More of the Voluminous History of the Little Longfellow War — Mr. Poe's Third Chapter of Reply to the Letter of Outis.
Pray," inquires Outis of Mr. Willis, "did you ever think the worse of Dana because your friend John Neal charged him with pirating upon Paul Allen, and Bryant, too, in his poem of The Dying Raven?"
I am sincerely disposed to give Outis his due, and will not pretend to deny his happy facility in asking irrelevant questions. In the present case, we can only imagine Mr. Willis' reply: — "My dear Sir," he might say, "I certainly do not think much the worse of Mr. Dana, because Mr. Neal charged him with the piracy, but be so kind as not to inquire what might have been my opinion had there been any substantiation of the charge."
I quote Outis' inquiry, however, not so much to insist upon its singular luminousness, as to call attention to the argument embodied in the capital letters of "The Dying Raven."
Now, were I, in any spasm of perversity, to direct Outis' catechetical artillery against himself, and demand of him explicitly his reasons for causing those three words to be printed in capitals, what in the world would he do for a reply? As a matter of course, for some moments, he would be profoundly embarrassed — but, being a true man, and a chivalrous one, as all defenders of Mr. Longfellow must be, he could not fail, in the end, to admit that they were so printed for the purpose of safely insinuating a charge which not even an Outis had the impudence openly to utter. Let us imagine his thoughts while carefully twice underscoring the words. Is it impossible that they ran thus? — "I am perfectly well aware, to be sure, that the only conceivable resemblance between Mr. Bryant's poem and Mr. Poe's poem, lies in their common reference to a raven; but then, what I am writing will be seen by some who have not read Mr. Bryant's poem, and by many who have never heard of Mr. Poe's, and among these classes I shall be able to do Mr. Poe a serious injustice and injury, by conveying the idea that there is really sufficient similarity to warrant that charge of plagiarism, which I, Outis, the 'acquaintance of Mr. Longfellow,' am too high-minded and too merciful to prefer."
Now, I do not pretend to be positive that any such thoughts as these ever entered the brain of Outis. Nor will I venture to designate the whole insinuation, as a specimen of "carping littleness, too paltry for any man who values his reputation as a gentleman;" for in the first place, the whole matter, as I have put it, is purely supposititious, and in the second, I should furnish ground for a new insinuation of the same character, inasmuch as I should be employing Outis' identical words.
The fact is, Outis has happened upon the idea that the most direct method of rebutting one accusation, is to get up another. By showing that I have committed a sin, he proposes to show that Mr. Aldrich and Mr. Longfellow have not. Leaving the underscored DYING RAVEN to argue its own case, he proceeds, therefore, as follows: —
"Who, for example, would wish to be guilty of the littleness of detracting from the uncommon merit of that remarkable poem of this same Mr. Poe's, recently published in the Mirror, from the American Review, entitled 'The Raven,' by charging him with the paltriness of imitation? And yet, some snarling critic, who might envy the reputation he had not the genius to secure for himself, might refer to the frequent, very forcible, but rather quaint repetition, in the last two lines of many of the stanzas, as a palpable imitation of the manner of Coleridge, in several stanzas of the Ancient Mariner. Let me put them together.
Mr. Poe says —
"Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore,
Let my heart be still a moment, and this mystery explore."
And again —
"It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name
Mr. Coleridge says, (running two lines into one;)
"For all averred I had killed the bird, that made the breeze to blow.
"'Ah, wretch!' said they, 'the bird to slay, that made the"They all averred I had killed the bird, that brought the fog
'Twas right,' said they, 'such birds to slay, that bring the fog and mist.' "
The "rather quaint" is ingenious. Fully one-third of whatever effect "The Raven" has, is wrought by the quaintness in question — a point elaborately introduced, to accomplish a well-considered purpose. What idea would Outis entertain of me, were I to speak of his defence of his friends as very decent, very respectable, but rather meritorious?
