Text: George R. Graham, “The Genius and Characteristics of the Late Edgar Allan Poe,” Graham’s Magazine, February 1854, pp. 216-225


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[page 216:]

THE GENIUS AND CHARACTERISTICS
OF THE LATE EDGAR ALLAN POE.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.  HAMLET.

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AND one of these undreamed of things, most undefined, perhaps, most inscrutable, and least understood, even by those who most affect the term, is Genius. What essence genius has, what positive value, what inalienable property, by which its presence may be instantly discovered, and the reality thereof immediately distinguished from the sham, no subtlest metaphysician, no most transcendental aesthetic has ever yet reasonably argued, much less satisfactorily established.

One thing concerning Genius, and one only, can be, we think, fairly predicated as an invariable law; that, wherever it indeed exists, it is easy of intuitive apprehension to all persons even moderately apprehensive, as it is difficult of analysis or resolution even to the clearest of reasoners and closest of definers.

It is to be perceived, not seen; to be felt, not found; understood, not inculcated. Where its existence is seriously doubted, even by a minority capable of discovering it elsewhere, we believe it exists not at all. Its existence, if not instinctively admitted, is incapable of proof, by any mode of argument or investigation that has been as yet applied; and we are well assured that no person was ever convinced, or is capable of being convinced, that genius is to be found, on being looked for, where it was not perceived, at first sight, as clearly as the sun in a cloudless noonday, by any human eloquence.

To a vast majority of mankind, genius is a mere phrase for something to which the mind is as capable of assigning a real, tangible quality or value, as it is of doing so to the terms eternity, infinity, ubiquity, and others purely arbitrary and evanescent-and no further. In short, has no meaning whatsoever.

To none, however, has it less reality, or is it less appreciable, than to those who regard it in a cumulative light; as a higher degree, in fact, or multiple, of some inferior quality or essence, which they term cleverness, capacity, or talent, in relative degrees, when in truth they have no relation, any one toward another, or any or all toward genius, which is itself, and an unity.

Nor, on the other hand, is it in any degree, more easy to arrive at a definition of genius, by seeking out those characteristics, which it does not, than those which it does possess; for, although [column 2:] it is, at times, found partaking more or less, and lacking more or less, every particular and individual quality, it yet cannot be said with any air of truth, that there is any one faculty, or power, or form of mind, the absence of which is invariable in those whom we term men of genius. With vulgar-minded thinkers, eccentricity is set down, too often, as a necessary constituent of genius; in spite of the notorious truth that, while many of the clearest and most unquestionable instances of high genius have been instances, in one case, of the most hard-headed, practical, deduction and logical common sense, shrewdness and worldly wisdom, they have equally been examples in another of the most imaginative, speculative, visionary, and impracticable eccentricity, both in the products of their intellect and the tenors of their lives. Who, for instance, more thoroughly practical, and less eccentrical — to take the most widely known and generally admitted instances — so far as we know or can judge of their doings and demeanor, than Homer, Xenophon, Julius Caesar, Richelieu, Bacon, Shakspeare, Milton, Newton, Walter Scott, Napoleon the Great.

Who, on the other hand, more genuinely wild, unaccountable, visionary, eccentrical, even to the verge of positive insanity, than AEschylus, Pindar, Alcibiades, Scipio, Rabelais, Mirabeau, Sheridan, Byron, Shelley? all of whom have either left something so peculiar in their works, where their lives are comparatively unknown, that we cannot fail to recognize in them something almost abnormal, or have shown something so heterogeneous in their lives, that, but for their wonderful qualities of mind, they would have been summarily denounced madmen.

In the like manner of imaginative power, who shall deny the genius of Newton, purely logical and inductive; who question that of Spencer or Ariosto, children of almost pure imagination.

Shall, then, originality be made the test, and shall Columbus be declared no genius, because it is now clearly demonstrated that he had seen the maps and read the sea-logs of the Norse discoverers; or Virgil, because he found a greater original in Homer; or Cicero because Demosthenes spoke, and spoke better before him.

No! Genius, whatever else it may be, or may [page 217:] not be, is multifarious, and so far ubiquitous, that it knows nothing of ranks, or classes, or professions, no, not even of qualities of intellect or tendencies of mind, more than it does of races, climes, or countries.

Alexander, striding over prostrate turbans to the throne of Persia; Columbus, scenting the seat of future empires upon the spicy trade-winds of the dark Atlantic; Shakspeare, musing his wood-notes wild on the green banks of Avon; Newton, developing the laws of moving planets from the chance-falling of an apple; Galileo, first measuring with his optic glass the mountains of the moon; Napoleon, looking forty centuries from the gray summits of the pyramids to crown the tri-color with victory, were no more moved by the divine afflatus, the indescribable hispiration of what men, in these latter centuries, have united in calling genius, than was the needy barber of Warrington, planning his embryo spinning-jenny in charcoal scrawls upon the whitewashed walls of his humble shop; or Watts, elaborating the steam-engine, ere long to revolutionize the industry and enterprise, the arms, the arts, the commerce of a world, in the grimness of his Glasgow forges; or he who, borrowing the viewless coursers of the air, the speed of the electric flash, has literally accomplished the exaggerated bathos of the lover’s hyperbolic prayer,

Ye Gods’ annihilate both time and space,

And make two lovers happy.

