The poem presents a humorous, sophisticated perspective on some of the great figures of nineteenth century America. Lowell’s lingering descriptions of Emerson, Fuller, and Cooper, his passing shots at Thoreau and others, his digressions on critics and bores—these are an educated man’s assessment of a literary landscape which he centered in Boston. No doubt there were writers, as the prefatory notes impishly suggest, who would have gladly suffered the sting of Lowell’s immortalizing pen. To be satirized by a writer of Lowell’s stature was to be recognized as a formidable presence.
Despite the liberal criticism informing the poem, it has a buoyancy, an underlying enthusiasm for the community of writers populating New England. Lowell’s protracted assault on his colleagues reveals the high regard in which he held them. Like most satires, the poem’s reason for being seems to have been an unquenchable hope for betterment, for a collective recognition of possibilities.
It is also a valuable counterpoint to other American poetry of its era. Lowell and Walt Whitman were exact contemporaries—born in the same year, both aware of Emerson and his call for a unique American literature. In contrast to Lowell’s conservative style, Whitman breaks away radically from the Old World in Leaves of Grass, the collection of free-verse poems he first published in 1855. Beside the remarkable freshness and daring of Leaves of Grass, Lowell’s poem appears quaint, a period piece of mostly historic, not literary, value.
It is worth noting, however, that Lowell’s satire inspired a later work. In 1922, the poet Amy Lowell published A Critical Fable, a rhyming-couplet satire in the manner of A Fable for Critics. Amy Lowell followed her cousin’s lead in surveying the literary landscape and selecting from it authors—such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound—whom she considered most worthy of satirical recognition.
A Fable for Critics has pleasurable passages, and its best turns of phrase stick in the mind. It is hard to read Poe without recalling Lowell’s wonderfully concise summation of him. (In his anonymous review of the satire, Poe indignantly defends himself, gleefully attacks Lowell’s versification, and concludes that in publishing the poem Lowell “has committed an irrevocable faux pas and lowered himself at least fifty per cent in the literary public opinion.”)
One may also admire Lowell for his wide-ranging familiarity with the work and lives of his peers. His criticisms often ring true, because he speaks with considerable knowledge of his subject. He was an observant student of his era as well as its witty chronicler.