Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “American Poetry [lecture],” (Text-01), “Wrenn” fragment, 1843


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Mrs. Maria Brooks, the author of “Zophiel, or The Bride of Seven”, is <however> >>one of<< the most <justly> distinguished of our poetesses. Her language is bold, nervous, passionate — her imagination rich, lofty, spiritual. Her chief faults are bombast and extravagance. She has been highly lauded by Southey — and is one among the few of Southey’s innumerable protégés, whom he has not quite overwhelmed and destroyed by indiscriminate laudation.

The allusion to the poet laureate brings to my remembrance the patronage he was pleased to bestow upon two very remarkable instances of precocious poetical talent — I mean the Misses Davidson — Lucretia Maria and Margaret Miller.

It is about <two> >>4<< years ago, I believe, that Mess: Lea & Blanchard published “The Biography and Poetical Remains of the late Margaret Miller Davidson” — a work given to the world by Washington Irving. In common with all who read I was deeply interested in the narrative set forth. The portrait of the young and beautiful enthusiast did not fail to excite my warmest sympathies, and I dwelt upon the pleasing yet melancholy theme with a lingering delight. Of the biographical portion of the book, I said, indeed, what every one says (and most justly) — that nothing could be more intensely pathetic. In respect, however, to the “Poetical Remains”, the tone of my observations was not in accordance with the mass of my contemporaries. Without calling in question the precocity of the child, I was forced to dissent from that extravagant eulogium which had its origin, beyond doubt, in a confounding of the interest felt in the personal poetess and her sad fortunes, with a legitimate admiration of her works. I did not, in truth, conceive it to be either honest or necessary, to mislead, in any degree, the public taste or opinion, by styling “Lenore”, as it exists, a fine poem, merely because its author might have written a fine poem had she lived, I emphasize the “might”; for the history of all intellect demonstrates that the point is a questionable one indeed, The analogies of Nature are universal; and just as the most rapidly-growing herbage is the most speedy in its decay — just as the ephemeron struggles to perfection in a day, only to perish in that day’s decline — so is the mind early matured, only to be early in its decadence; and when we behold, in the eye of infancy, the soul of the adult, it is but indulging a day-dream to hope for any farther proportionate development. Should the prodigy survive to ripe age, a mental imbecility, not far removed from idiocy itself, is too frequently the result. From this rule, the exceptions are rare indeed; but it should be observed that when the exception does occur, the intellect is of a Titan cast, even to the days of its extreme senility, and acquires renown not in one, but in all the wide fields of fancy and of reason.

The most elaborate production of Margaret is the “Lenore” of which I have just spoken. It was written not long before her death — at the age of fifteen — after patient reflection — with much care — and with all that high resolve to do something for fame with which the reputation of her sister, Lucretia had inspired her. Under such circumstances, and with the early poetical education which she could not have failed to receive, I confess that, granting her a little more than average talent, it would have been rather a matter for surprise had she produced a worse, than had she produced a better poem than “Lenore”. Its length, viewed in connexion with its keeping, its unity, its adaptation, and its completeness (and all these are points having reference to artistical knowledge, and preseverance) will impress the critic more favorably than its fancy, or any other indication of poetic power, In all the more important qualities, I have seen far — very far finer poems than “Lenore” written at a much earlier age than fifteen.

“Amir Khan”, the longest and chief composition of Lucretia, has been long known to the reading public, It was originally published, with other poems, in a small volume to which Professor Morse, of the American Society of Arts, contributed a Preface. Partly through the influence of the Professor, yet no doubt partly through <thier> >>its<< own merits, the book found its way to the laureate, Southey; who, after his peculiar fashion, and not unmindful of his previous furores in the case of Kirke White, Chatterton, and others of precocious ability, or at least celebrity, thought proper to review it in the Quarterly. This was at a period when we humbled ourselves, with a subserviency which would have been disgusting had it not been ludicrous, before the crudest critical dicta of Great Britain. It pleased the laureate, after some squibbing in the way of demurrer, to speak of the book in question as follows: — ”In these poems there is enough of growing power, to warrant any expectations, however sanguine, which the patrons and the friends and parents of the deceased could have formed.” — Meaning nothing — or rather meaning anything as we choose to interpret it — this sentence was still sufficient (and indeed the half of it would have been more than sufficient) to establish, upon an immoveable basis, the reputation of Miss Davidson in America. Thenceforward, any examination of her true claims to distinction was considered flat heresy. Nor does the awe of the laureate’s ipse dixit seem even yet to have entirely subsided. — “The genius of Lucretia Davidson” — says Miss Sedgwick — ”has had the mead of far more authoritative praise than ours — a tribute from the London Quarterly Review.” Now, what Miss Sedgwick — for whom and for whose opinions in general I can still have the highest respect — what she means by calling the praise of Southey “more authoritative” than her own — is a point I shall not <now> pause to determine. Her praise is at least honest — or I hope so. Its authority is in exact proportion with the public estimate of her poetical judgment. But it would not do to say all this of the author of “Thalaba”. It would not do to say it in the hearing of men who are sane, and who, being sane, have perused the articles in the “London Quarterly Review” during the 10 or 15 years prior to that period when Robert Southey, having concocted “The Doctor”, took then definitive leave of his wits. In fact, for anything we have yet seen or heard to the contrary, the opinion of the laureate, in respect to the poem of “Amir Man” is a matter still only >>known<< to the ghost of Robert Southey. But were it known to all the world — as Miss Sedgwick supposes with so charmingly innocent an air — I mean to say were it really an honest opinion — this “authoritative praise” — still it would be worth, in the eyes of every sensible person, only just so much as it demonstrates, or makes a show of demonstrating. Happily the day has gone by (and I trust forever) when men were content to swear blindly by the words of a master-poet-laureate though he be — . What Southey says of the poem is at best an opinion and no more. What Miss Sedgwick herself says of it, is very much in the same predicament, — ”Amir Khan”, she writes, “has been long before the public, but we think it has suffered from a general and very natural distrust of precocious genius. The versification is graceful, the story beautifully developed, and the orientalism well sustained. We think it would not have done discredit to our most popular poets in the meridian of their fame; as the production of a girl of 15, it seems prodigious. This “prodigious” puts me in mind of Dominie Sampson. The cant of a kind heart, when betraying into error a naturally sound judgment, is perhaps the only species of cant in the world, not altogether contemptible.

