The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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...

(The entire section is 466 words.)