Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of Charles O'Malley” [Text-02], Graham’s Magazine, March 1842, pp. 186-189


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[page 186:]

Charles O’Malley, The Irish Dragoon. By Harry Lorrequer. With Forty Illustrations by Phiz. Complete in One Volume. Carey & Hart: Philadelphia.

The first point to be observed in the consideration of “Charles O’Malley” is the great popularity of the work. We believe that in this respect it has surpassed even the inimitable compositions of Mr. Dickens. At all events it has met with a most extensive sale; and, although the graver journals have avoided its discussion, the ephemeral press has been nearly if not quite unanimous in its praise. To be sure, the commendation, although unqualified, cannot be said to have abounded in specification, or to have been, in any regard, of a satisfactory character to one seeking precise ideas on the topic of the book’s particular merit. It appears to us, in fact, that the cabalistical words “fun” “rollicking” and “devil-may-care,” if indeed words they be, have been made to stand in good stead of all critical comment in the case of the work now under review. We first saw these dexterous expressions in a fly-leaf of “Opinions of the Press” appended to the renowned “Harry Lorrequer” by his publisher in Dublin. Thence transmitted, with complacent echo, from critic to critic, through daily, weekly and monthly journals without number, they have come at length to form a pendant and a portion of our author’s celebrity — have come to be regarded as sufficient response to the few ignoramuses who, obstinate as ignorant, and fool-hardy as obstinate, venture to propound a question or two about the true claims of “Harry Lorrequer” or the justice of the pretensions of “Charles O’Malley.”

We shall not insult our readers by supposing any one of them unaware of the fact, that a book may be even exceedingly popular without any legitimate literary merit. This fact can be proven by numerous examples which, now and here, it will be unnecessary and perhaps indecorous to mention. The dogma, then, is absurdly false, that the popularity of a work is primâ facie evidence of its excellence in some respects; that is to say, the dogma is false if we confine the meaning of excellence (as here of course it must be confined) to excellence in a literary sense. The truth is, that the popularity of a book is primâ facie evidence of just the converse of the proposition — it is evidence of the book’s demerit, inasmuch as it shows a “stooping to conquer” — inasmuch as it shows that the author has dealt largely, if not altogether, in matters which are susceptible of appreciation by the mass of mankind — by uneducated thought, by uncultivated taste, by unrefined and unguided passion. So long as the world retains its present point of civilization, so long will it be almost an axiom that no extensively popular book, in the right appli-cation of the term, can be a work of high merit, as regards those particulars of the work which are popular. A book may be readily sold, may be universally read, for the sake of some half or two-thirds of its matter, which half or two-thirds may be susceptible of popular appreciation, while the one-half or one-third remaining may be the delight of the high-est intellect and genius, and absolute caviare to the rabble. And just as

 Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci,

so will the writer of fiction, who looks most sagaciously to his own interest, combine all votes by intermingling with his loftier efforts such amount of less ethereal matter as will give general currency to his composition. And here we shall be pardoned for quoting some observations of the English artist, H. Howard. Speaking of imitation, he says:

The pleasure which results from it, even when employed upon the most ordinary materials, will always render that property of our art the most attractive with the majority, because it may be enjoyed with the least mental exertion. All men are in some degree judges of it. The cobbler in his own line may criticise Apelles; and popular opinions are never to be wholly disregarded concerning that which is addressed to the public — who, to a certain extent, are generally right; although as the language of the refined can never be intelligible to the uneducated, so the higher styles of art can never be acceptable to the multitude. In proportion as a work rises in the scale of intellect, it must necessarily become limited in the number of its admirers. For this reason the judicious artist, even in his loftiest efforts, will endeavor to introduce some of those qualities which are interesting to all, as a passport for those of a more intellectual character.

And these remarks upon painting — remarks which are mere truisms in themselves — embody nearly the whole rationale of the topic now under discussion. It may be added, however, that the skill with which the author addresses the lower taste of the populace, is often a source of pleasure, because of admiration, to a taste higher and more refined, and may be made a point of comment and of commendation by the critic.

In our review, last month, of “Barnaby Rudge,” we were prevented, through want of space, from showing how Mr. Dickens had so well succeeded in uniting all suffrages. What we have just said, however, will suffice upon this point. While he has appealed, in innumerable regards, to the most exalted intellect, he has meanwhile invariably touched a certain string whose vibrations are omni-prevalent. We allude to his powers of imitation — that species of imitation to which Mr. Howard has reference — the faithful depicting of what is called still-life, and particularly of character in humble condition. It is his close observation and imitation of nature here which have rendered him popular, while his higher qualities, with the ingenuity evinced in addressing the general taste, have secured him the good word of the informed and intellectual.