I yield to no one in warmth of admiration for the personal character of these sweet sisters, as that character is depicted by the mothers by Miss Sedgwick, and by Mr. Irving. But it costs me no effort to distinguish that which, in my heart, is love of their worth, from that which, in my intellect, is appreciation of their poetic ability. With the former, as critics I have nothing to do. The distinction is one too obvious for comment; and its observation would have spared us much twattle, on the part of the commentators upon “Amir Khan”

I will endeavor to convey — very succinctly — some idea of this poem, as it exists, not in the fancy of the enthusiastic, but in fact. It includes 440 lines. The metre is chiefly iambic octo-syllabic. At one point it is varied by the casual introduction of an anapaest in the first and second foot. The versification is always decent, so far as the meagre written rules of our English Prosody extend — but long and short syllables are placed at random; and a crowd of consonants sometimes renders a line unpronounceable. At times, again, the rhythm lapses, in the most inartistical manner, from one species to another altogether incongruous. Occasionally, it rises into melody and even strength, as here:

‘Twas at the hour when Peris love

<To gaze upon the Heaven above,>

Whose portals, bright with many a gem,

Are closed, forever closed — on them.

Upon the whole, however, it is feeble, vacillating, and ineffective; giving token of having been “touched up”, by the hand of a friends from a much worse, into its present condition. Such rhymes as floor and shower — ceased and breast — shade and spread — brow and wo — clear and far — clear and air — morning and dawning — forth and earth — step and deep — Khan and hand — are constantly occurring; and although, certainly, we should not, as a general rule, expect better things from a girl of 16 — still we look is vain, and with something like a smile, for anything even approaching that “marvellous ease and grace of versification” about which Miss Sedgwick, in the benevolenoe of her heart, discourses.

Nor does the story, to my dispassionate apprehension, appear “beautifully developed”. It runs thus: — Amir Khan, Subahdar of Cashmere, weds a Circassian slave, who, cold as a statue, and as obstinately silent, refuses to return his love. The Subahdar applies to a magician, who gives him

—— a pensive flower

Gathered at midnights magic hour,

the effect of whose perfume, renders him apparently lifeless, while still in possession of all his senses. Amreeta, the slave, supposing her lover dead, gives way to clamorous grief, and thus reveals the secret love which she has long borne her lord, but refused to divulge, because a slave, Amir Khan hereupon revives, and all trouble is at an end.

Of course, no one, at all, read in Eastern fable, will be willing to give Miss Davidson credit for originality in the conception of this little story; and if she has claim to merit at all, as regards it, that claim must be founded upon the manner of narration. But it will be at once evident that only the most naked outline can be given in the compass of 440 lines. The tale, in sober fact, is told very much as any young person might be expected to tell it, The strength of the narrator is wholly laid out upon a description of moonlight. (in the usual style) with which the poem commences — upon a second description of moonlight (in precisely the same manner) with which a second division commences — and in a 3d description of the hall in which the entranced Subahdar reposes. This is all — absolutely all — or, if there is anything more, it has the nakedness of more catalogue. I recognize, throughout, the poetic sentiment — but little — very little — of poetic power. I see, occasionally, gleams of imagination — for example:

And every crystal cloud of even

Bowed as it passed the queen of Heaven.

————

Amreeta was cold as the marble floor

That glistens beneath the nightly shower.

————

The Subahdar, with noiseless step,

Rushed like the night-breeze o’er the deep.

————

I look vain for another instance worth quoting. But were the fancy seen in these 3 examples; observable either in the general conducts or in the incidents, of the narrative, I should not feel obliged to disagrees so unequivocally, with that opinion of Miss Sedgwick’s, which pronounces this rather clever little effusion — ”one which would not have done discredit to our most popular Poets, in the meridian of their fame.” As the work of a girl of 16, most assuredly I do not think it “prodigious”. I may repeat of it what I just now said of “Lenore” — that I have seen far finer poems, written by children of more immature age, It is a creditable composition — nothing beyond this. And in so saying I shall startle none but the brainless, and the adopters of ready-made ideas, I feel convinced that I express the perhaps unuttered sentiment of every educated person who has read the poem. Nor, having given the plain facts of the case, do I feel called upon to proffer any apology for my flat refusal to play ditto, either to Miss Sedgwick — to Mr. Irving — or to Mr, Southey. I have spoken thus at length upon this little passage of our literary history, <by way> >>with the view<< of showing by what trains of circumstances, and upon how frail a basis, an American reputation is, occasionally, manufactured.


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Notes:

The Biography and Poetical Remains of the Late Margaret Miller Davidson, by Washington Irving, was published in Philadelphia by Lea & Blanchard in 1841.


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[S:0 - MS, 1843] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Tales - American Poetry (a fragment of the lecture) (Text-01)