from eulogy to this: "Regarding the loftier merits, I am forced to speak of her in more measured terms. She has occasional passages of true imagination—but scarcely the glowing, vigorous, and sustained ideality of Mrs. Maria Brooks, or even, in general, the less ethereal elevation of Mrs. Welby"! It was this series of highly personal criticisms, made up equally of fulsome praise and cutting satire that, before "The Raven," was the chief cause of Poe's notoriety. The flings skyward into general principle which have made his later critical reputation were little regarded, and are but moments in his flow of inconsequential writing relieved only by a pungent phrase or a restatement of a "principle" borrowed from himself.
Lamentable failures are all of Poe's humorous stories. Many of them, as Professor James Southall Wilson has shown, are burlesques of fashionable writing that deserved chastisement. But it is questionable whether they are not worse than their originals, and certainly now they are mirthless. It is sad to be devoid of a sense of humor, it is worse to think that you have humor and pity others for its lack, as Poe did, and then to practise as vile a brand as his. The jokes cackle like bad actors, incongruity and exaggeration in their most extreme forms alone appeal to him, and his parodies are as mirthless as a second-rate revue. Those who say that he reflected the humor of his America may have right on their side, but should remember Irving. All humor not of the first class stales with time, but Poe's humor crumbles and dusts. And yet no writer makes his characters more frequently and more extensively laugh in type. He will take three lines for his teehees.
Worst of all is his meretriciousness. The fake erudition with which he daubed his stories and essays, and even his poems, has often been analyzed, and never to Poe's credit, who was capable even of stealing his notes. Mr. Allen has suggested that much of this secondhand knowledge came from the English reviews, which Poe as a youth could have seen in his foster father's warehouse. Later, of course, in his various editorial offices, a wide variety of current books and magazines were always at hand. He used this borrowed learning as a boy uses all the tags he can remember for an examination paper, in the hope of impressing the reader. The materials were good, the use he makes of them often pertinent, but it is all a show-off, and is felt to be such.
I make a partial exception for science and mathematics, and a complete one for aesthetics. In science and mathematics he had better than an average good training (of which more later), and when he borrowed he really sought the truth. He tried to be honest, and did hard thinking on an insufficient basis of accurate knowledge. In aesthetics he had that native aptitude which is better than training, since it finds what it needs, and here his thinking bore fruit. And yet even in aesthetics his deficiencies are painful. The value of his "Rationale of Verse," with its clear statement of the principle of prevailing time, is seriously marred by his failure to see the accentual nature of English verse. He hits all around the bull's-eye, but never in the center, and winds up his essay by excluding French poetry from excellence altogether because it will not fit a theory that he has made without grasping essential linguistic differences! Or see him in his review of Home's "Orion" pouring contempt upon those who prefer the great passages on hell in "Paradise Lost" to the extracts he chooses from his favorite of the moment. The fault here is not merely taste, which is always liable to defects in current consideration, but cocksureness and a desire to be emphatic at all costs.
And consider those extraordinary tours de force, "The Domain of Arnheim" and "Landor's Cottage." In the former, Elliston, the incredibly rich proprietor of the Domain, seeks that beauty which results from "a spiritual interference with nature," and which gives a point and an interest to landscape arrangement, and is only one step depressed from the great art of creation possible only to God. With this characteristically interesting theory Poe begins his description. But alas, the approach to the heart of the Domain is through a fervid landscape that mingles the rococo with the baroque; and the palace at the end of the vista, with its semi-Gothic, semi-Saracenic architecture suggests, and perhaps was suggested by (since we find it often repeated in Poe), the architecture that Mrs. Wharton celebrates as Hudson River Bracketed. "Landor's Cottage" is better controlled because the simpler—and how much needed!—idea of due proportion in home and garden architecture was less grandiose in principle and could be satisfied with less strain upon Poe's experience. His search in this sketch for a "proportionate strangeness" in environment was an evidence of his inventiveness in a period that had lost its sense of architectural proportion, but though his description of the tulip poplar is justly famous and should be more often read, the artificiality of the cottage and its surroundings tugs at the memory until one finds the crude original in a Currier & Ives print! Poe had the theory, but he lacked both taste and experience to carry it out. The proof is in his "Philosophy of Furniture" (and seriatim in his works)—its ideal room with two windows of crimson-tinted glass, and a wall paper of crimson with arabesques of silver and large pictures set thereon. One sees such rooms in the steel engravings of the Annuals! Poor fellow, he bluffed magnificently. But his inventive imagination was often like an expensive automobile carrying an ill-dressed, inexperienced provincial.
I do not call "The Domain" and "Landor's Cottage" fudge, yet in them as in most of his stories of the grotesque and arabesque there is a strong fudgean element. It is the show-off, that same trait which made him want to be a journalist, and as a professional journalist made him use every scrap, tittle, jot, and ounce of whatever he possessed or could lay his hands on. His invention raced ahead and he threw whatever was handy into the too often empty cars behind it. Thus "The Raven," whatever its inception, was undoubtedly tuned up for the show-off of elocution by precisely the methods described in The Philosophy of Composition.
In a study published many years ago I traced the relationship between the obviously—and then modern—journalistic methods of Kipling in the short story and the early influence of Bret Harte, himself a writer trained in American journalism; but the relation, felt but not proved, between Harte and Poe, the originator of the American short story, puzzled me. It is quite evident when Poe is thought of, as he should be, as a magazine writer. Not only are his tales shaped and consciously fitted to the necessity of that quick impression that the magazine requires (since its success is conditioned by the existence of a public that is intelligent but too large to be literary) but his critical theory of the short story—still the best expressed—shows how directly his art was squared to the medium for which he wrote. Stories do not have to be written as he describes them in his famous review of Hawthorne's tales, unless they are written as the journalist writes for quick consumption by the many. We have already, outside of journalism, reverted to a looser type of story, capable of more character study, a fuller background, and a subtler dialogue. Nor do poems have to be short poems, unless the writer is a lyrist in talent, or a journalist who can find publication only for the brief. Poe's failures—his forced humor, his sham scholarship, his cocksure criticism, and frequent petulance—are due in large measure to the pressure of his profession of journalism upon his vanity, or the reverse, and his great successes also are deeply indebted to the virtuosity of a master journalist. Fudge and the fruits of genius were alike ripened for the magazine markets of Philadelphia and New York.
The amazing statement has often been made that Poe had no roots in American literary history, and derived nothing from the American tradition. It is a rash assertion to make a priori, of an American who after his school years in England fluttered like a spectral moth around the great publishing centres of New York and Philadelphia. His critics have been misled by his inner life, which indeed was of a brand different from the neuroticism of the Puritans and had its roots in universal human nature rather than in the local conditions of America. They have too little considered the circumstances of his Southern upbringing that were responsible for so many manifestations of thwarted pride and intolerant arrogance. They have generously overlooked the provincialism of his lesser work, which was entirely American in its character. But most of all they have failed to note that Poe as a professional writer was trained, his ambition shaped, his powers chiefly exercised, in a flourishing period of American journalism, the first magazine era, when the periodical was proving its admirable adaptiveness to the peculiar conditions of American life. To New England he owed nothing, to New York and the Knickerbocker school substantially nothing, but one can exclude him from the American tradition only by assuming that Thoreau or Irving was fully representative of American life, which is nonsense. His terror, as he said, was of the soul, but his technique was simply the best yet developed for that magazine literature which had already become an American specialty.
I propose no singularity in this description of Poe as a journalist, but only a new and juster view of him regarded as an American man of letters and as a master of a peculiar virtuosity. It is never safe to be snobbish in criticism, and to think of Poe in terms of world literature only is to generalize overmuch and to miss some of the flavor of his genius.
Poe's virtuosity, true to the aims of journalism, is a technique for catching the attention of the reader. It is not one trick but a handful. When the subject matter was beyond his narrow apprehensions, and few great writers have gone so often outside their powers as Poe (another trait of the journalist), the result is often what seems to us a failure, but in every instance there is some trick of plot that explains his current success. Poe had no humor and hence his rather dreary burlesques, "The Spectacles," and "The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether," were foredoomed to artistic failure; he had neither pathos nor sentiment, and therefore "The Oblong Box" was sure to be banal; and yet in each story there is a clever trick. The introspective Hawthorne would have recorded the themes of these stories in his notebook as: "A man to marry his own great-great-grandmother because of shortsightedness," "A houseful of lunatics to overpower their keepers and run the asylum according to their own ideas," "A coffin containing the body of a beloved wife to be mistaken for the case of a treasured painting—what might happen?" How Hawthornesque these themes are, how surely he would have made memorable if somewhat stuffy allegories of them! Poe's dreams fitted in none of them, and his logic found nothing it could work upon, but he could catch his audience with the trick in the plot.
Yet how brilliantly he succeeded with a trick when that which caught the attention was worthy of it! "The Purloined Letter" in its origin is exactly like these trashy stories. The theme, that it is characteristic of the human animal to overlook the obvious, is a tricky one. Dupin, the great original of detectives, is a symbol of logic and observation personified, the Minister D—is just as unreal as Poe's other characters, the background of the story is conventional melodrama. But the trick by which Dupin finds the missing letter lends itself to an exciting logical analysis, and it is for this that one reads "The Purloined Letter." There was no room, and no time, for Poe to go wrong. The detective story, of which this is the prototype, is, if you please, all fudge; but it is good fudge, and fudge is what we read it for; not humor, not character, not truth to typical life, but the application of logical principles to a fabricated sensation or mystery. How delightful is "The Gold Bug" for the same reasons! The characters are conventions, the darky absurd, but the trick by which the buried treasure is found is absorbing. And Poe's invention, which throws off grotesque nonsense and banalities in other trick stories, here settles down to work.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" is tricky in the same sense, although in Poe's stories of terror other factors enter in that make the journalistic classification only partial. Every one of his famous tales of mental pathology begins with a problem, and concludes with a revelation that is itself a kind of trick. In "Usher" it is the intensification of the senses; in "Berenice," the diseased obsession with a physical object, in "Eleonora," the transmigration of souls, in "The Cask of Amontillado," a macabre practical joke, in "The Black Cat," the invulnerability of the feline kind. And each of these revelations is prepared for and released with the utmost care for emphasis in the best journalistic fashion.
And even in his poetry, where other and more important considerations also enter, a technical trickery was responsible at least for his success in catching the attention of his contemporaries. The theme of "The Raven" comes from Poe's deepest experience, but its form—so accurately described in The Philosophy of Composition—is technical trickery so able that its artificiality now begins to offend.
So does the careful focus of Poe's stories, and the inweaving of word and sentence in a pattern that in every stitch regards the end and all of the tale, and all craftsmanship that secures a single vivid impression from a brief narrative. These technical tricks have grown out of our fashion and liking because they begin to seem tricky. Excellently useful in tales of artifice and supremely successful in Poe's best stories, they have nevertheless, and as I have already said, become a mould from which the modern short story has escaped as from a press.
Even Poe's criticism was shaped in its application by the needs of journalism, and his reviewing depends upon a trick that does not always come off. His practice when he was in good form was to set down a generalization (not necessarily or often a fresh one) so contradictory as to startle the reader into attention:
It is often said, inconsiderately, that very original writers always fail in popularity, that such and such persons are too original to be comprehended by the mass. .. . It is, in fact, the excitable, undisciplined, and child-like popular mind which most keenly feels the original.
The decline of the drama . . . The drama has not declined.
I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, 'a long poem,' is simply a flat contradiction in terms.
In America, we have refused to encourage satire—not because what we have had touches us too nearly—but because it has been too pointless to touch us at all.
These are headlines demanding attention. Sometimes they are true and brilliant, sometimes brilliant and partly true, but always the extraordinary lucidity of the exposition that follows persuades the reader that Poe is omniscient. The important contributions of Poe to criticism are taken from such introductory generalizations. They exhibit not only the audacity of the journalist who must make his killing quickly, but also his intuitive inventiveness, and indeed the further applications of his principles are seldom quotable, and seldom reliable beyond the second page. In the fields of the short story and in the aesthetics of poetry he was an expert and there his criticism is good to the end, but as a rule the actual discussion of contemporary books in Poe's reviews is distinguished only by an occasional brilliance of definition or attack from such average reviewing of the period as was practiced by, for example, Simms.
But these technical tricks which Poe mastered or invented in order to conquer the magazine rose to virtuosity when the subject matter was right. When the dark realms of his imagination through which his working mind had thrown roads for an almost scientific exploration were to be the scene of a story, his marvelously contrived order of composition could compress into a few thousands of words a speaking symbol of what was to him a cosmogony and an experience combined. When with a logical chain of reason he set out to discover the cause of murder, or the hidden place of treasure, as La Place had worked in pure mathematics or Newton in pursuit of a planet, his art of intense brevity could create suspense and rouse interest to the highest pitch. One has only to compare the ratiocination of "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" with the coiled intensity of the later "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" to see what this virtuosity, acquired for journalism, could accomplish.
It is high irony that Poe should have invented the detective story, that stand-by for breadwinning of the hack writer, and yet half starved himself. Why did he leave to Conan Doyle the capitalizing of his invention? For the Sherlock Holmes stories—good as they are—owe everything except the wide application of a formula to Poe, and Sherlock himself is only Dupin materialized a little further and fitted with a few more attributes. Essentially Holmes is a figure of romantic disillusion, a superbrain too contemptuous of his environment to play the usual games for success, who is roused only by a kind of misanthropy when his miserable fellow creatures exploit their viciousness too far. He is a solitary, he takes drugs to relieve his boredom, he is an artist, he lives exotically—he is Dupin revived, which is to say a self-dramatization of Poe.
It was certainly no literary scruple or fear of repetition that held back Poe from adding to his handful of great detective stories. He would have sold "The Gold Bug" in ten different versions if he could, and have followed up any likely chance of publication if he had seen it. Of course he did use his famous method of ratiocination in many stories—such as "Pym"—and the interpreting of observation that is its central principle is woven through nearly all of his poetic tales of terror. But it was only in the detective story that it was realized as a story itself. I suppose that he failed to capitalize because he was too inventive, and, like many inventors, turned from one creation to another as the wind of interest blew. He thought that he could do anything, but he had little time except for the nearest task. When he was not a practicing editor he was for considerable periods sick from disease, from alcohol, or from opium, or psychically incapacitated with that mental illness which redoubles every physical pain. And the labors of a literary editor are endless. He has to read—endlessly. Poe read as a journalist reads, who knows that everything is grist for his mill and that the mill must be fed; he read like a man who knows that eventually he must write of everything he reads. And when he was his own man his megalomania led him to the immense and futile efforts of such work as Eureka. His inner life was always a conflict. Like the Minister D—he was both mathematician and poet. When he was well, his need and his ambition drew him into the endless routine of editing—when he was at home, in a leisure too often enforced by a breakdown, his sick soul and clear logical mind combated for his pen.
That Poe was only a journalist, is, of course, a statement too absurd to rest upon. But I wish to make it clear that as a journalist he could be superb, and to emphasize that everything of importance that he wrote, with the exception of a few of his best poems, like "Israfel," was influenced, and often shaped, and frequently made possible in its existing mould, by the technique he acquired for his profession. Yet to account for the form of his work, unless it be in the detective story (which is, in a true sense, pure form) is by no means enough to account for Poe's place in our imagination. No American writer has sent wider circles of interest and influence across the reading world. I have seen a copy of Baudelaire's translation of Poe's stories open upon a firing platform in a trench in France. Much modern poetry and some modern fiction would never have been if Poe had not written. Leave then the journalist, and look at the man of letters, and the man. Not that the two were dissociated. Poe had a duality of character depending upon whether his nerves were in or out of control, but there is no duality here. What he wrote, he wrote with all of himself, and there is morbidity in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," a pathologic luxury in "The Gold Bug," and sheer journalism in "The Bells" and "Eleonora."
So far I have considered Poe's way of working rather than the imagination with which he worked. If in so doing I have leant toward disparagement it is for the double reason that analysis of clever artifice is always disillusioning, and that unquestionably Poe's weaknesses even more than his strengths were exploited by the show-off of journalism. It is the result, not the thing itself, that endures in journalism. Thus in this study of Poe's inventiveness under pressure by the crowd I have viewed from one angle only those creations in which Poe transcended journalism while seldom ceasing to be journalistic. Let us turn then to aspects of the man that make for greatness rather than a great technique.
The type to which Poe approximates is familiar enough, increasingly familiar as our civilization grows more febrile. But it is, of course, rarely combined with a passion for beauty amounting to genius, and still more rarely with a powerful, logical intellect, completely articulate. Without attempting a scientific description, it may be said that two attributes go far toward defining the peculiar temperament that made Poe's inner life so fruitful for literature, and yet so calamitous for himself.
He was, in the first place, egoistic in the last degree and, like all his favorite characters, sensitive beyond ordinary comparison. This, of course, is a symptom of his neuroticism, but in literature as in life it was a curse. It is not too much to say that for Poe no one really existed except himself. No one except the unsexed Virginia, his caretaker, Mrs. Clemm, and the few women who touched him in his youth ever entered the realms of his deepest consciousness, and they only as dim shapes projected from the faint stirrings of the human in his otherwise purely intellectual desires. Such egoism is relieved only by triumphant creation. The I must be entirely successful or the anguish that results from the ordinary casualties of living—hopes thwarted, affection unreturned, and all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—is rationalized in the familiar symptoms of paranoia and megalomania. Either the man flings back in suspicious anger at a world that will not adjust itself to him, or he rises above it in a diseased, uncertain assurance that he is greater than his enemies. Yet, granted exquisite sensibilities, the spur of fame desired, and the expressiveness of literary genius, and a tragedy common enough in lower orders becomes articulate and noteworthy. Poe's two characters, so often spoken of by his contemporaries—the gentle husband, so dependent upon love and cherishing, and the truculent, unscrupulous fighter, drunk or "mean"—are only two phases of a single temperament. Their exaggerated difference is due to the excessive sensitiveness of the patient. When his ego was soothed or weary, he was a lamb; when it was inflamed or injured, he was a beast in a corner, frenzied, wounded, smeared with blood and with dirt.
No such egoist can by any possibility have real humor, for a sense of proportion in human relationships is denied him. No such egoist can by any possibility comprehend with any real success the types of human nature that other writers interpret and dramatize but in which his interest is mathematical at best. They are figments for his thinking, aliens to his ego. His self-portraits may be of the utmost vividness, but his generalizations upon temperaments that are not essentially like his own will be platitudes or falsities. He knows only himself, and the temperamental qualities of his own ego will strictly limit his achievement.
This is negative criticism, for we do not ask of our men of letters that they shall all be Goethes or Shakespeares—or even Wordsworths and Hawthornes. Positively speaking, Poe's inner life was rich enough for a great literature, and his excessive egoism gave it an excessive importance in his own eyes that he always carried over into his work, and sometimes with impressive success. It was the inner life of a neurotic, by which I mean here no more than that the waves of thought and emotion, which in self-communion or dreams stir in us all, were vehement in him and out of proportion to their external causes, and were often out of control and in violent odds with apparent reality. And Poe's neuroticism was not only intensified by his violent ego, it was also qualified and defined by a passionate love, inherent and congenital, of that wilder beauty than earth supplies, which he believed to be the origin of poetry. He speaks of "readers who, to hearts of maddening fervor, unite, in perfection, the sentiment of the beautiful, that sense which proves and which alone proves, God's existence"—and so writing, wrote of himself.
The permanent possibility of neuroticism is a universal human attribute, and a great neurotic, such as Poe, has an obvious place in important literature. Alcohol and opium in alternation may have increased the fervor, or defined the sensory nature, of his sublimated dreams, but the drugs were the results, not the causes, of his neuroticism. It is not the "wilder beauty" for which they are responsible, but the excess of morbid sensation. That which made other men gross or fantastic could taint, but not create, the Aiden of Poe's imagination.
The subliminal world of Poe's poetical stories and of such poems as "Dream-Land" and "The City in the Sea," reached
By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named Night,
On a black throne reigns upright, . . .
Out of Space—out of Time,
owes little that is good to stimulants, but much to neuroticism. It is a region of supersensation where each sensory faculty trembles with expressiveness like the heart-strings of Israfel. That is its geography and its atmosphere. And in such a clime the perfervid and often irrational emotions of the Great Egoist can escape from the repressions of reality in an environment where every tortured suspicion, fear, or hope is realized with an intensity as great as itself. The mind brooding upon its own terrible propensities finds in these spectral regions its most hidden fears stalking. Sadism, incest, claustrophobia, perversion, paranoia, megalomania—these are but names for phases of the inflamed ego, beating against the cage of self-control, but in dream life they are not names, they are things of human attribute, realized in that air electric with vivid sensation. In "Eleonora," "The Masque of the Red Death," "Ligeia," "Morella," "Usher," Poe's neuroticism freed an ego whose morbidity was not so much abnormal as abnormally representative of the darker emotions. By a "wilder" beauty he meant precisely what he himself achieved—a beauty in which every intense emotin of the ego had validity and finds expression. The fears and cravings that the sane man puts down because they disturb or conflict with reality, were to Poe more real than external reality itself, because they were his, and so he made a life for them in a world of supersensation, where, like electrons in the physicist's laboratory, they could become tangible to other men.
Many a neurotic has created his own world—and written of it too—but few such worlds are fit for other minds to live in. Poe's dreams were made habitable by his powerful sense of order, and this instinct for form is closely related to his passion for science and the methods of science, which was second only to his love of æsthetic beauty, of which it was, of course, a part. The interest in science that he manifests from his youth up is, like his journalistic ambition, a link, one of the few links, between his inner life and the external world.
The thirties and forties were the romantic age of science in America, an age rich in premonition of all that science could do for a democratic society in a still new continent. Poe was as deeply enthralled by it as Emerson or Thoreau. His deep interest is displayed in the most unexpected places. Fully half of the tricks in his stories are derived from the discoveries—often the commonplaces—of physical science. Astronomy is never long out of reference, and if there is an opportunity to boast of being au courant with the latest researches in this science, or others, or a chance to expose error in his slipshod contemporaries, Poe never misses it. It has been assumed that his knowledge was superficial. That is not entirely true. Of all sciences he pretended to know something, and usually his knowledge is a journalist's, and a bluffing journalist's at that. The solemn nonsense of phrenology took him in completely. He made capital out of mesmerism, and was quite unscrupulous in using what he could pick up, from his abundant sources, of this and better defined sciences for his own literary purposes. But the methods of science he did understand, even if its end—the description and measurement of physical phenomena—was far too modest to appeal to him. Of mathematics and astronomy he had knowledge enough to make him, if not a scholar, at least a connoisseur. There was natural science in his reading at the University of Virginia, and social science in his courses. At West Point he studied advanced mathematics and natural philosophy, which must have embraced some astronomy. He stood seventeenth in his class in mathematics in a class of eighty-seven, and West Point, whatever its educational deficiencies, has never numbered mathematics among them.
At first he used his scientific knowledge chiefly in his stories of ratiocination, and in his hoaxes, of which the voyage to the moon is a good example, but steady reference in his criticism shows that he was thinking not only along the lines of his famous sonnet "To Science," in which he realizes ahead of most of his contemporaries the disillusion that might follow upon the scientific revolution, but also speculatively and philosophically upon the relation of science to a possible explanation of the universe. Eureka, the book that he expected in his mounting egomania to sweep the country and establish his reputation as a cosmogonist, is the summary of many years of thought. It is, of course, literary science. What interested Poe was never the experiment, but what could be done with the fruits of experiment to further the expansion of the imagination. Yet, unlike his contemporaries, he did not take his premises from metaphysical assumption, if he could possibly avoid it. He sought them, as best he could, in the latest discoveries of physical science. And to these he applied that mixture of intuition and logic which we call mathematics—a science based upon an art.
Eureka was a failure at publication, and has been called an absurdity ever since. To Mr. Krutch it is "only a wild fancy," which illustrates Poe's growing lack of control over his mental processes. Professor Stringham of the University of California contributed to Professor Woodberry's biography of the poet in 1885 an analysis of Eureka that not only points out many errors of fact, but ridicules the whole work as an attempt to combine materialism and Transcendentalism in an undigested mass. It is an attempt, one may say parenthetically, that we have been at ever since. He is severe upon Poe's identification of matter and force, upon the nonsense of explaining material phenomena in terms of the will of God, upon the assumption that space is "given," not created. Physics has moved ahead since Professor Stringham's day. We are not so sure now of the finality of the conservation of energy, or the materiality of the atom! And Poe has many successors and will have more in the attempt to call metaphysics to the aid of experiment. A careful reader of Eureka today, reasonably familiar with the complexities in which physics has enmeshed itself, must say, not that Eureka is the Great Explanation which Poe in his megalomania thought it, but certainly that it is an extraordinary monument of clear and logical thinking raised upon premises many of which are false, and involved, like every cosmogony, in self-contradiction. While futile as either science or philosophy, it does command respect, does involve the kind of thinking and the method of attack that modern scientific philosophers are beginning to employ. It is a return (as Stringham says disparagingly) to the method of the Greeks, and if Poe had more self-confidence than equipment this does not lessen the interest of his tour de force, which is probably as valuable for science as is that other tour de force of American logical thinking, Jonathan Edwards's "The Freedom of the Will," for psychology.
For Eureka is, as Poe specifically said, "a prose poem," a book offered "not in its character of truth-teller, but for the beauty that abounds in its truth." Incidentally it is a model of lucid exposition. The universe, he argues, is composed of atoms that have been radiated outward by a primal creative act of God, from a unified and homogeneous centre to the bounds of an almost infinite sphere. The act ceasing, reaction began, and the universe is now moving back toward its centre. This is the cause of gravity. When the shrinkage is accomplished both attraction and repulsion will cease in homogeneity, and since attraction plus repulsion is the definition of matter, there will be nothing. God himself is now extended in this creative act. And other gods in other universes may likewise be functioning. We and the inanimate are all parts of God. On the final reuniting He will be entire God again and may recreate. God's will, more specifically, is identified with the aether, a spiritual influence that keeps matter in heterogeneity. It is the separative, repulsive function, and heat, light, magnetism, are all due to æther. Matter exists solely to subserve its purposes, and thought and the animate are due to its influence, which is manifest only through heterogeneity. This theory Poe works out with an elaborate apparatus of mathematics, physics, astronomy, and sheer metaphysics, and he attempts to account in detail for the formation of planets in his universe, and the nature of life. His method, like Eddington's, resorts finally to intuition, which he maintains is an indispensable aid to formal logic in the searching of ultimate causes. He erects a theory by purging scientific fact of its inconsistencies, identifying a perfect consistency with truth; and indeed whatever else Eureka may be, it is an extraordinary anticipation of the modern criticism of the use of a purely factual science as a philosophy.
Eureka, of course, is a poem, not a Newtonian or Einsteinian hypothesis, and suffers from its attempts to square imagination with the imperfect cosmogonies of science just as "Paradise Lost" suffers from its tie-up with an intractable theology. Done, like his "Mellonta Tauta," as pure fancy it would have been magnificent. But Poe was overweening. It was not enough to be poet, he must be the all-explainer, the scientist too!
And yet in a criticism of Poe, the evidence that Eureka affords of a power to bring into lucid order an extraordinary range of knowledge and to carry through a train of logical thinking that a practiced philosopher might envy, is surely important. His inaccuracies and his errors in metaphysics are less significant than the extraordinary force of mind displayed upon the whole. Undoubtedly it is true that the neurotic Poe, always trembling on the brink of insanity, did dramatize the logical faculties, and did erect in himself the fiction of the supreme logician, the superman of ratiocination from whom nothing was hid, to whom by the cold processes of inflexible reason the universe became subject as to God. Nevertheless, however absurd his monomania, he did possess in a high degree the faculty of logical analysis and that of scientific imagination. Far from being a wild fancy, Eureka is a startling indication of what Poe, with a different equipment and purposes differently directed, might have been able to accomplish in the realm of constructive thought. It is certain that the shams of current literary criticism were no more transparent to him than the crooked conventionality of average thinking. If he had been interested, like other American intellectuals of his time, in politics, in slavery, in morality, in religion, he would have been as radical in his way as Emerson or Thoreau. But he was not interested. A little rant upon the Abolitionists (in the attempt to score on Lowell), some lucid remarks about the fallacy of progress and the weakness of democracy, and other notes in passing, sum up his criticism in the area where the most serious American writing was being done. Formal religion touched his brooding soul so little that it no more occurred to him to attack it—than it does to most scientists. The Protestantism of his day was simply irrelevant to his quest for a stranger beauty than this planet affords. When he came back to earth from Aiden or Weir, it was to search for the one beauty which this earth contained for him—the beauty of order, form, of laws beautifully coö perating until they were seen as Law, and controlling that physical matter which he believed existed only to subserve the subtle spirit of the universe. La Place, Descartes, Herschel, Newton, Faraday, spoke to him, when Plato, Christ, Kant, Emerson, were negative or meaningless. His hatred of the whole Transcendental school was surely not all due to his jealousy of Boston's prestige in American literature. He felt, I think, that the Transcendentalists were taking short cuts to omniscience, drowning logic in a sea of words, and using intuition not as an aid, but as a substitute for the lovely art of mathematical thought.
Poe the neurotic was also Poe the logician and analyst, and if his sensitive imagination projected lurid worlds of emotion more darkly terrible than the dreams of his fellow romanticists, in less abandoned hours he could subdue his mind to the rigorous processes of the intellect, follow the direction of scientific thinking, or put plan, order, and form into the supersensitive world of his overcharged fancy. Amid "the gorgeous and fantastic draperies, in the solemn carvings of Egypt, in the wild cornices and furniture, in the Bedlam patterns of the carpets of tufted gold," where his hero "a bounden slave in the trammels of opium" pursues his desperate, perverted love, there are laws of human nature, profoundly illustrated by the spectral figures of his plot, which are reasoned as logically as the plot itself. The tossing seas and fiery depths of neuroticism were charted by the same faculty that dared, in Eureka, to force consistency upon the universe. Nor is it without interest to note that when the physical and the moral man were on the verge of final shipwreck, and when, as his last letters show, his tragic fortitude was breaking down into self-pity, it was then that his now uncontrollable egomania raised this intellectual faculty to its height of confidence and display. With it he could order everything but himself, and this is natural, since Poe's self was God, and more than the universe.
And indeed the persuasive beauty of Poe's best work is due not to its subject matter—which is valid only when he projects his own morbidity, and then of a nature that has commanded more interest than liking—but to a subtle relationship between idea and form that gives quality to the childish excitements of "The Gold Bug" and to the perverted madness of "Usher" alike. It is this feeling for the rhythm of a consistent principle which makes the aperçus of his criticism invaluable, and his guesses in science at least remarkable.
But Poe suffered as do all who live inwardly and seek absolute beauty (even Shelley and certainly Coleridge) from a failure to assimilate the external world. Such men are so unsure in external reality as to be very dependent upon circumstance, and may remain entirely in the abstract and so fail to be artists, or resort uncritically (like Poe's contemporary, Chivers) to images unworthy of their conceptions. In his best stories of ratiocination, Poe escaped entirely from this disaster, thanks, perhaps, to the artificiality of his medium. He arranged his story as the scientist arranges his experiment in the laboratory, and restricting himself to bare incident, uncolored by his own experience, built up the pure form of his chain of reasoning. But even in these stories, and much more when the beauty he sought to capture was of an idea or an emotion rather than of an exercise in logic, he was dependent upon the furniture of an outside world in which he was well read but little experienced. A Rue Morgue could be described, but for Ligeia, Morella, Berenice, and Eleonora, complete habitations had to be created in which, no matter how fantastically, they might live. For his shapes of beauty he needed a décor—and thanks to the provincialism of America in the thirties and forties, and to a life that when not spent in dreams or in routine work was lived almost exclusively in books, Poe's prose and much of his poetry is full of descriptive terms that are second-hand to a degree unusual in genius. This is the cause of the distaste amounting almost to disgust with which even the most appreciative read too much of Poe at a sitting. The stifling luxury, and the parvenu profusion of his backgrounds, are phases of the same taste that makes the plushy eloquence and tawdry erudition of his prose style in description. Since his own room was bare he lived in his reading, and from his reading he borrowed his stage sets, which are like the furnishings of a de luxe hotel apartment, where everything has just come from somewhere else with the price tags still attached.
This bad bookishness, which, much more than his morbidity, is offensive in both the poetry and prose of Poe, was tragically inevitable. The strange beauty he grasped in exquisite form with an imagination that kept its sense of order even when the dreams seemed maddest, was pathetically dependent for expression upon images that had to be drawn from experience. And Poe's experience outside of his own soul was so largely verbal! Words he knew, knew too well, for in his constant playing with their powers of suggestion he became, like his modernist successors, too often uncritical of what they meant. He pillaged words from his abundant reading and used them for effects precisely as the architects of his period reared their "Saracenic-Gothic" piles out of any column, cornice, or parapet that took their fancy. The backgrounds of his stories come from the pictures that his mind made when he read: it is not Rome or Paris but Bulwer and Moore that he remembers when he needs a scene. Even nature—which was already a specialty in America—he could not see directly, with such rare exceptions as the tulip-tree in "Landor's Cottage," but assembled his descriptions from a half-remembered lumber of reading in his head, into which his genius struck fire only when the scene was on the road that leads to the underworld. Sincere for himself alone, and essentially unrelated to the life about him, it was through words only that Poe made his contacts. No wonder then that he helped himself so freely to quotation, reference, description, wherever he found them, and in matters of taste was dependent in everything but pure literature upon what he read in his books. Books were his chief school and almost his entire external experience. The art of securing great effects with his borrowed furnishings was of course his own, and so was the genius by which in his best work they are transmuted into new and intensely original shapes of pure beauty. He had, indeed, the methods and the conscience of a journalist, combined with the intuitive sense for ultimate beauty of a great artist. He could be a great poet and a skilful and unscrupulous and pretentious magazinist, both in the same sketch and almost at the same time.
Some writers are capable of a comprehensive, an exalted, and an unshakable unity. They approximate culture itself, and apply to whatever passes through the mint of their genius an intellect and an imagination that are always of the first rank and which always function with magnitude and nearly always with success. Goethe was such a writer. Another order of writers also works in a unity of genius or talent. They are single, not myriad, minded, but the singleness if narrow is consistent and intense. They do one thing well, and are content to be one thing. Such a writer was Tennyson, and Hawthorne was another. But still others are comprehensive in their powers and ambitions, willing and wishing to grasp the universe, yet cursed with a tendency to split upon tension, and hence uneven in a high degree. They have the scope of the broad genius, the intensity of the narrow one, but lack the ability of one and the steadiness of both. Such a writer was Poe, who had the pretensions of a Leonardo, but, like Shakespeare's Antony, could not hold his shape, except in a combination of circumstances exactly right for him. As his character split apart under nervous pressure, so did his work. His reach was infinite, his grasp uncertain except in fortunate moments, but then, tight.
In poetry, the condition that permitted success seems to have been an equal balance and happy correspondence between inspiration and technique. When the dark loveliness of the images that haunted Poe's imagination yielded their beauty to sounds and rhythms exquisitely artificial and yet profoundly expressive, then he wrote that "pure poetry" which was so deeply to intrigue the nineteenth century:
Banners yellow, glorious, golden, On its roof did float and flow
(This—all this—was in the olden Time long ago),
And every gentle air that dallied, In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid A wingéd odor went away.
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.
Come, let the burial rite be read—the funeral song be sung:
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young,
A dirge for her the doubly dead in that she died so young.
In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
Whose heart-strings are a lute;
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel.
And all my days are trances, And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy gray eye glances And where thy footstep gleams—
In what ethereal dances, By what eternal streams.
In these poems the tricks (if you wish to call them so) of repetition and alliteration are only the more obvious touches of a structure of sound that rises in intellectual response to the poetic idea.
But in "The Raven" and in "The Bells" the artificer has overworked his metal, adding ornament when the inspiration was cold.
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
How the danger sinks and swells,—
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells,
Of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!
Here the journalist has exploited the poet.
In his prose success was even more arbitrary. His technical skill seldom failed but his taste betrayed him often. The effort in his satirical and humorous pieces is painful. They are shrill. And so with his works of pseudo-knowledge, his imitations of voyages, his personalities in criticism, and his set pieces of description. Like his God in Eureka, he was extended over the universe of literary effort, and he could not concentrate power enough upon these crystallizations. He did them with his left hand, which only his long habit of skill guided.
