Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of New Books” [Text-02], Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1839, pp. 327-334


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[page 327:]

REVIEW OF NEW BOOKS.

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[The first item is a review of The Museum of Religious Knowledge. The review has been attributed to W. E. Burton.]

[The second item is a review of The Christian Keepsake and Missionary Annual for 1840. The review has been attributed to W. E. Burton.]

[page 328:]

[The third item is a review of The Poet: a Metical Romance of the Seventeenth Century. The review has been attributed to W. E. Burton.]

[The fourth item is a review of Albert de Rosann; or The Adventures of a French Gentleman. The review has been attributed to W. E. Burton.]

[page 329:]

[The fifth item is a review of Memoirs of His Own Time . . . by Lieut. Gen. Count Mathieu. It may be by Poe.]

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[The sixth item is a review of The Most Important Parts of Blackstone’s Commentaries, Reduced to Questions and Answers. By Asa Kinne. It may be by Poe.]

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The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. By Charles Dickens, (Boz.) Author of “Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver ‘Twist,” “Sketches of Every-Day Life,” etc., etc. With numerous Illustrations by Phiz. Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia.

What shall we say of Boz, now that he has completed Nicholas Nickleby? Assuredly we could say nothing in the way of commendation, which has not been said already by every person who reads. This last effort is perhaps the best of its author; and this we regard as superlative praise. Again; even of this last effort, the last passages are the most vivid. There could scarcely be a more forcible token of the extraordinary powers of the writer. His flight is still upwards. The author of “ Nicholas Nickleby” is, in some respects, chargeable with exaggeration, but in general may be considered as unequalled. Its humor is surpassingly fine. The incidents of the story are well conceived and admirably managed, the interest never flags; and the total effect is highly graphic and artistical. Charles Dickens is no ordinary man, and his writings must unquestionably live. We think it somewhat surprising that his serious pieces have elicited so little attention; but, possibly, they have been lost in the blaze of his comic reputation. One of the most forcible things ever written is a brief story of his called “The Black Veil,” a strangely pathetic and richly imaginative production, replete with the loftiest tragic ability.

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An Address, Delivered before the Gœthean and Diagnothian Societies of Marshall College, at their Annual Celebration, September 24, 1839. By Joseph R. Chandler.

We have read this address thoughtfully, and with great pleasure. It assuredly does its accomplished author much credit, and we cannot be surprised at the intense interest with which, as we learn, it was listened to by the institutions before whom it was delivered. Addresses, in general, are very ordinary matters, and we dislike to say any thing about them, because we seldom have any thing more to say than a few brief words of utter condemnation. The leading features of this branch of letters, at the present day, may be summed up in petto — stale wisdom, overdone sentiment, school-boy classicalities, bad English, worse Latin, and wholesale rhodomontade. Mr. Chandler has given us a good Address, and done an original thing.

Originality is indeed, we think, one of the distinguishing traits of Mr C.’s mind, and the Essay now before us evinces the faculty in a high degree. He has deviated widely from the usual track upon occasions like the present; and, at the same time, he has deviated with judgment, and given token of the true spirit of independence. He addresses two associations supposed to he deeply imbued with classical partialities. He does not blindly humor these partialities — but boldly confronts, and, just so far as the truth warrants; condemns them. His design is to show the vast superiority which modern intellect, and its results, maintain over the boasted civilization and proudest mental efforts of even the golden Heathen ages — maintain by the means, and through the inspiration of the light of revelation — through the elevated knowledge of a futurity of existence — and through the glowing and burning hopes to which that knowledge of futurity gives rise. This is just such a turn as the man of genius might be led to give to a discourse upon an occasion of the kind, and such as only the man of genius would have given.

Mr. Chandler has not merely well conceived the tenor of his Address, but very ably sustained its execution throughout. If there is, indeed, any one point of his argument with which we could find fault, it is where he yields, in too great measure, we think, the palm of eloquence to the ancients — [page 331:] thus weakening his own position. He has not, perhaps, sufficiently borne in mind the distinction between eloquence abstractedly considered, and its positive effects. We might safely grant that the effects of the oratory of Demosthenes were vaster than those produced by the eloquence of any modern, and yet not controvert the idea that the eloquence itself, of the modern, was equal or superior to that of the Greek. And this we firmly believe is the case. The circumstances of the audience make the important difference in the reception of the oration. The Greeks were a highly excitable and an unread race. They had no printed books. Viva voce exhortations carried with them, to their quick apprehensions and passions, all that gigantic force which the new possesses. These exhortations had, analogically speaking, much of that vivid interest which the first fable has upon the dawning intellect of the child — an interest which is worn away by the frequent perusal of similar things — the frequent inception of similar fancies. The suggestions, the arguments, if any, the incitements of the ancient rhetorician, were, when compared with those of the modern, absolutely novel, and therefore possessed an immense adventitious force — a force which should be taken into consideration in a comparative estimate of the eloquence of the two eras. But the truth is, that even in regard to any given Philippic, and any given modern effort of note, we have few, means of rigid comparison. Demosthenes appealed to the passions of a populace; the modern orator struggles to sway the intellect of a deliberative assembly. The finest Philippic of the Greek would have been hooted at in the British House of Commons, but it may well be doubted whether one of Brougham’s admirable efforts would not have had its weight, even in Athens.