All these were geniuses, alike and equally, although in the extent, the range, the power, and subtle nature of the strange gift, which they all shared in their degree, as unlike and unequal as were the works which they performed, and the results of those works, both on themselves, their neighbors, and the world.

It is not for us to arrogate to ourselves the definition of this grand metaphysical enigma; not even to attempt distinction between this the highest intellectual faculty of the mind, and what is so generally confounded with it, high administrative capacity, high creative, imaginative, humorous, or original talent.

Genius, is we partially seem to understand it, while its seat and throne is the intellect, is guided, and in some sort governed and controlled, by other qualities and conditions of the mind, and is thus even modified, not only by individual character, but by mental education, over neither of which it appears in itself to have any sway.

Now, if this be true, as we feel fully certain that it is, all that we hear of the danger, the unhappiness, the waywardness, the obliquity, and the immorality of genius, is mere jargon; and tends to misconception of the thing itself, and injustice to its possessors. [column 2:]

It is quite true and indisputable, that if genius be granted by nature, to one whose mind is naturally, or by vicious education, warped to melancholy, eccentricity, waywardness, or any other irregular or ill-balanced condition, the genius will render that irregularity more conspicuous, and more dangerous both to the possessor and to others, than the same evil condition of mind would have been in an ordinary person.

But the same is predicable of strength, and many other bodily, no less than mental, qualities; a wicked, cruel, malicious, nay, even passionate or quick-tempered person, if endowed with unusual strength, activity, memory, subtlety, is an infinitely more dangerous and formidable being than a weak, puny, stolid individual of the same evil dispositions.

Hence, it were just as reasonable to speak of wicked strength, malicious memory, or immoral subtlety, as it were to couple genius to attributes of moral quality, to which it has no greater relation than has almost any other mental or physical power — none, in short, other than coexistence in the same corporeal and spiritual individuality.

This misconception, as it appears to us, of the true nature and essence of genius, leads to another error and injustice — the attribution or denial of genius to persons, not inasmuch as they really possess it or not, but as they are or are not possessed of certain other qualities, which lend different tones and tendencies to the genius, itself not a modifier, but modified.

For instance, Napoleon Bonaparte was by universal consent a genius; one of the greatest, many persons believe the greatest, whom the world of History has known. His genius, directed partly by circumstances, partly by inclination, received an impulse toward military matters; and, being stimulated by excessive ambition operating on a mind wholly devoid of moral principle or reverential balance, soon steered its course for military preeminence and universal dominion, reckless alike of means or consequences, until it became, is some aver, the greatest curse, as all admit, the mightiest convulses of humanity that ever rode the titles of time and fortune.

Now, it is confidently predicated of this great destroyer, whose avatar cost the lives of above ten millions, that his genius was of such rare scope and illimitable multifariousness, that to whatever subject matter it had been applied, in that it must have conquered the selfsame supremacy which it did on the battle-fields of nations, and in the perilous strife for thrones.

Had the temper, perhaps the early education, early fortunes of the desolator, led him to the [page 218:] philosopher’s closet, the poet’s study, the machinist’s workshop, even the churchman’s pulpit, ,here is no cause to doubt, but every reason confidently to believe, that he both might and would have achieved renown as vast, and power as strong, though bloodless, as he did leading his invincibles through gore to glory.

This wondrous, glorious genius, therefore of Napoleon, was no more the cause of his career, or mover of his actions, whether for good or evil, than was that of Milton or Galileo or Columbus the main-spring of their love of liberty, their patient hardihood, or their dauntless perseverance.

The querulous man will be querulous, the reckless reckless, and the unprincipled unprincipled, just as the righteous will be true and upright, whether he have the genius of half-immortal Shakspeare or the driveling folly of the half-brutal clown; and if this be true of the moral, so is it likewise true of the purely mental modifications of genius.

So that it is no less absurd to deny the existence of genius, on account of lack of pure originality, of practical good sense, of logical induction, of absolute consistency, of justice, or love of truth, than it would be to deny it on account of deficiency in strength, beauty, good-temper, morality or religion. Genius, which seems to us, in some sort, to consist in intense vividness of perception and conception, and to be rarely dissociated from a consciousness of power, doubtless, like wine, anger, or any other fiery mental stimulus, intensifies all pains, all pleasures, all feelings, and all qualities, of its possessor.

Yet it neither originates them nor must be held answerable for their existence or nonexistence. It is the bowstring, indeed, which propels the shaft, but until the human muscle is applied, and the human will exerts the muscle, the string is inert, the arrow motionless.

In judging of the existence of genius, therefore, we must divest our minds carefully of all consideration of the moral or utilitarian purposes to which it is applied, and look only to its nature, its quality, and its power. Yet in considering the characters, the tempers, the constitutional temperaments of the fortunate, or unfortunate, possessors of this great gift of nature, we should reflect that, in proportion as they possess, or are conscious of possessing, great and extraordinary perceptions and powers, so are they exposed to sufferings, wounds, heart-burns, and, above all, to temptations, as likewise to sensations of pleasure and delight, far greater than the ordinary and phlegmatic temperaments of every day humanity. [column 2:]

He who perceives many a beauty, enjoys many a bliss, imperceptible to the common sense; feels many an agony, writhes under many a cruelest outrage, which, to his duller neighbor, would not have been a momentary pang, a transient wrong.

