Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Poe on Headley and Channing,” Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. XVI, no. 10, October 1850, 16:608-612


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[page 608, column 2:]

POE ON HEADLEY AND CHANNING.

From advance sheets of “The Literati,” a work in press, by the late Edgar A. Poe, we take the following sketches of Headley and Channing — as good speciments of that tomahawk-style of criticism of which the author was so great a master. In the present instances the satire is well-deserved. Neither of these sketches we believe have been in print before. — [Ed. Mess.

JOEL T. HEADLEY.*

The Reverend Mr. HEADLEY — (why will he not put his full title in his title-pages?) has in his “Sacred Mountains” been reversing the facts of the old fable about the mountains that brought forth the mouse — parturiunt montes nascitur ridiculus mus — for in this instance it appears to be the mouse — the little ridiculus mus — that has been bringing forth the “Mountains,” and a great litter of them, too. The epithet, funny, however, is perhaps the only one which can be considered as thoroughly applicable to the book. We say that a book is a “funny” book, and nothing else, when it spreads over two hundred pages an amount of matter which could be conveniently presented in twenty of a magazine: that a book is a “funny” book — “only this and nothing more” — when it is written in that kind of phraseology, in which John Philpot Curran, when drunk, would have made a speech at a public dinner: and, moreover, we do say, emphatically, that a book is a “funny” book, and nothing but a funny book, whenever it happens to be penned by Mr. Headley.

We should like to give some account of “The Sacred Mountains,” if the thing were only possible — but we cannot conceive that it is. Mr. Headley belongs to that numerous class of authors, who must be read to be understood, and who, for that reason, very seldom are as thoroughly comprehended as they should be. Let us endeavor, however, to give some general idea of the work. “The design,” says the [page 609:] author in his preface, “is to render more familiar and life-like some of the scenes of the Bible.” Here, in the very first sentence of his preface, we suspect the Reverend Mr. Headley of fibbing: for his design, as it appears to ordinary apprehension, is merely that of making a little money by selling a little book.

The mountains described are Ararat, Moriah, Sinai, Hor, Pisgah, Horeb, Carmel, Lebanon, Zion, Tabor, Olivet, and Calvary. Taking up these, one by one, the author proceeds in his own very peculiar way to elocutionize about them: we really do not know how else to express what it is that Mr. Headley does with these eminences. Perhaps if we were to say that he stood up before the reader and “made a speech” about them, one after the other, we should come still nearer the truth. By way of carrying out his design, as announced in the preface, that of rendering “more familiar and life-like some of the scenes” and so-forth, he tells not only how each mountain is, and was, but how it might have been and ought to be in his own opinion. To hear him talk, anybody would suppose that he had been at the laying of the corner-stone of Solomon’s Temple — to say nothing of being born and brought up in the ark with Noah, and hail-fellow-well-met with every one of the beasts that went into it. If any person really desires to know how and why it was that the deluge took place — but especially how — if any person wishes to get minute and accurate information on the topic — let him read “The Sacred Mountains” — let him only listen to the Reverend Mr. Headley. He explains to us precisely how it all took place — what Noah said, and thought, while the ark was building, and what the people, who saw him building the ark, said and thought about his undertaking such a work; and how the beasts, birds, and fishes looked as they came in arm in arm; and what the dove did, and what the raven did not — in short, all the rest of it: nothing could be more beautifully posted up. What can Mr. Headley mean, at page 17, by the remark that “there is no one who does not lament that there is not a fuller antediluvian history?” We are quite sure that nothing that ever happened before the flood, has been omitted in the scrupulous researches of the author of “The Sacred Mountains.”