Thus in his stories the whole man functioned only in two sets of circumstances—and those very different. When his oversensitized dreams sprang from deep intuitions of a human tendency magnified by the abnormality of his ego, then his shapes of beauty had meaning for others. When these dreams crystallized about an idea in an order prepared by his logical mind, then his ever ready eloquence of prose flowed into the pattern.
The popular taste has been right, I think, in preferring "The Fall of the House of Usher" as the best of these achievements. Here the blending is complete. The neurotic's intuition is dressed in the folds of macabre but intelligible romance. The idea of tendency is dominant, the images of sensitiveness vivid, the symbolism of soul destruction powerful, the relevance to the dark universals of humanity in nervous tension true with that poetic truth which outlasts apparent fact. And the artifice of style and consummate skill of plot elaboration is such as Poe himself described in the lines from Eureka quoted above, and is indispensable if this heavy charge of imagination is to be sublimated by a creative act.
About the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity: an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn: a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued. . . . Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.
These stories were difficult feats of coö rdination by a brain grappling with nothing less than the secrets of the universe. But Poe was equally fortunate in lesser but equally original exercises of logic and intuition performed in a more mundane air, when the mystic vapors rising from his inner life were for the moment quiescent. In his tales of ratiocination, his constructive faculties worked in paths cleared by logic, following ideas of the pure intellect unclouded by emotion. And freed for the moment of neuroticism, his clear brain had a task the ease of which is reflected in the perfect narrative sequence and simple, lucid style of the best of these stories. "The Purloined Letter" as in "The Fall of the House of Usher" he was Poe complete, in a self-unity, even though the dominants and recessives of his temperament differed sharply in the two stories. Effort and idea were exactly balanced.
And this was true also in the best of his criticism, where his subject was the nature of beauty or a device of art, like the tale or the short poem, where he was a familiar. Under such circumstances his intuition is keen, his style lucid, his judgment sound. Let opposition thwart him, a jealousy irritate his ego, or the journalistic challenge of the moment set him to making copy, and he shoots off in exhibitionism, or flounders in pretense, with only a keen sentence here and there for the profit of the reader. But see him on the short story:
A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.
It is true that this description of the short story is really the description of a kind of short story, although a very effective one, true also that it much more accurately defines Poe's own work than Hawthorne's, to which it was applied. Nevertheless it is one of the classic analyses—or self-analyses—of critical literature.
But even when the nice adjustment between an oversensitive ego and his ambition was complete, some evidence of split, or at least of tension, is nearly always visible in Poe's writing, and to this no exception can be made except for a few poems and perhaps one or two criticisms. It is always present in his stories, usually in style. That his first great literary reputation was made in France is really not at all surprising. It was, paradoxically, easier for the French than for English readers to apprehend his essential genius. They were not thrown off by the meretricious and the impure in his style, because, like Poe himself, but for a different reason, they were concerned only with the beauty of words. Poe's tawdriness and his dependence upon the second-hand were not evident to them, since they got only the sound and the simple meaning of the words, the connotations, as usual, escaping aliens to the tongue. And for those who read in French, which means of course practically all Frenchmen, it is not too much to say that Poe's prose narrative is usually better for them in French than for us in the original. It is refined and purified by a taste better than his own. As for his best poetry, which made, of course, a particular appeal to perfecters of the beautiful in image and sound, like Baudelaire, the beauty of word sounds and the exquisite art of their arrangement is his peculiar triumph, and if such poems as his cannot be translated, they can at least be far better apprehended by alien readers (as with Virgil and Homer) than poetry less dependent upon verbal music. But Poe's poetry needs no defense. At its best it is the best of its kind, and flawless.
I have praised Poe as a great journalist. His merits in pure literature are not so easy to rank, and cannot be allowed to rest only upon a happy coincidence of virtuosity with an appropriate subject.
His passion, well rationalized, for beauty as an end in itself, was not original, of course, with him, indeed, as a philosophy was no more than an ardent adaption, from Coleridge and others, of a principle exactly suited to his own cravings. But since he was an American bred and nourished within the confines of an ethical tradition, his convinced aestheticism gave him a freedom such as no other contemporary man of letters of anything like his power enjoyed. Calvinistic Protestantism had left a sense of duty to the moral principle that was as strong in the South as in the North. This obligation, which Emerson sublimated into a religion, which weighed upon Thoreau, and was the irritant of Hawthorne's genius, the trade of Longfellow, and the obsession of Melville, Poe utterly escaped. He not only did not believe in it; he did not even for an instant feel it. Beside him the antimoralists of our own day are in comparison perverted missionaries. Only Keats in England shared his passionate, unqualified devotion to beauty as such and without a question.
And this beauty which he served was a "wilder" beauty than earth knew. He was like the spirit of his "Al Aaraaf" who sought another star, and if he too was driven back, he never ceased to renew his wanderings. It is a romanticist's beauty, transcending normal earthly experience, and seeking forms of expression that suggest the unearthly. Whether his neuroticism was the cause or the result of this passion is hard to say. It was probably both, and more specifically it was the psychical circumstance that conditioned his search. The waves of mental and physical distress that dashed through his sensitive spirit, the exaltations and abasements, were transmuted in his self-centered ego into shapes of grandeur and escape which, though out of space, out of time, were the very fabric for a dream world that could be made precise in art. Nor is this a phenomenon of the romantic movement and to be dismissed as such. The instinct to create forms of beauty free from earthly inconsistency and patterned out of desire, is inevitable at certain arcs of the evolutionary curve. Romanticism, and particularly the dominance of a romantic literature, favor it of course, but the great poets all know it. Poe's distinction is not that he gave a new though late intensity to romanticism, but that the concentration of his life within the ego created a geography so lurid and baleful, so utterly determined by factors of diversity in beauty itself, and projected from the fires of his inner consciousness with such immediacy, and yet with such control, that no saner writer has been able to produce, no insane writer able to master, its like.
I say no saner writer, implying a relative insanity in Poe, yet his world of Weir, while murky with the mists of neuroticism and therefore consonant with visions of that irrationality which lurks in the sanest, was nevertheless and profoundly a world of order. For the visions of Poe differ from the visions of irrational dreamers because they have order. They have form because form was implicit in Poe's imagination, and (as I have already said) they invariably mean something in human experience. If that experience is in the dream stories invariably morbid, that is because in the morbid the wall of reality wears thin, and because, for Poe, morbidity was an inevitable accompaniment of emotional excitement.
And this order, which leads him to explore the mathematics of the universe for symbols, is no accidental attribute of beauty. It is a beauty itself, and clearly Poe belongs with those philosophers who find the ultimate reality to be only man's perception, or imposition, of form in chaos. The science that Poe brings to his aid may be inaccurate, the decorations of his pieces may be stale, but the intuitive perception that only by form is beauty realized is more profound than many an astheticism more consistently practiced than his.
This beauty, wild yet ordered, pressed upon expression with a vehemence in proportion to its unconventionality. And this is the reason why Poe, in variance from all journalistic practice, wrote and rewrote, both poetry and prose, ever trying phrases in new contexts, or rephrasing with new words. In poetry especially he persisted until the intangibles of ethereal beauty are realized not so much in statement as by sound and rhythm and a subtle play of verbal light and shade.
And furthermore, the intensity of Poe's own ego made this ordered world of strange beauty to seem of dominant importance. His contempt for realism he adequately expressed, but the realism he despised was the realism of supposed fact. Reality for him lay only in the perception of order, because only through order did his insulated soul make contact with the universe. Yet if the universe was important, his own soul was even more so. He made his discoveries with the self-assurance of a God who draws back the veil of the probable and commonplace, to show behind it the livid realms where disordered fancy tortures its victims, then declares that these too are a part of the order of the universe. It was the antithesis of that calm reliance in material comfort upheld by science which his generation was so rapidly acquiring. And if Poe is often shrill and exaggerated it may well be because there was only defeat for him in the new philosophy of efficient and strenuous normalism, and because an aggressive egoism was indispensable in a writer who in such an environment was determined to be heard.
There was, as I have tried to indicate on earlier pages of this book, a summary quality in the settled civilization of the Atlantic seaboard in the decades before the great cataclysm of the Civil War and the re-creative processes of industrial development and the opening of the West that followed in the later nineteenth century. This static condition was most notable in the South and New England, but it was discoverable in New York and Philadelphia also, although partly obscured by the rush of a new economic life. The chief product of the South was character, and the South was really articulate only in oratory. But New England was both intellectual and articulate. A type of mind was developed there as a fruit of a long ripening that in America, and perhaps in Western civilization, was an end-product. There are no more Emersons. That serene and yet intensely practical orienting of life toward ideal ends, in which energy and contemplation were reconciled, was an effort that has left its impress upon the mental, and indeed upon the political and social, life of every American, but the creative act is finished. A Thoreau is quite as incredible here and now as the English find Gandhi, although his like may reappear in the future. We are not that kind of man any longer. He states our problem, but we turn from his solution, not because it is impossible, but because it seems impossible to us. The will of God that he, like unbroken generations of Protestants before him, tried to interpret is no longer a reality for us, not even in the monistic form in which he saw it. We belong to a different dispensation, if indeed in our momentary sense of power over physical circumstance we are aware of the necessity for any dispensation. Our prophets are as yet unborn.
Emerson and Thoreau and Hawthorne, in their ideals are further away from us than the humorous, worldly elegance of Irving, or even the romantic simplicities of Cooper. Their ideas are burningly alive, but only as stimulants for new thinking. Melville, too, is an extinct species. However modern his sense of the dark recesses of the human spirit, his ideology can be interpreted but not absorbed by a modern. We in our time will never repeat his desperate Transcendentalism, nor let our imaginations expand into shapes of grandeur symbolizing powers of good and evil that we now permit neither to man nor to God. Instead of God's experiment in New England, instead of Penn's woods where the inner light was to guide a civilization, instead of Brook Farms and Harmonys and Shaker villages, and the pioneer theocracy of Deserei, it was our destiny to carry on (first, if not finally) with Ford factories, Chicago, and New York. They were, it proved, the first order of business for the mature American, although not until after the Civil War did we wholeheartedly realize it. The Emersons and the rest were premature in the history of the United States, but not in the history of the human mind, where they have their place and have borne their fruit.
Poe was not premature, nor does he represent the end-product of a civilization. He belongs in any urban, sophisticated culture. Discount his freight of stale romanticism and he slips into modern life like a hand into a glove. Born in and living in Europe, he would have been the same Poe, with an absorption of a sounder, less provincial culture, and a readier market perhaps for his wares, but without the strong stimulus of American journalism that both permitted and commanded him to make his dreams and ratiocinations lucid and impressive for the general reader. Under fortunate conditions he might, indeed, have written far more poetry, with quicker and more adequate recognition, but Poe fortunate would not have been Poe. Indeed, in a like social and economic condition he would have drifted toward the underworld far more quickly. Mrs. Clemm's basket would have been oftener empty. His pride and vanity would have been oftener hurt. In England the great age of romanticism had definitely passed. The Moores and the Bulwers would have been his guides. And in Europe he would have lacked one pitiful success that meant much to his egoism. Abroad he would not have found a naïve community that he could impress with his scientific learning and literary erudition and surprise by cutting criticisms in a press that was accustomed to be ignorant, tolerant, and good-humored in questions of art. Nor would he have found a quick intelligence among the populace that could be flattered by writing which was always lucid yet well over their heads. These successes, which made life tolerable for him, would have been far harder to come at abroad. The cultured there were more cultured than he was, the uncultured were unintelligent.
I am arguing that Poe was not misplaced in America, in spite of his immense detachment from everything American except journalism, nor premature in spite of his seeming discrepancy with later industrialism. For Poe is in the truest sense a prototype of the modern intellectual who himself is both product and antithesis of industrialism.
He has the complete detachment from those questions of welfare and progress for the mass that would make him at home among the intellectuals of what has aptly been called our North Atlantic civilization, and uneasy in the Y.M.C.A. or a Methodist church. He has their devotion to abstract idea, whether called beauty or logic. He has the modern desire for publicity, which is the intellectual's method of living off a crowd that he despises. Most of all, his intense sensitiveness and congenital morbidity gave him, nearly a century ahead of his successors, that power of acute registration of the life of the nerves which is so entirely characteristic of our modern rebels against the mechanizing of industrialism. Poe's morphine was just such an excitant as the roar and racket, the speed and recurrent stimulation, of New York. He was congenitally febrile and we have become so. He is one of us, as we recognize. And the beauty he attains is the fragile beauty of artifice: exquisite, penetrating, unhealthy, perfect in form, unsubstantial in substance, sincere only in its effects, subtle, but profound only in its dependence upon the subconsciousness. It is the beauty of Proust, of Virginia Woolf, of Cabell, of the modern metaphysical poets.
A Poe in the forties of our literary history was as inevitable as an Emerson or a Hawthorne. He was phenomenal only in his pathology, which made his nervosity abnormal in his time, and of course in his genius, which I believe was essentially a genius for form. Regarded as an American he is essentially a journalist, regarded as a poet he is at his best as a lyricist of unearthly beauty, regarded as a man of letters he is the most articulate of neurotics, and at the same time a cool craftsman, intuitive, inventive, and in full control of the logic of related ideas.
Poor fellow, with his worn, humorless face, and the look of one who expects an affront, what a man he might have been if he could have turned those analytic powers of his upon his own inflamed ego, and seen that a feverish life-long show-off was not the way to convince Philadelphia and New York of his genius! But that, as I have tried to say in these pages, would have been not to have been Poe. I am not much impressed by the arguments that poverty, or impotence, or youthful conditioning made Poe what he was. They had their part no doubt, but the thing that made him was that same psychic tension which kept him from ever once heartily laughing. One laugh, and we might have had not our Poe, but Poe fulfilled as the universal mind he sought to be. He could not laugh, and that was his tragedy—if indeed a world-wide reputation for beauty wrested from the macabre and an exquisiteness of rhythm such as English poetry has rarely elsewhere shown, can be called a tragedy at this space of time from his miseries and frustrations!
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SOURCE: "Poe as Literary Theorist: A Reappraisal," in American Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, November, 1961, pp. 296-306.
[Looking back at Poe's critical writings from a mid-twentieth century perspective, Marks finds them a valuable resource despite Poe's occasional extremism in critical opinions. Mark asserts that Poe had sound critical principles with respect to the art of literary creation and the role of criticism.]
There is a double motive for a fresh assessment of Edgar Poe's criticism. Every generation finds it necessary to reappraise past writers, a kind of periodic stocktaking as appropriate to dead critics as to dead poets. Often this is true because aspects of a man's work are found to answer some current need or to articulate some newly emerged aspiration of the common psyche. The poetry of Donne and Blake and the criticism of Coleridge come readily to mind in this regard. My present concern, however, is less to argue that Poe's criticism has in fact taken on such renewed utility than to investigate the question of its general value, which I take to be the necessary prior step.
Aside from this, Poe invites reconsideration because of the longstanding uncertainty about his worth as a critic and especially because of the disparity between his reputation in France, where since Baudelaire he has been idolized, and his reputation in the English-speaking world, where frequently he has been at best patronized. With us, today, Poe seems to stand highest for his stories, which still provide material for serious studies like Levin's The Power of Blackness as well as for amateur literary psychoanalyses. His poetry is valued almost exclusively for a few lyrics regarded as excellent examples of a very limited kind. Though his criticism perhaps fares better than his poetry, the homage paid it is mainly historical. When, rarely, his doctrines are considered on their intrinsic merits, Poe is generally credited with having propounded a poetic ontology more thoroughly defined by Coleridge a generation earlier and an analytical method destined to be elaborated by the New Critics a century later. Yet even outside of France one finds occasional sharp dissent from this grudging estimate. Writers as respected and different as Saintsbury, Eliot, and Auden have rated his critical writing highly. Edmund Wilson [in "Poe as a Literary Critic," 1942, reprinted above], called it "the most remarkable body of criticism ever produced in the United States."
Though unanimity in such a matter is an idle hope, some reduction of disagreement now seems possible if we pose a broad initial question: In the whole context of what we believe to be the soundest criticism past and present, what features of Poe's method and theory, what specific evaluations, retain validity? The answer would require a book. I propose here only the tentative emphases of such a book, not in every case the familiar ones given in the literary histories, but those which emerge from a survey of the whole range of Poe's critical prose—the essays, the editorials, the reviews, the letters. If, except to biographers and bibliographers, the great bulk of what he wrote is almost worthless, we still have to scrutinize the trash for the clues it supplies to the value and significance of the treasure and as a check on our too ready tendency to see all Poe's ideas as facile restatements of European Romantic prototypes. When this has been done, I think we may fairly conclude that Poe is worth study today—and I mean by today's critics and literary theorists—on several counts.
In the interest of honest perspective, however, it may be well first to review his critical shortcomings. There are several. For all his insight into the importance of unity, Poe was curiously blind to the aesthetic value of a complex whole that resides in a writer's control of a great mass of material. To this failing, rather than to his misreading of Coleridge or to his romantic lyrical bias, I should ascribe his declaration that a long poem is a contradiction in terms, his preference for the tale over the novel, and his impatience with talk of "sustained power." Only a favored few, if any, he believed, were possessed of the "sculptural taste" needed to take in a novel's "totality of beauty." Poe had got hold of a real critical problem here, one that Percy Lubbock was to explore decades later in The Craft of Fiction. But what Lubbock regards only as a challenge to our appreciative powers Poe declares flatly to be prohibitive. It is the same, though for additional reasons, with the long poem.
This ban on mere length is a serious theoretical restriction which produced some unfortunate results in critical practice. Poe is seldom at his best in his many reviews of novels. He resorts to long paraphrases of the plot and to fussing pedantically over minutiae of his author's grammar. His uncertainty leads him to rash and crippling generalizations: that a novel differs radically in kind from a short story; that its unity is only the "unity of the writer's individual thought"; most grotesque, that it must contain the author's observations, in propria persona, on the incidents of his narrative. To blame a novelist for keeping himself out of his fiction is at best questionable. To praise Defoe for doing the reverse in Robinson Crusoe, as Poe does, is not only hopelessly to confuse author and fictive narrator; it is to reduce the novel to a kind of didactic confessional, which by Poe's own best theory is virtually to deny it any status as an art form.
Second, I should place certain ultra-romantic limitations of taste by which he condemns, among other things, English metaphysical poetry (marred by "bathos, baldness, and utter imbecility"), Greek tragedy (crude and primitive), Pilgrim's Progress ("ludicrously over-rated"), Molière's plays, and Fielding's novels. His preferences among poems, especially his choices for the highest honors, Shelley's "The Sensitive Plant" and Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," suggest that in Poe the nineteenth-century tendency to confine poetry to the lyrical reaches an extreme. He wonders whether a dramatic poem is not a "flat contradiction in terms"; in any case neither the dramatic nor, as he warns Lowell, the narrative has anything to do with "true" poetry.
Nearly allied to this lyrical bias of taste is a relative indifference to comedy and satire that seems oddly inconsistent with his own satirical experiments and his literary hoaxes. Poe brushes aside Fielding and Smollett and is scornful of Molière. To the comic in poetic form he is downright hostile. In his view, the element of rhythm renders the ratiocinative, the sarcastic, and the humorous, though all admissible in prose fiction, foreign to the essence of poetry. Butler's Hudibras and Pope's Essay on Man he classes among "humorous pieces," not really poetry at all. Yet the comic and the satiric are perhaps only the most noteworthy of many modes of human response to experience which Poe places off limits to the poet. His perverse dictum that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical of all subjects may be charitably excused as an apologia for a favorite theme of his own verse. But on any view his conception of the range of subject matter proper to poetic treatment is ludicrously narrow, at times even "precious"; a mountain, he observes in one place, is "more poetical than a pair of stairs."
A fourth weakness, his emphasis on originality, might be forgiven if it were less obtrusive. In some sense, of course, every good writer is original, and Poe might have invoked Dr. Johnson's massive authority for his insistence on this point. Only in Poe's criticism the notion seems both obsessive and shallow, perhaps no more than a conscious elevation to theoretical dignity of his own fertile inventiveness. The morbid suspicions of derivativeness that darken many of his reviews and his strident charges of plagiarism against Longfellow are a high price to pay for whatever truth may lie in his belief that the "desire of the new is an element of the soul. .. ." It is obvious, in any event, that unless the criterion of originality is restricted by far more rigorous qualifications than Poe offers, it must logically negate his deeply held conviction that poetry can be defined, that every poem belongs, in his own favorite phrase, to a species of composition.
Finally, there is a defect of an excellence. Within its limits Poe's condemnation of the didactic heresy, as he formulated it in "The Poetic Principle," is sound. Too often, though, in his practical criticism, he combats this heresy with the opposite heresy, thus providing ammunition for those who would picture him as a mere aesthete, a kind of early American Oscar Wilde. It is one thing—and a good thing—to insist that poetry is poetry and not metrical polemics; it is quite another to argue, as Poe does in a Graham's review of Charles Sprague, that "didactic subjects are utterly beyond, or rather beneath, the province of true poesy," or that one of Elizabeth Barrett's poems is least meritorious because most philosophical. His proper resentment of poetry that has a design on us (as Keats so nicely put it) enables him to make some provocative remarks on the nature and limitations of allegorical verse. But his bald pronouncement that "all allegories are contemptible" is of a kind that degrades his prosecution of the didactic heresy to the level of an inquisition.
Given such grave deficiencies, can we justify Edmund Wilson's opinion that Poe's criticism ought to be with us, as with the French, "a vital part of our intellectual equipment"? I think we can, though my reasons for saying so may not in every instance be those Mr. Wilson would adduce. They refer primarily to four fundamental and closely related theoretical issues: the nature of artistic imitation, poetic form, the creative process, and the function of criticism itself.
Important though it is, Poe's exposure of the didactic heresy rests on shiftier theoretical grounds and is less needed today than his clear-sighted and consistent rejection of another fallacy prevalent in his times and destined despite him to be even more widely entertained after his death. It has been variously called the realist fallacy, the confusion of art and life, the fallacy of imitative form. So far as I know, Poe has yet to be given the place rightly due him among those critics and aestheticians—the very best—who have admitted the aesthetic worthlessness of fidelity of representation. "The mere imitation, however accurate," he writes in one of the Marginalia pieces, "of what is, in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of 'Artist'. . . ." Man can, thanks to his innate sense of beauty, delight in the varied sights and sounds of real life, but repeating them orally or in writing does not constitute "poesy."
In 1913 Clive Bell thought it necessary to explain that the "world of Shakespeare's plays is by no means so lifelike as the world of Mr. Galsworthy's, and therefore those who imagine that the artistic problem must always be the achieving of a correspondence between printed words or painted forms and the world as they know it are right in judging the plays of Shakespeare inferior to those of Mr. Galsworthy." Bell's logic is as fine as the irony of his rhetoric, but Edgar Poe anticipated him in both by seventy years when he reasoned that if "truth is the highest aim of either Painting or Poesy, then Jan Steen was a greater artist than Angelo, and Crabbe is a more noble poet than Milton."
The tendency of some to regard this concept as a mere adjunct to an "escapist" view of poetry, irrelevant to literature closely concerned with human problems, can be discredited by Poe's own reasoning. In judging specific works he applied the criterion generally and without distinction of genre. He praises N. P. Willis for achieving a truthfulness in his drama Tortesa which is not a mere "Flemish perception of truth." He invokes the principle again in rejecting what he calls the ill-founded charge that Dickens's characters are caricatures: "caricature seldom exists . . . where the correspondent parts are in keeping. . . ." Far from being an escapist crotchet, this perception shrewdly confirms Aristotle's injunction to prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities. Aristotelian, too, is his observation in this same review (of The Old Curiosity Shop) that a detailed copying from life is precisely what makes a work of art unnatural.
The truth Poe grasped here of course parallels Coleridge's distinction between a copy and a proper mimesis, but he expresses it with an air of such personal conviction and illustrates it so unerringly that it seems to have been his independent discovery. Almost every major critic has left his version of it somewhere on record, Dr. Johnson being a well-known exception. William Hazlitt's unfortunate habit of forgetting or ignoring the principle is usually overlooked; but not by Poe, who exposed its unhappy consequences in an otherwise laudatory review of the English critic's Characters of Shakespeare's Plays.
Perhaps the most insidious form of the art-life confusion still prevalent is that a poem communicates to the reader some passion or passions felt by the poet. Recent critics, in understandable reaction against romantic emotionalism in poetic theory, have made much of Eliot's view that "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion." This aphorism has been helpful. But if we want an elucidation of the nice problem of how natural and aesthetic emotions are both connected and different, we do better to turn from the "classical" Eliot to the romantic Poe: "True passion is prosaic—homely. Any strong mental emotion excites all the mental faculties; thus grief the imagination:—but in proportion as the effect is strengthened, the cause surceases. The excited fancy triumphs—the grief is subdued—chastened,—is no longer grief. In this mood we are poetic, and it is clear that a poem now written will be poetic in the exact ratio of its dispassion. A passionate poem is a contradiction in terms." Poe's reviews abound in applications of this idea, by which, for an interesting example, he censures Tennyson's "Locksley Hall."
When we insist today on the distinction between our experience of grief and our experience of an elegy, or between how it feels to be in love and how it feels to read a love lyric, we prefer to appeal to notions like aesthetic distance, artistic objectification, or controlling form, rather than to Poe's quasi-platonic intuition of the soul's thirst for the supernal. Yet it is no more just for this reason to deny him credit for the distinction itself than to reject Coleridge's secondary imagination along with the outmoded faculty psychology behind it. What counts—and it ought to count for a great deal—is that Poe propounded not a mere tenet of one critical school but a principle that can make the difference between good criticism and bad. It defines a condition of all literature, of Balzac's social novels as of Shelley's lyric poems, of Madame Bovary as of "Ulalume." According to Joseph Joubert, a remarkable Frenchman unknown to Poe, it is the great rule, the first rule, the only rule of art.
In all this Poe was working, like any good critic, toward a definition, a sound conception of literature as a whole and of poetry as one kind. His attack on the didactic heresy is best understood as part of this broad philosophical enterprise. He does not, at his best moments, espouse a purist position, freely conceding that a poem may be didactic if its morality does not obtrude, if it remains "the undercurrent of a poetical thesis." Though his fondness for dogmatic overstatement led him into intemperate denunciations of allegory and philosophical poetry, it is clear that Poe was grappling honestly with the crucial problem of the status of moral and cognitive values in literature. Perhaps only today, when after long debate critics have begun to see this problem as an aspect of mimesis, can we fully estimate the worth of Poe's pioneering efforts.
On the matter of poetic form, Poe's strong preference for the functional over the merely decorative image is especially remarkable as anticipating a principle of twentieth-century poetics. He objected to the essential splitting of form from content characteristic of poetry that presents truth wreathed "in gems and flowers." Longfellow's "Blind Bartimeus" receives his censure because its imagery (which Poe called the "upper current of meaning") depends for its sole interest on its explicit relation to the undercurrent of meaning. "What we read upon the surface," he complains, "would be vox et praeterea nihil in default of the Moral beneath." His argument should not be mistaken as an earlier version of J. C. Ransom's idea that the imagery in a poem constitutes a texture irrelevant to its structure of meaning. Poe rather conceived the nexus of idea and image, of metaphor and meaning, to be organic and symbolic, not illustrative and arbitrary. He was clearly ahead of his time in this conception, which has for us a clarity and significance it could not have had for his own or for several generations thereafter. With him of course it remained only an insight whose ontological implications he never explored. But if in our time we "know" so much more about these things, it is also true, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot in another context, that Poe is part of what we know.
Poe's contribution to the third of the three theoretical issues named above, the nature of the creative process, can be dealt with more briefly. One measure of the stature of any critic is his capacity at once to express the best insights of his age and to resist its ephemeral excesses. By period and taste Poe was a romantic, often in the worst sense. But nothing so eloquently illustrates the superior quality of his intellect than his dissent from aspects of the romantic attitude toward art which, from our point of view at least, are dubious. Chief among these is an unfortunate brand of antirationalism in the vulgar romantic notion of how a poem gets written. The romantics' healthy restoration of the intuitive to an honored place in the creative process tended too easily to degenerate into a complete distrust of the rational. By Poe's day prevailing opinion held the two mental operations to be mutually incompatible. In sharp protest against this obscurantism, he asserted not only the possibility but the necessity of reconciling genius and artistic skill. He can thus regard the signs of deliberate technique in Bryant's poems as positive merits rather than evidences of imperfect inspiration or meretricious artificialty. Characteristically exaggerating his case, he declares the making of a poem to be a matter of purely ratiocinative calculation. Creation and appreciation depend upon entirely separate mental faculties. We respond to a poem suprarationally, by what he called, taking the term from phrenology, the "faculty of Ideality." But the poem itself, as a means of eliciting that response, is a product of the "organs of Causality and Comparison," that is, of pure intellection. The poet always knows to the smallest detail what he is about, and the wildest "effusion of the Muse" is owing to Method for its value.
Though this doctrine is surely as "heretical" as any Poe deprecated, it was a useful corrective to the opposite bias of his time. More important, it motivated his concern with craftsmanship and his respect for conscious artistry. Too much has been made of the deficiencies of The Philosophy of Composition, which are after all not so much in what is said there as in what is left out. In our current understanding that a literary work is not something ineffably mysterious before which we can only emit appreciative gasps, that it is instead an object amenable to orderly and rewarding inspection, we are as much the heirs of Poe as of Coleridge or Henry James.
Like Coleridge and James, too, Poe enforced the inevitable corollary having to do with the critical function itself. He taught us to regard criticism as an exacting and respectable discipline, not an unexamined expression of conflicting and groundless opinions on books. He is at least more nearly right than wrong in his assertion that Schelling, the Schlegels, and Goethe do not and cannot differ in their principles from Karnes, Johnson, and Blair, but only in their subtler elaboration and application of them. If his faith that the "science" of phrenology would someday eliminate all indefiniteness from critical theory is no better than quaint, his scornful rejection of the otiose relativism of de gustibus, then as now a seductive escape from hard thinking about the arts, is admirable. While Poe nowhere regards criticism as an autotelic activity divorced from literature, his declaration of its autonomy is among the earliest on record and the clearest: "Criticism is not . . . an essay, nor a sermon, nor an oration, nor a chapter in history, nor a philosophical speculation, nor a prose-poem, nor an art novel, nor a dialogue. In fact, it can be nothing in the world but—a criticism. . . . Following the highest authority, we would wish .. . to limit literary criticism to comment upon Art. A book is written—and it is only as the book that we subject it to review." By themselves, these words seem to place their author in the company of Whistler and Wilde. But read in the context of the total corpus of his critical writing, they associate him rather with Matthew Arnold's plea, two decades later, for critical disinterestedness. If in our time we must object that Poe has not here stated the whole truth about the critic's proper business, we ought at least to see that he has stated the first and the most important, the point de repère from which to take the bearing of all other claims.
W. H. Auden [in his introduction to Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Prose and Poetry, rev. ed., 1950] has expressed his astonishment that Poe, denied by his time and place issues and subjects of real importance, was nonetheless so fine a critic. Pointing to the contrast between Baudelaire's subjects—Delacroix, Constantin Guys, Wagner—and the worthless stuff assigned to Poe for review, Auden suggests that Poe's limitations were "entirely his misfortune, not his fault." This argument is attractive and plausible, but as much beside the point as it is beyond proof. It is by no means certain that Poe's shortcomings would have been substantially less had his opportunities been greater. On the other hand, there is no more reason to be astounded that Poe could extract sound theory from tawdry literary material than that many a novelist has written well and truly from scanty experience of his subject. The fact is that the critic, like Henry James's novelist, need only be one of those on whom nothing is lost. That Poe was such a one some readers in the past have suspected from the grace and precision of his style, reflecting as it does the combination of his sensitivity with that rare order of intelligence which—like his own Dupin's—can infer truth from very slender evidence. But we need no longer rely on so elusive a standard for taking the measure of Poe's achievement. The revolutionary complexities of recent literature have forced upon our criticism a degree of theoretical sophistication that is producing a revaluation of the critical past. In the light of that sophistication and that revaluation, much in Poe that once seemed obscure or perverse becomes clear and compelling.
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SOURCE: "Contemporary Opinion of Poe," in The Mind of Poe and Other Studies, Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962, pp. 54-61.
[Tracing Poe's career through his editorship of various magazines and the opinions of his contemporaries, Campbell concludes that though Poe was condemned by his fellow writers for being unduly severe in his reviews, he was also appreciated for his critical astuteness.]
[It] was as critic . . . that Poe was best known to his contemporaries in America. By this I do not mean that his book-reviews and other critical papers were felt to exceed in importance his poems or his tales: the consensus of intelligent opinion would have given first place in the matter of actual worth to his tales. Nevertheless, it is clear from the contemporary references to Poe that it was as critic and book-reviewer that he was most widely known to his generation in America: the mention of his name brought to the minds of his fellow-Americans of the thirties and forties of last century the idea, first of all, of book-reviewer and editor, rather than of tale-writer or of poet.
It does not affect the validity of this assertion to add that Poe was chiefly known as a fearless and caustic critic, rather than as a just and discriminating critic. Indeed, we shall find, I think, in the boldness and the occasional severity of his critical notices the secret of much of his contemporary vogue; for then, as now, it was the controversial and the spectacular that most readily caught the public fancy. And Poe's criticisms, though far more just than his contemporaries could have brought themselves to admit, were in no small degree controversial in nature,—or, at best, calculated to arouse controversy,—and were from the beginning more caustic, I imagine, than anything that had preceded them in American letters.
As in the case of his tales, it was during his connection with the Southern Literary Messenger (1835-1837) that he first came into prominence as a critic. Where or when he had served his apprenticeship as a book-reviewer, we shall probably never know. There is no tangible evidence that he had published anything in the way of criticism before 1835, save the "Letter to B—" in the Poems of 1831. But by the end of his first year with the Messenger he had won for that magazine a place among the leading American critical journals and had brought about an increase in its list of subscribers but little short of miraculous. His tales contributed in good part, no doubt, to this result, but it was his book-reviews and his scorching editorials that were mainly responsible; and it was these, even more than the tales, that attracted the newspaper critics of the time.
His reputation as critic seems to have undergone some arrest in its development during his connection with Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1839-1840, owing, as he would have had us believe, to the "milk-and-water" policy of its proprietor. But he won fresh laurels for himself while editor of Graham's Magazine (1841-1842), writing now some of the ablest of his critiques and earning for himself the almost uniform commendation of the Philadelphia press. Graham, in announcing his accession to his editorial staff, spoke of him as "a stern, just, and impartial critic" who held "a pen second to none in the country"; Lowell wrote in praise of his critical work as early as 1842; and Dr. J. Evans Snodgrass, a Baltimore editor of ability, declared in 1843 that his book-reviews were "unequalled in this country."
As critic Poe also came prominently before the public in 1845 and 1846. During most of 1845 he was either assistant editor or editor of the Broadway Journal, and in that capacity wrote, each week, critiques of the more important books appearing at that time. In the spring and summer of 1846 he published in Godey's Lady's Book his Literati. Of his reviews in the Broadway Journal some were very able; but in a number of his papers published there, notably the articles attacking Longfellow, and likewise in the Literati, he stooped to personalities of various sorts and displayed a spitefulness that cost him the esteem of some of his staunchest admirers and earned for him the disapproval of most of the influential men of the time. Indeed, the unhappy reputation that he made by these papers he found it impossible to live down during the few remaining years allotted to him.
After 1846 he wrote nothing of importance as critic save "The Poetic Principle," itself a revision in part of work earlier done.