[The nineth item is a review of Keese’s The Poets of America. The review has been attributed to W. E. Burton.]

[page 332:]

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[The nineth item is a review of Nix Mate; an Historical Romance of America. The review may be by Poe.]

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National Melodies of America. By George P. Morris, Esq.

There are few cases in which mere popularity should be considered a proper test of merit; but the case of song writing is, we think, one of the few. When we speak of song-writing we mean, of course, the composition of brief poems with an eye to their embodiment in melody. In this ultimate destination of the song proper, lies its essence, its genius, its spirit. It is the strict reference to music — the dependence upon modulated expression — which gives to this branch of letters a character altogether distinct and unique; which separates it in a very great measure, and in a manner not sufficiently considered, from the ordinary proprieties of literature; which allows it, and even demands for it, a vast latitude in its laws; and which absolutely insists upon that certain wild license and indefinitiveness which is recognized by every musician who is not a mere fiddler, as an important point in the philosophy of his science — as the soul of the sensations derivable from its practice — sensations which bewilder while they enthral, and which, perhaps, would not so enthral, if they did not so bewilder.

The sentiments deducible from the conception of sweet sound, are, in themselves, exceedingly indefinite; those derivable from harmony and melody the most indefinite, and the least susceptible of analysis, of any with which the metaphysician has to deal. Give to music any undue decision, imbue it with any very determinate tone, and you deprive it, at once, of its ethereal, its ideal, and, as we sincerely believe, of its intrinsic and essential character. You dispel its dream-like luxury; you dissolve the atmosphere of the mystic in which its whole nature is bound up; you exhaust it of its breath of fiery. It then becomes a tangible and easily appreciable idea — a conception of the earth, earthly. It will not, indeed, lose all its power to please, but all which we consider the distinctiveness of that power. And to the uncultivated talent, or to the unimaginative apprehension, this deprivation of its most delicate nare will be, not unfrequently, a recommendation. A determinateness of expression is sought, — and sometimes by composers who should know better, — is sought as a beauty, rather than rejected as a blemish. Thus we have, even from high authorities, attempts at absolute imitation in musical sounds. Who can forget, or cease to regret, the many errors of this kind into which some great minds have fallen in a moment of precipitate enthusiasm? Who can forget the failings of the Battles of Pragues? What man of true taste is not ready to weep over their interminable guns, drums, trumpets, blunderbusses, and thunder? “Vocal music,” says L’Abbate Gravina, “ought to imitate the natural language of the human feelings and passions, rather than the warblings of Canary birds, which our singers, now-a-days, affect so vastly to mimic with their quaverings and boasted cadences.” This is true only so far as the “rather” is concerned. If any music must imitate any thing, it were, perhaps, better that the imitation should be limited as Gravina has [page 333:] required. But imitation, in its most respectable aspect, is a foo to the best interests of the lyre. Indeed it is an enemy to the best interests of every thing of which we have any acquaintance.

That character of indefinitiveness which is a part of tho essence of true music, must be held in view by the song-writer; and, by the critic, should be considered in his estimate of the song. It is, in the author, a consciousness, and sometimes an instinctive appreciation, of this character, and of the necessity of its maintenance, which imparts to all songs, rightly conceived, that free, affluent, and hearty manner, little scrupulous about niceties of phrase, which cannot be better expressed than by the French word abandonnement, and which is so strikingly exemplified in both the serious and joyous ballads and carols of our honest old English progenitors. Wherever verse has been found most strictly married to music, this feature prevails. It is, thus, the essence of all antique song. It is the soul of Homer, whose Iliad, according to Hedelin at least, is made up “ex tragediis, et variis canticis de trivio mendicatorum et circulatorum — a la maniere des chansoms du Pontneuf.’’ It is the spirit of Anacreon. It is even the genius of Æschylus. Coming down to our own times, it is the staple of all Moore’s happiest efforts — it is the very life of De Beranger. Above all things it is that idea which we so vaguely term nationality in the writing of songs. Wanting this quality no song writer was ever truly popular, and, for the reasons we have given, no song writer need ever expect to be so.