But this is an important point upon which we desire to be distinctly understood. We wish here to record our positive dissent (be that dissent worth what it may) from a very usual opinion — the opinion that Mr. Dickens has done justice to his own genius — that any man ever failed to do grievous wrong to his own genius — in appealing to the popular judgment at all. As a matter of pecuniary policy alone, is any such appeal defensible. But we speak, of course, in relation to fame — in regard to that

—— spur which the true spirit doth raise

To scorn delight and live laborious days.

That a perfume should be found by any “true spirit” in the incense of mere popular applause, is, to our own apprehension at least, a thing inconceivable, inappreciable, — a paradox which gives the lie unto itself — a mystery more profound than the well of Democritus. Mr. Dickens has no more business with the rabble than a seraph with a chapeau de bras. What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba? What is he to Jacques Bonhomme* or Jacques Bonhomme to him? The higher genius is a rare gift and divine. [[Greek text]] V pollvn oy panti faeinetai, o min idh, mega oyto [[Greek text]] — not to all men Apollo shows himself; he is alone great who beholds him. And his greatness has its office God-assigned. But that office is not a low communion with low, or even with ordinary intellect. The holy — the electric spark of genius is the medium of intercourse between the noble and more noble mind. For lesser purposes there are humbler agents. There are puppets enough, able enough, willing enough, to perform in literature the little things to which we have had reference. For one Fouqué there are fifty Molières. For one Angelo there are five hundred Jan Steens. For one Dickens there are five million Smolletts, Fieldings, Marryatts, Arthurs, Cocktons, Bogtons and Frogtons.

It is, in brief, the duty of all whom circumstances have led into criticism — it is, at least, a duty from which we individually shall never shrink — to uphold the true dignity of genius, to combat its degradation, to plead for the exercise of its powers in those bright fields which are its legitimate and peculiar province, and which for it alone lie gloriously outspread.

But to return to “Charles O’Malley,” and its popularity. We have endeavored to show that this latter must not be considered in any degree as the measure of its merit, but should rather be understood as indicating a deficiency in this respect, when we bear in mind, as we should do, the highest aims of intellect in fiction. A slight examination of the work, (for in truth it is worth no more,) will sustain us in what we have said. The plot is exceedingly meagre. Charles O’Malley, the hero, is a young orphan Irishman, living in Galway county, Ireland, in the house of his uncle, Godfrey, to whose sadly encumbered estates the youth is heir apparent and presumptive. He becomes enamoured, while on a visit to a neighbor, of Miss Lucy Dashwood, and finds a rival in a Captain Hammersley. Some words carelessly spoken by Lucy, inspire him with a desire for military renown. After sojourning, therefore, for a brief period, at Dublin University, he obtains a commission and proceeds to the Peninsula, with the British army under Wellington. Here he distinguishes himself; is promoted; and meets frequently with Miss Dashwood, whom obstinately, and in spite of the lady’s own acknowledgment of love for himself, he supposes in love with Hammersley. Upon the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo he returns home; finds his uncle, of course, just dead; and sells his commission to disencumber the estate. Presently Napoleon escapes from Elba, and our hero, obtaining a staff appointment under Picton, returns to the Peninsula, is present at Waterloo, (where Hammersley is killed) saves the life of Lucy’s father, for the second time, as he has already twice saved that of Lucy herself; is rewarded by the hand of the latter; and, making his way back to O’Malley Castle, “lives happily all the rest of his days.”

In and about this plot (if such it may be called) there are more absurdities than we have patience to enumerate. The author, or narrator, for example, is supposed to be Harry Lorrequer as far as the end of the preface, which by the way, is one of the best portions of the book. O’Malley then tells his own story. But the publishing office of the “Dublin University Magazine” (in which the narrative originally appeared) having been burned down, there ensues a sad confusion of identity between O’Malley and Lorrequer, so that it is difficult, for the nonce, to say which is which. In the want of copy consequent upon the disaster, James, the novelist, comes in to the relief of Lorrequer, or perhaps of O’Malley, with one of the flattest and most irrelevant of love-tales. Meantime, in the story proper are repetitions without end. We have already said that the hero saves the life of his mistress twice, and of her father twice. But not content with this, he has two mistresses, and saves the life of both, at different periods, in precisely the same manner — that is to say, by causing his horse, in each instance, to perform a Munchausen side-leap, at the moment when a spring forward would have impelled him upon his beloved. And then we have one unending, undeviating succession of junketings, in which “devilled kidneys” are never by any accident found wanting. The unction and pertinacity with which the author discusses what he chooses to denominate “devilled kidneys” are indeed edifying, to say no more. The truth is, that drinking wine, telling anecdotes, and devouring “devilled kidneys” may be considered as the sum total, as the thesis of the book. Never in the whole course of his eventful life, does Mr. O’Malley get “two or three assembled together” without seducing them forthwith to a table, and placing before them a dozen of wine and a dish of “devilled kidneys.” This accomplished, the parties begin what seems to be the business of the author’s existence — the narration of unusually broad tales — like those of the Southdown mutton. And here, in fact, we have the plan of that whole work of which the “United Service Gazette” has been pleased to vow it “would rather be the author than of all the ‘Pickwicks’ and ‘Nicklebys’ in the world” — a sentiment which we really blush to say has been echoed by many respectable members of our own press. The general plot or narrative is a mere thread upon which after-dinner anecdotes, some good, some bad, some ut-terly worthless, and not one truly original, are strung with about as much method, and about half as much dexterity, as we see ragged urchins employ in stringing the kernels of nuts.

