A Fable for Critics is a satire in rhyming couplets. A thorough, if lighthearted, assault on the nineteenth century American literary scene, it takes special aim at those authors whose reputations rivaled James Russell Lowell’s own. Ironically, Lowell is not as highly regarded now as many of the writers he chose to satirize.
Though it is not great poetry, A Fable for Critics has endured because it contains witty, sometimes surprisingly incisive, thumbnail sketches of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Edgar Allan Poe, among other writers still considered integral to the study of American literature. A prominent poet, editor, and educator in his day, Lowell delighted in skewering literary luminaries in his satire, which he initially published anonymously. Many of his targets were his fellow “Brahmins”—that is, the intellectual elite of nineteenth century Boston and its environs. The satire provides an insider’s view of a nation’s newly emerging literature and its makers.
The poem’s evaluations are often pithy and fun to quote. Poe, Lowell says, is “Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge.” The exuberantly talkative Margaret Fuller would “persuade you ’t is something tremendously deep,/ By repeating it so as to put you to sleep.” As for Emerson, the leader of the Transcendentalists, “All admire, and yet scarcely six converts he’s got/ To I don’t (nor they either) exactly know what.”
Despite its own persistent (and Emersonian) call for a truly American literature, Lowel’s poem owes much to English literary forebears. Its comical title page—as well as the genre of satire in itself—evokes the eighteenth century English writers Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Its rhyming couplets and salient attack on puffed-up critics also follow in their footsteps.
Yet Lowell appears reluctant to emulate eighteenth century English satirists in their sometimes vitriolic assault on others. His preliminary notes to the reader, written in rhyming prose, make it clear that he wanted his satire taken in a spirit of good fun. Like Swift and Pope, however, Lowell sets his poem in a classical frame. The poem’s narrator converses with Apollo (sometimes called Phoebus), the god of poetry and music. The persona of Apollo gives Lowell a convenient, highly respectable mouthpiece for his satire. Within the frame of Apollo’s running commentary, the reader meets one author after another, usually identified by name.
In addition to the authors already mentioned, Lowell’s targets include Henry David Thoreau, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Fenimore Cooper, Lydia Maria Child, Washington Irving, Oliver Wendell Holmes—and himself.
He also digresses on the subject of American literature, which he believes to be too indebted to England; slavery, which he vehemently opposes; and literary bores, a breed he also opposes in memorably witty fashion.
Although it is not especially graceful poetry, A Fable for Critics is often ingenious. The poem’s ingenuity manifests itself in amusing rhymes and easily recognizable images drawn from his targets’ lives and writing.
In his description of Cooper, for example, Lowell says that Cooper’s other characters are only variations on Natty Bumppo, the pioneer hero of Cooper’s Leatherstocking series (18271841). To make his point vivid, Lowell exclaims: “His Indians, with proper respect be it said,/ Are just Natty Bumppo, daubed over with red.” He continues the attack: “And the women he draws from one model don’t vary,/ All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.” No one would label these lines brilliant verse, but such couplets show the pitch of Lowell’s imagination. He could mount an attack with flair.
Lowell seldom presents a...
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wholly one-sided picture. After deftly portraying Emerson as a coldly self-absorbed thinker, he backs off and praises Emerson’s originality and superiority to the English author Thomas Carlyle. Then he pokes fun at Emerson’s protégés (such as Thoreau and the poet William Ellery Channing). The portrait as a whole—and its placement at the beginning of the poem—leaves one with the feeling that Lowell feels considerable respect for Emerson, though he considers the Concord philosopher a little too intellectual for his own (or anyone else’s) good.
The exception to Lowell’s balanced portraits is that of Margaret Fuller, one of a very few women admitted to the inner circle of Transcendentalism, and author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). Fuller had criticized Lowell’s poetry in print; his sketch of her smacks of retaliation and wounded ego.
Labeling her “Miranda,” the name Fuller used for an autobiographical character in her book, Lowell denounces her as a meanspirited, unoriginal egomaniac: “There is one thing she owns in her own single right,/ It is native and genuine—namely her spite;/ Though when acting as censor, she privately blows/ A censer of vanity ‘neath her own nose.” He ends A Fable for Critics by reintroducing Miranda into the poem, causing Apollo to exit, the narrator right behind him. The description of Fuller would have delighted her detractors, who thought her too brash, but Lowell’s angry words show him to be a bit spiteful, too.
Lowell is highly conscious of his own role as poet in A Fable for Critics. Early in the poem, after rhyming “irresistible” with “whist-table,” he notes parenthetically “(I feared me at first that the rhyme was untwistable,/ Though I might have lugged in an allusion to Cristabel.)” Showing off his arsenal of rhymes, and alluding to the masterful Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the bargain, Lowell sets a standard for himself that is no less ambitious for being playful.
He flaunts his knowledge of poetic devices by occasionally employing macaronic verse—that is, mingling foreign phrases in the poem—and broken rhyme, the breaking of an end word to create a rhyme. Consider this awkward, but eye-catching, comment on the poet Bryant: “If you choose to compare him, I think there are two per-/-sons fit for a parallel—Thomson and Cowper.”
Arms, George. The Fields Were Green: A New View of Bryant, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow, with a Selection of their Poems. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1948. Places Lowell and his production in the context of the best popular poetry of the times. Approaches A Fable for Critics as an attempt at a series of verse essays that only incidentally contain shrewd critical judgments of Lowell’s contemporary authors.
Duberman, Martin. James Russell Lowell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. Includes a discussion of A Fable for Critics that points out the work’s weaknesses, especially its hasty composition, forced puns, and digressions. Also emphasizes its many strengths, notably its still valid critical judgments.
Heymann, C. David. American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy Lowell, and Robert Lowell. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980. Sketches early responses to A Fable for Critics and compares relevant aspects of the work to Amy Lowell’s somewhat similar 1922 work entitled A Critical Fable.
McGlinchee, Claire. James Russell Lowell. New York: Twayne, 1967. Analyzes A Fable for Critics as a demonstration of Lowell’s critical acumen and his ability to make dispassionate and lasting judgments about his contemporaries. In particular, praises his perceptive comments on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe.
Smith, Herbert F., ed. Literary Criticism of James Russell Lowell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969. Reprints A Fable for Critics, accompanied by a detailed introduction and extensive annotations of all persons named, non-English quotations, and difficult literary references and allusions.