Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1599
James Russell Lowell’s A Fable for Critics appeared in 1848, three years after Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and three years before Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Born the same year as Melville and Walt Whitman, Lowell was twenty-nine years old and had already gained something of a reputation as poet and antislavery essayist.
Writing in the age of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lowell believed that native American literature had come of age. He argues this in a section of A Fable for Critics, echoing Emerson’s “The American Scholar” address of eleven years earlier and looking ahead to Whitman’s famous preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. “Forget Europe wholly,” he advised the American writer.
Eventually, A Fable for Critics has come to be read—though rarely all the way through—for its satire. The author flippantly exhibits his contemporaries: Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Richard Henry Dana, Sr., and many lesser-known writers. With his young man’s irreverence and capacity for industry, Lowell produced in this 2,100-line poem a number of choice verbal thrusts that have always delighted readers: “There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,/ Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.” Of James Fenimore Cooper he wrote, “the women he draws from one model don’t vary,/ All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.”
Lowell often makes acute judgments, as in the quotations above, but the poem has serious defects. It is no systematized essay in verse in the manner of Alexander Pope but, rather, a rambling and digressive caricature. Unfortunately, too, many of the objects of Lowell’s satire have so declined in reputation that the point of the satire is lost. Lowell’s clattering anapestic tetrameter and his sometimes embarrassing rhymes (as in “philosopher” and “loss of her”) prove hard to endure, even in a poem intentionally comic.
The structure of the poem is also problematic. Lowell chose the long way around to get at his satire. Ostensibly the poem merely describes various American writers parading past the not too interested personage of Phoebus Apollo. The writers are in the form of cackling fowls led by “Tityrus Griswold” (Rufus W. Griswold, an influential anthologist of the day). This rather mechanical scheme offers little excitement or sense of direction.
Lowell had precedents for this sort of lampooning. Literary ancestors of A Fable for Critics are such works as Pope’s The Dunciad (1728-1743), Lord Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), and Leigh Hunt’s The Feast of the Poets (1814), to which it bears the greatest resemblance. Lowell’s work itself served as model when a related Lowell, the poet Amy Lowell, decided to produce her own Critical Fable in 1922.
Lowell wrote his satire “con amore,” to use his term. His high spirits are immediately evident in the title page and the introduction. The elaborate title page, ostensibly no more than an imitation of wordy, old-fashioned book format, is actually the beginning of the rhymed couplets: “Reader! walk up at once (it will soon be too late), and buy at a perfectly ruinous rate A Fable for Critics.”
In the rhymed introduction that follows, a candid Lowell limits his purpose and forestalls possible censures. The poem, he avers, is a mere “trifle,” full of digressions and written in “neither good verse nor bad prose.” It is a jeu d’esprit whose verbal portraits are both cynical and faithful. Lowell attached a considerably longer essay in rhyme to the second edition. Here, in the spirit of exuberance that pervades the work from beginning to end, he remarks on the mixed critical reception of the first edition.
Lowell himself narrates the poem throughout, but the first personage encountered is Phoebus Apollo from Greek mythology. Lowell, of course, here uses a favorite device of the fabulist, using setting and characters of other times and other places to add ludicrousness and perspective to his satire on people of his own day.
Apollo, sitting under a laurel tree, has been reading recent poetry and bemoans its mediocrity. Feeling the need to write something himself—to mourn his Daphne—he decides that a lily is needed to set his faculties to work. One of his sycophants, a pedantic bore (“The defect in his brain was just absence of mind”), hastens to fetch it. Apollo meanwhile is “killing the time” when the first of Lowell’s real people walks up to him. This is Evert Augustus Duyckinck, editor and critic, who is pictured as a small, muttering, reputation-conscious individual. While he and Apollo exchange barbs, the procession of American authors, which makes up the bulk of the poem, commences with the appearance of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who by 1848 had published his two famous series of essays. It is Apollo who describes the procession, and all descriptions are from his mouth. Lowell’s use of the fable device thus allows him to satirize without using his own voice. Emerson has “a Greek head on right Yankee shoulders”; the Transcendentalist “ . . . sits in mystery calm and intense/ And looks coolly around him with sharp common sense.” Two writers who “trod in Emerson’s track” then appear: William Ellery Channing, poet and Concord litterateur, and Henry David Thoreau. Both are inferior to Emerson; all they do is pick up the “windfalls” from Emerson’s tree.