He who feels not the wrong, can claim no merit in that he avenges not.

He who cannot crush, can claim no desert in his forbearance.

He who writhes under the weight even of imaginary wrong, and who wields withal a giant’s strength to punish, may claim something of compassion if he strike, even wrongfully — if he refrain, deserves the honor due to the hero and the martyr.

They who ask much at the hands of mortal genius, and forgive little, would do well to remember that, like that other glittering gand, nobility, if it have its good things and its glories, it has likewise its trials, its temptations, and its obligations. What man shalt say which weigh the heavier in the balance?

To these remarks we have been irresistibly led by a consideration of the various reviews of the life and writings of Edgar A. Poe, all of them, in our opinion, incomplete, and in some sort inapt, and many unjust, unkind, ungenerous and cruel. No sooner in fact had this brilliant but eccentric spirit passed away and been swallowed up in darkness, than the hand of almost every one was raised against him, every foible of his unhappy and ill-regulated life was hunted out and paraded before the censorious eyes of a world ever prone to lend a credulous ear to ill reports of those who stand eminent above the rest, it matters not for what, and eager, as it would seem, to take vengeance on them for their superiority in one respect by dwelling triumphantly on their inferiority in others.

Now, in the case of Mr. Poe, we cannot in the least perceive that the defects of his private life had any connection at all with the consideration of his works or of his genius. Whether he was a person of the most moral or the most immoral habits, the strictest man of honor or the loosest of profligates in money matters, the chastest or most licentious in his dealings with the sex, in no single instance, so far as we can discover, is even shadowed in his writings. His failings, be they what or how great they might, were his own failings, simply and strictly his own, privately shown to the few only who dealt or lived with him privately, operating against himself mainly, and, at the largest, only on those individuals, as private as himself, with whom he had close intercourse and relations. In no possible way did they act, or could they have acted, on the public or on the public mind. They left no tincture on [page 219:] his compositions; they were maintained, justified, or even extenuated, by no false philosophy; they were not thrust forward seductively, wantonly, or what the French call cynically, into the face of the world; so that a reference to the errors of his life might be necessary to give a clue and an antidote to the errors of his writings and the perils to be incurred by his readers.

Had he been in his pecuniary dealings (and we have shown in a former article how honorable he was in these) a very Ferdinand Count Fathom, and lead he made all his heroes delightful, witty, admirable, all-conquering scoundrels, endeavoring to cast a halo of enchantment over vices copied from his own; had he been a bad husband, a licentious, heartless, sensual roue, like a highly-distinguished writer of the day, and, like him, devoted all his talents to the extenuation and glorification of lewdness, and the overthrow of the most sacred of human institutions, the marriage-tie; had he, like another great master of the souls of men, morbid himself and worn out with excess of revelry and riot, forged a superb, gorgeous structure of false and perilous philosophy, lending to sin and shame all attributes of virtue, all decorations of glory, intellect and genius; had he, an ardent and incessant votary of the bottle, devoted his pen to the adornment of refined revelry or vulgar debauchcry; had he adopted Fourierism, because his own wife would not live with him, and be wanted to live with the wife of some one else; had he adopted Mormonism because, like young Maleolm’s, there was “no bottom, none, to his voluptuousness;” had he, like Rousseau, confessed his own lusts to feed the lusts of others, or, like Voltaire, preached infidelity to justify his own sneering and disbelieving temper; had he, in a word, written gloriously, but falsely, sophistically and seductively in justification or defense of sins like his own, leading the weak and unsuspicious reader to admire and love the sinner, in spite of his sin in the first instance, and thereafter almost to love the sin, for the sinner’s sake who did it; then, I say, then up with his foibles, his follies, his sires, his vices, up with them, like a banner to the skies, publish them with the trumpet through the streets, and cry, see the motives of the man, see the source of the foul, seductive stream at which you quaff, see the corrupted fountain from which flows this polluted and polluting stream of sophistry and falsehood.

With Voltaire, with Rousseau, with Diderot, with Sue and Sands, with Byron, Shelley, Bulwer, this were justice — were necessary, as best, perhaps sole antidote, to the seductive power with which they have commended irreligion, lust, immorality, [column 2:] pernicious and soul-destroying doctrines to the unsuspecting lips of the unwise and the unwary.

But in the case of Poe, the same treatment is mere impertinence of prying into the privacies of domestic life, and pandering to the prurient curiosity and sensorious scandal-mongering of the profane and vulgar herd, not the liberal, candid and gentle public.

For mentioning his vices at all, except in the slightest and most casual manner, much less for dwelling on them pertinaciously and almost malignantly, there can be no earthly apology or justification; for they were in no wise reflected in or connected with his writings; neither were they in any respect seductive, amusing or fascinating vices, likely to court imitation, or lead astray a single individual from the path of sobriety or honor.