In the passages collated there are two points upon which the "snarling critic" might base his insinuation — if ever so weak a "snarling critic" existed. Of these two points one is purely hypothetical — that is to say, it is disingenuously manufactured by Mr. Longfellow's acquaintance to suit his own purposes — or perhaps the purposes of the imaginary snarling critic. The argument of the second point is demolished by my not only admitting it, but insisting upon it. Perhaps the least tedious mode of refuting Outis, is to acknowledge nine tenths of every thing he may think proper to say.But, in the present instance what am I called upon to acknowledge? I am charged with imitating the repetition of phrase in the two concluding lines of a stanza, and of imitating this from Coleridge.
But why not extend the accusation, and insinuate that I imitate it from every body else? for certainly there is no poet living or dead who has not put in practice the identical effect — the well-understood effect of the refrain. Is Outis' argument to the end that I have no right to this thing for the reason that all the world has? If this is not his argument, will he be kind enough to inform me (at his leisure) what it is? Or is he prepared to confess himself so absurdly uninformed as not to know that whatever a poet claims on the score of original versification, is claimed not on account of any individual rhythmical or metrical effects (for none are individually original) but solely on account of the novelty of his combinations of old effects?
The hypothesis, or manufacture, consists in the alteration of Coleridge's metre, with the view of forcing it into a merely ocular similarity with my own, and thus of imposing upon some one or two grossly ignorant readers. I give the verses of Coleridge as they are:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow,
Ah wretch, said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow.
The verses beginning, "They all averred," etc., are arranged in the same manner. Now I have taken it for granted that it is Outis' design to impose the idea of similarity between my lines and those of Coleridge, upon some one or two grossly ignorant individuals: at the same time, whoever attempts such an imposition is rendered liable at least to the suspicion of very gross ignorance himself. The ignorance or the knavery are the two uncomfortable horns of his dilemma.
Let us see. Coleridge's lines are arranged in quatrains — mine in couplets. His first and third lines rhyme at the closes of the second and fourth feet — mine flow continuously, without rhyme. His metre, briefly defined, is alternately tetrameter acatalectic, and trimeter acatalectic — mine is uniformly octameter catalectic. It might be expected, however, that at least the rhythm would prove to be identical — but not so. Coleridge's is iambic (varied in the third foot of the first line with an anap;aest) — mine is the exact converse, trochaic. The fact is, that neither in rhythm, metre, stanza, or rhyme, is there even a single point of approximation throughout; the only similarity being the wickedly or sillily manufactured one of Outis himself, appealing from the ears to the eyes of the most uncultivated classes of the rabble. The ingenuity and validity of the manufacture might be approached, although certainly not paralleled, by an attempt to show that blue and yellow pigments standing unmixed at separate ends of a studio, were equivalent to green. I say "not paralleled," for even the mixing of the pigments, in the case of Outis, would be very far, as I have shown, from producing the supposititious effect. Coleridge's lines, written together, would result in rhymed iambic heptameter acatalectic, while mine are unrhymed trochaic octameter catalectic — differing in every conceivable circumstance. A closer parallel than the one I have imagined, would be the demonstration that two are equal to four, on the ground that, possessing two dollars, a man will have four when he gets an additional couple — for that the additional couple is somewhere, no one, after due consideration, will deny.
If Outis will now take a seat upon one of the horns of his dilemma, I will proceed to transcribe the third variation of the charges insinuated through the medium of the "snarling critic."
I have before me an anonymous poem, which I first saw some five years ago, entitled "The Bird of the Dream." I should like to transcribe the whole — but it is too long. The author was awakened from sleep by the song of a beautiful bird, sitting on the sill of his window — the sweet notes had mingled with his dreams, and brought to his remembrance, the sweeter voice of his lost "CLARE." He says —
And thou wert in my dream — a spirit thou didst seem —
The spirit of a friend long since departed;
Oh she was fair and bright, but she left me one darknight —
She left me all alone, and broken-hearted.
* * *
My dream went on, and thou went a warbling too,
Mingling the harmonies of earth and heaven;
"Till away — away — away — beyond the realms of day —
* * *
Sweet bird from realms of light, oh! come again to night,
Come to my window — perch upon my chair —
Give me back again that deep impassioned strain
That tells me thou hast seen and loved my CLARE.