In the notices of Poe published during his lifetime the trait in his criticisms that was most dwelt on was his severity. Before the end of the first year on the Messenger he had been taken to task by one of the Richmond newspapers for his "regular cutting and slashing"; and he had been attacked earlier in the year by the New York Mirror, in a satirical squib in which he figured as "Bulldog, the critick." Burton reproached him in 1839 for the sharpness of his critical notices in the Gentleman's Magazine. Dr. Snodgrass described him in 1842 as "provokingly hypercritical at times"; and in a notice of the Broadway Journal in April, 1845, he remarked that it "would be more significant to call this the Broad-axe Journal." George D. Prentice violently attacked the poet in 1843 in consequence of his contemptuous references to Carlyle. And Clark, who had been "used up" in the Literati, kept up a continual fire at him for a year or more after these papers began to appear. In the Knickerbocker of May, 1846, he speaks of Poe as "'The Literary Snob' continually obtruding himself upon public notice; to-day, in the gutter, tomorrow in some milliner's magazine; but in all places, and at all times magnificently snobbish and dirty."
Lowell suggested in his sketch in Graham's that Poe sometimes mistook "his phial of prussic acid for his ink-stand"; and he rebuked him in his Fable for Critics for throwing mudballs at Longfellow. The Brook Farm Harbinger in 1845 lamented the fact that Poe had taken to a sort of "blackguard warfare." A contributor to the Talisman and Odd Fellow's Magazine in September, 1846, dubbed him "the tomahawk man" and "the Comanche of literature"; and the Philadelphia editor, Du Solle, remarked in 1847, "If Mr. P. had not been gifted with considerable gall, he would have been devoured long ago by the host of enemies his genius has created." In Holden's Dollar Magazine for January, 1849 (then edited by C. F. Briggs), Poe is ridiculed in the following doggerel lines:
With tomahawk upraised for deadly blow,
Behold our literary Mohawk, Poe!
Sworn tyrant he o'er all who sin in verse—
His own the standard, damns he all that's worse;
And surely not for this shall he be blamed—
For worse than his deserves that it be damned!
Who can so well detect the plagiary's flaw?
"Set thief to catch thief is an ancient saw:
Who can so scourge a fool to shreds and slivers?
Promoted slaves oft make the best slave drivers!
Iambic Poe! of tyro bards the terror—
Ego is he—the world his pocket-mirror!
The articles published shortly after Poe's death also made much of his defects as critic. The trait now most stressed was not his causticity, I think, but his disposition to allow his prejudices and personal likes and dislikes to color his critical judgments. Among the first to make this complaint against him was his early friend, John Neal. Griswold declared in his "Memoir" that "his unsupported assertions and opinions were so apt to be influenced by friendship or enmity, by the desire to please or the fear to offend . . . that they should be received in all cases with distrust of their fairness," an opinion which was echoed by Clark in the Knickerbocker for October, 1850. Even Graham admitted that Poe's "outcry" against Longfellow was prejudiced and unjust. A contributor to the North American Review expressed the opinion that Poe was intensely prejudiced "against all literature emanating from New England." Evert A. Duyckinck, in 1850, publicly lodged the charge of venality against Poe, declaring that he "was, in the very centre of his soul, a literary attorney, and pleaded according to his fee." Mrs. Gove-Nichols, also, in her novel, Mary Lyndon, while apologizing for the poet's weaknesses, admitted that he "sometimes sold favorable opinions, that were not opinions, but shams"; and Clark, in the Knickerbocker, characterized him sneeringly as a "jaded hack who runs a broken pace for common hire." Others complained of the over-minuteness of his criticisms and, in particular of his fondness for "verbal fault-finding."
Among those who wrote in praise of his work as a critic were Lowell, Horace Greeley, and Richard Henry Stoddard. Lowell in his sketch of Poe in 1845 declared that he was "at once the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works . . . in America." Greeley, after hearing his lecture on the American poets in February, 1845, praised him, in the columns of the Tribune, dwelling upon his candor and his acuteness, and pronouncing him a "critic of genius and established reputation." Stoddard declared in 1853, "No other modern, save Tennyson, [was] so versed in the philosophy of criticism." Willis praised him enthusiastically in the Mirror in 1845 and again in the Home Journal at the time of his death. . . .
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19043
SOURCE: "Culmination of a Campaign," in Poe's Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu, Duke University Press, 1963, pp. 132-89.
[In a detailed analysis of the Poe-Longfellow literary war, Moss argues that Poe's evaluation of Longfellow's literary capabilities, though over-harsh at times, was ultimately accurate and based on carefully workedout critical principles.]
.. . I am but defending a set of principles which no honest man need be ashamed of defending, and for whose defence no honest man will consider an apology required.—Edgar A. Poe
Poe's encounters with Longfellow have aroused so much emotionalism in Poe and Longfellow partisans that to look at the evidence afresh and with detachment requires the utmost self-discipline. To forestall such emotionalism from prejudicing the evidence, let it be repeated here that our purpose is not so much to defend Poe as a critic but to understand him in that capacity; to consider this "battle" .. . in the context of his critical career and literary milieu; and, finally, to draw judgments from the evidence, whether those judgments happen to be favorable or unfavorable to Poe or, in this instance, to Longfellow. Thus, let it be acknowledged at once that in his notices of the Cambridge poet Poe was blunt and quarrelsome at times; that he made serious errors of judgment on occasion; that he was not unwilling to use Longfellow for sensational purposes to enlarge the subscription lists of the magazines he was serving; that the last of his protracted replies to "Outis" may even betray the first symptoms of a mental disturbance that became obvious in the following year; and, having acknowledged this, let us proceed to as impartial an examination of the available evidence as is possible in the circumstances.
Poe first took critical notice of Longfellow when his prose tale, Hyperion: A Romance (1839), came to his attention as reviewer for Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. This was Longfellow's second published work, if we regard the three editions of Outre-Mer as one and ignore his textbooks.
The thin autobiographical narrative was, in the persona of Paul Flemming, an account of his second European trip—from the death of his first wife following a miscarriage to his frustrated romance with Frances Appleton (Mary Ashburton). Steeped in German Romanticism, Longfellow responded to his wife's death and to Frances Appleton in a pretentiously literary style which he later abandoned. Thus, in Hyperion, his dead wife was the bough which had broken under the burden of the unripe fruit, and Frances Appleton is the wraith who haunts his dreams "with her pale, speaking countenance and holy eyes." The literary influences manifest in the work are many, but Jean Paul's is most obvious. But the story, however derivative its manner, was essentially a frame on which to hang all sorts of miscellaneous materials: anecdotes, legends, travel notes, translations of German poems, and even discussions of literary topics, some drawn from his Harvard lectures on German literature.
Poe, who insisted time and again that "totality, or unity, of effect" is a desideratum of a literary work and who repeatedly held that "than the true originality there is no higher literary virtue," was bound to be unhappy with the book:
Were it possible [he wrote] to throw into a bag the lofty thought and manner of the Pilgrims of the Rhine, together with the quirks and quibbles and true humour of Tristram Shandy, not forgetting a few of the heartier drolleries of Rabelais, and one or two of the Phantasy Pieces of the Lorrainean Callot, the whole, when well shaken up, and thrown out, would be a very tolerable imitation of "Hyperion." This may appear to be commendation, but we do not intend it as such. Works like this of Professor Longfellow are the triumphs of Tom O'Bedlam, and the grief of all true criticism. They are potent in unsettling the popular faith in Art—a faith which, at no day more than the present, needed the support of men of letters. .. . A man of true talent who would demur at the great labour requisite for the stern demands of high art . . . make[s] no scruple of scattering at random a profusion of rich thought in the pages of such farragos [sic] as "Hyperion." Here, indeed, there is little trouble—but even that little is most unprofitably lost. . . . We are indignant that he too has been recreant to the good cause.
Such criticism of Hyperion was by no means unusual then or now. Longfellow himself observed: "The Boston papers are very savage, and abuse me shockingly... ." One such "abusive" review was written by Orestes A. Brownson, editor of the Boston Quarterly Review, whose reaction to Hyperion was similar to Poe's: "I do not like the book. It is such a journal as a man who reads a great deal makes from the scraps in his table-drawer. . . . You cannot guess why the book was written. . . ." Another "abusive" reviewer confessed in the Boston Mercantile Journal of September 27, 1839, that one "book" of the four "books" of Hyperion was a dose as large as he could swallow because he found it a "mongrel mixture of descriptions and criticism, travels and bibliography, common-places clad in purple, and follies 'with not a rag to cover them.'" Amusingly enough, Frances Appleton, unhappy at being served up to the public under the persona of Mary Ashburton, remarked privately: "There are really some exquisite things in this book, though it is desultory, objectless, a thing of shreds and patches like the author's mind."
But not all notices of Hyperion were unfavorable, for four of Longfellow's friends—Cornelius Conway Felton, Samuel Ward, and the Clark brothers—published their reviews of that work too. For the Boston Courier Felton wrote a stinging reply to the Mercantile Journal reviewer, which he trenchantly titled, "Hyperion to a Satyr" (a reply that Willis Clark reprinted in his Philadelphia Gazette), as well as a seventeen-page defense of Hyperion for the North American Review. In the North American, Felton conceded what was already the fact, that Hyperion "must encounter a variety of critical opinions"; yet, he maintained, the book "must not be judged by the principles of classical composition"—that is to say, by the principle of unity, as Poe and others had judged it. Readers, he said, who were "attuned to sentiments of tenderness," who had an imaginative turn of mind, and who were "sensitively alive to the influence of the beautiful," would come back to the book again and again. Ward devoted twenty pages of the New York Review to affirming that the book is a "lay . . . uttered by the scholar with the lips of a minstrel," and "that the appearance of Hyperion is an event in the annals of our scholarship and literary taste." Willis Clark, who pronounced the work great, promised to review it "with liberal extracts, some Saturday" for his Philadelphia Gazette. And Lewis Clark, declaring in the Knickerbocker that the Romance "is an exquisite production and will be so pronounced by every reader of taste," urged his subscribers to "possess themselves at once of 'Hyperion,' and sit down to a feast of calm philosophy, poetry, and romance."
Encouraged by the reception of Hyperion—he over-sanguinely remarked that a large edition of the book had been sold in a few weeks—Longfellow created another opportunity to appear on the literary market in that same year. He collected his "Voices of the Night" (eight "Psalms," including "Hymn to the Night," "A Psalm of Life," "The Beleaguered City," and "Midnight Mass for the Dying Year," which had appeared in the Knickerbocker), sorted through his "Earlier Poems" (from which he selected seven), gathered twenty-three of his "Translations" (some of which had appeared in Hyperion and elsewhere), and made a modest, three-sectioned volume of the whole, which he inappropriately christened Voices of the Night.
Unlike Hyperion, this work was widely acclaimed by the press. As Longfellow wrote, "Every one praises the book. Even the Boston papers which so abused Hyperion, praise this highly." Before the volume appeared in December, Lewis Clark announced in the Knickerbocker:
Voices of the Night.—Professor Longfellow, of Cambridge, has in press, under the above title, a volume of poems, which is to embrace the several beautiful 'Psalms of Life,' that were written for the Knickerbocker, together with many of the earlier original poems and translations of the author. We would not so far slander the feeling and good taste of the public, as to suppose that the volume will not meet with a large and rapid sale.
And when the book was published, Clark observed:
Perhaps it will be considered altogether a work of supererogation, that we should invite the attention of our readers to a volume of poems from the pen of Professor Longfellow, from whom they have heard so often, and never without delight.... Most cordially do we commend these 'Voices of the Night' to the imaginations and hearts of our readers.
Felton, too, in the North American, extolled the volume, especially the title section, saying that they "are among the most remarkable poetical compositions, which have ever appeared in the United States"—a verdict that Clark, not to be outdone, quoted in his "Editor's Table," adding that "we are especially gratified to find the praise which has been bestowed in these pages upon . . . 'Hyperion,' . . . and . . . 'Voices of the Night,' reechoed in the deliberate verdict of the North American."
Such acclamation by the press was in great measure deserved. Reviewers familiar with the run of American poetry were bound to be impressed by the command of language, the freshness of imagery, and the sureness of technique that characterize most of the Psalms. Felton's opinion, that the Psalms were "among the most remarkable poetical compositions, which have ever appeared in the United States," was perfectly sound at the time. Reviewers like Poe, however, who held that the world, not America, "is the true theatre of the biblical histrio"; who refused to let literary patriotism enter into their judgments; who felt compelled to compare Longfellow's accomplishments with those of Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley rather than with John Brainard's, Fitz-Greene Halleck's, and Mrs. Sigourney's, were bound to be more moderate in their acclaim. Thus, in reviewing Voices for Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, Poe remarked that when he had first seen "Hymn to the Night" in a newspaper, he had been impressed with the "firm belief that a poet of high genuis had at length arisen amongst us." No poem, he remarked, ever opened with a beauty more august and the first five stanzas are nearly perfect. Had Longfellow always written this way, Poe continued, "we should have been tempted to speak of him not only as our finest poet, but as one of the noblest poets of all time." His perusal of Voices had not modified his conviction that Longfellow had genius; it had, however, altered his opinion as to his "capacity for . . . any enduring reputation." For though Longfellow possesses the "loftiest qualities of the poetical soul. . . . he has nothing of unity"—the same observation, Poe added, that Hyperion had induced in him. Even the five stanzas of the "Hymn" alluded to have defects consequent upon lack of unity—defects which he considered symptoms of inability to achieve "that perfection which is the result only of the strictest proportion and adaptation in all the poetical requisites. ..." Hence, he said, the defects he had pointed out existed not only in the poems but "in the mind of the writer, and thence ineradicable. . . ."
If we can condone Poe's questioning the degree of Longfellow's talents (and neither in this notice nor in subsequent ones did he fall into the easy fatuity of condemning Longfellow's poems contemptuously or of admiring them vacuously), we may not be so willing to condone his questioning Longfellow's honesty in the high-handed way he proceeded to do at the close of this review. Copying Longfellow's "Midnight Mass for the Dying Year" and Tennyson's "The Death of the Old Year," he called attention to a plagiarism "too palpable to be mistaken, and which belongs to the most barbarous class of literary robbery: that class in which, while the words of the wronged author are avoided, his most intangible, and therefore his least defensible and least reclaimable property is purloined." Aside from occasional lapses, Poe admitted, "there is nothing of a visible or palpable nature by which the source of the American poem can be established. But then nearly all that is valuable in the piece of Tennyson is the . . . conception of personifying the Old Year as a dying old man, with the singularly wild and fantastic manner in which that conception is carried out. Of this conception and of this manner he is robbed." Needless to say, Poe ruled out all possibility of coincidence, if he considered it at all.
If the puffing lavished on Hyperion by the North American Review, the Knickerbocker, and the Philadelphia Gazette had not provided Poe with evidence of logrolling or, to use his expression, the "corrupt nature of our ordinary criticism," and if the phenomenon of Voices passing through four printings within the year had not signalized to him that Longfellow was being abetted by the New York and Boston coteries, he must have at least suspected the fact when he ran into an old adversary, Willis Clark, whom he had encountered under similar circumstances in the Norman Leslie incident. Most likely in order to stimulate sales of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, Poe called attention to what he deemed Longfellow's plagiarism in Alexander's Weekly Messenger, a journal to which he was contributing at the time. In his column for January 29, 1840, he referred to a review in Burton's "which shows up Professor Longfellow as a plagiarist of the first water.. . ." The allegation, made so bluntly, reached Longfellow at Cambridge, and he proceeded to deny it to his friend Ward: "My brother told me yesterday that some paragraphs had appeared in some New York paper [Alexander's was printed in Philadelphia] saying I stole the idea of the 'Midnight Mass' from Tennyson. Absurd. I did not even know that he had written a piece on this subject." Unfortunately, the evidence does not entirely support Longfellow's statement. "The Fifth Psalm: A Midnight Mass for the Dying Year" first appeared in the Knickerbocker in October, 1839. In 1838 Emerson, in correspondence with C. C. Little, who wanted to bring out the first American edition of Tennyson's Poems (London, 1833)—the book that contains "The Death of the Old Year"—told that publisher that Longfellow owned a copy. Moreover, Longfellow in a letter to Frances Appleton written sometime in 1837 or 1838 extolled the virtues of Tennyson ("the nicest ear can ask no richer melody:—and the most lively imagination no lovlier [sic] picture, nor more true") and even quoted verses and cited page numbers from the very volume containing "The Death of the Old Year." Had Longfellow been candid, Poe's charge would appear today, as it must have appeared then, decidedly unfair; but Longfellow's denial in the circumstances tends to draw suspicion from the accuser to the accused.
Having written to Ward, Longfellow wrote to Willis Clark as well: "Pray who is it that is attacking me so furiously in Philadelphia. I have never seen the attacks, but occasionally I receive a newspaper with a defense of my writings, from which I learn there has been an attack. I thank you for what you have done for me; and for your good thoughts and good words." Clark, responding to Longfellow's letter, wrote: "You ask me who attacks you here? The only ones I have seen against you, have been in Burton's. . .. I have answered thoroughly, any attack upon you—and shall continue to do so, whenever they appear." Clark spoke the truth, for he had answered Poe's anonymous articles in Burton's and Alexander's. On February 4, 1840, he had printed a statement in his Gazette designed to acquit Longfellow of plagiarism by convicting Tennyson of stealing from Longfellow, or, failing that, by suggesting that Longfellow, at worst, had only filched from one of his own earlier poems. His defense, based on the error that Tennyson was a Scotsman and on the reduction of Poe's charge to imitation, only evidenced his partiality for Longfellow:
A neighboring periodical, we hear, has been attempting to prove that Professor Longfellow's sublime and beautiful "Midnight Mass for the Dying Year," has been imitated from a poem by Tennyson. Preposterous! There is nothing more alike in the two pieces than black and white, with the exception of the personification,—and that was Longfellow's, long before the Scotch writer thought of 'doing' his poem. Who does not remember that striking simile in one of the Professor's earlier lyrics,
—where Autumn, like a faint old man, sits down, By the wayside, aweary?"
This same beautiful piece was copied in Edinburgh, from an English periodical where it was altered, to suit the scenery of England; and it is fifty times more probable that Tennyson thus got his idea, than that Mr. Longfellow should have done more in the "Mass," than repeat a favorite one of his thought. On himself, one of the most strikingly original poets of this country, and the best translator of any nation known to our language, such a charge falls hurtless—and for the reputation of the maker, (acknowledged, we hear, among his friends) should be withdrawn. We ask the Weekly Messenger, who has repeated the charge of abstraction, to clip this caveat, and give it utterance.
On February 12, his earliest opportunity, Poe did as Clark bade him. He reprinted Clark's caveat in Alexander's and added:
The "neighboring periodical," alluded to in so parliamentary a style, is the "Gentleman's Magazine," and the accuser, whose "reputation" is so entirely a matter of hearsay with Mr. Clark, is a Mr. Poe, one of the editors of that very excellent and very popular journal. . . .
Mr. Poe does not say that Professor Longfellow's poem is "imitated" from Tennyson. He calls it a bare-faced and barbarous plagiarism.... In support of this accusation he has printed the poems in question side by side—a proceeding, which, we must acknowledge, has an air of perfect fairness about it.... We mention that the critic had done all this, because we understand, from the opening words of the paragraph quoted above, that Mr. Clarke [sic], is only aware, as usual, through hearsay, of what is really written in the "Gentleman's Magazine."
Matters standing thus, the question is altogether one of opinion. Mr. Poe says the Professor stole the poem; so do we; and so does every body but Mr. Clarke. He says the Professor did not steal the poem. He says, moreover, that Mr. Poe ought to "withdraw" the charge, lest, being persisted in, it may do injury to his own reputation; (Mr. P's) about which he (Mr. C.) is solicitous. Whether Mr. Poe will oblige the editor of the Gazette, remains yet to be seen.
Poe, needless to say, did not oblige the editor of the Gazette and the matter lapsed.
All that can be said here is that Poe was still plumping for sales of Burton's and that he exercised some restraint by merely reiterating the original accusation. He could easily have strengthened his position by adducing other and far less questionable instances of "plagiarism" in Voices—even from the very poem "Autumn" which Clark had cited. Consider the last nine lines of that poem, for example, in respect to ideas, phrases, and even the blank verse of "Thanatopsis":
O what a glory doth this world put on
For him who, with a fervent heart, goes forth
Under the bright and glorious sky, and looks
On duties well performed, and days well spent!
For him the wind, ay, and the yellow leaves
Shall have a voice, and give him eloquent teachings.
He shall so hear the solemn hymn, that Death
Has lifted up for all, that he shall go
To his long resting-place without a tear.
In his original review of Voices, however, Poe had said that no author of mature age should desire to have his poetical character estimated by the productions of his mind at immaturity, and "Autumn," like the rest of the "Earlier Poems," was written, as Longfellow had acknowledged, before he was nineteen.
Twice during the next year Poe had occasion to write to Longfellow—the first and last time letters were exchanged between them. As editor now of Graham's Magazine, Poe was asked by the proprietor to solicit contributions from Longfellow, who had become, almost overnight on the strength of Voices, America's best-selling poet and thus a most desirable contributor. Poe's position was awkward, for however much he had acclaimed Longfellow as a poet, he had not only pointed out his weaknesses but had accused him of plagiarism, and he felt he could anticipate the poet's response. His letter reflects his dilemma:
Mr Geo: R. Graham, proprietor of "Graham's Magazine", a monthly journal published in this city, and edited by myself, desires me to beg of you the honor of your contribution to its pages. Upon the principle that we seldom obtain what we very anxiously covet, I confess that I have but little hope of inducing you to write for us;—and, to say truth, I fear that Mr Graham would have opened the negotiation much better in his own person—for I have no reason to think myself favorably known to you—but the attempt was to be made, and I made it.
Poe added that if Longfellow were interested, he could submit an article every month, whether in poetry or prose, length, subject, and price at his discretion.
In conclusion—I cannot refrain from availing myself of this, the only opportunity I may ever have, to assure the author of the "Hymn to the Night", of the "Beleaguered City" and of the "Skeleton in Armor", of the fervent admiration with which his genius has inspired me:—and yet I would scarcely hazard a declaration whose import might be so easily misconstrued, and which bears with it, at best, more or less, of niaiserie, were I not convinced that Professor Longfellow, writing and thinking as he does, will be at no loss to feel and appreciate the honest sincerity of what I say.
Longfellow replied on May 19, refusing the offer and acknowledging Poe's existence. With nice discretion, he avoided mentioning Poe's recent strictures on his work and, at the same time, managed to return the compliment Poe had paid him:
I am much obliged to you for your kind expressions of regard, and to Mr. Graham for his very generous offer. . . . But I am so much occupied at present that I could not do it with any satisfaction either to you or to myself. I must therefore respectfully decline his proposition.
You are mistaken in supposing that you are not "favorably known to me." On the contrary, all that I have read from your pen has inspired me with a high idea of your power; and I think you are destined to stand among the first romance-writers of the country, if such be your aim.
During the next month Poe sought to establish his own journal. Having found Longfellow more agreeable than he had reason to expect, Poe wrote him a second letter in which he discussed his projected magazine and asked again for contributions: "In your former note you spoke of present engagements. The proposed journal will not be commenced until the 1 st January 1842." What Longfellow replied, if he replied at all, is not known, but it can hardly be coincidence that, despite his previous objections, he appeared in Graham's Magazine for January, 1842, and soon became one of Graham's headliners.
In the meantime Poe, upon request, submitted some of his poems to Rufus Griswold for inclusion in that compiler's anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America. Earlier in the month Poe had praised "The Beleaguered City" in his letter to Longfellow; now, he called Griswold's attention to the similarity between the Longfellow poem and his own "Haunted Palace" in what was evidently a private attempt to acquit himself in advance of the charge of plagiarism. "The Beleaguered City" was well known, not only to subscribers of the Knickerbocker, but to readers of Voices, whereas his own poem had led an obscure, not to say fugitive, existence; and he no doubt felt justified in trying to forestall the charge. It would have been embarrassing, to say the least, to one who had so recently accused Longfellow of plagiarizing from Tennyson to be accused, in turn, of plagiarizing from Longfellow. Thus, Poe furnished Griswold with evidence that "The Haunted Palace" antedated Longfellow's poem. If he could have conceded the possibility of coincidence, his tone would have been less offensive, but Poe typically saw such likenesses only as evidence of plagiarism:
I first published the H.P. in Brooks' "Museum", a monthly journal of Baltimore, now dead. Afterwards, I embodied it in a tale called "The House of Usher" in Burton's Magazine. Here it was, I suppose, that Prof. Longfellow saw it; for, about 6 weeks afterwards, there appeared in the South. Lit. Mess: a poem by him called "The Beleaguered City", which may now be found in his volume [Voices]. The identity in title is striking; for by the Haunted Palace I mean to imply a mind haunted by phantoms—a disordered brain—and by the Beleaguered City Prof. L. means just the same. But the whole tournure of the poem is based upon mine, as you will see at once. Its allegorical conduct, the style of its versification & expression—all are mine.
As matters turned out, plagiarism was adduced from this evidence only by Poe and, after Poe's death, by Griswold. Though in full possession of the facts, that compiler twisted the charge so that Poe was made to appear the plagiarist of Longfellow. Moreover, using these very poems as evidence, Griswold commented that Poe's "plagiarisms are scarcely paralleled for their audacity in all literary history." Griswold even assigned this as "the first cause of all that malignant criticism which for so many years he carried on against Longfellow."
Before he reviewed another Longfellow volume, Poe alluded to the Cambridge poet on four occasions, twice quite cuttingly and twice quite admiringly, an ambivalence that was to become characteristic of his attitude toward Longfellow. If he could have explained imitation in terms of coincidence, Poe would have been, allowing for his aesthetic reservations, one of Longfellow's strongest advocates, for he never doubted his genius. But unable, for most of his career, to explain imitation in any terms other than intention, he praised the poet but condemned the "plagiarist." His attitude became quite clear in his review of Wilmer's Quacks of Helicon. Confronted with Wilmer's indictment that Longfellow "Steals all he can and butchers what he steals," Poe treated the statement as a half-truth. "Mr. Longfellow will steal," he conceded, "but, perhaps, he cannot help it, (for we have heard of such thing,) and then it must not be denied that nil tetigit quod non ornavit." Similarly, Poe in his signed "Chapter on Autography" declared that Longfellow was "entitled to the first place among the poets of America," but that he was guilty of imitation—"an imitation sometimes verging upon downright theft." Yet twice in February, 1842, Poe praised Longfellow without qualification. In atomizing a poem by Cornelius Mathews, he remarked that the poem had first appeared in Arcturus, a magazine co-edited by Mathews, where, insultingly, "it took precedence of some exceedingly beautiful stanzas by Professor Longfellow. . . ." And in another critique he observed that John Brainard has "written poems which may rank with those of any American, with the single exception of Longfellow. . . ."
The publication of Longfellow's second small collection of verse, Ballads and Other Poems (1841), which contained four translations and twelve of his own poems, including "The Skeleton in Armour," "The Wreck of the Hesperus," "The Village Blacksmith," and "Excelsior," consolidated Longfellow's literary position and entitled him to be called—as he has been called—America's first professional poet and her unofficial poet laureate. Of the many reviews celebrating the book, Felton's in the North American Review is perhaps most pertinent. Longfellow had become so established and the salability of his works so certain that Felton, in his thirty-page discussion, conceded that Longfellow no longer needed puffs—that the mere announcement of a book bearing his name would suffice to guarantee a best-seller. Nevertheless, not to blink at the fact, Felton continued to review almost every one of Longfellow's works and almost always in the North American:
Mr. Longfellow's poetry has become so generally known, and, wherever known, is so universally admired, as to need no aid from the journals of literature. .. . It is, therefore, with no expectation of adding to its widespread renown, or of increasing the number of its admirers, that we call our readers' attention to this second volume [of poetry] from Professor Longfellow's pen.
In the din of such universal and generally uncritical acclaim, Poe's two reviews of the Ballads may be unique for their reservations. In the first of these reviews, Poe remarked that he had space only "to say a few random words of welcome to these 'Ballads,' by Longfellow, and to tender him, and all such as he, the homage of our earnest love and admiration." Nevertheless, the man who had argued early in his career (in his "Letter to B—") that a poem "is opposed to a work of science by having for its immediate object pleasure, not truth," and who, at the end of his career (in "The Poetic Principle") charged that the "heresy of The Didactic" had "accomplished more in the corruption of our Poetical Literature than all its other enemies combined," felt compelled to qualify his homage. Thus, he said that Longfellow's insistence on didactics was preventing him from realizing his full genius—that his conception of the aim of poetry was, in fact, forcing him to utter conventionalities that, by their nature, seemed imitative and reminiscent. In Poe's words:
Much as we admire the genius of Mr. Longfellow, we are fully sensible of his many errors of affectation and imitation. His artistical skill is great, and his ideality high. But his conception of the aims of poesy is all wrong; and this we shall prove at some future date—to our own satisfaction, at least. His didactics are all out of place. He has written brilliant poems—by accident; that is to say when permitting his genius to get the better of his conventional habit of thinking. . . . We do not mean to say that a didactic moral may not be well made the undercurrent of a poetical thesis; but that it can never be well put so obtrusively forth, as in the majority of his compositions.
In the following month Poe devoted another review to the Ballads to amplify points he had raised here. This second review was no more an attack upon Longfellow than the first. Rather, it was Poe's effort to release him from the trammels of didacticism. For Longfellow's error, Poe contended, is that he regards the inculcation of a moral as essential to his poetry and thereby does violent wrong to his high powers: "His invention, his imagery, his all, is made subservient to the elucidation of some one or more points . . . which he looks upon as truth. . . . Now with as deep a reverence for 'the true' as ever inspired the bosom of mortal man, we would limit, in many respects, its modes of inculcation. . . ." Yet he did not wish to be misunderstood. Poetry "is not forbidden to depict—but to reason and preach of virtue." He then said that the true poet is not concerned with truth but with beauty. He recognized that such a rigorous definition would rule out much of what has been considered poetic—Hudibras and the Essay on Man, for instance—and he cited Keats as the poet "most fully instinct with the principles now developed. . . . Beauty is always his aim."
We have thus shown our ground of objection to the general themes of Professor Longfellow. In common with all who claim the sacred title of poet, he should limit his endeavors to the creation of novel moods of beauty. .. . To what the world terms prose may be safely and properly left all else. . . .
Of the pieces which constitute the present volume, there are not more than one or two thoroughly fulfilling the idea above proposed . . . [for] the aim of instruction .. . has been too obviously substituted for the legitimate aim, beauty.
Poe was either uncertain of his position or else overstated his views in an effort to make a strong case against the heresy of the didactic, a "heresy" that, needless to say, was an orthodoxy in its time. In his first review of the Ballads, he made a mechanical division between the aesthetic and the moral (Poe used the term didactic loosely, sometimes in connection with moral truth, more often in connection with conventional doctrine and obtrusive moral tags), saying that a "didactic moral may . . . be . . . the under-current of a poetical thesis. . . ." In the second review, however, he declared that poetry has nothing to do with truth (the "obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth" are irreconcilable)—an assertion he repeated to the very words in "The Poetic Principle" when deriding the idea that "the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth." Yet in both reviews of the Ballads and in other contexts, Poe suggested that when the moral becomes aesthetic—when, in other words, the moral, far from being an appendage to a poem, becomes implicit in the poem—"Poetry and Truth" are perfectly reconcilable. In discussing, for example, Ludwig Uhland's "Das Glück von Edenhall," which Longfellow had translated and included in the Ballads, Poe remarked that the "pointed moral with which it terminates is so exceedingly natural—so perfectly fluent from the incidents—that we have hardly heart to pronounce it in bad taste." His objection, clearly, is to the explicit statement of a moral that should have been made implicit in the poem. Even in "The Poetic Principle" Poe cited among "a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect. .. . all noble thoughts .. . all holy impulses. . . ." And in his Marginalia Poe categorically declared: "I confidently maintain that the highest genius is but the loftiest moral nobility."
Though Poe went too far in denying the relation between the moral and aesthetic, we should not lose sight of the significant fact that he was fighting fire with fire and an extreme position with an extreme position. The position he was opposing is that a work of art is never self-justifying: it justifies itself only insofar as it imparts ethical doctrine—a position that even Emerson, for all his brilliance, rigidly adopted in "The Poet." Thus, artistic value is identified with, if not identical to, moral content; therefore, the loftier the moral, the greater the work of art; and, by the same reasoning a work of art that has no ostensible message must be, a priori, seriously deficient. As Poe stated the case more fully in "The Poetic Principle":
It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We Americans especially have patronised this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true Poetic dignity and force:—but the simple fact is, that, would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls, we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified—more supremely noble than this very poem—this poem per se—this poem which is a poem and nothing more—this poem written solely for the poem's sake.
Whether Poe misrepresented or had failed to synthesize his views, he did not distort Longfellow's, as anyone familiar with the Voices and Ballads is aware. Earlier, Longfellow had stated the principle implicit in such poems as "The Rainy Day," "A Psalm of Life," "The Village Blacksmith," and "Excelsior," that the "natural tendency of poetry is to give us correct moral impressions, and thereby advance the cause of truth and the improvement of society"—a tendency he reinforced by emasculating the burly Jean Paul Richter and the passionate Heinrich Heine in his "translations, comments, and frequent imitations of these writers. . . ." Thus a poet in whose work "there was always enough easily recognizable middle-class morality .. . to make him seem entirely safe in a country still distrustful of beauty for its own sake," and who adopted principles associated more with Pope and Gray than with Shelley and Keats, was bound to be received with some reservation by a Romantic critic like Poe. The fact that Poe could not dismiss him out of hand is indication enough that Longfellow was a force to reckon with. We can only conjure with the idea of what Longfellow might have accomplished had Poe become his literary conscience, as Edmund Wilson became Scott Fitzgerald's, at least to the extent of urging him to reexamine his poetic principles or of listening to his neighbor Emerson when he said in "The Poet": ".. . it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own. . . ." Yet America, needless to say, was hardly prepared to receive poets who wrote "simply for the poem's sake" or whose poems (to use Emerson's phrase) did not contain "the ground-tone of conventional life," despite the efforts by Poe and others to prepare the ground for their reception. Had Longfellow been tempted to write otherwise—had he used ideas less comfortably familiar, sentiments less aseptically decent, didactics less obtrusive, language less explicit and mellifluous—his poems might in their time have shared the fate of Leaves of Grass (Whitman, after all, had listened to Emerson) rather than have enjoyed what was probably the greatest popular success that any poems ever had—and success more than greatness seems to have been Longfellow's concern.
Poe did not review Longfellow's next volume, his Poems on Slavery (1842), disqualifying himself, perhaps, on the grounds of his antipathy to abolitionism and his avowed prejudice to didactic poetry. But in 1843 he used a stanza from "A Psalm of Life" as an epigraph to his story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," and in a letter to Lowell he reaffirmed his conviction that "Longfellow has genius. . . ." Yet, however much he admired the poet, he confessed that he did not know "how to understand him at times. I am in doubt whether he should not be termed an arrant plagiarist." He then called Lowell's attention to Longfellow's recent book, The Spanish Student: A Play in Three Acts (1843), and mentioned that he had written "quite a long notice of it for Graham's December number. The play," he added, "is a poor composition, with some fine poetical passages."
This notice was never printed in Graham's for two reasons. First, Graham would hardly welcome adverse criticism of a work that had originally appeared in his own magazine. Second, both Graham and Griswold (the latter was now editor of Graham's) had had trouble with Longfellow and were using their rejection of Poe's adverse review to reconcile their star contributor. The trouble began in 1842 when an artist, Franquinet by name, had painted a portrait of Longfellow while the poet was abroad, which, without Longfellow's approval, was engraved to appear in Graham's in May, 1843. When the poet returned from Europe and saw the portrait, he was angry at the thought that Graham and Griswold would allow this "most atrocious libel imaginable; a very vulgar individual, looking very drunk and very cunning," to appear in the magazine and demanded that the painting and the plate be destroyed. Graham, faced with the choice of sacrificing the $405 he had invested or of losing his headliner, decided to concede to Longfellow's demand and begin all over again "with a portrait—the best you have." But Longfellow had none that satisfied him and insisted that he be given time to have one done. Graham refused to wait and the portrait made its scheduled appearance. The "libel" was atrocious enough to impel Lewis Clark to condemn the portrait in the Knickerbocker as a "'counterfeit presentment,' sure enough"; to assert that "the artist ought to be indicted"; and to describe Longfellow as a "handsome man with 'soft and flowing hair,' touched with the slightest possible tinge of 'sable silver;' an eye with a liquid, interior look," etc.