A man of splendid attainments reduced to pecuniary indirections, by what difficulties, and through what agonies, and after what struggles, none can know, but He to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, presents not so agreeable an aspect that men need be cautioned against assuming it; unless to be a Jeremy Didler is assumed to be a part of genius, and men must be cautioned against being geniuses, lest they become Robert Macaires, in spite of their teeth.

Nor is a drunken poet, maundering balderdash in the gutter, even if relieved by the brilliant wit of Sheridan, brightest, like the meteor of the dews, when rising from the foullest puddle, so alluring an object that men are like to become poets to resemble drunkards, or drunkards to resemble poets.

And here the mention of Sheridan reminds us of the utter inconsistency, untruth and injustice of the poetical justice of criticism. Sheridan was looser in money matters than ever poor Poe would have been, if even he were loose, which is denied and disputed. He was indeed little more than a common cheat and swindler, and would, but for his singular mental fascinations and social position, in all probability have expiated his irregularities in Bridewell. Never was there a more enormous or inveterate drunkard; yet who ever heard of his cheateries, unless coupled with eulogiums for their cleverness, or of his drunkenness, without raptures at his wit.

Burns, concerning whom we fully coincide, strange as it may seem, with Mr. Poe, in the opinion that his general reputation, as a great genius and extraordinary poet, is one of the enigmas of literary history, — we have always explained it by his democratic tendencies, — Burns, we say, was a seducer and a sot, and, despite his republicanism of speech, not clear [page 220:] of the charge of sycophancy. Yet whoever speaks of him or his vices, but affectionately, as “poor Burns.”

Poor Poe, however, was a critic as well as a poet and a genius; and living he had reviewed many, who reviewed him when dead. He had leaned never to the lenient side, nor been consistent, nor just, nor always free from personality in his criticisms. Still we are inclined to believe that he was rarely, if ever deliberately, or of malice, individually, unjust or ill-natured; for he is just as pungent, severe, bitter and sarcastic to many with whom he could have had no relations of any kind, as he was toward those whom he was known personally to dislike; and, on the whole, with one or two exceptions, we think his most favorable are his most unjust criticisms. In no event could they justify the indecent exposure of file sacred privacy of his domestic life, the probing the sores of his soul, and at once stabbing the reputation of the dead and the memories of the living with slow, inveterate vengeance.

Brought up and nursed in affluence, indulged in every whim, uncorrected in any fault, educated to be luxurious, extravagant, reckless and willful, his adopted father, both cruelly, and, in our opinion, wickedly punished his errors, faults or crimes, if they will have it so, by depriving the boy at whose extravagances he had connived, by not repressing them, and to whom he had rendered luxuries necessary and profusion native, of even file bare means of subsistence. We do not intend to extenuate Poe’s errors, or the provocations given, or the apparent hopelessness of amendment; but we hold the cutting off the paternal link and abandonment of the paternal care an unjust and excessive vengeance, not a punishment, for any offense whatsoever, and one which never corrects but always aggravates the conduct it is intended to reform.

Wild and impetuous, of ardent passions, strong temperament and feeble will, the sense of wrong goaded, irritated, almost maddened the sensitive, excitable, nervous, poetic spirit, and he became what he became. Yet withal, he was never, in so far as we can perceive or understand, a resolute or hardened offender; on the contrary, in his better moods, he was afflicted with fits of utter disconsolateness, despondency, penitence, and self-abasement. His whole life in fact seems to have been a succession of struggles at self-reformation and re-establishment, and utter derelictions from virtue, decency and self-respect. It is a piteous, a deplorable, a shocking spectacle on which to dwell, such a spirit so fallen, so shorn of its natural glories; but it is a spectacle on which to gaze with sorrow and self-humiliation [column 2:] at the instability of human greatness, not with reproaches or self-righteousness.

Slower and more phlegmatic temperaments can by no means justly estimate the cravings, the excitements, the necessities, the weaknesses, file temptations or the tortures to which higher, hotter and more sensitive natures are liable. He who never was athirst knows not the rapture of the draught, nor he who was never tempted how difficult it is to resist.

Men of the highest intellectual and imaginative powers are almost invariably men of the highest passions, often endowed with a craving thirst for excitement, whether spiritual or sensual, and not infrequently possessing a fitful and impulsive energy, rather than a sustained and steady strength of will.

To such a temperament as this, and something such we believe was Poe’s, temptations are strong in excess, almost irresistible — the sense of injustice and the irritations produced by it are like stings of fire — every coldness, every censure of the world, however merited, inflicts agony — privation, every pang of poverty, every touch of shame, every hint of reproach or sarcasm, grinds his soul into the dust, or kindles it into lightning. In nothing is he moderate; not in his passions, not in the penitence to which they lead, not in his pleasures, which in him are ineffable raptures, not in his pains, which become to his ken untold agonies. His resentments are rage, his love adoration, his repentance self-abasement, his sorrow utter despondency and wretchedness.

To such a mail, though nothing must be palliated, excused or set down, as they are at times, most illogically, to the score of genius, as if they were its legitimate and necessary consequences, yet much may be honestly pardoned, and much more may be honestly pitied. Yet to the proud, and genius is often very proud, pardon and pity are regarded as terms of contempt, and produce irritation rather than amendment.