It would, indeed, be difficult to convey to one who has not examined this production for himself, any idea of the exceedingly rough, clumsy, and inartistical manner in which even this bald conception is carried out. The stories are absolutely dragged in by the ears. So far from finding them result naturally or plausibly from the conversation of the interlocutors, even the blindest reader may perceive the author’s struggling and blundering effort to introduce them. It is rendered quite evident that they were originally “on hand,” and that “O’Malley” has been concocted for their introduction. Among other nia;auiseries we observe the silly trick of whetting appetite by delay. The conversation over the “kidneys” is brought, for example, to such a pass that one of the speakers is called upon for a story, which he forthwith declines for any reason, or for none. At a subsequent “broil” he is again pressed, and again refuses, and it is not until the reader’s patience is fairly exhausted, and he has consigned both the story and its author to Hades, that the gentleman in question is prevailed upon to discourse. The only conceivable result of this fanfarronade is the ruin of the tale when told, through exaggerating anticipation respecting it.

The anecdotes thus narrated being the staple of the book, and the awkward manner of their interlocution having been pointed out, it but remains to be seen what the anecdotes are, in themselves, and what is the merit of their narration. And here, let it not be supposed that we have any design to deprive the devil of his due. There are several very excellent anecdotes in “Charles O’Malley” very cleverly and pungently told. Many of the scenes in which Monsoon figures are rich less, however, from the scenes themselves than from the piquant, but by no means original character of Monsoon — a drunken, maudlin, dishonest old Major, given to communicativeness and mock morality over his cups, and not over careful in detailing adventures which tell against himself. One or two of the college pictures are unquestionably good — but might have been better. In general, the reader is made to feel that fine subjects have fallen into unskilful hands. By way of instancing this assertion, and at the same time of conveying an idea of the tone and character of the stories, we will quote one of the shortest, and assuredly one of the best.

“Ah, by-the-by, how’s the Major?”

“Charmingly: only a little bit in a scrape just now. Sir Arthur — Lord Wellington, I mean — had him up for his fellows being caught pillaging, and gave him a devil of a rowing a few days ago.

“ ‘Very disorderly corps yours, Major O’Shaugnessy,’ said the general; ‘more men up for punishment than any regiment in the service.’

“Shaugh muttered something, but his voice was lost in a loud cock-a-doo-doo-doo, that some bold chanticleer set up at the moment.

“ ‘If the officers do their duty Major O’Shaugnessy, these acts of insubordination do not occur.’

“Cock-a-doo-doo-doo, was the reply. Some of the staff found it hard not to laugh; but the general went on —

“ ‘If, therefore, the practice does not cease, I’ll draft the men into West India regiments.’

“ ‘Cock-a-doo-doo-doo!’

“ ‘And if any articles pillaged from the inhabitants are detected in the quarters, or about the persons of the troops —’

“ ‘Cock-a-doo-doo-doo!’ screamed louder here than ever.

“ ‘Damn that cock — where is it?’

“There was a general look around on all sides, which seemed in vain; when a tremendous repetition of the cry resounded from O’Shaughnessy’s coat-pocket: thus detecting the valiant Major himself in the very practice of his corps. There was no standing this: every one burst out into a peal of laughter; and Lord Wellington himself could not resist, but turned away, muttering to himself as he went — ‘Damned robbers every man of them,’ while a final war-note from the Major’s pocket closed the interview.”