Griswold, who relinquished his editorship of Graham's in October of that year, wrote Longfellow in an evident attempt to placate him and smeared Poe in the process. Poe, he said,
has recently written an elaborate review of your "Student" in his customary vein, but if anything a bit more personal and malignant than usual. This was offered to Graham before I left, and has since been given to him—so anxious is the poor critic for its appearance; but of course Mr. Graham refused it. I mention the circumstances because it would be very like Poe, since he cannot find a publisher for his "criticism," to attempt to win your friendship with his praise.
Graham also sought to pacify Longfellow by showing a concern for him which he had failed to show before in respect to the portrait:
I have a savage review of your Spanish Student from the pen of Poe, which shall not appear in Graham. I do not know what your crime may be in the eye of Poe, but suppose it may be a better, and more widely established reputation. Or if you have wealth—which I suppose you have—that is sufficient to settle your damnation so far as Mr Poe may be presumed capable of effecting it. . . .
I had to suffer $30 [Poe had asked only $20] for the review of you and you shall have it for as many cents when you come along this way, I do not suppose it will ever be redeemed, and I doubt if the writer of it will be.
As he exaggerated the price, Graham seems to have exaggerated the severity of the review. Soon after Poe had submitted the critique to Graham, he had observed that the Student as a play was poor but that it contained fine poetical passages. Moreover, his treatment of that play in his article "The American Drama" fails to justify Graham's statement. In that article Poe stated the crux of his position, that the "great adversary of Invention is Imitation." One must forget the old models and "consider de novo .. . the capabilities of the drama—not merely .. . its conventional purposes." In considering Nathaniel Willis's Tortesa, the Usurer, he objected to mere complexity passing for plot. Ideally, he said, a plot "is perfect only inasmuch as we shall find ourselves unable to detach from it or disarrange any single incident involved, without destruction to the mass. . . ." Practically, a plot may be considered of "high excellence, when no one of its component parts shall be susceptible of removal without detriment to the whole."
Then he turned to The Spanish Student, which had passed through three editions in the first year of its publication and with which Longfellow confessed himself "much disheartened. Neither you [Ward], nor Sumner, nor Ticknor, nor Felton likes it. . . . shall probably throw it into the fire." Poe dissented from the general opinion regarding the play. The few, he asserted, who do not have their opinions formed for them "received the play with a commendation somewhat less prononcée . . . than Professor Longfellow might have desired, or may have been taught to expect." He then quoted the "finer passages. .. . by way of justice to the poet" and proceeded to criticize the dramatist. He demonstrated that Longfellow was imitative of the old models: he mistook complexity for plot; his incidents were the stock-in-trade of a "thousand and one comedies"; two-thirds of his material was unnecessary and the arrangement of it was random; moreover, the play echoed the "quaint and stilted tone of the English dramatists":
In fact throughout The Spanish Student, as well as throughout other compositions of its author, there runs a very obvious vein of imitation. We are perpetually reminded of something we have seen before . . . and even where the similarity cannot be said to amount to plagiarism, it is still injurious to the poet in the good opinion of him who reads. . . .
Upon the whole, we regret that Professor Longfellow has written this work, and feel especially vexed that he has committed himself by its republication. Only when regarded as a mere poem, can it be said to have merit of any kind. . . . We are not too sure, indeed, that a "dramatic poem" is not a flat contradiction in terms. At all events a man of true genius, (and such Mr. L. unquestionably is,) has no business with these hybrid and paradoxical compositions. Let a poem be a poem only; let a play be a play and nothing more. As for The Spanish Student, its thesis is unoriginal; its incidents are antique; its plot is no plot; its characters have no character; in short, it is little better than a play upon words, to style it "A Play" at all.
That this is harsh criticism cannot be doubted. The only question is whether the harshness is not an inevitable consequence of Poe's aesthetic principles and critical candor. Poe, of course, thought so. When the New York Evening Gazette of August 8, 1845, declared this review a "somewhat sweeping condemnation" and added, "but Mr. Longfellow does not seem to please Mr. Poe in anything that he writes," Poe was indignant. In the Broadway Journal of August 16, 1845, he replied that he had been grossly misrepresented by the statement that he could find nothing to admire in Longfellow:
From Mr. L.'s first appearance in the literary world until the present moment, we have been, if not his warmest admirer and most stead-fast defender, at least one of his warmest and most steadfast. We even so far committed ourselves .. . as to place him ... at the very head of American poets. Yet, because we are not so childish as to suppose that every book is thoroughly good or thoroughly bad—because we are not so absurd as to adopt the common practice of wholesale and indiscriminate abuse or commendation—because upon several occasions we have thought proper to demonstrate the sins, while displaying the virtues of Professor Longfellow, is it just, or proper, or even courteous on the part of "The Gazette" to accuse us, in round terms, of uncompromising hostility to this poet?
These were Poe's major reviews of Longfellow, and before we turn to less literary, more journalistic, matters, we should assess them briefly. With one conspicuous exception—the shot-in-the-dark accusation that Longfellow had plagiarized his "Midnight Mass" from Tennyson, not to mention the occasional harshness of tone that Poe seems to have considered an earmark of critical candor—nothing in the Poe critiques we have examined seems in any way discreditable. In the first of them, Poe pronounced Hyperion imitative and disunified, a judgment that can hardly be questioned. In the second, he said that Voices evinced poetic genius but not of the highest order—a declaration that errs, if at all, on the side of indulgence. In the two reviews of the Ballads, Poe demonstrated that Longfellow, by warping his art for didactic ends, was abusing his high powers, and he attempted, in the process, to perform a service for him, from which, at least for his present reputation, he might have benefited enormously. In his article on the American drama, Poe again stated what seems sufficiently clear, that The Spanish Student as a drama is devoid of merit. And in passing, Poe remarked that Longfellow was entitled to the first place among American poets, but that his tendency to imitate sometimes verged on plagiarism.
Poe did not notice Longfellow again until he had joined the staff of the Mirror as assistant editor. In reviewing his Waif(1844, dated 1845), a collection of about fifty poems to which Longfellow contributed only the "Proem" ("The day is done and the darkness . . ."), Poe made three significant comments. First, that the "Proem" was the best poem in the collection, despite the fact the anthology contained works by Herrick, Marveil, Shelley, and Browning. Second, that a comparison of "The Death-Bed" by Hood (which also appeared in The Waij) and a poem that appeared in Griswold's Poets and Poetry of America (which Poe mentioned neither by title nor author) showed that "somebody is a thief." Third:
We conclude our notice on the "Waif," with the observation that, although full of beauties, it is infected with a moral taint—or is this a mere freak of our fancy? We shall be pleased if it be so;—but there does appear .. . a very careful avoidance of all American poets who may be supposed especially to interfere with the claims of Mr. Longfellow. These men Mr. Longfellow can continuously imitate (is that the word?) and yet never even incidentally commend.
If there was any single reason for the animus of this final comment, one can find it in an anonymous article that, upon its appearance in the London Foreign Quarterly Review, became a cause célèbre. Typical of the English view except in its wholesale condemnation, the article insisted that American poets were either imitators or plagiarists. The major exception was "the most accomplished of the brotherhood, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But we have some doubts whether he can be fairly considered an indigenous specimen. His mind was educated in Europe. . . . But America claims him, and is entitled to him. .. . He is unquestionably the first of her poets, the most thoughtful and chaste; the most elaborate and finished." Among the imitators and plagiarists was Poe, a "capital artist after the manner of Tennyson; [who] approaches the spirit of his original more closely than any of them." The article concluded with the statement that almost every American poet was "on a level with the versifiers who fill up the corners of our provincial journals, into which all sorts of platitudes are admitted by the indiscriminate courtesy of the printer."
Poe, of course, considered the charge of imitation ridiculous. Writing to Lowell, who had been completely ignored by the Foreign Quarterly reviewer, Poe asked if he had seen the article:
It has been denied that Dickens wrote it—but, to me, the article affords so strong internal evidence of his hand that I would as soon think of doubting my existence. He tells much truth—although he evinces much ignorance and more spleen. Among other points he accuses myself of "metrical imitation" of Tennyson, citing, by way of instance, passages from poems which were written & published long before Tennyson was heard of:—but I have, at no time, made any poetical pretension.
In answering Poe's letter, Lowell said that the article was written, not by Dickens but by John Forster, Dickens' friend, though Dickens "may have given him hints. Forster is a friend of some of the Longfellow clique here which perhaps accounts for his putting L. at the top of our Parnassus."
In reaction to this information, Poe apparently felt that Longfellow, inadvertently or otherwise, had been instrumental in enlisting a translantic journal for the purpose of reducing almost every other American poet's claim to an impertinence so that, relatively, his position would be all the more unquestionable. Moreover, as a consequence, he probably began to see himself as the butt of a bad joke. He who had condemned imitation was now charged with that very sin. The man whose imitativeness he had censured was now held up as an original poet, at least by conspicuous default of any statement to the contrary in an article teeming with charges of imitation and plagiarism. And, as if to make the barb penetrate deeper, the poet he was said to imitate was the very poet he had accused Longfellow of plagiarizing. Whatever the validity of these speculations, Poe found the stigma of imitation so intolerable that, to exculpate himself, he footnoted the section "Poems Written in Youth" in the Raven volume (1845) as follows: "Private reasons—some of which have reference to the sin of plagiarism, and others to the date of Tennyson's first poems—have induced me, after some hesitation, to republish these, the crude compositions of my earliest boyhood .. . the date of which is too remote to be judiciously acknowledged." Thus, to all appearances, the remarks in the Foreign Quarterly were still rankling in Poe when he reviewed The Waif.
Poe's innuendoes in the Mirror drove Hiram Fuller and George Morris, co-editors of that journal, to print a joint disclaimer of them, saying: "For the opinions of the Daily paper, Mr. Willis is alone the gate-keeper, and by himself or by his direction, all its principal articles are written." Poe's allegations, moreover, elicited a letter from a self-acknowledged friend of Longfellow, a Mr. "H.," now known to have been George S. Hillard, one of the members of the "Five of Clubs" at Cambridge, which included Henry R. Cleveland, Charles Sumner, Cornelius C. Felton, and Longfellow. The letter, coming from Boston and dated January 15, was published in the Evening Mirror on January 20, and was prefaced by Willis, who also disclaimed responsibility for the Waif review: "We are willing to take any position to serve our friends, and if, by chance, we play the antagonist to shew another's 'skill offence' in his behalf, we trust not to be believed less his friend, after the joust is over. The criticisms on the 'Waif . . . were written in our office by an able though very critical hand." Willis also made a point of publishing in this and the next issue of the Evening Mirror Lowell's high estimate of Poe as a critic that was to appear in the February number of Graham's Magazine.
"H.'s" principal concern was "with the sting in the tail of the second communication [the second instalment of Poe's review of The Waif], in which Mr. Longfellow is charged with omitting, from discreditable motives, any extracts from American poets, though he continuously imitates some of them. This is no light accusation; and is one against which his friends feel bound to enter their most emphatic protest." "H." maintained that an anthologist has the privilege of selecting any materials he cares to and declared that the charge of discrimination was wholly untrue, especially in this instance, since he had known the compiler for a long time. "If it be asked," he concluded, "why has he not given public demonstration of this kindness of spirit towards his poetical brethren, the answer is obvious. He is a poet himself, and addresses the public in that capacity, and not as a critic. . . . The charge of habitually imitating other American poets touches Mr. Longfellow in his public character as a poet, and not his personal character as a man, and therefore requires no especial reply from his friends."
Directly following "H.'s" letter and under the title, "Post-Notes by the Critic," Poe published his rejoinder:
I did not dispute Mr. L.'s 'right' to construct his book as he thought proper. I reserve to myself the right of thinking what I choose of the construction. . . .
As 'the charge of habitually imitating other American poets requires no especial reply'—it shall surely rest undisturbed by any reply of mine. . . .
It seems to me that the whole state of the case may be paralleled thus:
A accosts B, with—"My dear friend, in common with all mankind, and the angels, I regard you as a demi-god. Your equal is not to be found in the country which is proud to claim you as a son. . . . but permit me! there is a very—a very little speck of dust on the extreme end of your nose—oblige yourself and your friends by brushing it away." "Sir," replies B, "what you have asserted is wholly untrue. .. . I consider you a malignant critic, and wish to have nothing further to do with you—for know that there are spots upon the sun, but my proboscis is a thing without spot!"
Nothing more was heard from "H." nor, apparently, was anything to be heard again from Boston or Cambridge on this score; and though, most likely, Poe would have furnished articles on imitation and plagiarism for the Mirror, he might have ignored Longfellow indefinitely. Unfortunately, however, a series of episodes occurred which gave a sensational vogue to Poe's comments and made it imperative for Longfellow's friends to rescue the poet from the notoriety which, for a time, threatened him.
On January 25 the Buffalo Western Literary Messenger published a letter from "Pi Kappa Rho," who compared Longfellow's translation of "The Good George Campbell from the German of O.L.B. Wolf[f]" (which had appeared in Graham's Magazine in February, 1843) with the ballad, "Bonnie George Campbell" (which had appeared in William Motherwell's collection, Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern, Glasgow, 1828). "Pi Kappa Rho," assuming that Wolff, a professor at the University of Jena, had not translated the Scotch ballad, accused Longfellow of a "gross plagiarism" and of impudence in "supposing that he can, undetected, palm off upon us, in a mutilated state, this . . . beautiful ancient Scottish song, as a translation from the German of O.L.B. Wolf."
The charge, apparently unanswerable, became common editorial fare, which brought Longfellow's integrity into question and began to make Poe's recent allegations appear valid. Among the New York papers that carried the Messenger charge were The Rover, the Broadway Journal, and the Daily Tribune. The Rover, also assuming that the Wolff translation did not exist, noted:
A writer in the Western Literary Messenger has recently detected this gentleman (Longfellow) in one of the most flagrant and unscrupulous pieces of plagiarism that ever occurred in our literature. In a critique upon his "Waif," in the Evening Mirror, a covert allusion was made to a disposition on the part of the "Professor" to thrive upon the hard-earned laurels of others, and the only fault of Willis's [sic] article was, that he merely hit the nail's head. . . .
The editor then printed the Scottish poem and Longfellow's alleged plagiarism side by side and concluded, "Singular coincidence, eh?"
The Broadway Journal observed: "Charges of plagiarism are very frequently made, and often with good reason, against our popular authors. . . . The 'Rover' . . . contains a very grave charge against Longfellow . . . which, if true, would lead us to distrust everything that came from his pen." The Tribune, however, cited a "correspondent of the Boston Post" to explain that Longfellow's error was not one of plagiarism but one of inadvertence:
In a collection of German poems which Mr. Longfellow owned, was a poem called 'Der gute Ritter [sic] Campbell;' this poem happened to be a translation and a plagiarism, as it was given for original, from an old English ballad. Longfellow suspecting nothing, translated it, and has hit so exactly upon a good version, that it is almost word for word with the English original. The remarkable thing is, that Longfellow, celebrated for his acquaintance with ballad literature, should have overlooked this lyric, which is printed in Motherwell's collection of ancient and modern Poems—so far have overlooked it, as to translate it out of German.—Homer occasionally nods.
This was scarcely a vindication. Since the source that Longfellow had used remained unspecified, the charge that Wolff plagiarized instead of merely translated is unsupported. A collection by Wolff that contains the poem is, as Poe later pointed out, Halle der Völker: Sammlung vorzüglicher Volkslieder der bekanntesten Nationen, grösstentheils zum ersten Male metrisch in das Deutsche übertragen (Frankfurt, 1837), a title that plainly clears Wolff of plagiarism. Aware that this explanation satisfied few of his critics, Longfellow wrote a letter to Graham, dated February 19, 1845, to explain the situation more convincingly. But mysteriously—and it is only one of the mysteries of this affair—the letter was not published in Graham's until May, 1845. The source he had used while.abroad in the summer of 1842 was not a collection by Wolff at all, but one by Karl Gollmick. That collection, called Der Sängersaal: Auswahl von Gedichten zum Komponieren (Darmstadt, 1842), contained the Wolff translation of "Bonnie George Campbell," where it "appeared as an original poem by Wolf. . . ." Fortunately, Longfellow found that the printer had made an error (actually, the error—or liberty taken—had originated with Wolff) and transcribed the Scottish river Tay for the German Tag, an error that Longfellow had faithfully translated and that, as he put it, is "an unimpeachable witness of the falsity of the charge brought against me.
In the meantime, with Longfellow's honesty impugned and his reputation at stake, a second defender of Longfellow, now identified as Charles Sumner, Longfellow's friend, decided to take issue with Poe's innuendoes regarding The Waif. Willis reopened the controversy with these words:
Longfellow's Waif.—A friend, who is a very fine critic, gave us, not long since, a review of this delightful new book. Perfectly sure that any thing from that source was a treasure for our paper, we looked up from a half-read proof to run our eye hastily over it, and gave it to the printer—not, however, without mentally differing from the writer as to the drift of the last sentence. . . .
Notwithstanding the haste with which it passed through our attention (for we did not see it in proof) the question of admission was submitted to a principle in our mind; and, in admitting it, we did by Longfellow, as we would have him do by us. It was a literary charge, by a pen that never records an opinion without some supposed good reason, and only injurious to Longfellow, (to our belief) while circulating, un-replied-to, in conversation-dom. In the second while we reasoned upon it [we thought] . . . Our critical friend believes this, though we do not. Longfellow is asleep on velvet; it will do him good to rouse him; his friends will come out and fight his battle; the charges (which to us would be a comparative pat on the back) will be openly disproved, and the acquittal of course leaves his fame brighter than before—the injurious whisper, in Conversation-dom, killed in the bargain!
Willis then proceeded to quote part of Charles Sumner's letter, though he did not disclose his correspondent's identity to the public:
It has been asked, perhaps, why Lowell was neglected in this collection? Might it not as well be asked why Bryant, Dana and Halleck were neglected? The answer is obvious to any one who candidly considers the character of the collection. It professed to be, according to the Proem, from the humbler poets; and it was intended to embrace pieces that were anonymous, or which were not easily accessible to the general reader—the waifs and estrays of literature. To put anything of Lowell's, for example, into a collection of waifs, would be a particular liberty with pieces which are all collected and christened.
Clearly, Longfellow was becoming good "copy," and, as editor of the Mirror, Willis had reason to encourage the "controversy." Yet, though Poe's remarks had apparently helped Mirror sales, Willis felt no need to sully his reputation for geniality by seconding Poe's charges nor, on the other hand, any urge to diminish those sales by discounting Poe's charges entirely. Graham, however, concerned with protecting the reputation of his drawing card, asked Willis to make his "disclaimer" stronger, a request with which Willis complied by saying that he "dissented from all the disparagement of Longfellow" in his assistant editor's review of The Waif.
Graham wrote to Longfellow too: "What has 'broke loose' in Poe? I see he is down on you in New York papers and has written demanding return of Review [of The Spanish Student] I mentioned he had written for me. If he sends money or another article I shall be obliged to let him have it. . . ." He added in a postscript: "Mr. Willis made a disclaimer of being an endorser of Poe's views, at my request. I cannot see what Poe says now, can hurt you." And Mrs. Longfellow wrote to Samuel Longfellow just prior to Willis's publishing his stronger disclaimer: "If you see the Mirror, you know how shabbily Willis tries to excuse Poe's insolence. Have you seen a curious poem by the latter entitled 'The Raven,' most artistically rhythmical but 'nothing more,' to quote the burden?"
Despite Willis's disavowal of "all the disparagement of Longfellow," Poe was allowed to continue his criticism of Longfellow, this time indirectly in an article entitled "Imitation—Plagiarism." Having in mind such articles as that which had appeared in the Foreign Quarterly, Poe wrote that the "British reviewers have very frequently accused us of imitation, and the charge is undoubtedly well based." He explained why this was true:
The want of an international copy-right law renders it impossible for our men of genius to obtain remuneration for their labors. Now since, as a body, men of genius are proverbially poor, the want of the international law represses their efforts altogether. Our sole writers, in consequence, are from the class of dilettanti; and although among this class are unquestionably many gifted men, still as a class—as men of wealth and leisure—they are imbued with a spirit of conservatism, which is merely a mood of the imitative spirit.
He then made the observation that the
sin of plagiarism involves the quintessence of meanness; and this meanness seems in the direct ratio of the amount of honor attained by the theft. A pickpocket is content with his plunder; the plagiarist demands that mankind should applaud him, not for plundering, but for the thing plundered.
He added, with an apparent allusion to Longfellow and his defenders:
When a plagiarism is detected, it generally happens that the public sympathy is with the plagiarist, and his friends proceed to every extreme in the way of exculpation. But how unjust! We should sympathize rather with him upon whom the plagiarism has been committed. Not only is he robbed of his property—of his fame . . . but he is rendered liable by the crime of the plagiarist to the suspicion of being a plagiarist himself.
Briggs in his magazine, the Broadway Journal, objected to Poe's allegation that James Aldrich—a New York editor and sometime poet—had stolen from Hood. The resemblance between the two poems, Briggs contended, was insufficient to warrant such a conclusion, and he urged, though he was in error, that Aldrich's poem had been written before Hood's. Poe's reply, printed under the title "Plagiarism" and introduced by a brief and neutral foreword by Willis, was that there were ten distinct similarities between the two short poems, which he enumerated to support the conclusion that somebody was a thief, and—he added curtly—the "only doubt in our mind is about the sincerity of any one who shall say that somebody is not."
On February 28 Poe mounted the platform of the New York Historical Society to deliver his lecture on American poets. The event was sensationally announced in the Evening Mirror as follows:
Edgar Poe's Lecture.—The decapitation of the criminal who did not know his head was off till it fell into his hand as he was bowing, is a Poe-kerish similitude, but it conveys an idea of the Damascene slicing of the critical blade of Mr. Poe. On Friday night we are to have his "Lecture on the Poets of America," and those who would witness fine carving will probably be there.
The nature of the lecture can be inferred from the comments it elicited from the editors of the Daily Tribune, the Evening Mirror, The Town, and the Democratic Review. Greeley observed that the lecture embodied "much acute and fearless criticism," but that Poe was often unjust in his censure of American reviewing. Moreover, he objected to Poe's "broad assertion that Longfellow is a plagiarist. Of all critical cant, this hunting after coincidence of ideas, or phrase, often unavoidable, between authors, is the least endurable." Nevertheless, he asked if the lecture might not be repeated. Willis stated that "one of the most readable and saleable of books would be a dozen of such Lectures by Mr. Poe, and we give him a publisher's counsel to print them." He mentioned that Poe discussed Bryant, Halleck, Longfellow, Sprague, and Dana and found Longfellow to have more genius than any of the others, but that "his fatal alacrity at imitation made him borrow, when he had better at home." The Town reported that the lecture "was worthy of its author—keen, cutting and withering, when it touched on the mountebanks of American literature; and full of faith and hope, when it spoke of the future." John L. O'Sullivan of the Democratic Review praised Poe for the
devoted spirit in which he advocated the claims and urged the responsibilities of literature. The necessity of a just independent criticism was his main topic. He made unmitigated war upon the prevalent Puffery, and dragged several popular idols from their pedestals. . . . There has been a good deal said about this lecture, which should be either repeated or printed. If published with proper revision and some additions, it would render our literature, at the present time, an important service.
Poe's own comment on the lecture is of interest too:
In a late lecture on the "Poets and Poetry of America," delivered before an audience made up chiefly of editors and their connexions, I took occasion to speak what I know to be the truth, and I endeavoured so to speak it that there should be no chance of misunderstanding what it was I intended to say. I told these gentlemen to their teeth that, with a very few noble exceptions, they had been engaged for many years in a system of indiscriminate laudation of American books—a system which, more than any other one thing in the world, had tended to the depression of "American literature" whose elevation it was designed to effect. I said this, and very much more of a similar tendency, with as thorough a distinctness as I could command. Could I, at the moment, have invented any terms more explicit, wherewith to express my contempt of our general editorial course of corruption and puffery, I should have employed them beyond a shadow of a doubt;—and should I think of anything more expressive hereafter, I will endeavour either to find or to make an opportunity for its introduction to the public.
And what, for all this, had I to anticipate? In a very few cases, the open, and, in several, the silent approval of the more chivalrous portion of the press;—but in a majority of instances, I should have been weak indeed to look for anything but abuse. To the Willises—the O'Sullivans—the Duyckincks—to the choice and magnanimous few who spoke promptly in my praise, and who have since taken my hand with a more cordial and more impressive grasp than ever—to these I return, of course, my acknowledgements, for that they have rendered me my due. To my villifiers [sic] I return also such thanks as they deserve, inasmuch as without what they have done me the honor to say, there would have been much point wanting in the compliments of my friends.
The opportunity Poe promised to find or make was already awaiting him. A pseudonymous correspondent, "Outis," moved by Poe's editorial, if not forensic, attack upon his friend Longfellow, entered the lists on March 1. Asking Willis for fair play and the privilege of having his remarks published in the Mirror, he argued that "identities" between poems do not necessarily imply plagiarism, for if plagiarism was the only inference to be drawn from identities, then every author was liable to the charge, since no one could possibly read everything that was published. To clinch his argument, he added:
Who, for example, would wish to be guilty of the littleness of detracting from the uncommon merit of that remarkable poem of. . . Mr. Poe's . . . entitled "The Raven," by charging him with the paltriness of imitation? And yet, some snarling critic, who might envy the reputation he had not the genius to secure for himself, might refer to the frequent, very forcible, but rather quaint repetition ... as a palpable imitation of . . . the Ancient Mariner.
Outis then submitted excerpts from an "anonymous" poem, "The Bird of the Dream," and, comparing it with "The Raven," pointed out eighteen similarities, outnumbering the ten similarities which Poe had noted in comparing the Aldrich and Hood poems. Outis concluded: "Such criticisms only make the author of them contemptible, without soiling a plume in the cap of his victim."
Poe did not reply to Outis in the Mirror. Though on excellent terms with Willis, he severed connections with him to accept the more promising position of co-editor of the Broadway Journal. Briggs, in charge of the Journal, recognized in Poe a drawing card ("his name is of some authority"; "Wiley and Putnam are going to publish a new edition of his tales and sketches"; "Everybody has been raven-mad about his last poem, and his lecture"). Moreover, though Briggs regarded the "very ticklish hobby" of detecting plagiarisms unfortunate for Poe's reputation, he felt that such articles, together with the replies they might provoke from journals avid for scandal, would serve as advertisements of the Journal and enlarge its subscription list.
Poe, as expected, replied to Outis as soon as he became associated with the weekly Journal, for the innuendoes in Outis's letter were as embarrassing to him as his in the review of The Waif must have been to Longfellow. Abandoning editorial anonymity, he began by summarizing the history of the controversy, even reprinting the "documents" in the case—his, Briggs's, Willis's, and those of Longfellow's defenders. Then, proceeding to the matter at hand, he said that he admired the chivalry that prompted Outis's reply, but nothing else, and that he especially disliked the "desperation of the effort to make out a case." Poe then questioned whether a critic might make a charge of plagiarism, not from "littleness" or "envy," but from strictly honorable and even charitable motives. To answer his own question, he reasoned that if the possibility of plagiarism is admitted at all, then the chances are that an established author steals from an obscure one. The obscure author is thus falsely accused of plagiarism, which makes the real culprit guilty on two counts: that of the original theft, which would alone deserve exposure, and that of foisting his crime upon the guiltless struggler. He summed up this phase of the argument by saying that because he, for one, wished to convict the guilty to exonerate the innocent, the charge of "carping littleness" was brought against him. He paused here for want of space, but promised to resume the discussion in the next number of the Journal.
Poe's remarks began to arouse newspaper and magazine editors, among them J. Hunt, Jr., of the National Archives:
As a critical tattler, we know of none other which seems to give a more condid [sic] review of the works of authors [than the Broadway Journal.] We own, notwithstanding, that we have cherished rather of a sour feeling towards one of the editors—Mr. Poe in times past, for his sarcastic, and what to us then appeared malicious criticism on other's [sic] production. All who have read "Graham" for the last two or three years—will corroberate [sic] our statement, and there breathes not a man, having any pretensions to authorship, who so flinchingly squirms at the strictures of others, than does Mr. Poe. This may be seen in the No. now before us. . . .
One quarter of the paper is made use of by Mr. Poe, endeavoring to smooth over and give diminutiveness to what a writer for the Mirror, calling himself "Outis," and some of the other papers have said of him, respecting his late lecture . . . and his Plagarisms [sic]. It is a very true remark, that a Joker will rarely ever receive one in return, good naturedly; and this is to a great extent true of Mr. Poe.
But we will 'pass all his imperfections by' and to show that we are not blind to his good qualities, we will say that, as a writer, on general topics, Mr. Poe, undoubtedly, stands on an equal with the best of his class. Among all the reading which we receive, there is no weekly which more claims our attention than does the Broadway Journal. Every article in it shows the scholar, and yet the language is such that a child may read and understand.
On March 17 Poe, without respect for the full truth, answered the editor of the National Archives, but the magazine had become defunct in the meantime:
Let me put it to you as to a frank man of honor—Can you suppose it possible that any human being could pursue a strictly impartial course of criticism for 10 years (as I have done in the S.L. Messenger and in Graham's Magazine) without offending irreparably a host of authors and their connexions?—but because these were offended, and gave vent at every opportunity to their spleen, would you consider my course an iota the less honorable on that account? Would you consider it just to measure my deserts by the yelpings of my foes, indepently [sic] of your own judgment in the premises, based upon an actual knowledge of what I have done?
You reply—"Certainly not," and, because 1 feel that this must be your reply, I acknowledge that I am grieved to see any thing (however slight) in your paper that has the appearance of joi[n]ing in with the outcry so very sure to be made by the 'less['] honorable portion of the press under circumstances such as are my own.
Poe then explained his reasons for commenting upon the Outis letter at length: ". . . it demanded an answer & no proper answer could be given in less compass—. . . the subject of imitation, plagiarism, &c is one in which the public has lately taken much interest & is admirably adapted to the character of a literary journal—and . . . I have some important developments to make, which the commonest principles of self-defence demand imperatively at my hands."
As he had promised, Poe resumed his discussion of plagiarism on March 15. He agreed with Outis that identities between poems might exist by coincidence but that the admission of such a possibility would by no means eliminate the possibility of plagiarism, particularly as in the case of the Aldrich and Hood poems when "in the compass of eight short lines" there are "ten or twelve peculiar identities of thought and identities of expression." To demonstrate, as Outis had demonstrated, that in another instance two writers by coincidence had used an identical metaphor did not by any means prove that "Mr. Longfellow is innocent of the imitation with which I have charged him, and that Mr. Aldrich is innocent of the plagiarism with which I have not charged him. . . ." He added that he would "continue, if not conclude this subject, in the next Journal. . . ."
In his third reply, Poe said that Outis suffered from the misapprehension that one accusation cancels another—that by insinuating that Poe had committed plagiarism, it could be reasoned that Aldrich and Longfellow had not. When he had accused Aldrich or Hood of plagiarism, Poe said, he printed their poems together and in full, but he had not been accorded such treatment by Outis. Instead,
an anonymous gentleman rebuts my accusation by telling me that there is a certain similarity between a poem of my own and an anonymous poem which he has before him, and which he would like to transcribe if it were not too long. He contents himself, therefore, with giving me, from the too long poem, three stanzas which are shown .. . to have been culled, to suit his own purposes, from different portions of the poem, but which (again to suit his own purposes) he places before the public in consecutive connexion!
Then, registering a doubt as to the existence of the poem, he examined the eighteen identities that Outis had pointed out, only to discover that the poems failed to tally except on two points.
In considering plagiarism, Poe continued, one must regard, not only the number of coincidences, but the peculiarity of each one; and not only that, but "the antagonistic differences, if any, which surround them—and very especially the space over which the coincidences are spread, and the number or paucity of the events, or incidents, from among which the coincidences are selected." He then used the Aldrich and Hood poems again to explain in greater detail why he considered one of them a plagiarism. He summarized this analysis by remarking:
Now the chances that these fifteen coincidences [in his examination he added five to the original ten], so peculiar in character, and all occurring within the compass of eight short lines, on the one part, and sixteen on the other—the chances, I say, that these coincidences are merely accidental, may be estimated, possibly, as about one to one hundred millions. . . .
He concluded by saying that he would endeavor to bring this subject to an end in the next number of the Journal.
In his fourth reply to Outis, Poe declared:
.. . if Outis has his own private reasons for being disgusted with what he terms the "wholesale mangling of victims without rhyme or reason," there is not a man living, of common sense and common honesty, who has not better reason (if possible) to be disgusted with the insufferable cant and shameless misrepresentation practised habitually by just such persons as Outis, with the view of decrying by sheer strength of lungs—of trampling down—of rioting down—of mobbing down any man with a soul that bids him come out from among the general corruption of our public press, and take his stand upon the open ground of rectitude and honor.
The Outises who practise this species of bullyism are, as a matter of course, anonymous. They are either the "victims without rhyme or reason who have been mangled by wholesale," or they are the relatives, or the relatives of the relatives of the "victims without rhyme or reason who have been mangled by wholesale." Their watchwords are "carping littleness," "envious malignity," and "personal abuse." Their low artifices are insinuated calumnies, and indefatigable whispers of regret, from post to pillar, that "Mr. So-and-So, or Mr. This-and-That will persist in rendering himself so dreadfully unpopular."
For himself, he said:
.. . I am but defending a set of principles which no honest man need be ashamed of defending, and for whose defence no honest man will consider an apology required.
. . . not even an Outis can accuse me .. . of having ever descended, in the most condemnatory of my reviews, to that personal abuse which, upon one or two occasions, has indeed been levelled at myself, in the spasmodic endeavours of aggrieved authors to rebut what I have ventured to demonstrate. . . . no man can point to a single critique, among the very numerous ones which I have written during the last ten years, which is either wholly fault-finding or wholly in approbation; nor is there an instance to be discovered, among all that I have published, of my having set forth, either in praise or censure, a single opinion upon any critical topic of moment, without attempting, at least, to give it authority by something that wore the semblance of a reason. . . . If, to be brief, in what I have put forth there has been a preponderance of censure over commendation,—is there not to be imagined for this preponderance a more charitable motive than any which the Outises have been magnanimous enough to assign me—is not this preponderance, in a word, the natural and inevitable tendency of all criticism worth the name in this age of so universal an authorship, that no man in his senses will pretend to deny the vast predominance of good writers over bad?
Poe then objected to Outis's supposing him to make certain charges against Longfellow and then holding him responsible for them. Thus, he proceeded to cite his own charges. First, as he had in 1839, Poe compared the "Midnight Mass" and the "Death of the Old Year" and repeated that this imitation was too palpable to be mistaken and belongs to the most barbarous class of literary piracy. Second (with Longfellow's explanation still unpublished in Graham's), he compared Longfellow's translation of "Der gute George Campbell" from Wolff with the original in Motherwell's and commented: "Professor Longfellow defends himself (I learn) from the charge of imitation in this case, by the assertion that he did translate from Wolff, but that Wolff copied from Motherwell. I am willing to believe almost anything rather than so gross a plagiarism as this seems to be—but there are difficulties which should be cleared up." How did it happen, "in the translation from the Scotch into the German, and again from the German into the English, not only the versification should have been rigidly preserved, but the rhymes and alliteration?" Why had Longfellow, "with his known intimate acquaintance with 'Motherwell's Minstrelsy,'" failed to recognize at once "so remarkable a poem when he met it in Wolff? What was the source that Longfellow had used in retranslating from Wolff? It seemed clear to Poe that the Wolff translation must have appeared in a work "plainly acknowledged as a translation, with its original designated," a work whose subtitle Poe footnoted but a copy of which he had been unable to obtain. Third (and Poe seemed driven to his wits' end here), he argued that Longfellow had modeled a scene in his Spanish Student upon his own Politian, the thirteen coincidences he pointed out textually being "sufficiently noticeable to establish at least the imitation beyond all doubt." Finally, he found certain lines in Longfellow coincidental with lines in Bryant, Sidney, Milton, and Henry King. Poe concluded by remarking that he could point out a "score or two" of such imitations, and that, therefore, Longfellow's friends, instead of charging him with carping littleness, should credit him with great moderation for accusing Longfellow only of imitation: "Had I accused him, in loud terms, of manifest and continuous plagiarism, I should but have echoed the sentiment of every man of letters in the land beyond the immediate influence of the Longfellow coterie." Further evidence of his moderation, he said, was the fact that he himself had submitted "to accusations of plagiarism for the very sins of this gentleman against myself," but that, despite this, he had set "forth the merits of the poet in the strongest light, whenever an opportunity was afforded me." Yet the moment that he ventured "an infinitesimal sentence of dispraise" of Longfellow, he received—under what he claimed was Longfellow's instigation—"ridiculous anonymous letters from his friends" and, in the Boston Evening Transcript, "prickings with the needles of Miss Walter's innumerable epigrams, rendered unnecessarily and therefore cruelly painful to my feelings by being first carefully deprived of the point."
