Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “About Critics and Criticism,” Graham’s Magazine, 1850, pp. 49-51


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[page 49, full page:]

ABOUT CRITICS AND CRITICISM.

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BY THE LATE EDGAR A. POE.

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[column 1:]

OUR most analytic, if not altogether our best critic, (Mr. Whipple, perhaps, excepted,) is Mr. William A. Jones, author of “The Analyst.” How he would write elaborate criticisms I cannot say; but his summary judgements of authors are, in general, discriminative and profound. In fact, his papers on Emerson and on Macaulay, published in “Arcturus,” are better than merely “profound,” if we take the word in its now desecrated sense; for they are at once pointed, lucid, and just: — as summaries, leaving nothing to be desired.

Mr. Whipple has less analysis, and far less candor, as his deprecation of “Jane Eyre” will show; but he excels Mr. Jones in sensibility to Beauty, and is thus the better critic of Poetry. I have read nothing finer in its way than his eulogy on Tennyson. I say “eulogy” — for the essay in question is unhappily little more: — and Mr. Whipple’s paper on Miss Barrett, was nothing more. He has less discrimination than Mr. Jones, and a more obtuse sense of the critical office. In fact, he has been infected with that unmeaning and transparent heresy — the cant of critical Boswellism, by dint of which we are to shut our eyes tightly to all autorial blemishes, and open them, like owls, to all autorial merits. Papers thus composed may be good in their way, just as an impertinent cicerone is good in his way; and the way, in either case, may still be a small one.

Boccalini, in his “Advertisements from Parnassus,” tells us that Zoilus once presented Apollo with a very caustic review of a very admirable poem. The god asked to be shown the beauties of the work; but the critic replied that he troubled himself only about the errors. Hereupon Apollo gave him a sack of unwinnowed wheat — bidding him pick out all the chaff for his pains.

Now this fable does very well as a hit at the critics; but I am by no means sure that the Deity was in the right. The fact is, that the limits of the strict critical duty are grossly misapprehended. We may go so far as to say that, while the critic is permitted to play, at times, the part of the mere commentator — while he is allowed, by way of merely interesting his readers, to put in the fairest light the merits of his author — his legitimate task is still, in pointing out and analyzing defects and showing how the work might have been improved, to aid the general cause of Letters, without undue heed of the individual literary men. Beauty, to be brief, should be considered in the light of an axiom, which, to become at once evident, needs only to be distinctly put. It is not Beauty, if it require to be demonstrated as such: — and thus to point out too particularly the merits of a work, is to admit that they are not merits altogether.

When I say that both Mr. Jones and Mr. Whipple [column 2:] are, in some degree, imitators of Macaulay, I have no design that my words should be understood as disparagement. The style and general conduct of Macaulay’s critical papers could scarcely be improved. To call his manner “conventional — with himself and Carlyle. The style of Miss Fuller is conventional — with herself and Emerson and Carlyle: — that is to say, it is a triple-distilled conventionality: — and by the word “conventionality,” as here used, I mean very nearly what, as regards personal conduct, we style “affectation” — that is, an assumption of airs or tricks which have no basis in reason or common sense. The quips, quirks, and curt oracularities of the Emersons, Alcots and Fullers, are simply Lily’s Euphuisms revived. Very different, indeed, are the peculiarities of Macaulay. He has his mannerisms; but we see that, by dint of them, he is enabled to accomplish the extremes of unquestionable excellences — the extreme of clearness, of vigor (dependent upon clearness) of grace, and very especially of thoroughness. For his short sentences, for his antitheses, for his modulations, for his climaxes — for everything that he does — a very slight analysis suffices to show a distinct reason. His manner, thus, is simply the perfection of that justifiable rhetoric which has its basis in common sense; and to say that such rhetoric is never called in to the aid of genius, is simply to disparage genius, and by no means to discredit the rhetoric. It is nonsense to assert that the highest genius would not be benefited by attention to its modes of manifestation — by availing itself of that Natural Art which it too frequently despises. Is it not evident that the more intrinsically valuable the rough diamond, the more gain accrues to it from polish?

Now, since it would be nearly impossible to vary the rhetoric of Macaulay, in any material degree, without deterioration in the essential particulars of clearness, vigor, etc., those who write after Macaulay have to choose between the two horns of a dilemma: — they must be weak and original, or imitative and strong: — and since imitation in a case of this kind, is merely adherence to Truth and Reason as pointed out by one who feels their value, the author who should forego the advantages of the “imitation” for the mere sake of being erroneously original, “n’est pas si sage qu’il croit.”