Now I shall not charge Mr. Poe with Plagiarism — for, as I have said, such charges are perfectly absurd. Ten to one, he never saw this before. But let us look at the "identities" that may be made out between this and "The Raven." First, in each case, the poet is a broken-hearted lover. Second, that lover longs for some hereafter communion with the departed. Third, there is a bird. Fourth, the bird is at the poet's window. Fifth, the bird being at the poet's window, makes a noise. Sixth, making a noise attracts the attention of the poet; who, Seventh, was half asleep, dosing, dreaming. Eighth, the poet invites the bird to come in. Ninth, a confabulation ensues. Tenth, the bird is supposed to be a visitor from the land of spirits. Eleventh, allusion is made to the departed. Twelfth, intimation is given that the bird knew something of the departed. Thirteenth, that he knew her worth and loveliness. Fourteenth, the bird seems willing to linger with the poet. Fifteenth, there is a repetition, in the second and fourth lines, of a part, and that the emphatic part, of the first and third. Here is a round baker's dozen (and one to spare) of identities, to offset the dozen found between Aldrich and Hood, and that too, without a word of rhythm, metre or stanza, which should never form a part of such a comparison.
The first point to be attended to here is the "ten to one that I never saw it before." Ten to one that I never did — but Outis might have remembered that twenty to one I should like to see it. In accusing either Mr. Aldrich or Mr. Hood, I printed their poems together and in full. But an anonymous gentleman rebuts my accusation by telling me that there is a certain similarity between a poem of my own and an anonymous poem which he has before him, and which he would like to transcribe if it were not too long. He contents himself, therefore, with giving me, from this too long poem, three stanzas which are shown, by a series of intervening asterisks, to have been culled, to suit his own purposes, from different portions of the poem, but which, (again to suit his own purposes) he places before the public in consecutive connexion! The least that can be said of the whole statement is that it is deliciously frank — but, upon the whole, the poem will look quite as well before me, as before Outis, whose time is too much occupied to transcribe it. I, on the other hand, am entirely at leisure, and will transcribe and print the whole of it with the greatest pleasure in the world — provided always that it is not too long to refer to — too long to have its whereabouts pointed out — as I half suspect, from Outis' silence on the subject, that it is.
One thing I will take it upon myself to say, in the spirit of prophecy: — whether the poem in question is or is not in existence (and we have only Nobody's word that it is) the passages as quoted, are not in existence, except as quoted by Outis, who in some particulars, I maintain, has falsified the text, for the purpose of forcing a similarity, as in the case of the verses of Coleridge.
All this I assert in the spirit of prophecy, while we await the forthcoming of the poem. In the meantime, we will estimate the "identities" with reference to the "Raven" as collated with the passages culled by Outis — granting him every thing he is weak enough to imagine I am in duty bound to grant — admitting that the poem as a whole exists — that the words and lines are ingenuously written — that the stanzas have the connexion and sequence he gives them — and that although he has been already found guilty of chicanery in one instance, he is at least entirely innocent in this.
He has established, he says, fifteen identities, "and that, too, without a word of rhythm, metre, or stanza, which should never form a part of such comparison" — by which of course we are to understand that with the rhythm, metre, and stanza (omitted only because they should never form a part of such comparison) he would have succeeded in establishing eighteen. Now I insist that rhythm, metre and stanza should form and must form a part of the comparison, and I will presently demonstrate what I say. I also insist therefore, since he could find me guilty if he would upon these points, that guilty he must and shall find me upon the spot. He then, distinctly, has established eighteen identities — and I proceed to examine them one by one.
"First," he says "in each case the poet is a broken-hearted lover." Not so: — my poet has no indication of a broken heart. On the contrary he lives triumphantly in the expectation of meeting his Lenore in Aidenn, and is so indignant with the raven for maintaining that the meeting will never take place, as to call him a liar and order him out of the house. Not only is my lover not a broken-hearted one — but I have been at some pains to show that broken hearts and matters of that kind are improperly made the subject of poems. I refer to the last chapter of an article entitled "Marginalia" and published, in the last December number, I believe, of the "Democratic Review."
"Second," says Outis, "that lover longs for some hereafter communion with the bird." In my poem there is no expression of any such longing — the nearest approach to it is the triumphant consciousness which forms the thesis and staple of the whole. In Outis' poem the nearest approach to the "longing" is contained in the lover's request to the bird to repeat a strain that assures him (the lover) that it (the bird) has known the lost mistress.