There was a postscript to these replies to Outis still to appear, but, in the meantime, the Aristidean, a New York monthly newly founded by Thomas Dunn English, Poe's acquaintance from the Philadelphia days, published the harshest indictment of Longfellow ever made. The article affirmed that Longfellow was vastly overrated by the Boston clique. "In no literary circle out of Boston—or, indeed, out of the small coterie of abolitionists, transcendentalists and fanatics in general, which is the Longfellow junto—have we heard a seriously dissenting voice on this point." Outside of this "knot of rogues and madmen," his real virtues are simply a "sufficient scholarship, a fine taste, a keen appreciation of the beautiful, a happy memory, a happier tact at imitation or transmutation, felicity of phrase and some fancy." The anonymous writer, turning to Poe's recent lecture, confessed surprise to hear that Poe had claimed for Longfellow a "pre-eminence over all poets of this country on the score of the 'loftiest poetical quality—imagination.'" He believed that an opinion so crude must have arisen from "want of leisure or inclination to compare the works of the writer in question with the sources from which they were stolen." However, a letter written by "an unfortunate wight who called himself 'Outis,' seems to have stirred up the critic to make the proper examination. . . ." For himself, he felt that, "whatever may be the talents of Professor Longfellow, he is the Great Mogul of the Imitators," and that he had achieved his eminent position by "accident or chicanery."
The minute analysis and the charges of plagiarism that followed indicate that Poe had more than a hand in the article and that he planted the article in the Aristidean to gain corroboration of his own judgments—a corroboration so devastating that his statements in the Broadway Journal would appear mild by comparison. The writer pointed out that such rhymes as angel and evangel are inadmissible because identical. He cited a passage from "Hymn to the Night" to demonstrate that Longfellow had such a strong tendency to imitation "that he not unfrequently imitates himself." He argued that "A Psalm of Life" is "chiefly remarkable for its containing one of the most palpable plagiarisms ever perpetrated by an author of equal character. . . . Mr. Poe, in his late exposé, has given some very decisive instances of what he too modestly calls imitations on the part of Mr. Longfellow from himself (Mr. Poe)." But there are others that can be adduced: Longfellow's "Footsteps of Angels" has lines taken from Poe's "The Sleeper"; "The Beleaguered City" is a palpable imitation of Poe's "Haunted Palace". . . . "We do not like to be ill-natured; but when one gentleman's purse is found in another gentleman's pocket, how did it come there?" The Spanish Student as a poem "is meritorious at points—as a drama it is one of the most lamentable failures." Longfellow, it is true, acknowledged that it was "taken, in part, from the 'Gitanilla' of Cervantes. In part, also, it is taken from 'Politian . . . by Edgar A. Poe' .. . no acknowledgement, however, is made in the latter instance." Longfellow "has stolen . . . much from Mr. Poe. . . . There are other plagiarisms of Mr. Longfellow which we might easily expose, but we have said enough. There can be no reasonable doubt in the mind of any, out of the little clique, to which we at first alluded, that the author of 'Outre Mer,' is not only a servile imitator, but a most insolent literary thief."
Thus, however often Poe had opposed such malicious attacks as this, however often he had inveighed against a reviewer's remaining anonymous, and however often he had objected to "personalities" in critical articles, he resorted to all the arts of literary assassination for his self-justifying purposes. In commenting on this article in the Broadway Journal, Poe only remarked: "There is a long review or rather running commentary upon Longfellow's poems [in the Aristidean]. It is, perhaps, a little coarse, but we are not disposed to call it unjust; although there are in it some opinions which, by implication, are attributed to ourselves individually, and with which we cannot altogether coincide."
If Poe acted in his own defense against the ire of editors, O'Sullivan of the Democratic Review came to his aid voluntarily:
Mr. Poe has been for some weeks past engaged in a critical discussion in the Broadway Journal on the subject of plagiarism. . . . There is no literary question which requires more discrimination, greater nicety of apprehension and occasionally more courage. We appreciate the latter quality in Mr. Poe; it is especially necessary in a country which numbers some thousand poets, and not one, in the highest sense, worthy the name among them all. It is something for a man to encounter so formidable an opposition in this day of newspapers and public opinion, when the opportunities for the gratification of a whim or prejudice, to say nothing of malice and disappointed hate, are so ready at hand. Yet it is necessary that a man should respect himself and tell the truth. .. . Of all pursuits in the world we know of none more humiliating, more dastardly, or less comfortable to an honest man than the aimless, shifting, puffing, practice of literature . . . [which imparts] complacency to a certain number of fools, and persecute [s] a certain number of supposed enemies. .. . It is for the interest of literature that every man who writes should show his honesty and not bring letters into contempt. If in doing this he should happen to fall on the other side of harshness or rudeness .. . let him be pardoned, for it is better both for the cause of truth and virtue that this should be the case than that a man should be always dull and complaisant.
On April 5 Poe concluded his reply to Outis with an effort at dignity, but if he accomplished that effect, it was at the cost of misrepresentation and special pleading. His purpose in replying to Outis at such length, he said, had been "to place fairly and distinctly before the literary public certain principles of criticism for which I have been long contending, and which . . . were in danger of being misunderstood. . . . The thesis of my argument, in general, has been the definition of the grounds on which a charge of plagiarism may be based, and of the species of ratiocination by which it is to be established: that is all." He had not intended to be malevolent or discourteous, whatever one might suspect; and if anyone would take the trouble to read what he had written, he would see that he had made "no charge of moral delinquency against either Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Aldrich, or Mr. Hood:—indeed, lest in the heat of argument, I may have uttered any words which may admit of being tortured into such an interpretation, I here fully disclaim them upon the spot."
Poe's sudden reversal of position, not to mention the fact that these remarks were in the form of a postscript, suggests that he had finally found an explanation for imitation other than one of intention—an explanation with which he seemed delighted, for he used it again on several occasions and here for the first time. Thus, he proceeded to acquit Longfellow of "moral delinquency"—that is, of wilful plagiarism—and to explain his unconscious plagiarism—imitation—in these terms:
the poetic sentiment (even without reference to the poetic power) implies a peculiarly, perhaps abnormally keen appreciation of the beautiful, with a longing for its assimilation, or absorption, into poetic identity. What the poet intensely admires, becomes thus, in very fact, although only partially, a portion of his own intellect. It has a secondary origination within his own soul—an origination altogether apart, although springing from its primary origination from without. The poet is thus possessed by another's thought, and cannot be said to take of it, possession. But, in either view, he thoroughly feels it as his own—and this feeling is counteracted only by the sensible presence of its true, palpable origin in the volume from which he has derived it—an origin which, in the long lapse of years it is almost impossible not to forget—for in the meantime the thought itself is forgotten. But the frailest association will regenerate it—it springs up with all the vigor of a new birth—its absolute originality is not even a matter of suspicion—and when the poet has written it and printed it, and on its account is charged with plagiarism, there will be no one in the world more entirely astounded than himself. Now from what I have said it will be evident that the liability to accidents of this character is in the direct ratio of the poetic sentiment—of the susceptibility to the poetic impression; and in fact all literary history demonstrates that, for the most frequent and palpable plagiarisms, we must search the works of the most eminent poets.
Though Poe "exonerated" Longfellow, he raised more questions than he answered. Agreed that the poetic sentiment and the poetic power coexist in the poet. Agreed too that poetic power compels the poet to render his own vision of the beautiful ("primary origination"), which, by definition, is original, and that the poetic sentiment compels the poet, all unawares, to reproduce reproductions of such visions ("secondary origination"), which, again by definition, are unoriginal. Still, crucial problems remain—and Poe, neither here nor elsewhere, solves them, which may account for his dropping the entire "explanation" by 1847. Do the works of the "most eminent poets" (and Poe in the Marginalia article means the greatest) really contain "the most frequent and palpable plagiarisms"? Does not greatness imply primary origination, as every Romantic critic thought, including Poe himself? Is plagiarism—a sign of the poetic sentiment—rendered negligible by the poetic power evinced in such "plagiaristic" works as Hamlet and The Waste Land? And, by the same token, is plagiarism to be censured only when the poetic sentiment, acting independently of the poetic power, produces merely a copy? In his article on James Aldrich in the Literati papers, Poe seems to suggest as much when he said that "A Death-Bed" is indefensible because both "in matter and manner it is nearly identical with . . . 'The Death-Bed,' by Thomas Hood." And in his Marginalia, Poe remarked that "Imitators are not, necessarily, unoriginal—except at the exact points of imitation." And what are we to do with the fact of coincidence, which Poe entirely ignored—the kind of coincidence that caused Longfellow to remark, when he chanced upon a simile in Brainard's "Mocking Bird" identical with one in "Excelsior": "Of a truth one cannot strike a spade into the soil of Parnassus, without disturbing the bones of some dead poet."
With this, the "war," precipitated by a single, ill-advised paragraph concluding Poe's Waif review, came lamely to a halt, as far as Poe was concerned. True, he would fire Parthian shots at Longfellow from time to time, but he would never review another book of his—neither his Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems (1845), nor the Estray: A Collection of Poems (1846), nor the new edition of Outre-Mer (1846), nor Evangeline (1847), nor Kavanagh: A Tale (1849). Only in his essay, "The American Drama," when he struck again at the problem of imitation, did he consider Longfellow once more at any length.
Yet, if only to conclude the "war" with a flourish, it seemed necessary to atomize the North American Review, which had felt duty-bound to acclaim the literati of Massachusetts and, in particular, to expatiate upon the virtues of almost every Longfellow book, whether in A. P. Peabody's review of Outre-Mer, in Felton's reviews of Hyperion, Voices, Ballads, and Poems, in Francis Bowen's review of Poets and Poetry of Europe, or in various unidentified reviews devoted to the Cambridge poet, including one of The Waif. Simms, badly treated by the North American, furnished the occasion for that attack in his Southern and Western Magazine, and an anonymous writer, presumably Thomas Dunn English, possibly with Poe's assistance, did the devoir for the Broadway Journal. The writer in the Journal called attention to Simms's observations concerning the "parochial review" and quoted passages from Simms's article so that Northerners "may see in what estimation the North American is held at the South." Simms's theme was that the North American, in its thirty years of existence, was guilty of the most flagrant literary sectionalism:
That the North American Review has worked religiously for New England, her sons, her institutions, her claims of every sort, there is no . . . question. . . .
We do not know that the Middle States have fared very much better than those of the South, in the treatment which they have received at the hands of this journal. Their favorite writers are not employed upon its pages, and their publications are noticed slowly and with evident reluctance. When reviewed, it is very certain that the New England critic employs in the case of the New-Yorker, a very different and less indulgent standard of judgment than that which regulates his criticism when one of his own writers is under analysis. . . .
The writer in the Journal reaffirmed Simms's charges and added "that the North American is held in as little reverence in Boston as in South Carolina," and that "we have not seen, in the pages of this journal, a single instance where it has shown the slightest solicitude in behalf of any young writer,—always assuming that he is not a sprout of New England. . . ."
Poe's views of Longfellow, though he ceased to express them at any length, were now voiced by others, who had apparently become emboldened by his example. Simms, for instance, remarked:
Longfellow is an artist . . . in all the respects of verse-making.. .. but it strikes us that it would not be difficult to point to the ear-mark of another in the thoughts contained in every sentence which he ever penned. .. . It is the grace and sweetness of his verse, and that extreme simplicity of the thought which taxes no intellect to scan—which we read as we run—that constitutes his claims upon the reader.
Another independent critic, Margaret Fuller, wrote:
We must confess to a coolness toward Mr. Longfellow, in consequence of the exaggerated praises that have been bestowed upon him. When we see a person of moderate powers receive honors which should be reserved for the highest, we feel somewhat like assailing him and taking from him the crown which should be reserved for grander brows. And yet this is perhaps ungenerous. It may be that the management of publishers, the hyperbole of paid or undiscerning reviewers, or some accidental cause which gives a temporary interest to productions beyond what they would permanently command, have raised such an one to a place as much above his wishes as his claims, and which he would rejoice, with honorable modesty, to vacate at the approach of one worthier. We the more readily believe this of Mr. Longfellow, as one so sensible to the beauties of other writers and so largely indebted to them, must know his own comparative rank better than his readers have known it for him. . . . Still we must acquit him of being a willing or conscious plagiarist. Some objects in the collection [Poems] are his own; as to the rest, he has the merit of appreciation, and a rearrangement, not always judicious, but the result of feeling on his part.
Such works as Mr. Longfellow's we consider injurious only if allowed to usurp the place of better things. The reason of his being overrated here, is because through his works breathes the air of other lands with whose products the public at large is but little acquainted. . . . Twenty years hence when he stands upon his own merits, he will rank as a writer of elegant, if not always accurate taste, of great imitative power, and occasional felicity in an original way, where his feelings are stirred.
In the meantime, Longfellow's edition of the Poets and Poetry of Europe had appeared. Poe merely noticed the volume in passing, reporting that the "translations are from a great variety of sources" and that "the professor receives three thousand dollars for editing the work." Simms, however, was quite harsh, declaring that the anthology had not been a labor of love with its editor:
He has not expended much of his own time or talent upon it.. .. He has been content to compile it from whatever materials have been most convenient—has helped himself, without scruple, to the riff-raff translations of beginners, who, learning the several languages, have sent their crude exercises to the magazines. Mr. Longfellow's own hands do not sufficiently appear in these translations, and the work might just as well have been executed by a common workman. Now, it is as a translator, that Mr. Longfellow's chief excellence appears . . . and his own reputation, no less than the public expectation, required that he should have given himself up more thoroughly to this performance.
Though suddenly a target for the independent critics, Longfellow maintained silence, except to explain the mistake he had made in respect to "The Good George Campbell." His friends, however, were hardly silent. Lewis Clark, for instance, replied to Longfellow's assailants, abusing Poe personally, as we have seen in an earlier chapter, and now, in answering Simms's review, he remarked:
We are sorry to see . . . the Parthian arrows which are aimed at Mr. Longfellow, one of our most popular poets. . . . Of the writings of his detractors and sneering commentators, how much is remembered, or laid up in the heart? Edition after edition of Longfellow's writings, in prose and verse, are demanded by the public; and it is The Public who constitute his tribunal. As to the 'riff-raff translations' to which Mr. Longfellow is said to have 'helped himself in the 'Poets and Poetry of Europe,' it must strike the sensible reader, we think, that valid condemnation of them should proceed from critics conversant with the languages from which they are rendered.
Clark's sentiment that the public constituted the literary tribunal was shared by Longfellow himself, for on December 30, 1845, he wrote in his journal: "The Belfry [of Bruges and Other Poems] is succeeding famously well. . . . This is the best answer to my assailants." And Longfellow was quite aware of his assailants. On December 9, 1845, he noted: "Read a very abusive article upon my poems by Mr. Simms, the novelist. I consider this the most original and inventive of all his fictions." The next day he observed: "In Graham's Magazine for January, received this morning, is a superb poem by Lowell,—'To the Past.' If he goes on in this vein, Poe will soon begin to pound him." The following day he recorded: "Miss Fuller made a furious onslaught upon me in The New York Tribune. It is what might be called 'a bilious attack.'"
In summary, it must be said at once that the "sting in the tail" of Poe's Waif review and his need, in consequence, to defend himself against his assailants has obscured the real importance of his encounters with Longfellow. He was the first American critic who, in recognizing Longfellow's real gifts, had the hardihood to tell the poet that his poems were sometimes weak, or warped for didactic purposes, or suspiciously imitative—statements which are safe and easy enough to make now, but which to make then was, as we have seen, to risk one's critical reputation, to have one's motives questioned, and to be charged with envy and spite. Longfellow, if he understood the uses of criticism at all, preferred to ignore Poe's strictures, however he may have regarded his praise. For he was not a poet in the sense that the Romantic critic understood the term. He was, to borrow a phrase from Coleridge, a man of talents and much reading who had acquired poetry as a trade. Weak in inspiration, conventional though cultivated in taste, and full of bookish ideas and sentiments, he was nevertheless possessed by an intense desire for literary reputation, and his poems as well as his career suggest that poetry was all too often a means to that end than an end in itself.
If Poe was harsh in his criticism, he was so because he continually overrated Longfellow's powers (he was only on occasion the genius that Poe from his first notice to his last insisted he was) and pointed out faults in his work that Longfellow did not or perhaps could not correct. Only belatedly—and Poe was dealing with the emergent poet—did he realize that Longfellow was not debasing his talents wilfully; his talents were simply limited. He came to understand at last that Longfellow's imitations, which he had supposed premeditated, were really accidental—that his highly cultivated taste caused him to assimilate ideas, images, and sentiments in other poets' works and, unconsciously at the moment of creation, to adapt them to his own purposes—and he exonerated Longfellow for a tendency he apparently could not help. Even Lewis Clark agreed with this explanation, the evidence became so clear and the charges so persistent. "Much has been said, at sundry times and in diverse places," he wrote, "concerning Longfellow's alleged plagiarisms. . . . There is such a thing . . . as unconscious plagiarism." Yet if Poe could forgive Longfellow for his proneness to imitation, he could as a critic scarcely condone the all too apparent fact that his imitations were acclaimed and the poet himself venerated for them. His explanation no more canceled the fact that Longfellow often imitated than the explanation of kleptomania annuls the charge of continual theft.
There were other matters, of course, that complicated the critic's attitude, especially from the time he wrote the Waif review until he took his final notice of the poet. He could not help being aware that Longfellow was a favorite of the two magazines which, because of their cliquishness, were the special objects of his detestation—the Knickerbocker and North American Review. Nor could he help knowing that Longfellow had "a whole legion of active quacks at his control," to use his exaggerated statement—a legion, as it must have seemed to him, that even managed to use the Foreign Quarterly Review to extol his virtues and to deny the merits of other American poets. Nor could he help noticing that Longfellow was being accorded critical indemnity by American critics, a fact that hardly needed the attestation provided by the suppression of his Spanish Student review and the animosities aroused by his comments upon Longfellow's poems. Nor, finally, could he help realizing that, though Longfellow was creating an audience for poetry the like of which had never been known in America, readers were being conditioned to receive only the kind of poetry written by a Longfellow and, later, devoid of Longfellow's artistry and culture, a James Whitcomb Riley and, still later, an Edgar A. Guest—that second-, third-, and fourth-rate poetry is not a way toward first-rate poetry but a substitute for it.
Longfellow, no doubt, found Poe's strictures disagreeable, but he must have also found that they served to advertise his books. When Fields, for example, was contemplating lawsuits, to blanket derision of Hiawatha, Longfellow told his publisher: ". . . don't you think we had better let those critics go on advertising it?" Whatever the case, Longfellow's attitude toward Poe may be summed up by two statements he made about him after his death. The first, made publicly a month after Poe had died, was kinder for the reason that it was almost accurate: "The harshness of his criticism I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by an indefinite sense of wrong." The second, made privately, was reported by William Winter, a young friend of the poet. Longfellow, Winter wrote, had indicated to him that "Poe had grossly abused and maligned him," but that he felt sorry for his "unfortunate and half-crazed adversary." He attributed Poe's remarks "to a deplorable literary jealousy," and concluded: "My works seemed to give him much trouble, first and last; but Mr. Poe is dead and gone, and I am alive and still writing—and that is the end of the matter."
Whatever may be said of Poe's encounters with Longfellow, Poe was on the side of genius and on the side of a free criticism, where he belonged. One can deplore his harshness, his bad taste, his occasional poor judgment, but one cannot condemn his over-all verdict in respect to Longfellow, nor the principles upon which he based that verdict, nor the cause for which he struggled, even at the cost of such statements as those that Winter attributed to Longfellow.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10496
SOURCE: "Poe on Fiction," in Edgar Allan Poe as Literary Critic, University of Georgia Press, 1964, pp. 24-56.
[Using Poe's reviews of specific texts, Parks reveals their relationship with Poe's general theories concerning originality, unity, and totality of effect in a literary work. Parks argues that it is these general theoretical principles that led to Poe's emphasis on the short story, or "tale," as the ideal creation in prose. For a more general overview of Park's views on Poe, see .]
By 1831, when he was twenty-two years old, Poe had become very much interested in the writing of short stories. Clearly in those days in Baltimore he had read and analyzed many magazine tales and sketches; he wrote parodies of several of these types that may well be considered as indirect literary criticism. The most obvious example is "A Tale of Jerusalem," since it is a burlesque of part of a trashily sentimental religious novel; the most interesting example is "Metzengerstein," which started as an imitation of the Gothic romances but in the writing gathered such momentum that it became a powerful allegory, with evil leading to its own self-destruction. Five of these stories were published in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier in 1832; by 1833, when his story "Ms. Found in a Bottle" won the prize offered by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter, Poe had written six more and had collected the eleven (later sixteen) into a unified work that he titled Tales of the Folio Club. Each tale was to be read aloud by its author, and followed by remarks of the group on each. Poe specifically stated that "These remarks are intended as a burlesque on criticism." Unfortunately, all the critical commentaries have been lost, so that we can only infer that Poe had been studying the English and American magazine criticism as closely as the fiction.
When early in 1835 Poe began reviewing regularly for the Southern Literary Messenger, he discovered that he must deal with novels more often than with stories, for the simple reason that novels were more popular and therefore more readily publishable. Although Poe was willing to praise individual works highly, he did not like the form. In particular, he was dubious about the historical romance, since it was not a self-contained work: "The interweaving of fact with fiction is at all times hazardous, and presupposes on the part of general readers that degree of intimate acquaintance with fact which should never be presupposed. In the present instance, the author has failed, so we think, in confining either his truth or his fable within its legitimate individual domain. Nor do we at all wonder at his failure in performing what no novelist whatever has hitherto performed."
His other doubts about the novel as an art-form developed gradually. Yet in what seems to have been his first review of a novel (Robert Montgomery Bird's Calavar: A Romance of Mexico, Feb. 1835), he objected to a certain awkwardness in the invention and arrangement of the story, and objected also that the miraculous agencies employed by the author are "too unnatural even for romance." In a brief upsurge of national pride, he proclaimed it "an American production, which will not shrink from competition with the very best European works of the same character," and surpassed by only one or two of James Fenimore Cooper's. Yet he qualified his praise carefully. It was a good work "if boldness of design, vigor of thought, copiousness and power of language,—thrilling incident, and graphic and magnificent description, can make a good novel." When he reviewed Bird's sequel, The Infidel, however, Poe complained of a lack of unity in the design. The author hurried from delineating one incident of slaughter and violence to another; he left himself insufficient time for characterization.
Both novels are set in Mexico, at the time of the Spanish conquest. It is worth noting that Poe did not cavil at remoteness of scene, either geographically or historically. Many contemporary critics did, but Poe in fact preferred remoteness. Perhaps as a result, Bird set his next novel, The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow, in Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War. Although the author had the advantage of knowing the locale at first hand and worked in some dramatic incidents, Poe thought that he showed less originality than in his Mexican novels. His indebtedness to Scott was embarrassingly evident, yet there was little to remind the reader of Ivanhoe or Kenilworth or "above all with that most pure, perfect, and radiant gem of fictitious literature the Bride of Lammermoor." Although a few characters were well-drawn, most of them were inconsistent and some even contradictory. If by style the reader meant only the prose, then in general it was faultless; if however by style one meant "the prevailing tone and manner which give character and individuality," Dr. Bird had been less fortunate, for the book had been "composed with great inequality of manner—at times forcible and manly—at times sinking into the merest childishness and imbecility." Regretfully, Poe judged that it had "no pretensions to originality of manner, or of style."
When he was confronted in 1836 with Sheppard Lee, he did not connect it with Bird. After wryly noting that the book is an original and that its "deviations, however indecisive, from the more beaten paths of imitation, look well for our future literary prospects," Poe outlines for the reader the seven different types of metempsychosis that the protagonist undergoes. Although he writes favorably of "some very excellent chapters on abolition" after Lee has become Nigger Tom, Poe shows relatively little interest in the satire on contemporary social and political conditions. But the fictional idea and the form roused him to critical speculation.
Poe objects even to the possibility (accepted by the sister but not fully shared by Lee) that the transmigrations might have occurred only in delirium, brought on by an accident. This was to trifle with the reader. There were two general methods of telling such stories, and the author had selected the poorer one: "He conceives his hero endowed with some idiosyncrasy beyond the common lot of human nature, and thus introduces him to a series of adventure which, under ordinary circumstances, could occur only to a plurality of persons."
But the character partly changes with each transmigration, and there is little attempt to show the influence of varied events "upon a character unchanging." In fact, the narrative would be more effective if it dealt with seven different individuals.
There is a second and better way. That is for the author to avoid a jocular manner and directness of expression, and leave much to the imagination, "as if the author were firmly impressed with the truth, yet astonished at the immensity, of the wonders he relates, and for which, professedly, he neither claims nor anticipates credence. . . . The attention of the author, who does not depend upon explaining away his incredibilities, is directed to giving them the character and the luminousness of truth, and thus are brought about, unwittingly, some of the most vivid creations of human intellect."
Poe had fewer reservations about the work of his friend and mentor, John Pendleton Kennedy, although friendship did not restrain him from some sharp criticism. When he reviewed Horse-Shoe Robinson in May, 1835, he began with a tribute to Kennedy's earlier novel: "We have not yet forgotten, nor is it likely we shall very soon forget, the rich simplicity of diction—the manliness of tone—the admirable traits of Virginian manners, and the striking pictures of still life, to be found in Swallow Barn." But that book was too obviously in the manner of Addison and Irving; oddly, disregarding Scott, Cooper, and other historical romancers, Poe thought that Horse-Shoe Robinson deserved to be called original. The characterization was excellent, the descriptions of the Revolutionary War accurate and informative, the style at once simple and forcible, yet richly figurative and poetical. But a form that permitted the author to make the romantic hero less important than the titular hero did not fully adhere to the properties of fiction.
Poe uses the review for one bit of criticism on the form of the novel. Too many writers "delay as long as possible the main interest"; Kennedy with good judgment has "begun at the beginning," introducing his prominent characters and line of action immediately. He objected to Kennedy's over-use of the dash. To prove that it was "unnecessary or superfluous" in many instances, Poe quoted a paragraph as Kennedy had punctuated it and then reproduced the same passage without the dashes. He easily proved his point with this effective textual criticism.
In general, Kennedy seemed to have the eye of a painter rather than the eye of a novelist. Poe thought that each of Kennedy's three novels revealed "boldness and force of thought, (disdaining ordinary embellishment, and depending for its effect upon masses rather than details), with a predominant sense of the picturesque pervading and giving color to the whole." This was particularly true of Swallow Barn, which "is but a rich succession of picturesque still-life pieces."
Poe's strictures on Bird and Kennedy had been mild enough, and the reviews on the whole favorable. Perhaps, as some later writers have suggested, he had been deliberately waiting for a well-publicized book by a prominent author that he could, in his own favorite phrase, "use up," and thus draw attention to himself and to the Southern Literary Messenger; more probably, he was irritated by the frenzied advance publicity and the underserved, lavish praise that a bad novel had received. At any rate, Poe in December, 1835, published a merciless critique of Theodore S. Fay's Norman Leslie, and from that time on he was embroiled in the savage literary wars of the period. For Fay was an associate editor of the New York Mirror and a favorite of the Knickerbocker group.
The review may also be considered as one of Poe's earliest efforts to foster an honest American criticism. The first paragraph tends to bear this out: "This is the book—the book par excellence—the book bepuffed, beplastered, and be-Mirrored. . . . For the sake of everything puff, puffing and puffable, let us take a peep at its contents." This charge of over-puffing American books Poe was to repeat many times; although somewhat unevenly, he worked continually toward making American literary criticism more balanced and less indiscriminate. Before he proceeded, as usual, to give a lengthy summary of the plot, Poe descended into the personal ridicule that occasionally disfigures his critical work. For some reason, he objected violently to dedications, and he sneers at this one. With more point if he has in mind fiction, he asks what is the point of Prefaces in general, and of Fay's in particular. When Fay explained that, although his story was founded on fact, he had transformed certain characters, particularly that of a young lady, Poe worked in parenthetically and unnecessarily: "oh fi! Mr. Fay—oh, Mr. Fay, fi!" When Fay requested the "indulgence of the solemn and sapient critics," Poe answered with more pertinence that "we, at least, are neither solemn nor sapient, and, therefore, do not feel ourselves bound to show him a shadow of mercy."
Poe's summary of the complex and unbelievable plot is reasonably fair, but in his commentary he unerringly picked those items in which Fay had overstrained, and had achieved only a meretricious effect. The husband threatened to leave his wife; she first beseeched him to stay, then in turn threatened him: "It was the first uncoiling of the basilisk within me (good Heavens, a snake in a lady's stomach!). He gazed on me incredulously, and coolly smiled. You remember that smile—I fainted!!!' Alas! Mr. Davy Crockett,—Mr. Davy Crockett, alas! thou art beaten hollow—thou art defunct, and undone! thou hast indeed succeeded in grinning a squirrel from a tree, but it surpassed even thine extraordinary abilities to smile a lady into a fainting fit."
This "Tale of the Present Times" he roundly pronounced to be "the most inestimable piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or so villainously insulted."
Poe's lowest descent into personalities, in his SLM reviews, seems uncalled for. Fay had been unduly puffed and praised; he had written a bad novel. William Gilmore Simms belonged to no clique; he had received only a modicum of praise; he had written some powerful if extremely uneven novels, among them The Partisan. Poe listed several of these works, although not indicating whether or not he had read any of them, before getting to the dedication. It is a brief and simple inscription of thirty-three words, to a close friend. It is impossible to see what in it could have infuriated Poe. He objected to the brevity and terseness of the dedication, and imagined the author calling on Richard Yeadon to present him with a copy of The Partisan. Poe tortured each word to wrench some unpleasant connotation from it and ascribed this feeling to Yeadon, until at the end he has that worthy "kick the author of 'The Yemassee' downstairs." In fact, Yeadon was flattered by the dedication, as any friend might well have been; there was no factual basis for the vicious burlesque. This was Poe at his nastiest, but the tone of the entire review is little better.
After his usual summary, including his customary fling at the woodenness of the romantic hero, Poe noted that some of the characters are excellent, some horrible: the historical ones well-drawn, the fictional ones hardly credible. He objected to Porgy as "an insufferable bore" and as "a backwoods imitation of Sir Somebody Guloseton, the epicure, in one of the Pelham novels." It is not surprising that Poe found nothing humorous in the character of Porgy, but his condemnation of the soldier's mild oaths seems excessive, especially when he lists a considerable number for the benefit of readers, with the excuse that "such attempts to render profanity less despicable by rendering it amusing, should be frowned down indignantly by the public." With more justice Poe objected to Simmis's hasty and slipshod writing, though it hardly merits the statement that Simms's "English is bad—shockingly bad." Indeed, Poe's examples reveal as much about his own idiosyncrasies as about Simms's ignorance—but at least the critic documented his charge with numerous examples.
The author of "Berenice" objected, also, to Simms's use of the horrible in realistically describing floggings and murders. He did not object to Simms's manufacturing his own chapter epigraphs: they are "quite as convenient as the extracted mottoes of his contemporaries. All, we think, are abominable."
Poe had found little that was good in The Partisan, but at the end of the review he attempted to modify his earlier sweeping judgments. It was "no ordinary work. Its historical details are replete with interest. The concluding scenes are well drawn. Some passages descriptive of swamp scenery are exquisite. Mr. Simms has evidently the eye of a painter. Perhaps, in sober truth, he would succeed better in sketching a landscape than he has done in writing a novel."
In his review of The Damsel of Darien, Poe changed his tone entirely. Simms was worthy of being treated with respect; of his earlier works, Martin Faber "well deserves a permanent success," and even The Partisan was allowed to have "many excellences," along with "very many disfiguring features." The Damsel he thought a "much better book; evincing stricter study and care, with a far riper judgment, and a more rigidly disciplined fancy." This story of the dreams, adventures, and explorations of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa had little plot and adhered too closely to historical fact, but it had many "fine episodical pieces interspersed throughout the book." Yet the "most really meritorious" part of the book was the ballad, "Indian Serenade"—a precursor of Poe's later, more generalized statement that "as a poet, indeed, we like him far better than as a novelist."
It is not surprising, in fact, that the works he praised most highly are novelettes rather than novels, concentrating on psychology rather than on action, or that he reserved his highest praise for Simms's short stories in The Wigwam and the Cabin. As tales, each was excellent; together they illustrated the border history of the South. "Grayling, or Murder Will Out" was the best: "We have no hesitation in calling it the best ghost-story we have ever read. It is full of the richest and most vigorous imagination—is forcibly conceived—and detailed throughout with a degree of artistic skill which has had no parallel among American storytellers since the epoch of Brockden Brown."
Poe's admiration for James Fenimore Cooper was decidedly limited. True, he solicited contributions for the Southern Literary Messenger and the projected Penn Magazine, and he was willing (as in the case of Irving, Paulding, Bryant, Halleck, and Catharine M. Sedgwick) to "make reasonable allowance in estimating the absolute merit of our literary pioneers." He divided writers of fiction into two classes: "a popular and widely circulated class read with pleasure but without admiration—in which the author is lost or forgotten; or remembered, if at all, with something very nearly akin to contempt; and then, a class not so popular, nor so widely diffused, in which, at every paragraph, arises a distinctive and highly pleasurable interest, springing from our perception and appreciation of the skill employed, or the genius evinced in the composition. After perusal of the one class, we think solely of the book—after reading the other, chiefly of the author. The former class leads to popularity—the latter to fame. In the former case, the books sometimes live, while the authors usually die; in the latter, even when the works perish, the man survives. Among American writers of the less circulated, but more worthy and artistical fictions, we may mention Mr. Brockden Brown, Mr. John Neal, Mr. Simms, Mr. Hawthorne; at the head of the more popular division we may place Mr. Cooper."
It is difficult to understand on what basis Poe compiled the first list. Hawthorne assuredly belongs on it; John Neal assuredly does not. Brown's Gothicism appealed to Poe's taste, and presumably it was this element in a few of Simms's novels that caused him to be included, although the same criteria that disqualified Cooper would seem also to disqualify Simms. The distinction once made, however, Poe was willing to allow Cooper some positive merits, along with some glaring defects. He defended Cooper's right to attack the bull-headed prejudices of his own countrymen: "Since it is the fashion to decry the author of 'The Prairie' just now, we are astonished at no degree of malignity or scurrility whatever on the part of the little gentlemen who are determined to follow that fashion." Cooper had never been known to fail, either in the forest or on the sea, although sometimes his success has little to do with the values of fiction. In reviewing Mercedes of Castile, Poe started off roundly: "As a history, this work is invaluable; as a novel, it is well nigh worthless—in fact, the "worst novel ever penned by Mr. Cooper."
In general, characterization was not Cooper's forte. Neither was plot, of which he seemed "altogether regardless or incapable." In a novel, this was not a fatal handicap: "some of the finest narratives in the world—'Gil Blas' and 'Robinson Crusoe,' for example—have been written without its employment; and 'The Hutted Knoll,' like all the sea and forest novels of Cooper, has been made deeply interesting, although depending upon this peculiar source of interest not at all. Thus the absence of plot can never be critically regarded as a defect; although its judicious use, in all cases aiding and in no case injuring other effects, must be regarded as of a very high order of merit." As a substitute, Wyandotté has a three-fold interest: the theme of life in the wilderness (Poe notes sarcastically that only an imbecile author can fail with life in the forest or on the ocean); the Robinson-Crusoe-like detail of its management; and the portraiture of the half-civilized Indian, with the setting on the New York frontier at the beginning of the Revolution.