He might, perhaps, wrap up the fruits of these researches in rather better English than that which he employs:

“Yet still the water rose around them till all through the valleys nothing but little black islands of human beings were seen on the surface . . . . . . The more fixed the irrevocable decree, the heavier he leaned on the Omnipotent arm . . . . . . And lo! a solitary cloud comes drifting along the morning [column 2:] sky and catches against the top of the mountain . . . . . . At length emboldened by their own numbers they assembled tumultuously together . . . . . . Aaron never appears so perfect a character as Moses . . . . . . As he advanced from rock to rock the sobbing of the multitude that followed after, tore his heart-strings . . . . . . Friends were following after whose sick Christ had healed . . . . . . The steady mountain threatened to lift from its base and be carried away . . . . . . Sometimes God’s hatred of sin, sometimes his care for his children, sometimes the discipline of his church, were the motives . . . . . . Surely it was his mighty hand that laid on that trembling tottering mountain,” &c. &c. &c.

These things are not exactly as we could wish them, perhaps: — but that a gentleman should know so much about Noah’s ark and know anything about any thing else, is scarcely to be expected. We have no right to require English grammar and accurate information about Moses and Aaron at the hands of one and the same author. For our parts, now we come to think of it, if we only understood as much about Mount Sinai and other matters as Mr. Headley does, we should make a point of always writing bad English upon principle, whether we knew better or not.

It may well be made a question moreover, how far a man of genius is justified in discussing topics so serious as those handled by Mr. Headley, in any ordinary kind of style. One should not talk about Scriptural subjects as one would talk about the rise and fall of stocks or the proceedings of Congress. Mr. Headley has seemed to feel this and has therefore elevated his manner — a little. For example:

“The fields were smiling in verdure before his eyes; the perfumed breezes floated by . . . . . . The sun is sailing over the encampment . . . . . . That cloud was God’s pavilion; the thunder was its sentinels; and the lightning the lances’ points as they moved round the sacred trust . . . . . . And how could he part with his children whom he had borne on his brave heart for more than forty years? . . . . . . Thus everything conspired to render Zion the spell-word of the nation and on its summit the heart of Israel seemed to lie and throb . . . . . . The sun died in the heavens; an earthquake thundered on to complete the dismay,” &c. &c.

Here no one can fail to perceive the beauty (in an antediluvian or at least in a Pickwickian sense) of these expressions in general, about the floating of the breeze, the sailing of the sun, the thundering of the earthquake, and the throbbing of the heart as it lay on the top of the mountain.

The true artist, however, always rises as he proceeds, and in his last page or so brings all his elocution to a climax. Only hear Mr. Headley’s finale. He has been describing the crucifixion and now soars into the sublime: [page 610:]

“How heaven regarded this disaster, and the Universe felt at the sight, I cannot tell. I know not but tears fell like rain-drops from angelic eyes when they saw Christ spit upon and struck. I know not but there was silence on high for more than “half an hour” when the scene of the crucifixion was transpiring, — [a scene, as well as an event always “transpires” with Mr. Headley] — a silence unbroken save by the solitary sound of some harp-string on which unconsciously fell the agitated, trembling fingers of a seraph. I know not but all the radiant ranks on high, and even Gabriel himself, turned with the deepest solicitude to the Father’s face, to see if he was calm and untroubled amid it all. I know not but his composed brow and serene majesty were all that restrained Heaven from one universal shriek of horror when they heard groans on Calvary — dying groans. I know not but they thought God had given his glory to another, but one thing I do know, [Ah, there is really one thing Mr. Headley knows!] — that when they saw through the vast design, comprehended the stupendous scene, the hills of God shook to a shout that never before rung over their bright tops, and the crystal sea trembled to a song that had never before stirred its bright depths, and the “Glory to God in the Highest,” was a sevenfold chorus of hallelujahs and harping symphonies.”

Here we have direct evidence of Mr. Headley’s accuracy not less than of his eloquence. “I know not but that” one is as vast as the other. The one thing that he does know he knows to perfection: he knows not only what the chorus was (it was one of “hallelujahs and harping symphonies”) but also how much of it there was — it was a “sevenfold chorus.” Mr. Headley is a mathematical man. Moreover he is a modest man; for he confesses (no doubt with tears in his eyes) that really there is one thing he does not know. “How Heaven regarded this disaster, and the Universe felt at the sight, I cannot tell.” Only think of that! I cannot! — I, Headley, really cannot tell how the Universe “felt” once upon a time! This is downright bashfulness on the part of Mr. Headley. He could tell if he would only try. Why did he not inquire? Had he demanded of the Universe how it felt, can any one doubt that the answer would have been — “Pretty well, I thank you, my dear Headley; how do you feel yourself?”