"Third — there is a bird," says Outis. So there is. Mine however is a raven, and we may take it for granted that Outis' is either a nightingale or a cockatoo.
"Fourth, the bird is at the poet's window." As regards my poem, true; as regards Outis', not: — the poet only requests the bird to come to the window.
"Fifth, the bird being at the poet's window, makes a noise." The fourth specification failing, the fifth, which depends upon it, as a matter of course fails too.
"Sixth, making a noise attracts the attention of the poet." The fifth specification failing, the sixth, which depends upon it, fails likewise, and as a matter of course, as before.
"Seventh, [the poet] was half asleep, dozing, dreaming." False altogether: only my poet was "napping," and this in the commencement of the poem, which is occupied with realities and waking action. Outis' poet is fast asleep and dreams every thing.
"Eighth, the poet invites the bird to come in." Another palpable failure. Outis' poet indeed asked his bird in; but my raven walked in without any invitation.
"Ninth — a confabulation ensues." As regards my poem, true; but there is not a word of any confabulation in Outis'.
"Tenth — the bird is supposed to be a visiter from the land of spirits." As regards Outis' poem, this is true only if we give a wide interpretation to the phrase "realms of light." In my poem the bird is not only not from the world of spirits, but I have specifically conveyed the idea of his having escaped from "some unhappy master", of whom he had caught the word "Nevermore" — in the concluding stanza, it is true, I suddenly convert him into an allegorical emblem or personification of Mournful Remembrance, out of the shadow of which the poet is "lifted nevermore."
"Eleventh — allusion is made to the departed." Admitted.
"Twelfth — intimation is given that the bird knew something of the departed." True as regards Outis' poem only. No such intimation is given in mine.
"Thirteenth — that he knew her worth and loveliness." Again — true only as regards Outis' poem. It should be observed here that I have disproved the twelfth and thirteenth specifications purely for form's sake: — they are nothing more than disingenuous repetitions of the eleventh. The "allusion to the departed" is the "intimation," and the intimation is that "he knew her worth and loveliness."
"Fourteenth — the bird seems willing to linger with the poet." True only as regards my poem — in Outis' (as quoted) there is nothing of the kind.
"Fifteenth — there is a repetition, in the second and fourth lines, of a part, and that the emphatic part, of the first and third." What is here asserted is true only of the first stanza quoted by Outis, and of the commencement of the third. There is nothing of it in the second. In my poem there is nothing of it at all, with the exception of the repetition in the refrain, occurring at the fifth line of my stanza of six. I quote a stanza — by way of rendering every thing perfectly intelligible, and affording Outis his much coveted "fair play":
Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked,upstarting
Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonianshore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hathspoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above mydoor!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from
Sixteenth — concerns the rhythm. Outis' is iambic — mine the exact converse, trochaic.
Seventeenth — regards the metre. Outis' is hexameter alter-nating with pentameter, both acatalectic.* Mine is octameter acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrameter catalectic.
Eighteenth and last has respect to the stanza — that is to say, to the general arrangement of the metre into masses. Of Outis' I need only say that it is a very common and certainly a very stupid one. My own has at least the merit of being my own. No writer living or dead has ever employed anything resembling it. The innumerable specific differences between it and that of Outis it would be a tedious matter to point out — but a far less difficult matter than to designate one individual point of similarity.
And now what are we to think of the eighteen identities of Outis — the fifteen that he establishes and the three that he could establish if he would — that is to say, if he could only bring himself to be so unmerciful?
Of the whole eighteen, sixteen have shown themselves to be lamentable failures — having no more substantial basis than sheer misrepresentation "too paltry for any man who values his reputation as a gentleman and a scholar," and depending altogether for effect upon the chances that nobody would take the trouble to investigate their falsehood or their truth.
Two — the third and the eleventh — are sustained: and these two show that in both poems there is "an allusion to the departed," and that in both poems there is "a bird."
The first idea which suggests itself at this point is, whether not to have a bird and not to have an allusion to a deceased mistress, would not be the truer features of distinctiveness after all — whether two poems which have not these items might not be more rationally charged with similarity than any two poems which have.