Although he included Catharine M. Sedgwick (in the quite respectable company of Irving, Cooper, Paulding, Bryant, and Halleck) as one whose literary reputation owed much to her being one "of our literary pioneers," Poe thought highly of her novels. In "Autography" he noted that her handwriting "points unequivocally to the traits of her literary style—which are strong common sense, and a masculine disdain of mere ornament." Her best and most popular novels were Hope Leslie and The Linwoods; these placed her "upon a level with the best of our native novelists. Of American female writers we must consider her the first"—a judgment which he qualified in The Literati, where it is the public rather than Poe that gives her "precedence among our female writers." The prevailing features of The Linwoods (which Poe thought the best of her books) were "ease, purity of style, pathos, and verisimilitude. To plot it has little pretension." But he also noted in her work a "very peculiar fault—that of discrepancy between the words and character of the speaker—the fault, indeed, more properly belongs to the depicting of character itself."
Poe felt that several of her feminine contemporaries surpassed her in a single quality, but that in many of the qualities she excelled and in none was particularly deficient. But she was an author of "marked talent" rather than of genius. In attempting to describe the nature of her talent, he makes an interesting comparison: "Miss Sedgwick has now and then been nicknamed 'the Miss Edgeworth of America'; but she has done nothing to bring down upon her the vengeance of so equivocal a title. That she has thoroughly studied and profoundly admired Miss Edgeworth may, indeed, be gleaned from her works—but what woman has not? Of imitation there is not the slightest perceptible taint. In both authors we observe the same tone of thoughtful morality, but here all resemblance ceases. In the Englishwoman there is far more of a certain Scotch prudence, in the American more of warmth, tenderness, sympathy for the weaknesses of her sex. Miss Edgeworth is the more acute, the more inventive and the more rigid. Miss Sedgwick is the more womanly."
Mainly because he honestly admired the novel but in part, perhaps, because he thought the anonymous George Balcombe had been written by a close personal friend, Poe in January, 1837, gave it lavish commendation: "George Balcombe thinks, speaks, and acts, as no person, we are convinced, but Judge Beverly Tucker ever precisely thought, spoke, or acted before." Poe gives a lengthy summary of this complex story of a concealed will, and praises especially the trial scene: "Fiction, thus admirably managed, has all the force and essential value of truth." The delineation of characters is excellent, although there is no originality in the characterization: "we mean to say that the merit here is solely that of observation and fidelity. Original characters, so called, can only be critically praised as such, either when presenting qualities known in real life, but never before depicted, (a combination nearly impossible) or when presenting qualities (moral, or physical, or both) which although unknown, or even known to be hypothetical, are so skillfully adapted to the circumstances which surround them, that our sense of fitness is not offended, and we find ourselves seeking a reason why these things might not have been, which we are still satisfied are not. The latter species of originality appertains to the loftier region of the Ideal."
Here, as elsewhere, Poe make a distinction between style and grammatical correctness. In treating this aspect of George Balcombe, he gives one of his clearest statements on the subject: "The general manner is that of a scholar and gentleman in the best sense of both terms—bold, vigorous, and rich—abrupt rather than diffuse—and not over scrupulous in the use of energetic vulgarisms. With the mere English, some occasional and trivial faults may be found." As examples, Poe cites the use of technical terms, of a dangling modifier, and some unclear sentences. He also noted that the book "bears a strong family resemblance to the Caleb Williams of Godwin." But its positive merits far outweighed its defects; it held the interest from beginning to end; it had "invention, vigor, almost audacity of thought"; it had wholeness, with nothing out of place or out of time. As a result, Poe declared that he was "induced to regard it, upon the whole, as the best American novel."
Poe had been right about the authorship of George Balcombe; he was wrong when he denied that The Partisan Leader had been written by Tucker. When he dealt with Tucker in "Autography," Poe somewhat modified his earlier judgment: George Balcombe was "one of the best novels . . . although for some reason the book was never a popular favorite. It was perhaps, somewhat too didactic for the general taste." He did not mention The Partisan Leader, but noted that he himself had been thought the author of a highly unfavorable article on the Pickwick Papers which Tucker had written, whereas Poe had praised Dickens for a high and just distinction.
It was characteristic of Poe that even in reviewing a popular novel which he considered worthless, he nevertheless made discerning comments on structure that applied to all novels. Joseph H. Ingraham appealed "always to the taste of the ultra-romanticists (as a matter, we believed, rather of pecuniary policy than of choice) and thus is obnoxious to the charge of a certain cut-and-thrust, blue-fire, melodramaticism." Although he did not believe that Ingraham "stole" Lafitte, he could see little value in this swashbuckling story of the Louisiana pirate except for the historical detail. There were too many items that strained the credulity or dissipated the concentration of the reader. Lafitte fails to recognize and fights with a man whom he has known well. Even worse is the clumsy jumping from one scene to another: "We have, for example, been keeping company with the buccaneers for a few pages—but now they are to make an attack upon some old family mansion. In an instant the buccaneers are dropped for the mansion, and the definite for the indefinite article. In place of the robbers proceeding in the course wherein we have been bearing them company, they are suddenly abandoned for a house. A family mansion is depicted." Somewhat later, the reader is informed that this is the house which the buccaneers were planning to attack. As these quotations indicate, Poe was campaigning against looseness of structure and lack of consistency. At a time when artistry in the novel was not greatly valued, he was advocating a much stricter and more coherent form.
Poe's commentaries on English novelists were confined almost entirely to writers of his own century. At least in part, this was because as a reviewer he was mainly interested in new books. When he reviewed a reprint of Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield, he wrote at some length about the illustrations, but of the novel only that it was "one of the most admirable fictions in the language." Poe makes it plain that he thought the tale and the romance to be higher forms of art than the more limited novel. Robinson Crusoe seemed to him admirable. Defoe's plotless tale succeeded through "the potent magic of verisimilitude."
At least in the period of the Messenger reviews, Poe had no doubt that Scott was the greatest writer of prose fiction in the world. In reviewing Henry F. Chorley's Conti the Discarded: with other Tales and Fancies (which he praised as showing a noble, interesting purpose, especially in the attempt to introduce into English literature the type of German art novels that personified individual portions of the Fine Arts), he notes that the title story "bears no little resemblance to that purest, and most enthralling of fictions, The Bride of Lammermuir [sic]; and we have once before expressed our opinion of this, the master novel of Scott. It is not too much to say that no modern composition, and perhaps no composition whatever, with the single exception of Cervantes' Destruction of Numantia, approaches so nearly to the proper character of the dramas of Aeschylus, as the magic tale of which Ravenswood is the hero. We are not aware of being sustained by any authority in this opinion—yet we do not believe it the less intrinsically correct."
One opinion, which Poe may have considered earlier, appeared in the same issue. After writing that Bulwer as a novelist was "unsurpassed by any writer living or dead," Poe immediately qualified the judgment: "Scott has excelled him in many points, and 'The Bride of Lammermuir' is a better book than any individual work by the author of Pelham—'Ivanhoe' is, perhaps, equal to any."
For the merely popular novelists like G. P. R. James, Harrison Ainsworth, Frederick Marryat, and Charles Lever, Poe had only contempt. They wrote as it were to order, being content with mediocre ideas because these would appeal to the public, and putting in those incidents that would insure popularity. So the ideas of Frederick Marryat were the "common property of the mob; his books crowded incident on incident, without any enriching commentary or philosophy; his characters were frequently stolen from those of Dickens. Its English is slovenly, its events improbable. It was meant for popular consumption, and nothing more."
Occasionally a work of "the highest merit" like Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop would seem to rival these works in popularity, but then Poe suddenly remembered that Harry Lorrequer and Charles O 'Malley had surpassed it in "what is properly termed popularity." Excellence may not inevitably make a work unpopular, but these novels by Charles Lever go far toward proving that popularity "is evidence of the book's demerit" and that undue popularity indicates that "no extensively popular book, in the right application of the term, can be a work of high merit, as regards those particulars of the work that are popular." Dickens succeeded in "uniting all suffrages," but his appeals were different: "It is his close observation and imitation of nature which have rendered him popular, while his higher qualities, with the ingenuity evinced in addressing the general taste, have secured him the good word of the informed and intellectual."
Although he later cooled markedly in his critical estimate, Poe in 1836 had little doubt that Bulwer was the greatest of English writers of fiction. The doubt extended only to the admission that Scott might be his equal, or even his superior. Poe started his review of Rienzi by noting that he had "long learned to reverence the fine intellect of Bulwer. We take up any production of his pen with a positive certainty that, in reading it, the wildest passions of our nature, the most profound of our thoughts, the brightest visions of our fancy, and the most ennobling and lofty of our aspirations will, in due turn, be enkindled within us." Yet he was not without worthy rivals. D'Israeli had a more brilliant, lofty, and delicate imagination; Theodore Hook more of wit and "our own" Paulding more of broad humor. Others might equal or surpass him in one particular, but "who is there uniting in one person the imagination, the passion, the humor, the energy, the knowledge of the heart, the artist-like eye, the originality, the fancy, and the learning of Edward Lytton Bulwer."
Rienzi was his best novel—a judgment from which Poe did not deviate in later comments. But it is considerably more than a novel. In sweep and character of composition it is essentially epic rather than dramatic; it is also, in the truest sense, a History. Poe digresses to note that "we shall often discover in Fiction the essential spirit and vitality of Historic Truth—while Truth itself, in many a dull and lumbering archive, shall be found guilty of all the inefficiency of Fiction."
It was vastly superior to The Last Days of Pompeii because it was richer, more glowing, more vigorous, but also because it dealt with a period more interesting to us. In a favorable review of Lydia Maria Child's romance of Periclean Athens, Philothea (1836), Poe wrote that "We have purely human sympathy in the distantly antique; and this little is greatly weakened by the constant necessity of effort in conceiving appropriateness in manners, costume, habits, and modes of thought, so widely at variance with those around us." In Pompeii, Bulwer transcended this genre through the "stupendousness of its leading event" and the skill with which it was depicted, but his work failed "only in the proportion" that it belonged "to this species."
When in 1841 Poe reviewed Night and Morning, with its commonplace yet complex structure, Poe deviated from the book to make one of his most striking and most important definitions:
The word plot, as commonly accepted, conveys but an indefinite meaning. Most persons think of it as a simple complexity; and into this error even so fine a critic as Augustus William Schlegel has obviously fallen, when he confounds its idea with that of the mere intrigue in which the Spanish dramas of Cervantes and Calderon abound. But the greatest involution of incident will not result in plot; which, properly defined, is that in which no part can be displaced without ruin to the whole. It may be described as a building so dependently constructed, that to change the position of a single brick is to overthrow the entire fabric. In this definition and description, we of course refer only to that infinite perfection which the true artist bears ever in mind—that unattainable goal to which his eyes are always directed, but of the possibility of attaining which he still endeavours, if wise, to cheat himself into the belief. The reading world, however, is satisfied with a less rigid construction of the term. It is content to think that plot a good one, in which none of the leading incidents can be removed without detriment to the mass.
Poe was not insisting on the necessity of plot. As he had in dealing with Cooper, and using some of the same examples, he emphasized the point that "A good tale may be written without it. Some of the finest fictions in the world have neglected it altogether. We see nothing of it in 'Gil Blas,' in the 'Pilgrim's Progress,' or in 'Robinson Crusoe.' Thus it is not an essential in story-telling at all; although, well managed, within proper limits, it is a thing to be desired. At best it is but a secondary and rigidly artistical merit, for which no merit of a higher class—no merit founded in nature—should be sacrified."
The real misconception was the belief that a true unity could be achieved in a long work:
Very little reflection might have sufficed to convince Mr. Bulwer that narratives, even one-fourth as long as the one now lying upon our table, are essentially inadapted to that nice and complex adjustment of incident at which he has made this desperate attempt. In the wire-drawn romances which have been so long fashionable (God only knows how or why) the pleasure we derive (if any) is a composite one, and made up of the respective sums of the various pleasurable sentiments experienced in perusal. Without excessive and fatiguing exertion, inconsistent with legitimate interest, the mind cannot comprehend at one time and in one survey the numerous individual items which go to establish the whole. Thus the high ideal sense of the unique is sure to be wanting; for, however absolute in itself be the unity of the novel, it must inevitably fail of appreciation. We speak now of that species of unity which is alone worth the attention of the critic—the unity or totality of effect.
Mere length in itself had no artistic value. The talk about continuous and sustained effort seemed to Poe "pure twaddle and nothing more." If a Bulwer insisted on writing long romances simply because they were fashionable, if he could not be satisfied with the brief tale which "admits of the highest development of artistical power in alliance with the wildest vigour of the imagination," then he must content himself with a simple narrative form.
Poe added to his earlier distinction between style and language. The chief constituent of a good style is "what artists have agreed to denominate tone." Since Bulwer's tone is always correct, he can scarcely be termed a bad stylist. On the other hand, his English is "turgid, involved, and ungrammatical." Poe cites numerous examples of faulty constructions, and the irritating mannerism of beginning many short sentences with So. But Bulwer's predominant failing, in point of style, was "an absolute mania of metaphor—metaphor always running into allegory." Pure allegory was an abomination that appealed only to our faculties of comparison, without interesting our reason or our fancy; metaphor, "its softened image, has indisputable force when sparingly and skillfully employed." Bulwer was neither sparing nor skillful: "He is king-coxcomb of figures of speech."
Poe no longer reverenced Bulwer's intellect, or thought him the first of English novelists. Rather, in a thoughtful summing up, he attempted to assay Bulwer's merits and his place:
With an intellect rather well balanced than lofty, he has not full claim to the title of a man of genius. Urged by the burning desire of doing much, he has certainly done something. Elaborate even to a fault, he will never write a bad book, and has once or twice been upon the point of concocting a good one. It is the custom to call him a fine writer, but in doing so we should judge him less by an artistical standard of excellence than by comparison with the drivellers who surround him. To Scott he is altogether inferior, except in that mock and tawdry philosophy which the Caledonian had the discretion to avoid, and the courage to condemn. In pathos, humour, and verisimilitude he is unequal to Dickens, surpassing him only in general knowledge and in the sentiment of Art. Of James he is more than the equal at all points. While he could never fall as low as D'Israeli has occasionally fallen, neither himself nor any of those whom we have mentioned have ever risen nearly so high as that very gifted and very extraordinary man.
When he first acclaimed Bulwer, Poe had never heard of Dickens. Four months later (June, 1836) he reviewed Watkins Tottle, and other Sketches, by Boz, and claimed that some of them through magazine publication were "old and highly esteemed acquaintances," but of the author he could only say that "we know nothing more than that he is a far more pungent, more witty, and better disciplined writer of sly articles, than nine-tenths of the Magazine writers in Great Britain." These sketches or stories had a great advantage over the usual novel in that each one could be "taken in at one view, by the reader." Poe especially praised "The Black Veil" as an "act of stirring tragedy," and he continued for years to use it as a touchstone of what such a tale should be. His comment on Dickens's method concentrates on the author's absorption in his subject: there are no anecdotes but "we are enveloped in its atmosphere of wretchedness and extortion." Unfortunately, Poe's mind was still so full of irritation with Colonel William Stone's Ups and Downs (which he had "used up" in the same issue) that he employed the sketch for a derogatory comparison: "So perfect, and never-to-beforgotten a picture cannot be brought about by any such trumpery exertion, or still more trumpery talent, as we find employed in the ineffective daubing of Colonel Stone."
By November, when he reviewed The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, he knew that Boz was Charles Dickens, and the new book, he thought, fully sustained his "high opinion of the comic power and of the rich imaginative conception" of the earlier one. But it was in The Old Curiosity Shop that Dickens reached the peak of his genius (Poe was dead before David Copperfield and later novels were published). The defects in the story were mainly to be traced to the evils of serial publication. The title itself was a misnomer, for the shop had only a collateral interest, and is spoken of merely in the beginning. Characters are introduced who prove to be supererogatory; incidents that at first seemed necessary turn out to be worthless and are never developed. Yet these were insignificant defects. The Old Curiosity Shop embodied "more originality in every point, but in character especially, than any single work within our knowledge." Misguided critics had called some of these persons caricatures, but "the charge is grossly ill-founded. No critical principle is more firmly grounded in reason than that a certain amount of exaggeration is essential in the proper depicting of truth itself. We do not paint an object to be true, but to appear true to the beholder. Were we to copy nature with accuracy, the object copied would seem unnatural." Dicken's characters were not caricatures but creations.
The most noteworthy feature of the book was "its chaste, vigorous, and glowing imagination. This is the one charm, all potent, which alone would suffice to compensate for a world more of error than Mr. Dickens ever committed." The pathos in the concluding scenes "is of that best order which is relieved, in great measure by ideality." The only book that approached it in this respect was Fouqué's Undine. But Fouqué was dealing with an imaginary character with purely fanciful attributes, and so "cannot command our full sympathies, as can a simple denizen of earth." These qualities made The Old Curiosity Shop "very much the best of the works of Mr. Dickens."
In a carefully reasoned estimate, Poe compared Dickens with Bulwer:
The Art of Mr. Dickens, although elaborate and great, seems only a happy modification of Nature. In this respect he differs remarkably from the author of "Night and Morning." The latter, by excessive care and patient reflection, aided by much rhetorical knowledge and general information, has arrived at the capability of producing books which might be mistaken by ninety-nine readers out of a hundred for the genuine inspiration of genius. The former, by the promptings of the truest genius itself, has been brought to compose, and evidently without effort, works which have effected a long-sought consummation, which have rendered him the idol of the people, while defying and enchanting the critics. Mr. Bulwer, through art, has almost created a genius. Mr. Dickens, through genius, has perfected a standard from which Art itself will derive its essence, its rules.
Poe may not have been the father of the detective story, but he was certainly the first important critic who attempted to set an aesthetic for the genre. Characteristically, this was done in a review of Dickens's Barnaby Rudge. He listed explicitly two principles, he suggested a third, and in his practice indicated a fourth.
Under no circumstances may the author in his own right mislead the reader: no "undue or inartistical means be employed to conceal the secret of the plot." When a character asserted that the body of poor Mr. Rudge was found, this was legitimate and "no misdemeanor against Art in stating what was not the fact; since the falsehood is put into the mouth of Solomon Daisy, and given merely as the impression of this individual and the public. The writer has not asserted it in his own person, but ingeniously conveyed an idea (false in itself, yet a belief in which is necessary for the effect of the tale) by the mouth of one of his characters." On the other hand, it is "disingenuous and inartistical" for the author himself to denominate Mrs. Rudge as "the widow," for the author knows that her husband is not dead.
It is imperative that "the secret be well kept." A failure to preserve the secret until the denouement "throws all into confusion, so far as regards the effect intended. If the mystery leaks out, against the author's will, his purposes are immediately at odds and ends; for he proceeds upon the supposition that certain impressions do exist, which do not exist, in the mind of his readers." Poe was uncertain how many readers had solved the mystery in Barnaby Rudge; he had done so and had published his analysis immediately after the first installment had appeared. He noted the minor errors that he had made, but correctly insisted that they were minor. For one reader at least, the mystery had not been mysterious enough.
For the story to be legitimately mysterious, the author must to a great extent be engaged in concealing character, whereas the novelist usually was engaged in revealing and developing his characters. This may be done through incidents, such as the occasion when the murderer dresses the corpse of the gardener in his own clothes, puts his ring on its finger and his watch in its pocket—thus deluding the other characters. This may also be done through false or mistaken suspicions, so that an innocent man becomes a prime suspect. Yet this concealment of character should not be done directly by the author, but must be achieved indirectly. It is the purpose of the author to "whet curiosity" in the particulars of the story, as a means of disguising the solution.
These inter-related purposes, as Poe demonstrated in his own stories, can be better achieved through the use of a narrator than by the omniscient author. The narrator does not know everything. He may be duped, or conveniently sent away from the scene so that he had only partial information, or may interpret falsely a key bit of evidence. He must not deliberately present false evidence, but as a character in the story he is absolved from omniscience. This justifies his giving a partial or a mistaken picture, provided he believes that it is a true one.
Poe reviewed only a few foreign novels, and those only in translation. Of these, only one seems to need commentary: the romance Undine by the Baron de la Motte Fouqué. This German story of a beautiful but soulless water-spirit who loves and marries a man in order to gain a soul seemed to Poe "what we advisedly consider the finest romance in existence." Poe did not like for a story to have an overt or explicit moral; in Undine, the allegorical element was as well-handled as "that most indefensible species of writing" ever could be, for beneath the surface of the story "there runs a mystic or under current of meaning, of the simplest and most easily intelligible, yet of the most richly philosophical character." Its unity was absolute: "every minute point of the picture fills and satisfies the eye. Every thing is attended to, and nothing is out of time or out of place."
Undine remained for Poe one of the three great prose romances, worthy to be ranked with Scott's Bride of Lammermoor and Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop. He indicated less enthusiasm for the novel, but he consistently placed Robinson Crusoe and Gil Blas as the best in that genre. It may be worth noting, however, that two of the romances are short enough that they might easily be read at one sitting.
From the beginning of his critical career, Poe was more interested in the short story (which he usually called the tale and sometimes the article) than he was in the novel or romance. In the long work, unity or totality of effect was impossible for the author to achieve, and impossible for the reader to feel or grasp. He wrote repeatedly that the tale offered the greatest challenge to the imagination and the fairest field to the artist of any form of prose fiction. Yet it is also significant that a very early treatment emphasized the relation of the tale to the magazine.
When Thomas W. White, Editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, complained that "Berenice" was "far too horrible," Poe admitted that the accusation was justified. But he admitted that only for the individual story, and not for the type:
. . . what I wish to say relates to the character of your Magazine more than to any articles I may offer, and I beg you to believe that I have no intention of giving you advice, being fully confident that, upon consideration, you will agree with me. The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles similar in nature—to "Berenice"—although, I grant you, far superior in style and execution. I say similar in nature. You ask me in what does this nature consist? In the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical. You may say all this is bad taste. I have my doubts about it. Nobody is more aware than I am that simplicity is the cant of the day—but take my word for it no one cares any thing about simplicity in their hearts. Believe me also, in spite of what people say to the contrary, that there is nothing easier in the world than to be extremely simple. But whether the articles of which I speak are, or are not in bad taste is little to the purpose. To be appreciated you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity.
In this significant passage, Poe put the emphasis squarely on the tale's suitability for a magazine. It must first of all gain and hold the attention of readers; if it failed to do that, its virtues were of no practical value.
Poe seems to have thought of Washington Irving as an essayist and historian rather than as a writer of fiction. This may have been caused in part by the books which he reviewed. The Crayon Miscellany, No. III, contained a re-telling of "a few striking and picturesque legends" of the conquest of Spain by the Saracens; although they lacked the authenticity of history, they were "partially facts"; all Irving had done was "to adorn them in his own magical language." Astoria was straightforward history, executed in "a masterly manner." Only in a side-glance in a discussion of the skillfully-constructed story does he grant Irving much merit in this type of writing: "The 'Tales of a Traveller,' by Irving, are graceful and impressive narratives—'The Young Italian' is especially good—but there is not one of the series which can be commended as a whole. In many of them the interest is subdivided and frittered away."
Poe was flattered when Irving praised "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "William Wilson," although he seems to have exaggerated somewhat Irving's compliments. There was a pertinent reason for his delight. Since Irving "heads the school of the quietists," his approbation would give Poe a "complete triumph over those little critics who would endeavor to put me down by raising the hue & cry of exaggeration in style, of Germanism and such twaddle."
Although he confessed that he was not generally of a "merry mood," Poe hailed with delight the anonymously-published Georgia Scenes, by A. B. Longstreet. He knew nothing of the author, but thought him "a clever fellow, inbued with a spirit of the truest humor, and endowed, moreover, with an exquisitely discriminative and penetrating understanding of character in general, and of Southern character in particular. And we do not mean to speak of human character exclusively. To be sure, our Georgian is au fait here too—he is learned in all things appertaining to the biped without feathers. In regard, especially to that class of Southwestern mammalia who come under the generic appellation of 'savagerous wild cats,' he is a very Theophrastus in duodecimo. But he is not the less at home in other matters.
Of geese and ganders he is the La Bruyere, and of good-for-nothing horses the Rochefoucault." In spite of this high praise and granting to the author sly humor and an "exquisite dramatic talent," Poe considered the work a collection of sketches rather than of tales; he paraphrased approvingly Longstreet's prefatory statement that "they are, generally, nothing more than fanciful combinations of real incidents and characters," and in some instances literally true. Poe thought the book a landmark in American humor, but not in the development of the American short story.
Except for Hawthorne's work, Poe could in fact find few examples to praise. The British, especially Dickens, were vastly superior. Of skillfully-constructed American tales, perhaps the best was Simms's "Murder Will Out," although it had "some glaring defects." Irving had written graceful and impressive narratives; John Neal's work showed vigor of thought and picturesque combination of incident, but his stories rambled too much and invariably broke down "just before coming to an end." Purely from the point of view of construction (and Poe noted that other points might be more important), the tales of N. P. Willis were consistently the best—"with the exception of Mr. Hawthorne."
Of American story-tellers, only Hawthorne had consistently displayed "an Art subservient to genius of a very lofty order." His distinctive trait was "invention, creation, imagination, originality"—words that Poe here uses as synonyms. True, the originality was a trifle marred by Poe's detecting "something which resembles plagiarism—but which may be a very flattering coincidence of thought" in Hawthorne's "Howe's Masquerade." In that story and in his own "William Wilson" the two conceptions are identical, and many points are similar. Poe did not press the accusation, however, but contented himself with suggesting the possibility. Instead, he ended the review on a note of high praise:
In the way of objection we have scarcely a word to say of these tales. There is, perhaps, a somewhat too general or prevalent tone—a tone of melancholy and mysticism. The subjects are insufficiently varied. There is not so much of versatility evinced as we might well be warranted in expecting from the high powers of Mr. Hawthorne. But beyond these trivial exceptions we have really none to make. The style is purity itself. Force abounds. High imagination gleams from every page. Mr. Hawthorne is a man of the truest genius. We only regret that the limits of our Magazine will not permit us to pay him that full tribute of commendation, which, under other circumstances, we should be so eager to pay.
In 1847, Poe sharply although somewhat confusedly revised his earlier opinion as to Hawthorne's originality. He treated "all subjects in a similar tone of dreamy innuendo, yet in this walk he evinces extraordinary genius." But his treatment of subject-matter was too monotonously alike for him to be called truly original: "This true or commendable originality, however, implies not the uniform, but the continuous peculiarity—a peculiarity springing from ever-active vigor of fancy—better still if from ever-present force of imagination, giving its own hue, its own character to everything it touches, and, especially, self-impelled to touch everything." By this stringent definition, Hawthorne was not really original; moreover, he owed too much to the manner of the German Tieck. There was a "sameness, or monotone" in Hawthorne's work; this was the "strain of allegory which completely overwhelms the greater number of his subjects, and which in some measure interferes with the direct conduct of absolutely all." Since Poe felt that in defence of allegory "there is scarcely one respectable word to be said," it is hardly surprising that he qualified his praise of Hawthorne. Even so, he makes a useful aesthetic point: "if allegory ever establishes a fact, it is by dint of overturning a fiction. Where the suggested meaning runs through the obvious one in a very profound under-current so as never to interfere with the upper one without our own volition, so as never to show itself unless called to the surface, there only, for the proper uses of fictitious narrative, is it available at all. Under the best circumstances, it must always interfere with that unity of effect which to the artist, is worth all the allegory in the world."
Poe's dislike of the Transcendentalists may in part have motivated these strictures. He was willing to allow many virtues to the literary artist, but Hawthorne's "spirit of 'metaphor run-mad' is clearly imbibed from the phalanx and phalanstery atmosphere in which he has been so long struggling for breath. He has not half the material for the exclusiveness of authorship that he possesses for its universality. He has the purest style, the finest taste, the most available scholarship, the most delicate humor, the most touching pathos, the most radiant imagination, the most consummate ingenuity; and with these varied good qualities he has done well as a mystic. But is there any one of these qualities which would prevent his doing doubly as well in a career of honest, upright, sensible, prehensible and comprehensible things? Let him mend his pen, get a bottle of visible ink, come out from the Old Manse, cut Mr. Alcott, hang (if possible) the editor of 'The Dial,' and throw out of the window to the pigs all his odd numbers of 'The North American Review'."
When one considers that Hawthorne was his only serious or worthy rival in the writing of tales, Poe's criticism in 1842 seems not only just but amazingly generous. There are a few quibbles, beginning with the title, Twice-Told Tales. They were really thrice-told, and many of them were properly essays rather than tales. In themselves the essays were excellent, their predominant feature being "repose. There is no attempt at effect. All is quiet, thoughtful, subdued. Yet this repose may exist simultaneously with high originality of thought; and Mr. Hawthorne has demonstrated the fact. At every turn we meet with novel combinations; yet these combinations never surpass the limits of the quiet. . . . The Essays of Hawthorne have much of the character of Irving, with more of originality, and less of finish; while, compared with the Spectator, they have a vast superiority at all points."
Yet they were inferior to the tales in polish and interest. It was characteristic of Poe that before reviewing the stories he digressed far enough to give his own idea of what a tale should be. He had no doubt that it afforded "unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent, which can be afforded by the domains of mere prose." The best display of literary genius was in the rhymed poem that was long enough to produce an intense and enduring impression but brief enough to be read at one sitting, in not more than an hour. Second only to this was "the short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal." The ordinary novel was objectionable because of its length, which deprived it of "the immense force derivable from totality." Since the tale could be read at one sitting and without distraction, the "soul of the reader is at the writer's control." This had its disadvantages. The novelist could wander and digress; he could stop one line of action to "bring up" another one; he could move freely from character to character and from incident to incident. Since unity of effect was impossible, he did not have to be so much concerned with it. But these advantages were gained at the expense of artistry and of totality; they were in fact when considered properly not advantages at all. Genius would not make such sacrifices to expediency.
Poe was the first critic to consider the short story seriously as a literary type and as an independent art form. Unhesitatingly and often, he declared it to be superior to the novel. He wanted to define what it was and what it should be. He desired to develop an aesthetic for a genre that, although by no means new, had been unfairly and uncomprehendingly deprecated. It was second only to the lyric poem as a work of art.
This may have been rationalization, as Joseph Wood Krutch and other writers have baldly declared: Poe may have been justifying his own inability to write a sustained work, in prose or verse. It seems more likely that he was, consciously or unconsciously, setting an aesthetic for an appropriate magazine fiction. The story must gain and hold attention in competition with poems, essays, articles, and reviews. It must for this purpose have a complete and rounded plot, yet it must be short enough to be published in one issue. So in 1842 he defined clearly his own ideal of what a story should be, and in 1847 he retained the basic ideas with only slight changes in wording:
A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidenthe then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided.
Here, clearly stated, is Poe's ideal of prose fiction. It does not sound like rationalization; it has the authentic ring, rather, of a carefully-developed theory that had been evolved not only out of Poe's own practice but as an inevitable result of his critical precepts. The critic reviewing Bulwer's Night and Morning was not concerned with his own fiction but with the inadequacy of the novel as an art-form; the critic who so generously praised Hawthorne's stories did not need to call attention to his own work. He desired unity or totality of effect, both in the work itself and on the reader. In fiction, this could only be achieved through the tale. He desired also to edit a good, even a great, magazine, and he thought continually about a literature suited for this purpose. It was not by accident that his theory of fiction set an aesthetic for a magazine literature.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9700
SOURCE: "Toward Standards," in Poe: Journalist and Critic, Louisiana State University Press, 1969, pp. 159-90.
[Jacobs traces the development of Poe's general literary standards through the book reviews that Poe wrote during his last eight months as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in 1836.]
A professional book reviewer for an American monthly magazine had little opportunity to practice philosophical criticism, for he had to hammer out notices of the subliterary material that piled up on his desk. Poe did attempt to examine this material by literary standards, however. In May of 1836 he reviewed a travel book, Spain Revisited, by a Lieutenant Slidell, and revealed his dislike for fulsome dedications and bad grammar. Poe considered himself an expert in matters of syntax and usage; and of all grammarians, he was one of the most prescriptive. The slightest ambiguity of reference or deviation into colloquialism provoked him into rewriting the passage to demonstrate correct English. His reconstructions, however, did not always go unchallenged. The editor of the Newbern (North Carolina) Spectator deplored the tone of his reviews in general, and his penchant for demolishing dedications and his hypercriticism of grammar in particular. Poe answered the charge at length, not only defending himself as a grammarian but also subjecting his critic to a personal attack: "We are at a loss to know who is the editor of the Spectator, but have a shrewd suspicion that he is the identical gentleman who once sent us from Newbern an unfortunate copy of verses. It seems to us that he wishes to be taken notice of, and we will for the once, oblige him with a few words. .. . If the editor of this little paper does not behave himself we will positively publish his verses."
Poe was feeling his power. He had received letters of praise from Professor Charles Anthon, Mrs. Sigourney (now mollified), and James Kirke Paulding. Even Halleck, whose poems Poe had criticized severely, had complimented the Messenger and Poe. Furthermore, Poe's review of Drake and Halleck had been hailed as "one of the finest pieces of criticism ever published in this country." All this praise was quoted or referred to in the July Supplement to the Messenger, and if the notices that were published are a fair sampling of opinion, Poe's criticism was already respected, even feared, from Natchez to Boston; and his fiction was drawing almost equal praise. Yet it was disturbing to find a hometown newspaper, the Richmond Courier and Daily Compiler, objecting to the gloom of his tales: "Mr. Poe is too fond of the wild—unnatural and horrible! Why will he not permit his fine genius to soar into purer, brighter, and happier regions? Why will he not disenthrall himself from the spells of German enchantment and supernatural imagery? There is room enough for the exercise of the highest powers, upon the multiform relations of human life, without descending into the dark, mysterious, and unutterable creations of licentious fancy."
This had been the opinion of White's first editor, James Heath, and of White himself, and it illustrates a conventional American attitude that Poe found a perpetual source of frustration. Earlier American critics had wanted cheerful, optimistic accounts of the human condition, not morbid analyses of the darker recesses of the human soul. Thus far, however, Poe gave little evidence that such opposition disturbed him. He wrote the kind of tale he wanted to write, and his inclination was reinforced by his knowledge of the success tales of psychological horror had had in British magazines. Accordingly, he was not disposed to heed the warnings of a few moralists in Richmond, Virginia. If his letter to Philip Pendleton Cooke three years later is honest, it was enough for him that the discriminating few appreciated tales like "Morella" and "Ligeia." "As for the mob—let them talk on. I should be grieved if I thought they comprehended me here."
Meanwhile there were books to be reviewed, and Poe continued in his self-appointed task of reforming journalistic criticism in America. In May he challenged American provincialism by praising Mrs. Trollope, whose Domestic Manners of the Americans had offended the national sensitivity by intimating that those manners left much to be desired. "We have no patience with that atrabilious set of hyper-patriots," wrote Poe, "who find fault with Mrs. Trollope's book of flum-flummery about the good people of the Union." A book should be judged as a book, he asserted, not as a national affront: "That our national soreness of feeling prevented us, in the case of her work on America, from appreciating the real merits of the book, will be rendered evident by the high praise we find no difficulty in bestowing upon her Paris and the Parisians—a production, in whatever light we regard it, precisely similar to the one with which we were so irreparably offended." In this vein Poe might appear to us as the champion of literary America, challenging the dragons of stupidity, false pride, and provinciality; but all too often he deviated from the path of principle to gratify a personal pique. He had been lying in wait for Colonel William L. Stone, editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser, ever since that gentleman had used his newspaper to reprimand the "Zoilus" of the Messenger for the scathing Norman Leslie review. In June the victim was at hand, in the form of Ups and Downs in the Life of a Distressed Gentleman. No doubt Colonel Stone's book deserved to be "used up" (as Poe was fond of calling his destructive method), but, as usual when he was gratifying a grudge, Poe's review was splenetic rather than critical.