Some one has nobly remarked, that it is only the very highest, noblest and firmest order of souls which come out from trial in the fiery furnace of excessive poverty with honor not impaired but brightened by tire trial. The sufferings caused by poverty to the sensitive, proud, educated gentleman are agonies indescribable, temptations irresistible; and Poe’s poverty was at times excessive, extending to the want of the mere necessaries of life. Nor was this, we conscientiously believe, in any considerable degree Poe’s fault, for his genius, though of a very fine and high order, was not such as to command a ready or lucrative market. Pride, self-reproach, want, weariness, drove him to seek excitement, perhaps [page 221:] forgetfulness, in wine; and the least drop of wine, to most men a moderate stimulus, was to him literally the cup of frenzy. In considering file faults of such a man, of such temper, imagination, under such circumstances, it would be difficult indeed not to perceive the truth of Byron’s noble cry to the traducers of fallen greatness —

Still let them pause, for little do they know

That what to them seemed vice might be but woe;

difficult not to feel the terrible conviction, that

If joined to these 

Gaunt poverty should league with deep disease,

If the high spirit must forget to soar,

And stoop to strive with misery at the door,

To soothe indignity — and face to face

Meet sordid shame and wrestle with disgrace,

To find in hope but the renewed caress,

The serpent-fold of further faithlessness;

If such may be the ills which men assail,

What marvel if at last the mightiest fail.

The good is oft interred with their bones;

Nor in all this is there a single thought, a passing word, which is not directly applicable to the noble poet and unhappy man-one of the unhappiest the world has ever seen, and one to whom the sternest justice has been meted out, untempered of truth or of mercy — over the nakedness of whose errors no merciful hand has spread a mantle, but rather plucked away the curtain which might have decently concealed them — of whom scarcely a single tongue, except a woman’s, has found voice to give the lie to that but too true apothegm,

The evil that men do lives after them,

The good is oft interred with their bones;

or to proclaim to all maligners, all false friends, that this long-suffering, much-persecuted, greatly-belied man had a soul as soft, as delicate, as tender as a child’s; that he was the kindest of husbands and the gentlest of men, where women were concerned; and that every effervescence of excess, of anger, of irritation, or of wrong done to others, was followed by an agony of penitence, and oftentimes by earnest, long-sustained and half-successful efforts lit reformation. His wife adored him, and we cannot be told that lie whom an amiable and virtuous woman fervently and passionately loves can be in utterly, bad, unprincipled and heartless man. His mother-in-law, true to his memory, is yet ceaseless in her praises, earnest and unwearied in the vindication of his name. Such affection is the truest, as it is the best, of epitaphs; and to possess such, one would be willing to endure more than such a storm of censure as has fallen unheard and unheeded on the cold ears of America’s most artistical, most imaginative, and, in our opinion, most thoughtful, if not most spiritual or serenest poet.

But Poe was, as we have observed, a critic as [column 2:] well as a poet; and, we must write it, an irritable, inconsistent, at times unjust, often personal, always, when criticising unfavorably, sarcastic, bitter, and unsparing critic. His criticisms, many of them, were too pointed, too bitter, too cruelly galling to the assailed to be endured with equanimity or without sharp resentment. His literary rank, and high repute for taste, artistic skill, and general judgment concerning letters, were too eminent to allow him or his attacks to be treated with scorn, or passed over in silence. They have been cruelly and unmanfully avenged.

They show the worst phase of Poe’s literary character, and we would that we could in justice pass them by unconsidered — but bad, as they indeed are, they are not in any degree so bad as they have been made to seem, and do not to our eyes indicate a bad heart, it malicious desire to give pain, or to avenge fancied injuries, an envious jealousy of the repute of others, or an arrogant self-confidence, that rendered him, as it has been alleged, careless of the rights of others.

A poetical artist himself of the highest order, a rythmist and versifier skilled almost beyond example, an analyzer and mental anatomist of wondrous power, be was as intolerant of false rhyme, false rythm [[rhythm]], ill-regulated metre, as the utmost fanatic for music of a false note or discord; as intolerant, as he was certain to detect and merciless to punish. Doubtless they did jar on his sensitive poetic nerves, and excited a storm of indignation which he could allay only by exposing what seemed to him an imposture and a alum.

It does not, however, appear to us that in most or many instances, personal jealousy, or personal resentments could have bad much to do. Many of those whom he most scientifically and pitilessly mangles are persons so infinitely below all comparison with trim in genius, art, skill or learning, that jealousy is a thing not to be thought of. Jealousy never could have intervened between Edgar Allan Poe and Dr. “Flaccus” Ward, or William Ellery Channing, William W. Lord, or Henry B. Hirst, as felt by the former toward the latter; yet it is these whom he has pursued with something closely resembling personal animosity and vindictiveness, though except in one instance, that of Mr. Hirst, we have reason to believe that he had no personal acquaintance with, and consequently no liking or disliking for any one of the three above mentioned.