“Quack” is a word that sounds well only in the mouth of a duck; and upon our honor we feel a scruple in using it: nevertheless the truth should be told; and the simple fact is, that the author of the “Sacred Mountains” is the Autocrat of all the Quacks. In saying this, we beg not to be misunderstood. We mean no disparagement to Mr. Headley. We admire that gentleman as [column 2:] much as any individual ever did except that gentleman himself. He looks remarkably well at all points — although perhaps best, EXAS — at a distance — as the lying Pindar says he saw Archilochus, who died ages before the vagabond was born: — the reader will excuse the digression; but talking of one great man is very apt to put us in mind of another. We were saying — were we not? — that Mr. Headley is by no means to be sneered at as a quack. This might be justifiable, indeed, were he only a quack in a small way — a quack doing business by retail. But the wholesale dealer is entitled to respect. Besides, the Reverend author of “Napoleon and his Marshals” was a quack to some purpose. He knows what he is about. We like perfection wherever we see it. We readily forgive a man for being a fool if he only be a perfect fool — and this is a particular in which we cannot put our hands upon our hearts and say that Mr. Headley is deficient. He acts upon the principle that if a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing well: — and the thing that he “does” especially well is the public.

———

WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING.

In speaking of Mr. WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING, who has just published a very neat little volume of poems, we feel the necessity of employing the indefinite rather than the definite article. He is a, and by no means the, William Ellery Channing. He is only the son of the great essayist deceased. He is just such a person, in despite of his clarum et venerabile nomen, as Pindar would have designated by the significant term;gt;gi. It may be said in his favor that nobody ever heard of him. Like an honest woman, he has always succeeded in keeping himself from being made the subject of gossip. His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all. They are not precisely English — nor will we insult a great nation by calling them Kickapoo; perhaps they are Channingese. We may convey some general idea of them by two foreign terms not in common use — the Italian pavoneggiarsi, “to strut like a peacock,” and the German word for “sky-rocketing,” schwarmerei. They are more preposterous, in a word, than any poems except those of the author of “Sam Patch;” for we presume we are right (are we not?) in taking it for granted that the author of “Sam Patch” is the very worst of all the wretched poets that ever existed upon earth.

In spite, however, of the customary phrase about a man’s “making a fool of himself,” we doubt if any one was ever a fool of his own free [page 611:] will and accord. A poet, therefore, should not always be taken too strictly to task. He should be treated with leniency, and, even when damned, should be damned with respect. Nobility of descent, too, should be allowed its privileges not more in social life than in letters. The son of a great author cannot be handled too tenderly by the critical Jack Ketch. Mr. Channing must be hung, that’s true. He must be hung in terrorem — and for this there is no help under the sun; but then we shall do him all manner of justice, and observe every species of decorum, and be especially careful of his feelings, and hang him gingerly and gracefully, with a silken cord, as the Spaniards hang their grandees of the blue blood, their nobles of thesangre azula.