The true course to be pursued by our critics — justly sensible of Macaulay’s excellences — is not, however, to be content with tamely following in his footsteps — but to outstrip him in his own path — a path not so much his as Nature’s. We must not fall into the error of fancying that he is perfect merely because he excels (in point of style) all his British cotemporaries. Some [page 50:] such idea as this seems to have taken possession of Mr. Jones, when he says:

“Macaulay’s style is admirable — full of color, perfectly clear, free from all obstructions, exactly English, and as pointedly antithetical as possible. We have marked two passages on Southey and Byron, so happy as to defy improvement. The one is a sharp epigrammatic paragraph on Southey’s political bias:

‘Government is to Mr. Southey one of the fine arts. He judges of a theory or a public measure, of a religion, a political party, a peace or a war, as men judge of a picture or a statue, by the effect produced on his imagination. A chain of association is to him what a chain of reasoning is to other men; and what he calls his opinions are, in fact, merely his tastes.’

The other a balanced character of Lord Byron:

‘In the rank of Lord Byron, in his understanding, in his character, in his very person, there was a strange union of opposite extremes. He was born to all that men covet and admire. But in every one of those eminent advantages which he possessed over others, there was mingled something of misery and debasement. He was sprung from a house, ancient, indeed, and noble, but degraded and impoverished by a series of crimes and follies, which had attained a scandalous publicity. The kinsman whom he succeeded had died poor, and but for merciful judges, would have died upon the gallows. The young peer had great intellectual powers; yet there was an unsound part in his mind. He had naturally a generous and tended heart; but his temper was wayward and irritable. He had a head which statuaries loved to copy, and a foot the deformity of which the beggars in the street mimicked.’ ”

Let us now look at the first of these paragraphs. The opening sentence is inaccurate at all points. The word “government” does not give the author’s idea with sufficient definitiveness; for the term is more frequently applied to the system by which the affairs of a nation are regulated than to the act of regulating. “The government,” we say, for example, “does so and so” — meaning those who govern. But Macaulay intends simply the act or acts called “governing,” and this word should have been used, as a matter of course. The “Mr.” prefixed to “Southey,” is superfluous; for no sneer is designed; and, in mistering a well-known author, we hint that he is not entitled to that exemption which we accord to Homer, Dante, or Shakspeare. “To Mr. Southey” would have been right, had the succeeding words been “government seems one of the fine arts:” — but, as the sentence stands, “With Mr. Southey” is demanded. “Southey,” too, being the principal subject of the paragraph, should precede “government,” which is mentioned only in its relation to Southey. “One of the fine arts” is pleonastic, since the phrase conveys nothing more than “a fine art” would convey.

The second sentence is quite faulty. Here Southey loses his precedence as the subject; and thus the “He” should follow “a theory,” “a public measure,” etc. By “religion” is meant a “creed: “ — this latter word should therefore be used. The conclusion of the sentence is very awkward. Southey is said to judge of a peace or war, etc., as men judge of a picture or a statue, and the words which succeed are intended to explain how men judge of a picture or a statue: — these words should, therefore, run thus: — [column 2:] “by effect produced on their imaginations.” “Produced,” moreover, is neither so exact nor so “English” as “wrought.” In saying that Southey judges of a political party, etc., as men judge of a picture, etc., Southey is quite excluded from the category of “men.” “Other men,” was no doubt originally written, but “other” erased, on account of the “other men” occurring in the sentence below.

Coming to this last, we find that “a chain of associations” is not properly paralleled by “ a chain of reasoning.” We must say either “a chain of association,” to meet the “reasoning “ or “a chain of reasons,” to meet the associations.” The repetition of “what” is awkward and unpleasant. The entire paragraph should be thus remodelled:

With Southey, governing is a fine art. Of a theory or a public measure — of a creed, a political party, a peace or a war — he judges by the imaginative effect; as only such things as pictures or statues are judged of by other men. What to them a chain of reasoning is, to him is a chain of association; and, as to his opinions, they are nothing but his tastes.