The first two pages of the review prodded what is always a tender spot, the potential market for the book. Poe announced the price, counted the pages, and concluded that purchasers would be bilked, intimating that the book was so worthless that it should be measured by its size only. A single issue of the Messenger, Poe claimed, was six times as long as Stone's book and cost less than half as much. Therefore, unless Ups and Downs were sixteen times as high in quality as the Messenger, Stone was presuming upon the "excessive patience, gullibility, and good nature" of the public. Poe added insult by naming the anonymous author and stating that the book "should have been printed among the quack advertisements in a space corner of his paper."
Poe had very little else to say about Ups and Downs. The stinging but amusing satire of his earlier destructive reviews is less marked in this one, which may indicate that the earlier reviews were prompted by a desire to be "wickedly" good humored after the manner of Christopher North. In this case, however, Poe's ire had been aroused, and the review is more vindictive than humorous. Most of the space is given to a plot summary with quotations designed to show the book at its worst. Very sensitive to harsh criticism of his own work, Poe's retaliation to such criticism was often equally ill tempered and made him a target for violent abuse.
Poe's book reviews in the June number, though generally undistinguished, should not be dismissed completely. A brief notice of Dickens' Watkins Tottle and Other Sketches proves that Poe was developing his theory of the short tale. A novel, he said, certainly requires a sustained effort, but this effort is merely perseverance and has only a "collateral relation to talent." The short tale, however, must have unity of effect, a quality which is "not easily appreciated or indeed comprehended by an ordinary mind." It is a quality difficult to attain, "even by those who can conceive it."
We have already noticed that Poe did not apply the criterion of a unified effect to the poems of Drake and Halleck, no doubt because he was more interested in being "philosophical" than in analyzing technique. Unity to Poe, insofar as it could be prescribed, was a question of technique, a logical and psychological strategy of adapting means to the proposed end. Because his reductionism was not so stringent for prose as for poetry, he was able to make a more satisfactory application of the principle to the short tale than he ever did to the poem. Poe did not explain here what he meant by unity of effect, but, remembering his use of Schlegel in the review of Mrs. Sigourney, we may assume that he meant total effect, or that correlation of feeling and thought that would be a unified response. If so, and it seems likely, he was demanding an interdependence among the various elements of form which would enable the objective structural unity, the relationship of part to part and part to whole, to be the vehicle of a subjective unity of impression. This interpretation is supported by his analysis of one of Dickens' tales. Poe offered "The Pawnbroker's Shop" as an illustration of the unity of effect, making the claim that each sentence gives a fuller view of the picture the artist is painting. A novel, Poe asserted, does not lend itself to such a technique; it is admired for its "detached passages, without reference to the work as a whole." As usual, Poe seized every opportunity to explain that the novel was not an art form, but in examining the short tale by the principle of unity of impression he elevated it to the traditional status of a fine art.
Poe's analogy between the short tale and a painting is significant, for it explains his concept of unity more clearly than any of his abstract definitions: "the Pawnbroker's Shop engages and enchains our attention—we are enveloped in its atmosphere of wretchedness and extortion—we pause at every sentence, not to dwell upon the sentence, but to obtain a fuller view of the gradually perfecting picture—which is never at any moment any other matter than the Pawnbroker's Shop. To the illustration of this one end all the groupings and fillings in of the painting are rendered subservient—and when our eyes are taken from the canvas, we remember the personages of the sketch not at all as independent existences, but as essentials of the one subject we have witnessed—as a part and portion of the Pawnbroker's Shop." If a narrative is regarded as a picture, it is a design extended in space, not a movement in time, and if characters are regarded as static groupings used as elements of a composition, there is little or no dramatic effect. It is the thematic design which is important, and character and setting are equivalent means by which the design is fulfilled. By Poe's theory one should not attempt to write a "character story" or an "action story," because undue emphasis on person or event would cause an imbalance in the composition. An "atmospheric story" would be allowable, however, for a symbolic rendition of scene would be as adequate for thematic purpose as it would be in a painting.
It would be tempting at this point to analyze one of Poe's own tales to see how well he followed his own theory. "The Fall of the House of Usher," published three years later, would be the obvious choice, for an interpretation of scene is just as necessary for apprehending the import of the tale as is the analysis of character. Yet this story has been competently analyzed many times, and it should be enough to say that Poe's theory of unity works in "Usher," but it works at the expense of certain qualities which many of us today have been taught to expect in fiction. Roderick Usher, for instance, is not so much a convincing character as he is the pictorialization of theme. He is a "symbolic" character, according to some interpretations. Since Usher's fears are revealed more by description than by dramatic action, there is little conflict and almost no tension or suspense. The story can be regarded as mechanical—utterly contrived. For such a reason Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren criticized it harshly in the first edition of their textbook, Understanding Fiction. This textbook divides stories into three types—plot, character, and theme—although the authors are careful to emphasize that the quality of a particular story "may depend upon the organic relation existing among these elements." Thus, although Brooks and Warren, like Poe, would not approve of the isolation of any particular element in a story, their categories do permit the emphasis of one element over the other, which is pragmatically sound. Poe, however, a pioneer in the genre, was not describing the tale as it has come to be; he was prescribing the tale as he thought it ought to be, the ideal form as he conceived it.
"Usher" is a tableau, the illustration of an idea, in which the symbolic significance of scene is just as important as the sequence of events. In fact, it is more important, for temporal movement is relatively subordinate. The collapse and death motif is foreshadowed in the opening description, and significant change or development does not occur. Poe's own term for this type of tale, the "arabesque," is appropriate. This term, used to describe a graphic design, signifies an ordering of space, not a chronological development.
The review of Dickens was the only real effort at criticism Poe was to make for some time. The other reviews in the June issue and all of those in July were perfunctory notices of nonliterary or subliterary material, although among them Poe did insert a tribute to Coleridge in the form of an announcement of the American publication of the Letters, Conversations, and Recollections of S.T. Coleridge. Poe wrote:
. . . with us (we are not ashamed to confess it) the most trivial memorial of Coleridge is a treasure of inestimable price. He was indeed a "myriad-minded man," and ah, how little understood, and how pitifully vilified! How merely nominal was the difference (and this too in his own land) between what he himself calls the "broad, predetermined abuse" of the Edinburgh Review, and the cold and brief compliments with the warm regrets of the Quarterly. If there be any one thing more than another which stirs within us a deep spirit of indignation and disgust, it is that damnation with faint praise which so many of the Narcissi of critical literature have had the infinite presumption to breathe against the majesty of Coleridge—of Coleridge—the man to whose gigantic mind the proudest intellects of Europe found it impossible not to succumb.
This was the most unqualified praise that Poe ever gave to the critic whose work helped form his own critical theory and practice. Later he was to rebel consciously against Coleridge's influence and to complain somewhat petulantly about the British critic's "over-profundity" and "metaphysicianism," as did other American critics who professed to be baffled by Coleridge's obscurities. At the moment, however, he was an ardent admirer. If the Biographia Literaria were published in America, Poe concluded, the publishers "would be rendering an important service to the cause of psychological science in America, by introducing a work of great scope and power in itself, and well calculated to do away with the generally received impression here entertained of the mysticism of the writer."
Mysticism, which in Poe's time could mean almost anything difficult to understand, was no bugaboo to him as yet; but in subsequent years, as he reacted against the New England transcendentalists, he began to display the usual American reverence for common sense and plain speaking and deprecated the "cloudland of metaphysics." This tendency became pronounced during his second attempt to make a place for himself in New York journalism and must be regarded, at least in part, as his contribution to the journalistic rivalry between New York and Boston. At the moment, however, he was relatively isolated and could speak his mind with no further inhibition than that imposed by his apprehensive employer. Praising Coleridge and damning two British journals would have disturbed White far less than incurring the risk of a lawsuit by abusing Theodore Fay and William L. Stone.
In August, Poe was able to return to literary criticism with a review of The Book of Gems, an anthology of British poets from Chaucer to Prior. This review added nothing to Poe's stature as a critic, for he revealed a narrowly contemporaneous taste. At least a third of our affection for the "old" poets, he claimed, is "simple love of the antique." Even when we do feel something like the "proper poetic sentiment" in reading their poems, he continued, the feeling comes in part from the quaint phraseology and grotesque rhythms, which are not the result of artistry but only the accident of time and place. The "old" English muse was without art, Poe declared, even though her devotees, such as John Donne and Abraham Cowley, might have been very learned in their own way. These so-called metaphysical poets were far from metaphysical in the proper sense, because with them ethics or moral truth was the end of the poem, which to Poe was inadmissible. Wordsworth and Coleridge used metaphysical knowledge properly, because with them the end of a poem was quite properly the stimulation of poetic feeling "through channels suggested by mental analysis." Donne and Cowley had failed where Coleridge, in particular, had succeeded brilliantly, because Coleridge knew what poetry was supposed to do and he knew how to accomplish his purpose. In contrast, Cowley and all the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century were "simple and single-hearted men" who wrote directly from the "soul" with complete "abandon"—i.e., without art.
With the revival of interest in metaphysical poetry in the twentieth century, we may be disposed to dismiss Poe's strictures as incredibly naïve; but to do so would be to betray our own lack of perspective. From the age of Pope to Poe's own time, most critics had been inclined to think of seventeenth-century poetry, with the one exception of Milton, as an artless exhibition of mental gymnastics, "One glaring chaos and wild heap of wit," as Pope had described it. Without attempting to designate specific sources, we may be sure that Poe's attitude, though not the exact terms of his argument, was formed by such works as Dr. Johnson's Life of Cowley, Blair's Lectures, which denigrate Cowley (using Johnson as authority), and perhaps even Sir Francis Jeffrey's review of John Ford, who, though a dramatist, was contemporary with Cowley and in Jeffrey's opinion displayed the lack of taste characteristic of his period. From reading Karnes and Blair, one would conclude that nothing happened in English literature prior to Shakespeare and that between Shakespeare and Dryden the only poet worth mentioning was Milton. The Book of Gems was an unusual anthology because it did contain the "early English poets." It was not uncommon to find Milton in an anthology—along with such late eighteenth-century favorites as Young, Beattie, Gray, and Collins.
It is not surprising, then, that Poe considered Donne and Cowley as primitive in respect to art, for to him art began with the recent application of psychological aesthetics. To compare Poe's opinion of seventeenth-century writers with that of Jeffrey is instructive. Poe writes: "To elevate immeasurably all the energies of the mind—but again—so to mingle the greatest possible fire, force, delicacy, and all good things, with the lowest possible bathos, baldness, and utter imbecility, as to render it not a matter of doubt, but of certainty, that the average results of mind in such a school, will be found inferior to those results in one (ceteris paribus) more artificial [i.e., more conscious of art]: Such, we think, is the view of the older English Poetry, in which a very calm examination will bear us out." Next, Jeffrey: "Unaccountable, however, as it is, the fact is certain, that almost all the dramatic writers of this age appear to be alternately inspired, and bereft of understanding; and pass, apparently without being conscious of the change, from the most beautiful displays of genius to the most melancholy examplification of stupidity. . . . there is an inequality and a capricious uncertainty in the taste and judgment of these good old writers, which excites at once our amazement and compassion."
Historically, then, Poe was exhibiting a stock opinion. More to the point of his development as a critic, however, he was basing his concept of artistry upon the artist's grasp of the psychology of response, his knowledge of emotional reactions and effective stimuli. The complexity of tone of the metaphysical poets, the yoking of intellect with emotion, the ironic indirection of the better metaphysical poems, were all lost on Poe, who considered the unity of emotional effect the prime desideratum of a poem. Poe's constriction of the limits of poetry had previously appeared in his review of Drake and Halleck, but this review is an even more obvious demonstration of his reductionism in practice. The only poem of The Book of Gems he was able to praise without qualification was Marvell's "Maiden Lamenting for her Fawn," which contained none of the wit that would have offended the sensibilities of Poe's generation. His rhapsody about the poem reveals how completely his taste was that of sentimental romanticism: "How truthful an air of deep lamentation hangs here upon every gentle syllable! It pervades all. It comes over the half-playful, half-petulant air with which she lingers on the beauties and good qualities of her favorite. . . . The whole thing is redolent with poetry of the very loftiest order. It is positively crowded with nature and with pathos."
Scarcely a line of the poem is analyzed, and Poe's rapturous language seems hardly appropriate for the Zoilus of the Messenger. He was much more forceful in analyzing the defects of what he did not like than in demonstrating the quality of the works his taste approved.
The readers of the Messenger might have thought that Poe's hatchet had lost its edge if he had not included one harsh condemnation among the generally bland reviews of the August number. Nathaniel Parker Willis, although only three years older than Poe, was already an established writer in America. He was an editor of the New York Mirror, the journal that had attempted to "puff Norman Leslie into success. Willis had published three books of poems and three volumes of literary "letters" called Pencillings by the Way before Poe reviewed his book of sketches, Inklings of Adventure.
Willis was an aesthete, a literary fop about New York whose mannerisms irritated some of the critics who reviewed his work; but Poe, fresh from having announced in his review of Drake and Halleck that a work should be criticized by principle and not by prejudice, denounced the practice of attacking a book on the basis of the author's personality: "We cannot sufficiently express our disgust at that unscrupulous indelicacy which is in the habit of deciding upon the literary merits of this gentleman by a reference to his private character and manners. . . ." Willis probably appreciated this attitude, for he had been subjected to a number of personal attacks, including two by Poe's enemies, Willis Gaylord Clark and Colonel William L. Stone. This in spite of the fact that the Mirror had "puffed" Colonel Stone's writings.
Unfortunately for Willis, Poe found sufficient reason to demolish the book without reference to the author's character. The whole narrative was "disfigured and indeed utterly ruined by the grievous sin of affectation." This charge has been examined in a previous chapter in reference to the romantic requirement of sincerity, but it also represented a stylistic fault. Blair had devoted an entire lecture to the definition of simplicity and its opposite, affectation. Simplicity of composition, he explained, was virtually the same thing as unity, for it represented a design distinguished by a relatively small number of parts, as could be illustrated by Greek tragedy and Greek architecture, in contrast to the Gothic modes. Simplicity of style "stands opposed to too much ornament, or pomp of Language," whereas an affected style was overly ornate, or florid. Another way in which simplicity was manifested was in an easy and natural manner of expressing thought, "in such a manner, that every one thinks he could have written in the same way." Affectation, on the other hand, was not simply ornament, but the labored effort to achieve rhetorical effects.
Poe's charge of affectation was properly applied to Willis' style. His striving for effect, his attempts at cleverness, elegance, and wit were the New Yorker's tokens of a sophistication that was unappreciated in the provinces; but Poe judged Willis' frivolity by a stylistic principle considered sound in his day. Furthermore, in terms of unity of effect, Willis' mannerisms were productive of a greater flaw. There was an "utter want of keeping" in the book, for the "absurd fripperies and frivolities" prevented the reader from appreciating his more serious subjects, such as the grandeur of Niagara Falls. The trivial could not be mixed with the sublime, according to the Allisonian principle of the single emotion.
In later years Poe was to make amends to Willis and was even to become his friend. Willis employed Poe to write for the New York Evening Mirror in 1844 and defended him from his enemies in 1846 and after his death; but Poe never had a high regard for Willis as a writer. He judged Willis as a man of fancy rather than of imagination. Few would question his verdict.
In September, Poe reviewed a novel which interested him, Sheppard Lee, by Robert Montgomery Bird, author of Calavar and The Infidel. Sheppard Lee was a humorous fantasy, an "original," Poe thought. Much of the book was social satire, but this element Poe ignored in favor of Bird's exploitation of the occult. The chief character experiences metempsychosis, his psyche inhabiting some seven different bodies (of persons who had recently died) in its transmigration. Poe himself had used metempsychosis in his tale "Morella," and he was to use it again in "Ligeia" and in "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains." Consequently he was intrigued by Bird's strategy in using the occult. Yet Poe was disturbed, as we might expect, by the humor of Sheppard Lee. The journey of the soul should be treated seriously, and the author should have made an effort to secure the reader's assent to the supernatural elements. Instead Bird violated the tone of the novel with incongruities until the final page and then ruthlessly disposed of the problem by alleging that the whole thing was only a dream, thus depriving the reader of the emotional effect he had secured through identification with the character. Any use of the supernatural, Poe claimed, should be carefully planned. It should not be a mere structural device for stringing together six separate narratives. If Bird had caused his hero to preserve his identity through each successive existence, and if the events themselves had been contrasted in their effect upon an unchanging character, the book would have had a legitimate interest.
Such a method would be satisfactory, Poe asserted, but there was a superior stratagem:
It consists in a variety of points—principally in avoiding, as may easily be done, that directness of expression which we have noticed in Sheppard Lee, and thus leaving much to the imagination—in writing as if the author were firmly impressed with the truth, yet astonished at the immensity, of the wonders he relates, and for which, professedly, he neither claims nor anticipates credence—in minuteness of detail, especially upon points which have no immediate bearing upon the general story—this minuteness not being at variance with indirectness of expression—in short, by making use of the infinity of arts which give verisimilitude to a narration—and by leaving the result as a wonder not to be accounted for. It will be found that bizarreries thus conducted, are usually far more effective than those otherwise managed. The attention of the author, who does not depend upon explaining away his incredibilities, is directed to giving them the character and the luminousness of truth, and thus are brought about, unwittingly, some of the most vivid creations of human intellect. The reader, too, readily perceives and falls in with the writer's humor, and suffers himself to be borne on thereby. On the other hand what difficulty, or inconvenience, or danger can there be in leaving us uninformed of the important facts that a certain hero did not actually discover the elixir vitae, could not really make himself invisible, and was not either a ghost in good earnest, or a bona fide Wandering Jew?
Poe wins our respect here by constructing a rationale for the supernatural in fiction. Lame endings that revealed the author's subservience to common sense were frequent in popular fiction. The highly respected Washington Irving had provided natural explanations for the supernatural events of some of his tales, as had Charles Brockden Brown and Mrs. Ann Radcliffe before him. No such apology to reason and science is present in Poe's own tales of the supernatural. Morella's soul invades the body of her daughter, but the mystery is unexplained, as is the more startling transformation of the blonde Rowena into the brunette Ligeia. Poe's theory of unity of effect forbade the intrusion of materials that would dispel the illusion which all good fiction creates. He knew that readers give willing assent to the virtual existence which is the "life" of fiction, however incredible that existence may be when measured by ordinary experience.
Concerned, as always, with questions of technique, Poe explained how to secure the reader's acceptance of the occult by using the "arts" of verisimilitude. No longer did he generalize by referring to the power of identification, as he had in his review of Robinson Crusoe. Instead, he indicated that the illusion of reality could be achieved by the multiplication of minute details, even though these details were not directly relevant to the plot. "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," on which he may have been working at this time (the first installment was published in the Messenger only four months later) makes use of such details. The technique itself was not new. The "sensation" stories of Blackwood's, from which he had learned part of his craft, had given minute details of bizarre experiences and the consequent emotional reactions; but Poe could not be content with a technique unless he could support it in theory.
The achievement of verisimilitude in action and setting, Poe had perceived, was possible through the multiplication of detail. How to achieve it in characterization was a problem he did not examine in this review but to which he addressed himself in a review published four months later. His own tales, however, furnish evidence that he was aware that the reader's assent to the incredible could be achieved, in part, by the plausibility of the narrator. Most of the sensation stories, including Poe's, made use of first-person narrators. If the character telling the story is obviously psychotic, the bizarre experience may be taken as hallucination, and verisimilitude is destroyed. This credibility-destroying device had been used by Irving in Tales of a Traveller, in which the "Adventure of the German Student" is narrated by a "nervous gentleman" who claims to have heard it from the student himself in a madhouse! Poe used the gambit in "The Tell-Tale Heart," with its opening sentence that testifies to the madness of the narrator. There is nothing wrong with such a device if the author has no intention of securing verisimilitude on external terms and wishes only to record the experience of a deranged mind. If, however, the purpose is to describe a strange adventure in an incredible setting, the author must in some way vouch for the sanity of the narrator. Poe went to extreme lengths to accomplish this in "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," even writing a preface in which Pym, the character, makes the claim that Poe, the author, fictionalized the facts presented straightforwardly by Pym himself; then Poe added a postscript, claiming that Pym and his companion were still alive.
Such tactics are crude and indefensible. More to Poe's credit is his effort to establish Pym's plausibility by distinguishing the character's periods of near insanity from his periods of self-possession. In other words, the reader is informed of the times at which the character is subject to hallucination. In an earlier tale, "Ms. Found in a Bottle," Poe had endeavored to accomplish the same object by making his narrator unimaginative and skeptical. Pym does have imagination, but he insists that he retains his "powers of mind" at a time when his companions have been reduced to "a species of second childhood." Even when he encounters the wonders of the South Sea region, Pym merely records details instead of trying to explain the marvels. This technique is that of writing "as if the author were firmly impressed with the truth," the requirement Poe had proposed in his review of Sheppard Lee.
Poe's devices worked in a way that he did not expect. Pym was reviewed as an attempt at a realistic travel story that neglected probability, surely an indication that his clumsier tactics annoyed his reviewer. For all of his theorizing, Poe had no gift for realism and the super-rationality of some of his narrators strikes most readers in a way quite opposite to what was evidently intended. James W. Cox furnishes this explanation: "He [Pym] is not the observer but forever the actor, and his experiences come more and more to seem the hallucinations of a madman." To read Pym in terms of the Crusoe-like verisimilitude Poe invokes is unrewarding, to say the least. The novel assumes interest only if we interpret it as Patrick Quinn has done, as a symbolic journey of the mind. Surely, however, it deserves better than Mr. Cox's comment that it is something between "a practical joke at the expense of the reader on one hand and a parody of the sensational adventure tale on the other." Poe undoubtedly wrote the novel to sell and exploited relatively crude effects, but in this case his unconscious is better than his conscious art. It may be taken as a crude thriller with a technique which foreshadows that of the modern science fiction adventure, such as A. E. Van Vogt's The War Against the Rull, but a search for symbolic meaning in Van Vogt's work yields no return, whereas both Patrick Quinn and Edward Davidson have found the "sensations" of Pym richly joined in implication.
In spite of the relatively inoffensive reviews that Poe had written for the July and August numbers of the Messenger, there was trouble in the office. On August 5, 1836, White had written to a contributor, William Cowper Scott, proprietor of the New York Weekly Messenger, that the next issue of his journal would be delayed because of illness. Again on August 25 he wrote that the November number was not ready because of "sickness among my most material hands," which evidently meant Poe. In September, White himself was ill. An editorial note in the September issue stated that since both editor and publisher had been ill, there would be no notices of new books. In a letter to Sarah J. Hale, dated October 20, Poe admitted that he had been "sadly thrown back by late illness" and would be unable to contribute anything to the Ladies Magazine, which she edited in Boston. About this time White was on the verge of discharging Poe and retained him only on the fulfillment of "certain conditions." What these conditions were, we do not know. Perhaps they had to do with Poe's drinking. At any rate, with a slowly dying wife, financial difficulties, and illness of his own, White was evidently finding the vagaries of his brilliant editor too much to bear. Poe did recover from his indisposition in time to prepare the reviews for the October number—a full seventeen pages, though all of them may not have been Poe's—but in November there were further difficulties. White made a trip to New York about the middle of October, but on his return found his wife very low and his office in a state of confusion. If, as seems certain, he had left Poe in charge, Poe had violated the conditions White had imposed.
The November number was not ready for the press. It did not appear until December, and even then there was an apologetic note in the book review section: "A press of business connected with some necessary arrangements for Volume the third, has prevented us from paying, in this Messenger, the usual attention to our Critical Department. We have many books now lying by us which we propose to notice fully in our next. With this number we close Volume the Second."
The charitable conclusion is that Poe could not manage all of the work in White's absence—write the critical notices, handle the correspondence, pass judgment on contributions, prepare the magazine for the press, and read proof. His normal duties, if we can take White's letters to Lucían Minor as evidence of what he expected from his editor, would have been to handle book reviews and notices and furnish from fifteen to twenty pages of original material a month. But White had expected Minor to work only twenty-four to thirty hours a week, and it is likely that Poe did much more than this. Normally he handled much of White's correspondence and read proof. Though he could be overruled by White, he passed judgment on contributions and wrote letters of acceptance and rejection. Probably Poe's work week was far in excess of thirty hours. When we add the time necessary for his own creative work and for the careful analysis he preferred to give the books he reviewed, it is no wonder that occasionally he took refuge in a bottle and got the reputation of having "bad habits." R. M. T. Hunter, a contemporary observer, gave his impression of the situation, and although we cannot always trust a memory of forty years, Hunter's account in 1875 squares with the impression we get from White's letters to his confidants. Hunter wrote,
Here his [Poe's] habits were bad and as White did not appreciate his literary excellences I had hard work to save him from dismissal before it actually occurred. During a part of the time I was in Richmond, a member of the Legislature, and frequently volunteered to correct the press when pieces were being published with classical quotations. Poe was the only man on White's staff capable of doing this and when occasionally drinking (the habit was not constant) he was incapacitated for work. On such occasions I have done the work more than once to prevent a rupture between his employer and himself. He was reckless about money and subject to intoxication, but I was not aware of any other bad habit that he had.
Considering the state of affairs in the Messenger office during November, it is not surprising that the November number, when it finally appeared in December, contained only four pages of criticism, of which the only point of interest was another expression of Poe's admiration for Dickens in a review of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club—and this review was chiefly quotation. By January, White had made good his threat to discharge Poe, and among the critical notices in the first number of Volume HI was the announcement: "Mr. Poe's attention being called in another direction, he will decline, with the present number, the Editorial duties of the Messenger."
This account of Poe's difficulties between August and December of 1836 has been given in order to illustrate the problems he faced being a critic instead of a journalistic book-reviewer. Poe wanted to be a critic, to analyze the books that crossed his desk thoughtfully and at length; but the exigencies of his routine tasks were a formidable obstacle. It is to his credit that during these exasperating months he still managed to write reviews, a few of them good ones. In the October number, among notices of nonliterary publications such as Dr. Haxall's Dissertation on Diseases of the Abdomen, Hall's Latin Grammar, and S. A. Roszel's Address Delivered at the Annual Commencement of Dickinson College, there is a review of a book of short stories, Peter Snook . . . and Other Strange Tales. If we remember that collections of tales were not customarily honored with serious reviews during Poe's time, we can see that this review not only reveals the progress of Poe's ideas concerning the short story as a literary form but also indicates his efforts to establish the genre as worthy of criticism. For once he thought he had found a perfect example of the form: "The incidents of this story are forcibly conceived and even in the hands of an ordinary writer would scarcely fail of effect. But in the present instance so unusual a tact is developed in narration, that we are inclined to rank 'Peter Snook' among the few tales which, each in their own way, are absolutely faultless."
Reviewing Dickens' Watkins Tottle in June, Poe had compared the short story to a painting. Now he developed the analogy in detail:
"Peter Snook" is . . . a Flemish home-piece, and entitled to the very species of praise which should be awarded to the best of such pieces. The merit lies in the chiaro 'scuro—in that blending of light and shadow where nothing is too distinct, yet where the idea is fully conveyed—in the absence of all rigid outlines and all miniature painting—in the not undue warmth of the coloring—and in the slight tone of exaggeration prevalent, yet not amounting to caricature. We will venture to assert that no painter, who deserves to be called so, will read "Peter Snook" without assenting to what we have to say, and without a perfect consciousness that the principal rules of the plastic arts, founded as they are in a true perception of the beautiful, will apply in their fullest force to every species of literary composition.
To anyone familiar with Poe's aesthetic principles the statement above is astonishing. Usually vehement in his opposition to mimetic realism, he compared "Peter Snook" approvingly with a "Flemish home-piece," in spite of the fact that the Flemish school of painters was normally censured in his time for uncritical literalness and a delight in the commonplace. Their work was marked by accuracy and precision of outline, a result of a tradition of miniature painting, yet these are precisely the qualities that Poe denied to the best of the Flemish work. His use of the term chiaroscuro, however, suggests that he was referring not to the distinctive Flemish paintings of the fifteenth century but to the genre painting of the seventeenth century, after the influence of the Italian artist Caravaggio had made itself felt, particularly in the thematic use of light and shadow. That Poe was making an accurate comparison is indicated by his description of "the slight tone of exaggeration prevalent, yet not amounting to caricature." The Flemish genre painters had retained enough of Pieter Bruegel's passion for the details of homely life, invested with a certain amount of humor, to justify Poe's comparison. The author of "Peter Snook," Poe noted, "has some of the happiest peculiarities of Dickens"; then he quoted enough of the tale to show that these peculiarities had to do with a humorous presentation of a London clerk and his financial and amatory misadventures. The story is a "home-piece" in its exaggeration of low life and uses the technique of chiaroscuro to emphasize elements of character.
Obviously Poe did not object to Dickensian realism in a short tale, provided that details were organized into a total design—a composition that would convey a unity of impression. More surprising is the last sentence of his quotation, that "the principal rules of the plastic arts, founded as they are in a true perception of the beautiful, will apply in their fullest force to every species of literary composition" (italics mine). After 1831 he customarily denied, along with most other romantic critics, that poetry resembled painting, for painting was a mimetic art and poetry was not. However, when Poe referred to "principal rules," he was thinking in terms of the psychology of effect. The unity of effect was a first principle, to be observed in all arts. As he was to explain in a later review, effects differed according to genre, but the principle was always the same.
Poe continued to describe the short tale as a design or a composition rather than as a narrative characterized by action and drama. The pleasure to be derived from it was similar to the response to a painting—say by a master of the picturesque such as Salvator Rosa—in which the management of light and shadow is thematically significant. Details that call attention to themselves are to be avoided because they get in the way of the apprehension of the design, the idea of the story. We do not know whether at this time Poe had read any of Hawthorne's tales which S. B. Goodrich had published in The Token, but, whether he had read them or not, he described with precision what has been accepted as a chief characteristic of Hawthorne's symbolic art—the blending of light and shadow so that object, character, and event are never seen in insulated detail but only in a kind of relatedness that, taken as a whole, intimates the idea. The review of Peter Snook reveals that six years before Poe was to review Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales he was prepared to do them justice. Hawthorne was practicing the technique for which Poe was attempting to formulate a theory. Where Poe's theory and Hawthorne's practice came to terms was in the picturesque tradition, which valued natural objects selectively for their picturesque qualities and their capability of being combined into compositions that would create a unified impression. It is not at all surprising that in the few remarks Poe made about painters he showed preference for Claude Lorraine and Salvator Rosa, whose paintings had helped establish the vogue of the picturesque in the eighteenth century. Since the November number of the Messenger did not appear until December and even then contained only four pages of perfunctory notices, the last work of any significance that Poe accomplished as editor of the Messenger appeared in January, 1837. The first five reviews in this issue are his; the others are by Judge Abel P. Upshur and Beverley Tucker. Of Poe's five reviews, two merit examination.
Poe gave George Balcombe, a novel published anonymously by his friend Beverley Tucker, a full measure of attention. Some months later White wrote to Tucker alleging that the "eulogistic review" was written only because Poe suspected that Tucker was the author of the novel. "Poe seldom or ever done [sic] what he knew was just to any books," White charged. Since this charge was made in retrospect, after White should have had time to cool off from whatever heat the immediate friction with Poe had caused, it may have been a firm conviction. As has been shown, Poe did write some caustic reviews, flippant in tone, of what White called "some trashy novels." But White went on to say that Poe rarely read through the books that he reviewed, and this accusation is quite unfair in view of the circumstances. Poe's reviews demonstrated that he read very carefully the books that he thought merited attention. Even when he resorted to plot summary instead of analysis, he appears to have read the books concerned, unless he lifted the summaries from other magazines. When Poe did borrow from other reviewers, which he did infrequently, he was more scrupulous than many of his contemporaries in mentioning his sources. Considering his duties at the Messenger office, however, and the number of books he had to review, it is unlikely that he was able to read them all. Any professional reviewer is likely to compile a review of an unimportant work from publisher's notices or previous reviews if he has a deadline to meet. Whenever Poe concentrated on peripheral matters such as dedications, footnotes, or slips in grammar (which could be culled by skimming), he was unjust, in White's sense, to the book reviewed. Otherwise White's charges have to be based on the five books that Poe reviewed harshly: Confessions of a Poet, Paul Ulric, Norman Leslie, Ups and Downs, and The Partisan. Poe himself had stated in September that he had reviewed ninety-four books for the Messenger and that in only five reviews had censure been "greatly predominant." In seventy-nine cases he had praised more than he had blamed.
This was Poe's reaction to the charge of "regular cutting and slashing" which had been made by the Richmond Courier and Daily Compiler in August of 1836. Poe had answered the editor of the Compiler by supplying the facts, as he interpreted them, but from White's letter to Tucker we must assume that White was not convinced by Poe's facts. Either his troubles with Poe had made him incapable of being fair or Poe's reviewing standards were so strange to White that the publisher had no real basis for judgment. Since Poe judged on literary grounds and White on moral, they were obviously at cross-purposes much of the time.
The review of George Balcombe was not blatantly eulogistic. Poe did call Tucker's work the "best American novel," an opinion time has not sustained; and he claimed that no other American novelist had succeeded as well as Tucker in creating female characters. This last was only relative praise. The inability to portray women realistically had been characteristic of the best of the novelists of Poe's time—Cooper, Simms, and Bird. Women thought worthy of portrayal in a novel were usually ladies, paper-and-paste specimens of sensibility. Poe quite rightly took exception to "Elizabeth, the shrinking and matronly wife of Balcombe," who rises "suddenly into the heroine in the hour of her husband's peril." As Poe said, "She is an exquisite specimen of her class, but her class is somewhat hackneyed." The character of Mary Scott, who has the chief female role in the novel, was better, but "her nature is barely sketched." Even in the sketch, however, the novelist showed an unusual "creative vigor."
Unless we are aware that the American critics of Poe's time demanded a measure of realism in the portrayal of character, we would be disposed to grant Poe more credit than he deserves for seeing the defects of the female characters in the American novel. Actually, a number of critics had objected to Cooper's females, and the charge made recently by Leslie Fiedler—that American novelists were unable to present "full-fledged, mature women"—was first intimated in the 1830's. This is not to say that the critics of the period would have accepted Fiedler's definition of a mature woman, but they were aware that American novelists were deficient in the characterization of women. The claim that Poe made for Tucker was that no other American novelist had depicted female character "even nearly so well," and this praise, considering the competition, must be regarded as qualified. Other characters in the novel were less effective:
Napier himself is, as usual with most professed heroes, a mere non-entity. James is sufficiently natural. Major Swann, although only done in outline, gives a fine idea of a decayed Virginia gentleman. Charles, a negro, .. . is drawn roughly, but to the life. Balcombe, frank, ardent, philosophical, chivalrous, sagacious—and, above all, glorying in the exercise of his sagacity—is a conception which might possibly have been entertained, but certainly could not have been executed, by a mind many degrees dissimilar from that of Balcombe himself, as depicted. Of Keizer, a character evidently much dwelt upon, and greatly labored out by the author, we have but one observation to make. It will strike every reader, not at first, but upon reflection, that George Balcombe, in John Keizer's circumstances, would have been precisely John Keizer. We find the same traits modified throughout—yet the worldly difference forms a distinction sufficiently marked for the purpose of the novelist. Lastly, Montague, with his low cunning, his arch-hypocrisy, his malignancy, his quibbling superstition, his moral courage and physical pusillanimity, is a character to be met with every day, and to be recognized at a glance. Nothing was ever more minutely, more forcibly, or more thoroughly painted. He is not original of course; nor must we forget that were he so, he would, necessarily, be untrue, in some measure, to nature. But we mean to say that the merit here is solely that of observation and fidelity.
To anyone familiar with Poe's theories of art, it is apparent that the quotation above is a subtle compliment to the author of the novel as a person but by no means a tribute to his ability as a novelist. Three characters are described as types. Two are said to be indistinguishable except for circumstances. Three are said to be natural, but that this represents limited approval is revealed by Poe's last sentence. Originality in characterization displayed the imagination at work, not mere observation. The question that had been occupying Poe's mind for several months was how to achieve verisimilitude in highly imaginative prose fiction. As we have seen, it was to be secured in terms of setting by the multiplication of detail. What about character? The unimaginative, skeptical type who narrated "Ms. Found in a Bottle" would have been to Poe's mind a nonentity, a species of Everyman. How, then, could an author win the reader's assent to a tale that presented a character so unusual as to be called an original? Although Poe's solution was irrelevant to the novel under consideration, he proposed it, following his customary practice of using the particular issue at hand as a point of departure to advance his own theory.