But the popularity which General Morris has attained is undoubtedly well deserved, for it is based upon the spirit and character which we have discussed. Either a noble instinct, or a high degree of acumen, has thrown him, in his songs, upon the very manner and upon the very execution which he should have deliberately adopted. We do not intend to insult him, here, by any attempt at regular defence from the elaborate nonsense which some of his good friends (those devilish fine fellows) have perpetrated in regard to his Melodies. He is quite adequate to that task himself, whenever circumstances shall render it necessary. We do not mean to defend him — but our spleen is terribly excited, and we wish to quarrel with his brethren of the press. These gentlemen — some of them — are very large as fault-finders, but very little as critics. And even in what they appear to consider the strongest points of this fault-finding, they are radically wrong. They have made, among other things, a prodigious noise about the lines in which Meeta’s heart and the morning are said to “break together.”

Her heart and morning broke together

In the storm.

Now we know of no reasons whatever, given by the accusers of General Morris for their dislike of the figures here introduced. They have all contented themselves, we believe, with a pure dissent, a mere veto, a simple unsupported turning up of the nose. We will therefore aid them by stating explicitly the only ground upon which the lines can be condemned. The figures are supposed to form what is technically termed a conceit, and to partake of the nature of a pun. The verb “broke,” in its application to the noun “heart,” has, they say, (or rather, would say if they dared) a literal signification, while, in its application to “morning” this signification is merely metaphorical. Such discrepancies are, we grant, justly denounced by Johnson, by Blair, and by all other critics. This we say, is the only possible ground of accusation. But have we to inform any person of sound mind that, in poetical usage, the breaking of the heart is as strictly metaphorical an expression, as the breaking of the morning? That the heart does sometimes actually break (as we read in old medical books) is a point of knowledge which appertains only to the physician, and with which the poet has nothing to do. But we are ashamed of insisting upon a matter with which every school-boy ought to be well acquainted. The breaking of the heart, and the breaking of the morning, are, in the lines of General Monis, not only both strictly metaphorical phrases, but precisely analogous ones, even if not considered metaphorically. This is seen by the substitution of a synonym, in either case, for the original word “broke” — a test which could not be borne by words whose similarity lay only in sound. It will be perceived, at once, that we can say the heart broke — or burst, and that the morning broke — or burst. “The morning burst” is, in fact, a phrase to be found, passim, in the British antique poetry. But the truth is that the passage stands in need of no defence of this nature. We might admit the conceit very safely. Let us admit it. It is defensible on the score of being in vivid keeping with that glorious spirit of abandonnement upon which we have commented. To all reasonable persons it will be sufficient to say that the hearty, and fervid, and free-spoken songs of Cowley and of Donne, and more especially of Cunningham, of Harrington and Carew, abound in precisely similar things, and that they are to be met with plentifully in the polished pages of De Beranger, who introduces them with thought, and retains them after mature deliberation.

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[The twelfth item is a review of United States Military Magazine. The review may be by Poe.]

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Walks and Wanderings in the World of Literature. By the author of “Random Recollections of The Great Metropolis,” “Sketches of London,” etc., etc. Two Volumes. Carey and Hart, Philadelphia.

Thus, as Mr. Grant observes in his preface, is the first attempt of the author at literature, proper. Is so called. His previous works were mere compilations — or perhaps worse. We think him wrong, however, in leaving the beaten track which he has travelled so successfully — that is to say, if success is to be estimated by the sale of a book. His mind, if indeed he has any, is essentially at home in statistics, and twaddling gossip, with maudlin commentaries fashioned in imitation of profundity. But the idea of his launching his very little vessel into the ocean of original composition, has in it, to our apprehensions at least, something supremely fantastic. Mr. Grant has only a faint notion of the English language, and, altogether, is one of the flattest writers of his time. The highest praise we can award to his “Walks and Wanderings” is that they are not quite as bad as we expected them to be. One or two of the pieces may be read, certainly; and there are even one or two of them which have an equivocal kind of interest. That “conscience which makes cowards of us all’’ will not permit us to say another word in their favor, or indeed about them in any respect.

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[The fourteenth item is a review of Mrs. Hale’s The Good Houskeeper. The review may be by Poe.]

 

 

END OF THE FIFTH VOLUME.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - BGM, 1839] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of New Books [Text-02]