But having thus disproved all the identities of Outis (for any one comprehending the principle of proof in such cases will admit that two only, are in effect just nothing at all) I am quite ready, by way again of affording him "fair play," to expunge every thing that has been said on the subject, and proceed as if every one of these eighteen identities were in the first bloom and deepest blush of a demonstration.
I might grant them as demonstrated, to be sure, on the ground which I have already touched — that to prove me or any body else an imitator is no mode of showing that Mr. Aldrich or Mr. Longfellow is not. But I might safely admit them on another and equally substantial consideration which seems to have been overlooked by the zeal of Outis altogether. He has clearly forgotten that the mere number of such coincidences proves nothing, because at any moment we can oblige it to prove too much. It is the easiest thing imaginable to suggest — and even to do that which Outis has failed in doing — to demonstrate a practically infinite series of identities between any two compositions in the world — but it by no means follows that all compositions in the world have a similarity one with the other, in any comprehensible sense of the term. I mean to say that regard must be had not only to the number of the coincidences, but to the peculiarity of each — this peculiarity growing less and less necessary, and the effect of number more and more important, in a ratio prodigiously accumulative, as the investigation progresses. And again — regard must be had not only to the number and peculiarity of the coincidences, but to the antagonistic differences, if any, which surround them — and very especially to the space over which the coincidences are spread, and the number or paucity of the events, or incidents, from among which the coincidences are selected. When Outis, for example, picks out his eighteen coincidences (which I am now granting as sustained) from a poem so long as The Raven, in collation with a poem not forthcoming, and which may therefore, for anything anybody knows to the contrary, be as long as an infinite flock of ravens, he is merely putting himself to unnecessary trouble in getting together phantoms of arguments that can have no substance wherewith to aid his demonstration, until the ascertained extent of the unknown poem from which they are culled, affords them a purpose and a pal-pability. Can any man doubt that between The Iliad and the Paradise Lost there might be established even a thousand very idiosyncratic identities? — and yet is any man fool enough to maintain that the Iliad is the original of the Paradise Lost?
But how is it in the case of Messieurs Aldrich and Hood? The poems here are both remarkably brief — and as I have every intention to do justice, and no other intention in the world, I shall be pardoned for collating them once again. Mr. Hood's poem runs thus:the death-bed
We watched her breathing through the night,
Her breathing soft and low,
As in her breast the wave of life
Kept heaving to and fro.
So silently we seemed to speak,
So slowly moved about,
As we had lent her half our powers
To eke her being out.
Our very hope belied our fears;
Our fears our hope belied;
We thought her dying when she slept,
And sleeping when she died.
But when the morn came dim and sad,
And chill with early showers,
Her quiet eyelids closed — she had
Another morn than ours.
Mr. Aldrich's poem is as follows:
Her sufferings ended with the day,
Yet lived she at its close,
And breathed the long, long night away,
In statue-like repose;
But when the sun in all its state
Illumed the eastern skies,
She passed through Glory's morning gate,
And walked in Paradise.
Now, let it be understood that I am entirely uninformed as to which of these two poems was first published. And so little has the question of priority to do with my thesis, that I shall not put myself to the trouble of inquiring. What I maintain is, that there are sufficient grounds for belief that the one is plagiarised from the other: — who is the original and who is the plagiarist, are points I leave to be settled by any one who thinks the matter of sufficient consequence to give it his attention.
But the man who shall deny the plagiarism abstractly — what is it that he calls upon us to believe? First — that two poets, in remote parts of the world, conceived the idea of composing a poem on the subject of Death. Of course, there is nothing remarkable in this. Death is a naturally poetic theme, and suggests itself by a seeming spontaneity to every poet in the world. But had the subject chosen by the two widely separated poets, been even strikingly peculiar — had it been, for example, a porcupine, a piece of ginger-bread, or anything unlikely to be made the subject of a poem, still no sensible person would have insisted upon the single coincidence as any thing beyond a single coincidence. We have no difficulty, therefore, in believing what, so far, we are called upon to believe.