To be serious, then; as we always wish to be if possible. Mr. Channing (whom we suppose to be a very young man, since we are precluded from supposing him avery old one) appears to have been inoculated, at the same moment, with virus from Tennyson and from Carlyle. And here we do not wish to be misunderstood. For Tennyson, as for a man imbued with the richest and rarest poetic impulses, we have an admiration — a reverence unbounded. His “Morte D’Arthur,” his “Locksley Hall,” his “Sleeping Beauty,” his “Lady of Sha-lott,” his “Lotos Eaters,” his “œ none,” and many other poems, are not surpassed, in all that gives to Poetry its distinctive value, by the compositions of any one living or dead. And his leading error — that error which renders him un-popular — a point, to be sure, of no particular importance that very error, we say, is founded in truth — in a keen perception of the elements of poetic beauty. We allude to his quaintness — to what the world chooses to term his affectation. No true poet — no critic whose approbation is worth even a copy of the volume we now hold in our hand — will deny that he feels impressed, sometimes even to tears, by many of those very affectations which he is impelled by the prejudice of his education, or by the cant of his reason, to condemn. He should thus be led to examine the extent of the one, and to be wary of the deductions of the other. In fact, the profound intuition of Lord Bacon has supplied, in one of his immortal apothegmns, the whole philosophy of the point at issue. “There is no exquisite beauty,” he truly says, “without some strangeness in its proportions.” We maintain, then, that Tennyson errs, not in his occasional quaintness, but in its continual and obtrusive excess. And, in accusing Mr. Channing of having been inoculated with virus from Tennyson, we merely mean to say that he has adopted and exaggerated that noble poet’s characteristic defect, having mistaken it for his principal merit.

Mr. Tennyson is quaint only; he is never, as [column 2:] some have supposed him, obscure — except, indeed, to the uneducated, whom he does not address. Mr. Carlyle, on the other hand, is obscure only; he is seldom, as some have imagined him, quaint. So far he is right; for although quaintness, employed by a man of judgment and genius, may be made auxiliary to a poem, whose true thesis is beauty, and beauty alone, it is grossly, and even ridiculously, out of place in a work of prose. But in his obscurity it is scarcely necessary to say that he is wrong. Either a man intends to be understood, or he does not. If he write a book which he intends not to be understood, we shall be very happy indeed not to understand it; but if he write a book which he means to be understood, and, in this book, be at all possible pains to prevent us from understanding it, we can only say that he is an ass — and this, to be brief, is our private opinion of Mr. Carlyle, which we now take the liberty of making public.

It seems that having deduced, from Tennyson and Carlyle, an opinion of the sublimity of every thing odd, and of the profundity of every thing meaningless, Mr. Channing has conceived the idea of setting up for himself as a poet of unusual depth, and very remarkable powers of mind. His airs and graces, in consequence, have a highly picturesque effect, and the Boston critics, who have a notion that poets are porpoises, (for they are always talking about their running in “schools,”) cannot make up their minds as to what particular school he must belong. We say the Bobby Button school, by all means. He clearly belongs to that. And should nobody ever have heard of the Bobby Button school, that is a point of no material importance. We will answer for it, as it is one of our own. Bobby Button is a gentleman with whom, for a long time, we have had the honor of an intimate acquaintance. His personal appearance is striking. He has quite a big head. His eyes protrude and have all the air of saucers. His chin retreats. His mouth is depressed at the corners. He wears a perpetual frown of contemplation. His words are slow, emphatic, few, and oracular. His “thes,” “ands,” and “buts” have more meaning than other men’s polysyllables. His nods would have put Burleigh’s to the blush. His whole aspect, indeed, conveys the idea of a gentleman modest to a fault, and painfully overburthened with intellect. We insist, however, upon calling Mr. Channing’s school of poetry the Bobby Button school, rather because Mr. Channing’s poetry is strongly suggestive of Bobby Button, than because Mr. Button himself ever dallied, to any very great extent, with the Muses. With the exception, indeed, of a very fine “Sonnet to a Pig” — or rather the fragment of a sonnet, [page 612:] for he proceeded no farther than the words “O piggy wiggy,” with the O italicized for emphasis — with the exception of this, we say, we are not aware of his having produced anything worthy of that stupendous genius which is certainly in him, and only wants, like the starling of Sterne, “to get out.”

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 603, column 2:]

*  The Sacred Mountains: By J. T. Headley, — Author of “Napoleon and his Marshals,” “Washington and his Generals,” etc.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - SLM, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Headley and Channing (October 1850)