The blemishes in the paragraph about Byron are more negative than those in the paragraph about Southey. The first sentence need vivacity. The adjective “opposite” is superfluous: — so is the particle “there.” The second and third sentences are, properly, one. “Some” would fully supply the place of “something of.” The whole phrase “which he possessed over others,” is supererogatory. “Was sprung,” in place of “sprang,” is altogether unjustifiable. The triple repetition of “and,” in the fourth sentence, is awkward. “Notorious crimes and follies,” would express all that is implied in “crimes and follies which had attained a scandalous publicity.” The fifth sentence might be well curtailed; and as it stands, has an unintentional and unpleasant sneer. “Intellect” would do as well as “intellectual powers;” and this (the sixth) sentence might otherwise be shortened advantageously. The whole paragraph, in my opinion, would be better thus expressed:

In Lord Byron’s rank, understanding, character — even in his person — we find a strange union of extremes. Whatever men covet and admire, became his by right of birth; yet debasement and misery were mingled with each of his eminent advantages. He sprang from a house, ancient it is true, and noble, but degraded and impoverished by a series of notorious crimes. But for merciful judges, the pauper kinsman whom he succeeded would have been hanged. The young peer had an intellect great, perhaps, yet partially unsound. His heart was generous, but his temper wayward; and while statuaries copied his head, beggars mimicked the deformity of his foot.

In these remarks, my object is not so much to point out inaccuracies in the most accurate stylist of his age, as to hint that our critics might surpass him on his own ground, and yet leave themselves something to learn in the moralities of manner.

Nothing can be plainer than that our position, as a literary colony of Great Britain, leads us into wronging, indirectly, our own authors by exaggerating the merits of those across the water. Our most reliable critics [page 51:] extol — and extol without discrimination — such English compositions as, if written in America, would be either passed over without notice or unscrupulously condemned. Mr. Whipple, for example, whom I have mentioned in this connexion with Mr. Jones, is decidedly one of our most “reliable” critics. His honest I dispute as little as I doubt his courage or his talents — but her is an instance of the want of common discrimination into which he is occasionally hurried, by undue reverence for British intellect and British opinion. In a review of “The Drama of Exile and other Poems,” by Miss Barrett, (now Mrs. Browning,) he speaks of the following passage as “in every respect faultless — sublime:”

Hear the steep generations how they fall

Adown the visionary stairs of Time,

Like supernatural thunders — far yet near,

Sowing their fiery echoes through the hills!

Now here, saying nothing of the affectation in “adown;” not alluding to the insoluble paradox of “far yet near;” not mentioning the inconsistent metaphor involved in sowing of fiery echoes; adverting but slightly to the misusage of “like” in place of “as;” and to the impropriety of making anything fall like thunder, which has never been known to fall at all; merely hinting, too, at the misapplication of “steep” to the “generations” instead of to the “stairs” — (a perversion in no degree justified by the fact that so preposterous a figure as synecdoche exists in the school-books:) — letting these things pass, we shall still find it difficult to understand how Mrs. Browning should have been led to think the principal idea itself — the abstract idea — the idea of tumbling down stairs, in any shape, or under any circumstance — either a poetical or a decorous conception. And yet Mr. Whipple speaks of it [column 2:] as “sublime.” That the lines narrowly missed sublimity, I grant: — that they came within a step of it, I admit: but, unhappily, the step is that one step which, time out of mind, has intervened between the sublime and the ridiculous. So true is this that any person — that even I — with a very partial modification of the imagery — a modification that shall not interfere with its richly spiritual tone — may elevate the passage into unexceptionally. For example:

Hear the far generations — how they crash

From crag to crag down the precipitous Time,

In multitudinous thunders that upstartle

Aghast, the echoes from their cavernous lairs

In the visionary hills!

No doubt my version has its faults; but it has at least the merit of consistency. Not only is a mountain more poetical than a pair of stairs, but echoes are more appropriately typified as wild beasts than as seeds; and echoes and wild beasts agree better with a mountain than does a pair of stairs with the sowing of seeds — even admitting that these seeds be seeds of fire, and be sown broadcast “among the hills” by a steep generation while in the act of tumbling down the stairs — that is to say, of coming down the stairs in too great a hurry to be capable of sowing the seeds as accurately as all seeds should be sown: — nor is the matter rendered any better for Mrs. Browning, even if the construction of her sentence be understood as implying that the fiery seeds were sown, not immediately by the steep generations that tumbled down the stairs, but mediately, through the intervention of “supernatural thunders” that were occasioned by the steep generations that were so unlucky as to tumble down the stairs.

 


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:0 - GM, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - About Critics and Criticism [Text-02]