Original characters, so called, can only be critically praised as such, either when presenting qualities known in real life, but never before depicted, (a combination nearly impossible) or when presenting qualities (moral, or physical, or both) which although unknown, or even known to be hypothetical, are so skilfully adapted to the circumstances which surround them, that our sense of fitness is not offended, and we find ourselves seeking a reason why these things might not have been, which we are still satisfied are not. The latter species of originality appertains to the loftier regions of the Ideal.
This "latter species of originality" began to appear in Poe's own tales, particularly in "The Fall of the House of Usher." In "Berenice" he had made a rudimentary effort to prepare the reader for the unusual character of Egaeus by summarizing his long isolation in the "gloomy, grey, hereditary halls" of his fathers, but few details were given, and Poe himself admitted that "Berenice" was not successful. In the character of Roderick Usher, however, Poe presented hypothetical qualities—neurotic sensitivity and fear exaggerated beyond the probable—but created in Usher's house a microcosm in which such a being could be expected to live, "skilfully" adapting Usher's qualities "to the circumstances which surround them." Such a technique, to Poe, was genuinely creative. An original character was "ideal" in the sense that the concept sprang from the mind of the author, instead of being copied from life like the characters of George Balcombe. Yet to secure verisimilitude (this quality was required in prose, but not in poetry), an environment must be invented in which the character would seem natural. To increase plausibility, Poe made the narrator of "Usher" a commonplace Everyman much like the narrator of "Ms. Found in a Bottle."
It will be seen by the above that Poe, quite tactfully, was arguing that the author of George Balcombe had displayed little imagination. The characters were true to life, but hackneyed. Other aspects of the novel were less objectionable. The style was "bold, vigorous, and rich," and there were few faults of grammar. The thought of the novel was not impeccable, but since it was voiced by the main character, the author should not be held responsible. Poe understood quite well that it was possible for a fictional character to be an independent creation, not the author's voice. This does not mean that he was fully aware of the problem of identifying the "voice" of a novel, which is still a controversial issue. He customarily located the author voice in the commentary that appeared in the nineteenth-century novel as part of the privilege of the omniscient convention; and in a later review he attributed the chief value of a novel to just such comment.
Finally, Poe commended the plot of George Balcombe, but since he did not regard an ingenious plot as necessary or even desirable in longer works of fiction, this must not be taken as anything other than a tribute to the author's skill—his "ingenuity and finish in the adaptation of its component parts." Since a novel did not convey a unity of impression, Poe was to say in other reviews, such skill was only a secondary merit and usually went unappreciated.
Except for the unjustified claim that Tucker's was the best American novel, Poe accorded it no more praise than he had Bird's The Infidel and far less than he had given Bulwer. He concluded his review by stating that he did not wish to be understood as ranking George Balcombe with "the more brilliant fictions of some of the living novelists of Great Britain." White's accusation that Poe deliberately wrote a eulogistic review to gratify Tucker is unfair. Not that Poe never eulogized his friends. He did so more than once. In this particular instance, however, it is unlikely that White would have made the accusation had he not been making excuses to Tucker for his dismissal of an editor Tucker had praised; either this, or he failed to understand Poe's attempt to judge by literary principle. Remembering Poe's ridicule of Simms, White may have mistaken a tactful employment of standards for unqualified praise. . . .
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6700
SOURCE: "Edgar Allan Poe, Poet-Critic," in Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, edited by A. Robert Lee, Barnes & Noble, 1985, pp. 80-98.
[In the following essay, Von Hallberg argues that Poe should be studied as a poet-critic instead of an academic critic. As a poet-critic Poe's focus is on constructing principles of literary criticism that can carve out a unique place for American literature, rather than on tracing the general development of literary history in the larger European context.]
We are lamentably deficient not only in invention proper, but in that which is, more strictly, Art. What American, for instance, in penning a criticism, ever supposes himself called upon to present his readers with more than the exact stipulation of his title—to present them with a criticism and something beyond? Who thinks of making his critique a work of art in itself—independently of its critical opinions?
Who indeed? Surely not I, and few of my colleagues aspire even to scholarly elegance. But Poe did write criticism that can be spoken of as not high art, but art all the same. From professors like myself, the world does not want art, but from poets, even when they thump out reviews, something more has come to be expected. Poet-critics, for instance, have certainly been more amusing than professors; sometimes they have even seemed to joke about their own efforts, though I never understood why they wanted to do so. It would be difficult to stipulate all the differences between the criticism produced by scholars and that of poet-critics, yet the distinction between these ways of writing about literature is commonly felt by both sorts of writers. It should be possible to indicate some of the special procedures and objectives of poet-critics. One justification for this effort is that American poet-critics have rather thoroughly shaken up literary opinion in this century; another is that the lessons academic critics might take from poet-critics have special force now that literary criticism is a major academic industry, the most prestigious branch of which is devoted to the study of itself. More particularly, the connection between Poe's criticism and his poetry shows not only how his poems rest on general poetic principles—we always expect that from poet-critics—but, much more interestingly, how impossible it was for him to write the sort of poetry he admired most.
Poe's literary achievement seems especially hyphenated—much more so than that of other poet-critics; his place in American literary history is still a bit anomalous. He remains a popular poet, but as Eliot has remarked [in To Criticize the Critic, 1965] he is read largely by the young and untutored. Sophisticated readers, like Eliot, often seem to regard his popularity as an embarrassment. And yet some poets, such as William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane, or Richard Wilbur and Daniel Hoffman, take Poe as a figure who cannot be ignored by later writers. In the history of American fiction, he seems more a pioneer of secondary genres—detective and gothic tales—than the master of a primary one. As a man of letters—poetry, fiction, and criticism—his place is secure, though as a poet he will always seem to many a mere verse-writer. More particularly, Poe can now be said to be along with Emerson one of the two earliest American poet-critics whose work continues to matter to contemporary writers. Since Poe's first literary critical effort in 1835—also the year in which Emerson began to lecture on English literature—an extraordinarily distinguished line of poet-critics has established this particular combination of talents as somehow distinctly American, and perhaps especially modern.
Insofar as Poe stands at the beginning of a line of poet-critics, this is a provisional sort of writing. These critics resist tradition in the name of independence; they attack the centre from the peripheries of the literary culture. By at least 1835, Poe wrote expressly as a Southerner, aiming his judgements against the literary centres established in Boston and New York. Once he himself had made his way to New York, in 1844, he directed his barbs against Boston. However detailed were his criticisms of Emerson for obscurity, and of Longfellow for indolence, he never lost sight of their being established in Boston.
[Bostonians] may yet open their eyes to certain facts which have long been obvious to all the world except themselves—the facts that there exist other cities than Boston—other men of letters than Professor Longfellow. . . . The fact is, we despise them [Bostonians] and defy them (the transcendental vagabonds!) and they may all go to the devil together.
When he was invited to speak at the Boston Lyceum, he read a piece of juvenilia out of contempt for the taste of his audience (he may even have been drunk at the time), and later did what he could to publicize the gesture. How pointed was his sense of being an outsider can be guessed from the half-truth on the title-page of his first book: Tamerlane and Other Poems, By a Bostonian.
Henry James spoke of Poe's criticism in 1879 [in Hawthorne] as 'probably the most complete and exquisite specimen of provincialism ever prepared for the edification of man.' A half-century later, Eliot said that Poe was 'a critic of the first rank'. Eliot had reason by then to know that the great American poet-critics would seem in retrospect to be mainly proud provincials: they have spoken from Hayley, Idaho; St. Louis, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; Gambier, Ohio; and Palo Alto, California. Poet-critics seem always to aim at independence of mind, an intelligence free of the corruptions of the centre. They have been unbeholden to publishers and reviewers and without the need to promote academic careers. One small sign of how they have insisted on their outré status is typified in Poe's unseemly habit of name-calling.
In itself, the book before us is too purely imbecile to merit an extended critique. . . .
The book is despicable in every respect. Such are the works which bring daily discredit upon our national literature.
Your poem is a curiosity, Mr. Jack Downing; your 'Metrical Romance' is not worth a single half sheet of the pasteboard upon which it is printed.
That any man could, at one and the same time, fancy himself a poet and string together as many pitiable inanities as we see here, on so truly suggestive a thesis as that of 'A Lady Taking the Veil,' is to our apprehension a miracle of miracles.
But we doubt if the whole world of literature, poetical or prosaic, can afford a picture more utterly disgusting than the following. . . .
Mr. Channing must be hung, that's true.
What can we do but laugh outright at such phrases . . . such an ass as the author of 'Bug-Jargal?'
Robert Lowell said that Eliot had admitted taking particular delight in Poe's severity when it was directed against two of Eliot's own relatives. Poe, altogether deliberately, set an example of impolite, even reckless criticism—'pretentious, spiteful, vulgar', James said. Nearly a century later, Ezra Pound opened Guide to Kulchur with this promise:
.. . I shall make a number of statements which very few men can AFFORD to make, for the simple reason that such taking sides might jeopard their incomes (directly) or their prestige or 'position' in one or other of the professional 'worlds'. Given my freedom, I may be a fool to use it, but I wd. be a cad not to.
One American poet-critic after another has displayed independence by speaking without respect for the makers of reputation, though no one has been more acutely aware of the finer shades of renown than Poe. Built right into this kind of literary criticism is an inclination to locate principles beyond the competition of contemporary interests. The tradition of poet-critics encourages transcendental rather than historicizing criticism. Poe's attempts to speak of Ideality in particular poems is just one particularly clear instance of this practice.
Poe repeatedly expressed contempt for the literary politics of his own moment. As a provincial he did not have access to the institutions that provide recognition, and there can be no question about his ambition to achieve renown. (He was not too discreet to say in print that his criticism, in a year's time, brought the circulation of the Southern Literary Messenger from 700 to nearly 5,000.) He criticized his own literary milieu on two principal counts. The first was its apparatus of boldly reciprocal promotion:
The corrupt nature of our ordinary criticism has become notorious. . . . The intercourse between critic and publisher, as it now almost universally stands, is comprised either in the paying and pocketing of blackmail, as the price of simple forbearance, or in a direct system of petty and contemptible bribery. . . .
Pound and Yvor Winters later made the same point about London and New York literary life: outsiders are especially sensitive to this particular corruption of criticism. But beyond the moral turpitude of his contemporaries, Poe condemned other literary critics for a lack of independent judgement. 'Few American writers', he said, '. . . have risen by merely their own intrinsic talents, and without the a priori aid of foreign opinion and puffery, to any exalted rank in the estimation of our countrymen.'
His thoroughly American response to this state of affairs was to attempt to establish the world of letters as a meritocracy. He made a point of praising demonstrated achievement rather than capability. And he tried to encourage Americans to attend to details in the examination of literary works:
. . . Our criticism is nevertheless in some dangersome very little danger—of falling into the pit of a most detestable species of cant—the cant of generality. The tendency has been given it, in the first instance, by the onward and tumultuous spirit of the age. With the increase of the thinking-material comes the desire, if not the necessity, of abandoning particulars for masses. Yet in our individual case, as a nation, we seem merely to have adopted this bias from the British Quarterly Reviews. . . .
Poe was conscientious about examining details to the point of tedium; he wanted to cite evidence, like a detective, for all that he claimed about the works he examined, especially since he often criticized poets for plagiarism. The editor of the Virginia edition of Poe's collected works could not afford the space to reproduce Poe's extensive quotations. Poe can certainly seem picayune, but his motive was to free American writers from the domination of British litterateurs, and their American imitators, who cared more for their own notions and opinions than for the poems, novels and stories under review.
Like other poet-critics, Poe was extremely explicit. He did not hesitate to formulate definitions of poetry, drama, and the novel—though he suggested, too, that words cannot hem poetry in. His most celebrated critical essay, The Philosophy of Composition, sets out to render explicit every detail of artistic production, for in the best poems, he seems to have believed, all details can be articulated to general principles, however humble those principles may look when they are spelled out. 'If the practice fail,' he said, 'it is because the theory is imperfect'. Circumstance, the chance find of an apt word or phrase, counts for nothing.
It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its ["The Raven"'s] composition is referrible either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.
In Eureka he claimed that what is commonly taken as intuition could certainly be explicated logically—given sufficient perspicacity and patience. He tried always to demystify literary criticism in order to free writers from those who claim to constitute an aristocracy of taste.
The melancholy that comes from this sort of criticism Poe knew all too well; his mind habitually doubles back on itself. On the one hand, he believed, in Enlightenment fashion, that '. . . the finest quality of Thought is its self-cognizance. On the other, he felt that it is a
curse of a certain order of mind, that it can never rest satisfied with the consciousness of its ability to do a thing. Still less is it content with doing it. It must both know and show how it was done.
Behind The Philosophy of Composition is that accursed sadness of self-consciousness, as though he had always to suspect himself of prefabricated poems, of mannerism. This self-destructiveness, he suggests, is an inevitable burden on poet-critics:
To see distinctly the machinery—the wheels and pinions—of any work of Art is, unquestionably, of itself, a pleasure, but one which we are able to enjoy only just in proportion as we do not enjoy the legitimate effect designed by the artist:—and, in fact, it too often happens that to reflect analytically upon Art, is to reflect after the fashion of mirrors in the temple of Smyrna, which represent the fairest images deformed.
Poet-critics, then, turn against their own kind. Poe indicated that the most appropriate recognition of great artistic achievement is restraint, or even silence, on the part of critics and explainers.
Poe's constant reach for general principles usually makes him seem driven by abstract policies. He strove so to write logically—rather than tastefully—that his observations often sound woodenly consistent and categorical rather than deeply earnest or knowing; one often suspects this methodical critic of irony, especially when one recalls his belief that 'the style of the profound thinker is never closely logical'. His criticism repeatedly turns on a simple distinction between the true and the false, as though he were speaking mainly for effect. His obsession with plagiarism is just this, though in a characteristically doubled sense, because the greatest poets, he said, are those who, so absorbed in their art, are most prone to plagiarism and least damaged by the indictment. Poe's testing of texts for true and false properties can seem crude, mechanical, and not entirely in good faith. He was indeed a categorical critic in the sense that his distinctions aim at these all-or-nothing discriminations. Seldom is he at pains to identify and somehow name a quality. Like a prosecutor, he rather pushes for conviction, which leaves him a dangerous model for other critics. Yet his bluntness has its rationale: for a critic committed, as Poe vigorously and honourably was, to tracking the literary culture, commenting on it monthly, this winnowing of the authentic from the ersatz is just the job at hand.
The most notorious of Poe's categorical conclusions is that a 'long poem is a paradox', since 'All high excitements are necessarily transient'. With that observation, a great deal of literary history recedes into darkness: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth appear to have been unfortunately confused. This is Poe's point exactly. Insofar as his claim is valid, English literary history loses hegemony over American poets. Like a lawyer, Poe marshalled rhetoric and logic, more than wisdom or truth, to gain liberty for his own poetic ambition, and that of his countrymen. The history of American poetry through the 1840s, as he certainly knew, did not suggest that American poets were likely to be remembered in the way that British poets were. The best an ambitious young American poet might do in 1830, one might have thought, would have been to strive through imitation and self-education to live up to standards set on another continent.
Poe, however, for obvious reasons, preferred to argue that some recent American short poems excel 'any transatlantic poems. After all, it is chiefly in works of what is absurdly termed "sustained effort" that we fall in any material respect behind our progenitors.' These are the words of a poet whose longest poetic effort, a blank-verse drama entitled Politian (1835), he had the good sense not to bother to finish. The charge that American poetry was deficient in works of 'sustained effort' was put forward by critics writing for the quarterly reviews—the North American Review and the Dial. Poe framed his argument against this charge so as to attack the very idea of a quarterly review as he had three years earlier attacked the idea of a long poem. Journals, he claimed, were better suited than quarterlies to the contemporary American milieu because one sign of the times is that
men are forced upon the curt, the condensed, the well-digested in place of the voluminous—in a word, upon journalism in lieu of dissertation. We need now the light artillery rather than the peace-makers of the intellect. I will not be sure that men at present think more profoundly than half a century ago, but beyond question they think with more rapidity, with more skill, with more tact, with more of method and less of excrescence in the thought. Besides all this, they have a vast increase in the thinking material; they have more facts, more to think about. For this reason, they are disposed to put the greatest amount of thought in the smallest compass and disperse it with the utmost attainable rapidity.
Hence short poems and magazines are faithful to the moment, which is no small advantage in the eyes of one who, like many Enlightenment writers, saw progress wherever he looked. 'The day has at length arrived', Poe thought, 'when men demand rationalities in place of conventionalities.' With this 'rationality' about the advantages of short poems, he tried to think his way out of a mediocre literary milieu.
Poe is often taken as an extreme exemplar of American Romanticism. Yvor Winters, William K. Wimsatt, Jr., Cleanth Brooks, and Edmund Wilson all criticize his poetry and criticism in just these terms. From this view, he is interesting only as an illustrative figure, not influential as a poet or critic. If instead, however, one attends especially to his procedures as a poet-critic, he seems much less pure a Romantic; some of his principles and suppositions rather reflect what can be spoken of as Enlightenment notions. One might note, for instance, his frequent efforts to derive critical judgements from firm distinctions of genre and suppositions of decorum. But the most important of Poe's Enlightenment beliefs was simply the notion that his epoch was 'emphatically the thinking age;—indeed it may very well be questioned whether mankind ever substantially thought before.' From this faith in the power of clear, sceptical thought came the belief that a poet or critic can begin with first principles rather than precedents and, by a train of logical propositions, arrive at truths formerly obscured by blind prejudice. Moreover, one's explanations can fully prevail, because poetry, like all the world, is susceptible to clear, sceptical explanation. From the belief that general laws govern the details of literary history, it is but a short step to the notion that a critic's task is less importantly that of closely describing particular literary works than that of discovering and formulating the general laws that determine literary history. Poe's work is the first instance of a still strong tendency in American literary criticism to hold literary theory in higher regard than literary history.
This is another way of saying that however forceful Romanticism was in literary Europe of the 1830s and 1840s, American letters were still bound up with the Enlightenment ideals that brought nationhood to this former colony. Many of Poe's most distinctive literary ideas were, as he understood them, joined to national ideals. He was not an especially political poet-critic, but to overlook his nationalistic views renders his criticism and his poetry a bit peculiar. His poems and some of his criticism do now seem odd; but they are not properly regarded as incoherent, for they followed from a policy. Moreover, his strength as a model for later poet-critics has been sufficiently great that we still labour with some of his procedures without fully recognizing the policy they were once meant to implement. For instance, in order to sidestep the relative weakness of literary tradition in America, Poe argued that the power of the individual talent is supreme; the poet, for Poe and for many of our contemporaries, is above all an ingenious maker, and the lines of a poem are traces of—as we now say—strategies. Nor would Poe countenance the claim that poems cannot be fully understood independent of a context of thought, belief, or shared experience; poems were autotelic for him, as they have seemed to many modern American critics. And more than ever now, American critics give their pragmatic credence, as Poe urged, to details, especially those of stylistic analysis. Poe's reasons for this particular focus were nationalistic. Of course he hoped, as poet-critics always do, to encourage a taste for his own sort of poetry, but he also wanted to establish a distinctly American type of literary criticism—and the record indicates that he succeeded.
What Poe treasured most in terms of style is range, not merely of subject matter, but more particularly of tone. Although he returned to the term 'tone' repeatedly, he never claimed anything extraordinary for his sense of its meaning:
Without pausing to define what a little reflection will enable any reader to define for himself, we may say that the chief constituent of a good style . . . is what artists have agreed to denominate tone. The writer who, varying this as occasion may require, well adapts it to the fluctuations of his narrative, accomplishes an important object of style.
There is a special reason why Poe would not bother to say that by tone he meant to refer, as I. A. Richards later did, to the attitude expressed by a writer; to presume a common understanding was just the point, because the measurement of range is made possible only by a prior sense of neoclassical decorum—of which attitudes are fitting to which subjects. One way of assessing a prose writer's command of tonal range is whether he or she can always seem not only various but, in diverse settings, just. The natural or easeful style—that commanded by Addison, as well as Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne—
is but the result of writing with the understanding, or with the instinct, that the tone, in composition, should be that which, at any given point or upon any given topic, would be the tone of the great mass of humanity.
Fairness and civility, not novelty, are the objectives of this prose style.
Poe praises two sorts of writers very highly. First are those prose writers who give themselves so generously to their subjects that they seem to write naturally, without art—Defoe sets this standard.
Men do not look upon it [Robinson Crusoe] in the light of a literary performance. . . . The powers which have wrought the wonder have been thrown into obscurity by the very stupendousness of the wonder they have wrought! We read, . . . close the book, and are quite satisfied that we could have written as well ourselves. . . . Indeed the author of Crusoe must have possessed, above all other faculties, what has been termed the faculty of identification. . . . Defoe is largely indebted to his subject.
Such a writer makes no compromise with the mere appurtenances of imaginative writing—with the bitter consequence, as Poe put it, that 'books thus written are not the books by which men acquire a contemporaneous reputation'.
The second sort of writer he praises is best exemplified by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, whose verse does not deliberately depart from the patterns of ordinary prose usage. Moore's
is no poetical style (such, for example, as the French have—a distinct style for a distinct purpose), but an easy and ordinary prose manner, ornamented into poetry. By means of this he is enabled to enter, with ease, into details which would baffle any other versifier of the age, and at which Lamartine would stand aghast. For anything that we see to the contrary, Moore might solve a cubic equation in verse. . . . His facility in this respect is truly admirable, and is, no doubt, the result of long practice after mature deliberation.
The question of poetic style was rather different for Poe than that of prose style. 'The inventive or original mind', he said, 'as frequently displays itself in novelty of tone as in novelty of matter'. Prose writers like Addison do not aspire to novelty of attitude; they rather rely upon a consensus about appropriate attitudes. But poets explore surprising feelings, and the tone of poems is often stunningly unsettling. This is not to say that a poet's novelty of tone will be reflected in novel phrasing or syntax. The best poetic style is, like Moore's, that which is simply not constrained by the differences between poetry and prose. Moore's commitment to a plain, clear style allowed a wide range of subject matter; he concedes no subject, no range of experience (not even cubic equations), to essayists. (T. S. Eliot's well-known praise of the Metaphysicals' possession of 'a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience' is much the same as Poe's admiration of Moore.) Poe's dream was less to write about the supremely melancholy subject, as he suggests in The Philosophy of Composition, than to be able to write, like Moore, about anything at all.
How eager and fretful Poe was to extend his own range can be sensed in his strenuous explanation of the oddities of the English Metaphysical poets. For understandable reasons, he argues that Donne and Cowley were exceptionally sincere poets:
They used but little art in composition. Their writings sprang immediately from the soul—and partook intensely of the nature of that soul. It is not difficult to perceive the tendency of this glorious abandon. To elevate immeasurably all the energies of mind—but again—so to mingle to greatest possible fire, force, delicacy, and all good things, with the lowest possible bathos, baldness, and utter imbecility, as to render it not a matter of doubt, but of certainty, that the average results of mind in such a school, will be found inferior to those results in one (ceteris paribus) more artificial: Such, we think, is the view of the older English Poetry, in which a very calm examination will bear us out.
The main line of English poetry is 'frank, guileless, and perfectly sincere'. Donne and Cowley are introduced here as the merely apparent exceptions that can nevertheless be accommodated to the general rule. The eclecticism of the Metaphysicals, their dangerously capacious range of tone, is meant to stand as evidence of their ultimate sincerity, for only poets thoroughly engaged by their subjects could skip over obvious incongruities as easily as they did. Poe strains so to resist reading the Metaphysicals ironically, because he has committed his own poetry and criticism to the belief that the best poems always express melancholy; the one kind of humour he would admit as legitimate to poetry was archness—just what one senses in his most ambitious critical pronouncements. His interest in stylistic range was a fascination for what he must have known he thoroughly lacked as a poet.
Sincerity for Poe, as for Victorian critics, was a term of high praise; or rather, since poets are seldom said to be more or less sincere, it is a test of authenticity in poetry. Self-consciousness is the great corrupter of style:
. . . had the mind of the poet [John G. C. Brainard] been really 'crowded with strange thoughts', and not merely engaged in an endeavor to think, he would have entered at once upon the thoughts themselves, without allusion to the state of his brain. His subject [Niagara Falls] would have left him no room for self.
A false poet displays his or her skills in the hope that they will be mistaken for imagination. An acute critic, however, exposes those skills as wilful, predictable moves, mannerisms. The mannered writer is locked into an inflexible way of writing: 'That man is a desperate mannerist who cannot vary his style ad infinitum . . . '. Mannerism and range, as Poe properly sees them, are exact contraries. The varieties of prose usage provide a proper model for verse-writers, a hedge against mannerism, but the prose manner must, as Poe said, be 'ornamented into poetry '.
Poe's way of thinking about poetic style involves this one central paradox: the best is a plain style, but poetry is distinguished from prose by its ornaments. His handling of this paradox had enormous impact on his own verse. Most of the aspects of figurative language that are commonly associated with ornamentation were fiercely suppressed by Poe.
Similes (so much insisted upon by the critics of the reign of Queen Anne) are never, in our opinion, strictly in good taste, whatever may be said to the contrary, and certainly can never be made to accord with other high qualities, except when naturally arising from the subject in the way of illustration—and, when thus arising, they have seldom the merit of novelty. To be novel, they must fail in essential particulars. The higher minds will avoid their frequent use. They form no portion of the ideal, and appertain to the fancy alone.
Poe knew well how often similes derive from self-consciousness and quite wrongly suggest to many readers great imaginative powers; for him, similes always reflect mere pride of technique. 'An artist', he said, 'will always contrive to weave his illustrations into the metaphorical form'. Metaphor too, though, must be held in tight rein. Poe criticized Edward Bulwer severely for his 'mania of metaphor—metaphor always running into allegory'. Pure allegory he regarded as an 'antique barbarism' (though one of his own best poems, 'The Haunted Palace', is plainly an allegory), and personification as ludicrous (though his 'Stanzas [To F. S. O.]' are peppered with personifications). Metaphors should be used seldom and always kept from escalating into allegory or personification. At just those moments where modern readers have come to expect metaphor, Poe argues for literal expression: '. . . subjects which surpass in grandeur all efforts of the human imagination are well depicted only in the simplest and least metaphorical language '.
Even in poetry, Poe thought, the object of style is clarity and simplicity, certainly not impressiveness. 'What is worth thinking', he said, 'is distinctly thought: what is distinctly thought, can and should be distinctly expressed, or should not be expressed at all'. Where figurative language is not conducive to clarity, it is indefensible. Even more importantly, where poetic syntax impedes immediate clarity, it must be condemned:
Few things have greater tendency than inversion, to render verse feeble and ineffective. In most cases where a line is spoken of as 'forcible', the force may be referred to directness of expression. .. . In short as regards verbal construction, the more prosaic a poetical style is, the better.
The poetic style Poe admired most was one stripped bare of most, but not quite all, poetic devices. Quaintnesses of phrasing were admissible occasionally, as in poems on fantastic subjects. But most important of all, an American poet properly ornaments his or her language into poetry through prosodic invention.
Poe placed a great burden on prosody: each foot lands with a thud. His rhymes and meters are nothing if not insistent, as though he had not heard of counterpoint or off-rhyme. As always with Poe, there are general principles involved here. 'Verse originates' he claimed, 'in the human enjoyment of equality, fitness'. The more absolute the rhymes, and emphatically regular the rhythm, the closer a poet will be to the human origins of musical language. No purpose was served, as he reckoned, by concealing prosodic art. The opening lines of a poem he placed first on a list of his best poems rhymes 'moon' and 'June'. An earlier poem brought 'pass' and 'alas' together. He is always pushing so hard: 'trod upon' / 'Parthenon'; 'gala night' / 'bedight' (P, 325); 'Dian' / 'dry on'; 'linger' / 'sink her'. Even when the rhymes are not exact, they are emphatic for the effort behind them. No one reads Poe without understanding at once why Emerson called him the jingle man.
Poe presented himself as an American inventor among prosodists. Blank verse seemed 'hackneyed' to him, as it has to many later American poets. 'To break the pentameter', Pound wrote, 'that was the first heave'. William Carlos Williams's indebtedness to Poe is nicely indicated by the small fact that Williams took his most dubious and idiosyncratic prosodie term, the 'variable foot', from Poe. In The Philosophy of Composition, Poe said that his intention was above all to be original in the versification of 'The Raven'.
The extent to which [originality] . . . has been neglected, in versification, is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possible of variety in mere rhythm [i.e., in the choice of a normative foot], it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite—and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing.
Beyond the question of his own originality was the matter of American poetry generally: if his countrymen continued to work in blank verse, for instance, they would have to stand comparison with the masters of that line (Milton is constantly on Poe's mind, when he considers his own accomplishment). In order not to produce a merely colonial literature, American writers had to concoct forms of their own, however homemade they might appear. Why Poe thought that the need to innovate bore so exclusively on prosody is not surprising:
That we are not a poetical people has been asserted so often and so roundly, both at home and abroad, that the slander, through mere dint of repetition, has come to be received as truth. Yet nothing can be further removed from it. The mistake is but a portion, or corollary, of the old dogma, that the calculating faculties are at war with the ideal; while, in fact, it may be demonstrated that the two divisions of mental power are never to be found in perfection apart. The highest order of the imaginative intellect is always preëminently mathematical; and the converse.
Americans were compelled by necessity, rather than inclined by temperament, to master the calculating faculties, Poe argued; but given that mastery, prosody was the one part of the art of poetry where it could be made to pay off. 'Faultless versification and scrupulous attention to grammar' were the two poetic virtues Poe was constantly trying to inculcate; he would test nearly every poet, tediously, for correctness. American poets needed to be correct in order to develop their own advantage over British poets, but also to avoid the condescension of their one-time colonizers.
With Poe, as with rather few other poets, one can see that his poems suffer from a particular conception of poetry. He believed that poetry is plain, clear language, but ornamented into poetry. The ornamentation of poetic language is something isolable—a rhyme, a repeated phrase—added to the plain sense. Although the poems are not simply a demonstration of his critical notions, his criticism does throw a special kind of light on the poems. In the poems and in the criticism, the same contradictions assert themselves, at the cost of the poems. For all Poe's admiration of stylistic range, Eliot was surely right to say that Poe lacks just this ability to express different sorts of feeling. Poe must have thought that poems like "The Bells" and "The Raven", as he explains it, express range, but they display a merely mechanical sort of variation of tone: in these poems the semantic sense of one statement varies from stanza to stanza; the obvious irony is that a misunderstanding has occurred. But two people, or a bird and a person, construing words differently is not what is properly meant by range of tone; Poe has simply concocted a mechanism for producing difference, not range.
Poe was indeed capable of writing verse that is properly spoken of as plain in style. However, the plain passages in his verse come not at all where Poe wanted to write well. Here are two passages from Politian, separated by only a few pages:
Lalage. And dost thou speak of love
To me, Politian?—dost thou speak of love
To Lalage?—ah wo—ah wo is me!
This mockery is most cruel!—-most cruel indeed!
Politian. Weep not! oh, sob not thus!—thy bitter tears
Will madden me. Oh mourn not, Lalage—
Be comforted! I know—I know it all, And still I speak of love.
Sweet Lalage, I love thee—love thee—love thee;
Thro' good and ill—thro' weal and wo I love thee.
Jacinta. I made a change
For the better I think—indeed I'm sure of it—
Besides, you know it was impossible
When such reports have been in circulation
To stay with her now. She'd nothing of the lady
About her—not a tittle! One would have thought
She was a peasant girl, she was so humble.
I hate all humble people!—and then she talked
To one with such an air of condescension.
And she had not common sense—of that I'm sure
Or would she, now—I ask you now, Jacinta,
Do you, or do you not suppose your mistress
Had common sense or understanding when
She gave you all these jewels?
Poe's accomplishment cannot be measured by Politian, but my point concerns only the obvious difference between these two passages—and the point is best made with unrhymed verse. The first passage is intended to be dramatic: Politian delivers the last two lines quoted on his knees. The writing is poor because the emotions represented are bluntly named, not examined, and those names are simply repeated relentlessly in order to provide emphasis. Poe clearly thought this an important moment in the play. The later passage is less important to the dramatic action, and the writing is far superior. Jacinta, alone on stage, is not posturing as Politian and Lalage do, but rather thinking and talking in verse; the enjambments and the parenthetical syntax keep the lines moving variously toward the larger coherence of the speech. Jacinta reveals the mix of her own feelings by choosing just the right, telling phrases—'tittle' and 'common sense'. In the second passage, Poe seems to have felt less need to write remarkably, for the sake of the action, whereas in the first he is straining—by merely repeating blunt phrases—to elevate his subject. He was not an inept poet—as the second passage demonstrates—but his poems are inept just when he would have them be sublime. When he wrote without thinking about Poetry, he could write plainly, thoughtfully, and sensitively, as some of his slighter efforts, such as 'To—————' and 'Deep in Earth' show.
The great caution advanced by Poe's career as poet-critic is against the excesses of provincialism. Certainly being an outsider among men of letters enabled him to write independently, and fiercely, in ways that remain admirable. And yet his sense that he could concoct formal principles with rather little regard for literary precedents just as surely doomed his poems to remain, like Edsels, a species unto themselves. Effective advocacy of a plain style in American poetry had to wait for later poet-critics—Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Yvor Winters. At the outset of the American line of poet-critics is this extremist who took a purely intentionalist approach to writing, chiefly because the alternative could so easily have meant, in the 1830s and 1840s, subservience to British letters. This sense that the independent writer was free to write anything at all was enormously invigorating; Poe wrote about naval history, travel literature, middle eastern geography. The job of a literary critic was to educate himself and his readers in very broad terms; the work of Pound, Eliot and Charles Olson show that Poe's example has made a difference. However technical poet-critics can be, they continue to see the job of literary criticism in terms that are much broader, just in terms of subject matter, than academic critics ever dare to believe. Yet that very sense of independence is surely responsible for Poe's odd place in literary history—as a kind of tinkerer among poets.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371
Adkins, Nelson F. "'Chapter on American Cribbage': Poe and Plagiarism." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America XVII (Third Quarter 1948): 169-210.
Discussion of Poe's views on plagiarism with special reference to the "little Longfellow war."
Alterton, Margaret. Origins of Poe's Critical Theory. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1965, 191 p.
Examines the influence of Poe's interest in and knowledge of law, scientific problems, and philosophic ideas on the development of his literary theories.
Campbell, Killis. The Mind of Poe and Other Studies. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962, 238 p.
Detailed analysis of Poe as a man of letters in the context of the critical reception by his contemporaries.
Hubbell, Jay B. "Poe and the Southern Literary Tradition." Texas Studies in Literature and Language XI, No. 2 (Summer 1960): 151-71.
Evaluates Poe's contribution to the creation of an American literary tradition with specific reference to his status as a southern writer.
Jacobs, Robert D. Poe: Journalist and Critic. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969, 464 p.
A chronological review of Poe's criticism focusing on the development of Poe's literary theories and his practical application of these theories as an editor and book reviewer. A portion is excerpted above.
Moore, John Brooks. Selections from Poe's Literary Criticism. New York: F. S. Crofts & Co., 1926, 199 p.
A good selection of Poe's critical writings that represents him as an important figure in the developing journalistic culture of nineteenth-century America.
Moss, Sidney P. Poe's Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1963, 266 p.
Analysis of Poe as a working critic which examines his preoccupation with editorial concerns in relation to the embattled journalistic milieu of his times. Chapter 5, concerning the literary controversy between Poe and Longfellow, is excerpted above.
Winters, Yvor. In Defense of Reason. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1938, 611 p.
Highlights the connection between Poe's critical and literary works, both of which are seen to exemplify Poe's extreme romantic sentimentalism. For an excerpt from this study of Poe, see .
Additional coverage of Poe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Discovering Authors; Poetry Criticism, Volume 1; Short Story Criticism, Volume 1; World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 3, Volume 59, Volume 73, and Volume 74.
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