Of his pertinacious and ion; sustained enmity to one whom we esteem and he, to judge from some of his chance passages, seems to have himself esteemed, the first of American poets, the most original no less than the purest, noblest, [page 222:] and serenest — Mr. Longfellow — we must speak differently. In this case, jealousy was possible, for both stood so near to the summit of the tree that there was even room for rivalry, and probably there was some jealousy in the case. But utterly unjust as we consider his outcry against Mr. Longfellow for plagiary, which he repeated absolutely usque ad nauseam, we must admit that we believe he had convinced himself of the truth of the charge, of which we believe be never convinced any body else.

But it must be observed that the detection of possible or probable plagiaries was a prominent and peculiar point in his singular idiosyncracy. It was an occupation peculiarly suited to his captious, scrutinizing, analytic mind, to his doubting and suspicious temper, to his peculiar notions concerning evidence, investigation, ratiocination, to his wide and discursive reading, to his fine poetic memory, and to his peculiar habits of finding proofs in trifles light as air, and of seeking for them in the most improbable places and manners.

He was perpetually discovering plagiarisms of persons wholly indifferent to him, not only on himself — though this was so completely a monomania on his part that he would in no sort have astonished or dismayed us had he sat down gravely to prove that Shakspeare, or Milton, or Pindar had plagiarised some one or more of his works — but on others, whose writings in many instances, it is a thousand to one the accused had never seen, and fifty to one that he had never heard of. But he had a blood-hound’s nose for a fancied plagiarism, and when he once found, or suspected one, he never left the track till he had run it into the ground, going even to the length of finding convincing proofs of the plagiarism in the very circumstances which, we hesitate not to say, would have wrought on any one else the contrary conviction. As for instance, in the case of Motherwell’s ballad of Bonnie George Campbell, translated into German by Wolff, and translated into English by Professor Longfellow, for this very magazine.

Now, Professor Longfellow’s version contains one deviation from the original, which, had his version not been a translation, would have been a deviation from true antithesis or parallelism, an alteration from the better to the worse, which so able a scholar, and so skillful a versifier could not have committed accidentally, and which, had he been stealing so barefacedly and literally, he would not have resorted to purposely for concealment of his theft. The cause of the change is evident, at a glance, by one who looks to the German, and is otherwise utterly inexplicable. The ballad of Motherwell commences thus —   [column 2:]

His upon Hielands

And low upon Tay.

The German, translating literally, either ignorantly, or by the error of his printer, wrote Tag for Tay, signifying in English Day, and Professor Longfellow, in translating it, failed to detect the blunder, and wrote

High in the Highlands

And deep in the day,

there being no possible parallelism to be drawn, or antithesis to be made, between high and low, or high and deep, the one relating to a point of place, the other to a point of time.

This fact struck us so forcibly, on first reading the beautiful lines in question, without having previously read Motherwell, or heard of the alleged plagiarism, that we observed and commented on the singular incompleteness and want of truth in the apposition, so unlike the usual accuracy and finish which are Longfellow’s great characteristics.

Yet not only did this never strike Poe, in his determination to detect and expose a plagiarism, an end possessing as great a charm to him as ever did the discovery of a long-hidden murder to Mr. Bucket the detective; but he even found in another circumstance, the omission of a very forcible and important Scottish word, to the manifest injury of the sense, doubtless omitted by the German owing to his inability to translate or comprehend it, which is, in truth, strong circumstantial evidence in favor of the double translation, evidence in favor of the reality of the plagiarism. Though such a plagiarism, had it been one, could have been ascribed to nothing short of actual insanity in the plagiarist, discovery being inevitable, and early and ignominious exposure imminent.

The attacks, therefore, on Mr. Longfellow, we do not so much regard as the consequences of animosity or jealousy, as of the peculiar character of Poe’s genius and disposition, such as his mania for prying into mysteries, and hunting out; or manufacturing evidences and resemblances,

no difficult art for one of his rare capacity for analysis and ratiocination, such as his power of inventing facts to establish theories, and converting conclusions deduced from preexisting circumstances into the originating causes of the very circumstances.

In the same point of view, we regard his accusation against Mr. Aldrich, of plagiarism on a ballad of Hood’s, where we defy any one with less than Poe’s acuteness and patient subtlety of analysis, to detect even a remote parallelism, although he contrives almost to establish a direct plagiarism. [page 223:]

Again, we consider it a strong argument against the attribution of his sarcastic and cynical criticisms to personal jealousy or pique, and a preconceived determination to pull down reputations, that, with the exception of Mr. Longfellow, all those whom he has most cause to regard with envy, as possessing equal or higher reputations, are those whom he criticises most favorably and most fairly; while many of those on whom he uncorks the phials of his indignation, with a fury wholly disproportioned to the value of the offenders or the weight of the offenses, are often persons of so small consideration as to make one marvel at the amount of good vituperation wasted.

It is singular, but not the less true, that with his keen perception, great power of analysis, exquisite taste and strong discrimination, he is not, even when most disposed to be candid and impartial, an able or trustworthy critic. He seems to have lacked the power of comparison, and even of deliberate judgment, apart even from his monomania concerning plagiarism, and he unquestionably erred in endeavoring to weigh all talent in his own balance, and to measure all intellectual stature by his own standard. His judgment, too, we imagine, was greatly affected by casual circumstances, temper it may be, changes of health, alterations of spirits, ills external, or cares internal, which seem to have acted on his mind and reasoning faculties, as a change of wind from west to eastward jars and jangles the physical constitution of others. This rendered him inconsistent, led him to laud an anther to the skies on one day and in one page, and to tread him into the very dust on another — see, for example, his opinions of Bulwer Lytton, as recorded on page 503, and again on page 562 of his Marginalia, which are in direct contradiction the one to the other; and twenty other absolutely opposite opinions of different persons, in different places, as Longfellow, Tennyson, Hirst, and many others, whom in one place he loads with praise, and in another absolutely buries under obloquy.