Now this is an anecdote at which every one will laugh; but its effect might have been vastly heightened by putting a few words of grave morality and reprobation of the conduct of his troops, into the mouth of O’Shaughnessy, upon whose character they would have told well. The cock, in interrupting the thread of his discourse, would thus have afforded an excellent context. We have scarcely a reader, moreover, who will fail to perceive the want of tact shown in dwelling upon the mirth which the anecdote occasioned. The error here is precisely like that of a man’s laughing at his own spoken jokes. Our author is uniformly guilty of this mistake. He has an absurd fashion, also, of informing the reader, at the conclusion of each of his anecdotes, that, however good the anecdote might be, he (the reader) cannot enjoy it to the full extent in default of the manner in which it was orally narrated. He has no business to say anything of this kind. It is his duty to convey the manner not less than the matter of his narratives.

But we may say of these latter that, in general, they have the air of being remembered rather than invented. No man who has seen much of the rough life of the camp will fail to recognize among them many very old acquaintances. Some of them are as ancient as the hills, and have been, time out of mind, the common property of the bivouac. They have been narrated orally all the world over. The chief merit of the writer is, that he has been the first to collect and to print them. It is observable, in fact, that the second volume of the work is very far inferior to the first. The author seems to have exhausted his whole hoarded store in the beginning. His conclusion is barren indeed, and but for the historical details (for which he has no claim to merit) would be especially prosy and dull. Now the true invention never exhausts itself. It is mere cant and ignorance to talk of the possibility of the really imaginative man’s “writing himself out.” His soul but derives nourishment from the streams that flow therefrom. As wellprate about the aridity of the eternal ocean [Greek: ej oyper pante potamoi]. So long as the universe of thought shall furnish matter for novel combinations, so long will the spirit of true genius be original, be exhaustless — be itself.

A few cursory observations. The book is filled to overflowing with songs of very doubtful excellence, the most of which are put into the mouth of one Micky Free, an amusing Irish servant of O’Malley’s, and are given as his impromptu effusions. The subject of the improvisos is always the matter in hand at the moment of composition. The author evidently prides himself upon his poetical powers, about which the less we say the better; but if anything were wanting to assure us of his absurd ignorance and inappreciation of Art, we should find the fullest assurance in the mode in which these doggrel verses are introduced.

The occasional sentiment with which the volumes are interspersed there is an absolute necessity for skipping.

Can anybody tell us what is meant by the affectationof the word L’envoy which is made the heading of twoprefaces?

That portion of the account of the battle of Waterloo which gives O’Malley’s experiences while a prisoner, and in close juxta-position to Napoleon, bears evident traces of having been translated, and very literally too, from a French manuscript.

The English of the work is sometimes even amusing. We have continually, for example, eat, the present, for ate, the perfect — see page 17. At page 16, we have this delightful sentence — “Captain Hammersley, however, never took further notice of me, but continued to recount, for the amusement of those about, several excellent stories of his military career, which I confess were heard with every test of delight by all save me.” At page 357 we have some sage talk about “the entire of the army;” and at page 368, the accomplished O’Malley speaks of “drawing a last look upon his sweetheart.” These things arrest our attention as we open the book at random. It abounds in them, and in vulgarisms even much worse than they.

But why speak of vulgarisms of language? There is a disgusting vulgarism of thought which pervades and contaminates this whole production, and from which a delicate or lofty mind will shrink as from a pestilence. Not the least repulsive manifestation of this leprosy is to be found in the author’s blind and grovelling worship of mere rank. Of the Prince Regent, that filthy compound of all that is bestial that lazar-house of all moral corruption — he scruples not to speak in terms of the grossest adulation — sneering at Edmund Burke in the same villanous breath in which he extols the talents, the graces and the virtues of George the Fourth! That any man, to-day, can be found so degraded in heart as to style this reprobate, “one who, in every feeling of his nature, and in every feature of his deportment was every inch a prince” — is matter for grave reflection and sorrowful debate. The American, at least, who shall peruse the concluding pages of the book now under review, and not turn in disgust from the base sycophancy which infects them, is unworthy of his country and his name. But the truth is, that a gross and contracted soul renders itself unquestionably manifest in almost every line of the composition.

And this — this is the work, in respect to which its author, aping the airs of intellect, prates about his “haggard cheek,” his “sunken eye,” his “aching and tired head,” his “nights of toil” and (Good Heavens!) his “days of thought!” That the thing is popular we grant — while that we cannot deny the fact, we grieve. But the career of true taste is onward — and now more vigorously onward than ever — and the period, perhaps, is not hopelessly distant, when, in decrying the mere balderdash of such matters as “Charles O’Malley,” we shall do less violence to the feelings and judgment even of the populace, than, we much fear, has been done to-day.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 187, column 1:]

*  Nickname for the populace in the middle ages.

  Callimachus — Hymn to Apollo.


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:0 - GM, 1842] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of Charles O'Malley [Text-02]