Fourth and fifth in the procession are Bronson Alcott and Orestes Brownson. Alcott, the Platonic idealist and mystic, avoids the mundane, has “never a fact to perplex him or bore him.” Brownson is the New England individualist who turned from Presbyterian to Universalist to Roman Catholic. Amid the satire, Lowell-Apollo speaks commendation: Alcott is a magnificent talker; Brownson writes “transparent and forcible prose.” These two vignettes typify Lowell’s willingness to laugh as well as to compliment, if compliments are deserved.
Fifty lines characterize the now-forgotten Nathaniel Parker Willis as a foppish and shallow yet delightful and witty poet and playwright. Theodore Parker, Unitarian clergyman and writer, comes next, his doctrinal radicalism satirized as well as his erudite sermons. William Cullen Bryant, the poet of nature, is no William Wordsworth, says Apollo, but perhaps he is a James Thomson or a William Cowper. In any case, he is quiet and cool and as dignified as an iceberg. John Greenleaf Whittier is a pacifist Quaker engaged in militant wars for human rights. In his poetry, there is a major defect: “torrent of verse bursts the dams of reflection.” Whittier’s human qualities lead Apollo into a general panegyric on all poets who ever “spoke out for the dumb and the down-trodden.”
Two lesser-known writers—Richard Henry Dana, Sr., and John Neal, a journalist and novelist—continue the procession, followed by Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the few writers on parade who receives unqualified approval. He is strong, earnest, graceful, good-tempered—“fully and perfectly man.” James Fenimore Cooper fares less well in twice as many lines. According to Apollo, he has created one character, the woodsman Natty Bumppo, and has done nothing but copy him ever since. Cooper’s virtue is boldness of utterance; he speaks his mind whether people like it or not.
The admirable way in which Cooper “lectures his countrymen gratis” reminds Apollo of several “truths you Americans need to be told,” the main one being that they should refuse to be intimidated by England. Americans brag of their New World but do not really quite believe in it and keep looking to England for ideas and literature. Instead, they should reflect their own land and their own century.
After a quick jab at slavery from Apollo, the conversation is interrupted by Miranda (Margaret Fuller), a rather obnoxious egoist “with an I-turn-the-crank-of-the-Universe air.” She inspires Apollo to give a digression on bores. Congress is full of them. The parade resumes with a description of the novelist Charles Frederick Briggs, who is amiable, if self-contradictory, followed by the famous vignette of Poe, “who has written some things quite the best of their kind,/ But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind.” This description is interrupted by a spirited defense of Longfellow.
Lydia Maria Child, another forgotten novelist to whom Lowell devotes more than one hundred lines, is succeeded by Washington Irving, who is presented as a man of “warm heart and fine brain.” Praise for Irving yields to recognition of Sylvester Judd, a novelist of New England.
At this point Lowell himself enters the poem again, for the purpose of a digressive paean to the state of Massachusetts, the home of workers and industry where the rough new continent was tamed. Here Lowell raises the theme of great art and literature.
Apollo then resumes his commentary on the parade. The vigor, fancy, and fun of Oliver Wendell Holmes receive acclaim, and then comes none other than Lowell himself, “striving Parnassus to climb.” After him appears Fitz-Greene Halleck, a minor versifier, followed by figures even more insignificant. Apollo amuses himself by laughing at their self-importance.
Apollo’s lily-searchers, who had disappeared at the beginning of the poem, now reenter to lead matters to a conclusion. Before ending, however, Apollo makes some pointed remarks about literary criticism. In the good old days when poets were visionary, free, and prophetic, there were no critics, but now the domain of art is overrun by pedantic and carping critics: “He who would write and can’t write can surely review.” No sooner has Apollo worked himself into a furious rage, however, than loquacious Miranda intrudes her opinion. Thereupon, Apollo flees, as does Lowell, and the burlesque comes to an abrupt end.
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