Still, we believe that he meant to record his true opinion, rind did record what at the moment he believed to be true. He criticised, however, according to feeling and impulse on the spur of the moment, not according to real judgment or calm opinion, except when he was criticising according to theory and by some fanciful standard, when he of course criticised one-sidedly. The two methods did him equal injustice, find himself more injustice than even the victims of his mental scalpel; they gained him the reputation of being a false, envious, deliberately unjust and intentionally cruel critic; when he should only have been regarded as a capricious and inconstant [column 2:] judge, careless whether he gave pain or not, inconsiderate, irritable, a little vain, a great deal egotistical, and not a little given to writing what is called a slashing article. His “Literati” is the least creditable, and to himself the most unfortunate, of all his productions. His Marginalia, with something of the same tart and acrimonious sententiousness, have at times smartness, cleverness, discrimination and sound judgment.

Here is a happy and subtle distinction, from his Fifty Suggestions, both shrewd and true:”Bryant and Street are both, essentially, descriptive poets; and descriptive poetry, even in its happiest manifestation, is not of the highest order. But the distinction between Bryant and Street is very broad. While the former, in reproducing the sensible images of nature, reproduces the sentiments with which he regards them, the latter gives us the images and nothing more. Ile never forces us to feel what he must have felt.”

The following, from the Marginalia, is clever, quaint, and to the point.

“Men of genius are far more abundant than is supposed. In fact, to appreciate thoroughly the work of what we call genius is to possess all the genius by which the work was produced. But the person appreciating may be utterly incompetent to reproduce the work or any thing similar, and this solely through lack of what may be termed constructive ability-a matter quite independent of what we agree to understand in the term genius. . . . . Hence,” and for other reasons cleverly stated, but too long to quote, “works of genius are few, while mere men of genius are, as I say, abundant.”

But this, the last which we shall quote, is curious, as coming from a person so pertinacious in seeing plagiary where none else can discover it; a person, not without some show of color, accused of what he certainly would have called plagiarism in another, though we do not so consider it; a person, lastly, who seems to consider casual coincidence of thoughts, expressions, or even impossible deductions from the same facts, as between equal and kindred thinkers; and the more curious that, in connection with some other passages, in one of which he tails Mr. Longfellow the first and in another the most original of American authors, he at moments had truer and more just ideas of the amount of originality and plagiarism to be found in the world of letters, than he argues in his ordinary mood. “Imitators are not, necessarily, unoriginal — except at the exact point of imitation. Mr. Longfellow, decidedly the most audacious imitator in America, is markedly original, or, in other words, imaginative, upon the whole; and many persons have, from [page 224:] the latter branch of the fact, been at a loss to comprehend, and therefore to believe, the former. Keen sensibility of appreciation, that is to say, of the poetic sentiment, in distinction from the poetic power, leads almost inevitably to imitation. Thus all great poets have been gross imitators. It is, however, a mere non distributio medu hence to infer that all great imitators are poets.”

Truly yes! as much so as to say that all great poets are gross imitators. But let the passage go for its worth, and it is worth much. But here we have done with the criticisms; and are glad to have done with them, happier should we have been had he, and could we have done without them.

It is on his tales, and on his poems yet more decidedly, that the reputation of Mr. Poe must stand; and both, in their line and manner, are inimitable.

His tales may be divided into three heads; those of grotesque fancy, partaking the character of the hoax, such as “The Adventure of one Hans Pfaal,” “The Balloon Hoax,” “Von Kempeler and his Discovery,” “The Descent into the Maelstrom,” and one or two others of less merit; those of grotesque, mysterious horror, partaking of the same character of hoax, such as “Mesmeric Revelation,” “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” and “The Premature Burial,” in all of which an appearance of reality and a vraisemblance so perfect as almost to compel credence to what we know to be impossible, is maintained by earnestness of style, vigor of description, minute attention to the most seemingly immaterial and trivial details, the mingling of known truths of nature with the wildest and strangest fancies, and ‘1 the application of scientific principles, so far as the whimsical nature of the subject would permit,” to subjects whimsical, absurd and impossible

Than “The Descent into the Maelstrom” nothing can be finer or fuller of genius; nor can the English language, we think, any where be found in greater force and vigor, than in the description of the whirlpool and the weather. It is impossible to rood it without believing what you know to be the wildest fiction, a reality and a narrative of true events.

The “Mesmeric Revelations” and “The Adventure of Mr. Valdemar,” though full of almost insane horror, making the hair bristle and the blood curdle as one reads, and the latter involving so flagrant an impossibility as that of a dead man, kept seven months in a dead-alive state by mesmeric power, speaking after death, and, when released from the mesmeric state, collapsing into instant putrefaction, though not even intended [column 2:] as a hoax, were actually believed, and commented on, as real or pretended truths, by grave authorities.