Secondly, we must credit that the two poets concluded to write not only on death, but on the death of a woman. Here the mind, observing the two identities, reverts to their peculiarity or non-peculiarity, and finding no peculiarity — admitting that the death of a woman is a naturally suggested poetic subject — has no difficulty also in admitting the two coincidences — as such and nothing beyond.
Thirdly, we are called upon to believe that the two poets not only concluded to write upon death and upon the death of a woman, but that, from the innumerable phases of death, the phase of tranquility was happened upon by each. Here the intellect commences a slight rebellion, but it is quieted by the admission partly of the spontaneity with which such anidea might arise, and partly of the possibility of the coincidences, independently of the consideration of spontaneity.
Fourthly — we are required to believe that the two poets happened not only upon death — the death of a woman — and the tranquil death of a woman — but upon the idea of representing this woman as lying tranquilly throughout the whole night, in spite of the infinity of different durations which might have been imagined for her trance of tranquility. At this point the reason perceives the evidence against these coincidences, (as such and nothing more), to be increasing in geometrical ratio. It discards all idea of spontaneity, and if it yield credence at all, yields it altogether on the ground of the indisputable possibility.
Fifthly — we are requested to believe that our poets happened not only upon death — upon the death of a woman — upon the tranquil death of a woman — and upon the lying of this woman tranquilly throughout the night — but, also, upon the idea of selecting, from the innumerable phases which characterise a tranquil death-bed, the identical one of soft breathing — employing also the identical word. Here the reason gives up the endeavour to believe that one poem has not been suggested by the other: — if it be a reason accustomed to deal with the mathematical Calculus of Probabilities it has abandoned this endeavour at the preceding stage of the investigation. The evidence of suggestion has now become prodigiously accumulate. Each succeeding coincidence (however slight) is proof not merely added, but multiplied by hun-dreds, and hundreds of thousands.
Sixthly, we are called upon to believe not only that the two poets happened upon all this, together with the idea of the soft breathing, but also of employing the identical word breathing, in the same line with the identical word, night. This proposition the reason receives with a smile.
Seventhly, however, we are required to admit not only all that has been already found inadmissible, but in addition, that the two poets conceived the idea of representing the death of the woman as occurring precisely at the same instant, out of all the infinite instants of all time. This proposition the reason receives only with a sneer.
Eighthly — we are called upon to acquiesce in the assertion that not only all these improbabilities are probable, but that in addition again, the two poets happened upon the idea of representing the woman as stepping immediately into Paradise: — and, ninthly, that both should not only happen upon all this, but upon the idea of writing a peculiarly brief poem, on so admirably suggestive a thesis: — and, tenthly, that out of the various rhythms, that is to say variations of poetic feet, they should have both happened upon the iambus: — and, eleventhly, that out of the absolutely infinite metres that may be contrived from this rhythm, they should both have hit upon the tetrameter acatalectic for the first and third lines of a stanza: — and, twelfthly, upon the trimeter acatalectic for the second and fourth; and, thirteenthly, upon an absolute identity of phrase at, fourteenthly, an absolutely identical position, viz: upon the phrases, "But when the morn," &c., and, "But when the sun, &c.," occurring in the beginning of the first line in the last stanza of each poem: — and, fifteenthly and lastly, that out of the vast multitude of appropriate titles, they should both have happened upon one whose identity is interfered with at all, only by the difference between the definite and indefinite article.
Now the chances that these fifteen coincidences, so peculiar in character, and all occuring within the compass of eight short lines on the one part, and sixteen on the other — the chances, I say, that these coincidences are merely accidental, may be estimated, possibly, as about one to one hundred millions; and any man who reasons at all, is of course grossly insulted in being called upon to credit them as accidental.
In the next number of the Journal, I shall endeavour to bring this subject
to an end.
*This is as accurate a description as can be given of the alternating
(of the second and fourth) lines in few words. The fact is, they are indescribable
without more trouble than they are worth — and seem to me either to have
been written by some one ignorant of the principles of verse, or to be
misquoted. The line, however,"That tells me thou hast seen and loved my
Clare,"answers the description I have given of the alternating verses,
and was no doubt the general intention for all of them.
[S:0 - BJ, 1845]