In the next class we have the stories of analysis or ratiocination, such as the “Gold Bug,” turning on the solution of a cipher invented for the purpose of being solved; the “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” turning on the discovery of the method of a murder by the evolution of evidence from a train of circumstances manufactured for the purposes of evolving such evidence; “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” or an attempt to approximate a solution of the secret of a real murder, that of Mary Rogers, by the application of new principles of solution to real evidence; and “The Purloined Letter,” a deduction of truth from a similar examination to fabricated evidence, similar in plan to “The Murders of the Rue Morgue.” In these stories the powers of analysis and the acuteness of reasoning are such that we cannot avoid the conclusion that Poe would have actually made a criminal lawyer of intense saga city, unwearied patience, and unequaled analytic force; as he proved himself to be, by the actual solution of many most difficult ciphers submitted to him for analysis, to be a decipherer of the first order.

The prose fictions of the last head are the tales of pure imagination, some of unmixed horror, some of horror, mysticism, and melancholy awfully and painfully combined, some of grotesque horror, and some of grotesque mystery only, such as “The Lady Ligeia,” “The Black Cat,” the “House of Usher,” the Masque of the Red Death,” “William Wilson,” and “Metzergerstein.”

The power of all these, however various, is the same, and of the same nature. Earnestness of manner, an intensity of conviction simulated on the part of the writer so as to shape or force conviction on the part of the reader, a management of the supernatural never attained or approached by any other writer, making it appear positively natural, n mysticism so regulated as to shock no sense of the rational, a horror, a gloom, a melancholy, and an awful creed or want of creed, which we fear were all but too real.

Added to these are a choice, a power, a fitness of diction, a largeness of vocabulary, an adaptation of sense to sound, and of manner to matter, which we shall reel: in vain in any other American, if not English, writer; a style flowing, round, copious, grand, a perfect originality and what do we lack that should constitute a genius.

His verse, which is sui generis, seems at first more original than his prose, but is not so in truth; [page 225:] imaginative in the highest, incomparably perfect in rythmical melody, artistical almost to a fault, for in some portions the art has failed to conceal the art, and in others, we are irresistibly abstracted from the sense to marvel at the exquisite system of sound, and driven to forget the poem in mute admiration of the art and magic of the poet. Never was a rarer syllabler of words, never a more industrious and patient finisher, never a rarer versifier. The method of the poems is much the same as that of the graver and more solemn stories, but they have a more delicate and graceful tone, a softer and more spiritual sentiment; they deal with melancholy and solemn awe, rather than with hideous and viewless horror; they are sad, intensely sad and hopeless, lingering, clinging to overwhelming recollections of bygone happiness, lost and despaired of, never to return, as the green leaves to the bare tree, as the glad morning to the weary watcher. As works of art, they are perfect; as works of imagination, wonderful; as revelations of a ‘human heart, so worn and withered, a human intellect, so shattered and disjointed, that we cannot listen to its woful utterances, without shuddering at the intensity of woe which must have inspired them, without mourning to

“See that noble and most sovereign reason

Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh.”

Our limits give us space to quote but one, our favorite of all his ballads, which has all the sweet and gentle sadness of which we have spoken, all the delicate and touching grace, all the exquisite diction and perfect rhythm, but which is less conspicuously marked by the hopelessness and despondent gloom of a distracted and despairing soul.

ANNABEL LEE.

It was many and many a year ago,

In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived, whom you may know

By the name of Annabel Lee. [column 2:]

And this maiden lived with no other thought

Than to love and be loved by me.

 

I was a child and she was a child,

In this kingdom by the sea;

But we loved with a love that was more than love,

I and my Annabel Lee;

With a love that the winged seraphs above

Coveted her and me.

 

And this was the reason, that long ago.

In the kingdom by the sea,

A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling

My beautiful Annabel Lee;

So that her high-born kinsmen came

And bore her away from me.

To shut her up in a sepulchre,

In this kingdom by the sea.

 

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,

Went envying her and me --

Yes! that was the reason, as all men know

In this kingdom by the sea,

That the wind came out of the cloud by night,

Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

 

But our love it was stronger by far than the love

Of those who were older than we --

Of many far wiser than we;

And neither the angels in heaven above,

Nor the demons under the sea,

Can ever dissever my soul from the soul

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

 

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

And so all the night-tide I lie down by the side

Of my darling, my darling -- my life and my bride,

In the sepulchre there by the sea;

In her tomb by the sounding sea.

The sad and troubled soul has fallen asleep, in that calm place “where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.” May no dreams come across that sleep, save dreams of peace and hope, and may he so awake that he shall know a happier life hereafter than that he toiled through here so sadly, and to so sad an ending. Peace be with him.

 


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Notes:

George Rex Graham was the editor and publisher of Graham’s Magazine, including the time when Poe was an editor of that periodical.

What Graham calls “The Adventure of Mr. Valdemar” is more properly “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Poe never used the title assigned here by Graham, probably from mere haste or carelessness.

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[S:0 - GM, February 1854] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The Genius and Characteristics of the Late Edgar Allan Poe (G. R. Graham, February 1854)