Text: James A. Harrison, “Review of Alciphron: A Poem,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), pp. 60-71


[page 60:]


[Text: Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, January, 1840.(1)]

AMID the vague mythology of Egypt, the voluptuous scenery of her Nile, and the gigantic mysteries of her pyramids, Anacreon Moore has found all of that striking materiel which he so much delights in working up, and which he has embodied in the poem before us. The design of the story (for plot it has none) has been a less consideration than its facilities, and is made subservient to its execution. The subject is comprised in five epistles. In the first, Alciphron, the head of the Epicurean sect at Athens, writes, from Alexandria, to his friend Cleon, in the former city. He tells him (assigning a reason for quitting Athens and her pleasures) that, having fallen asleep one night after protracted [page 61:] festivity, he beholds, in a dream, a spectre, who tells him that, beside the sacred Nile, he, the Epicurean, shall find that Eternal Life for which he had so long been sighing. In the second, from the same to the same, the traveller speaks, at large, and in rapturous terms, of the scenery of Egypt; of the beauty of her maidens; of an approaching Festival of the Moon; and of a wild hope entertained that amid the subterranean chambers of some huge pyramid lies the secret which he covets, the secret of Life Eternal. In the third letter, he relates a love adventure at the Festival. Fascinated by the charms of one of the nymphs of a procession, he is first in despair at losing sight of her, then overjoyed at again seeing her in Necropolis, and finally traces her steps until they are lost near one of the smaller pyramids. In epistle the fourth, (still from the same to the same,) he enters and explores the pyramid, and, passing through a complete series of Eleusinian mysteries, is at length successfully initiated into the secrets of Memphian priestcraft; we learning this latter point from letter the fifth, which concludes the poem, and is addressed by Orcus, high priest of Memphis, to Decius, a prœtorian prefect.

A new poem from Moore calls to mind that critical opinion respecting him which had its origin, we believe, in the dogmatism of Coleridge — we mean the opinion that he is essentially the poet of fancy — the term being employed in contradistinction to imagination. “The fancy,” says the author of the “Auncient Mariner,” in his Biographia Literaria, “the fancy combines, the imagination creates.” And this was intended, and has been received, as a distinction. If so at all, it is one without a difference; without even a difference of degree. The fancy as nearly creates as the imagination; [page 62:] and neither creates in any respect. All novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations. The mind of man can imagine nothing which has not really existed; and this point is susceptible of the most positive demonstration — see the Baron de Bielfeld, in his Premiers Traits de L’Erudition Universelle, 1767. It will be said, perhaps, that we can imagine a griffin, and that a griffin does not exist. Not the griffin certainly, but its component parts. It is a mere compendium of known limbs and features — of known qualities. Thus with all which seems to be new — which appears to be a creation of intellect. It is re-soluble into the old. The wildest and most vigorous effort of mind cannot stand the test of this analysis.

We might make a distinction, of degree, between the fancy and the imagination, in saying that the latter is the former loftily employed. But experience proves this distinction to be unsatisfactory. What we feel and know to be fancy, will be found still only fanciful, whatever be the theme which engages it. It retains its idiosyncrasy under all circumstances. No subject exalts it into the ideal. We might exemplify this by reference to the writings of one whom our patriotism, rather than our judgment, has elevated to a niche in the Poetic Temple which he does not becomingly fill, and which he cannot long uninterruptedly hold. We allude to the late Dr. Rodman Drake, whose puerile abortion, “The Culprit Fay,” we examined, at some length, in a critique elsewhere; proving it, we think, beyond all question, to belong to that class of the pseudo-ideal, in dealing with which we find ourselves embarrassed between a kind of half-consciousness that we ought to admire, and the certainty that we do not. Dr. Drake was employed upon a good subject — at least it is a [page 63:] subject precisely identical with those which Shakspeare was wont so happily to treat, and in which, especially, the author of “Lilian” has so wonderfully succeeded. But the American has brought to his task a mere fancy, and has grossly failed in doing what many suppose him to have done — in writing an ideal or imaginative poem. There is not one particle of the true ποιησις about “The Culprit Fay.” We say that the subject, even at its best points, did not aid Dr. Drake in the slightest degree. He was never more than fanciful. The passage, for example, chiefly cited by his admirers, is the account of the “Sylphid Queen;” and to show the difference between the false and true ideal, we collated, in the review just alluded to, this, the most admired passage, with one upon a similar topic by Shelley. We shall be pardoned for repeating here, as nearly as we remember them, some words of what we then said.

The description of the Sylphid Queen runs thus: —

But oh, how fair the shape that lay

Beneath a rainbow bending bright;

She seemed to the entranced Fay,

The loveliest of the forms of light;

Her mantle was the purple rolled

At twilight in the west afar;

’Twas tied with threads of dawning gold,

And buttoned with a sparkling star.

Her face was like the lily roon

That veils the vestal planet’s hue;

Her eyes two beamlets from the moon

Set floating in the welkin blue.

Her hair is like the sunny beam,

And the diamond gems which round it gleam

Are the pure drops of dewy even

That ne’er have left their native heaven.

In theQueen Mab of Shelley, a Fairy is thus introduced: — [page 64:]

Those who had looked upon the sight,

Passing all human glory,

Saw not the yellow moon,

Saw not the mortal scene,

Heard not the night-wind’s rush,

Heard not an earthly sound,

Saw but the fairy pageant,

Heard but the heavenly strains

That filled the lonely dwelling —

And thus described —

The Fairy’s frame was slight; you fibrous cloud

The Fairy’s frame was slight; yon fibrous cloud

That catches but the palest tinge of even,

And which the straining eye can hardly seize

When melting into eastern twilight’s shadow,

Where scarce so thin, so slight; but the fair star

That gems the glittering coronet of morn,

Sheds not a light so mild, so powerful,

As that which, bursting from the Fairy’s form,

Spread a purpureal halo round the scene,

Yet with an undulating motion,

Swayed to her outline gracefully.

In these exquisite lines the faculty of mere comparison is but little exercised — that of ideality in a wonderful degree. It is probable that in a similar case Dr. Drake would have formed the face of the fairy of the “fibrous cloud,” her arms of the “pale tinge of even,” her eyes of the “fair stars,” and her body of the “twilight shadow.” Having so done, his admirers would have congratulated him upon his imagination, not taking the trouble to think that they themselves could at any moment imagine a fairy of materials equally as good, and conveying an equally distinct idea. Their mistake would be precisely analogous to that of many a schoolboy who admires the imagination displayed in Jack the Giant-Killer, and is finally rejoiced at discovering his own imagination to surpass that of the author, since the [page 65:] monsters destroyed by Jack are only about forty feet in height, and he himself has no trouble in imagining some of one hundred and forty. It will be seen that the fairy of Shelley is not a mere compound of incongruous natural objects, inartificially put together, and unaccompanied by any moral sentiment — but a being, in the illustration of whose nature some physical elements are used collaterally as adjuncts, while the main conception springs immediately, or thus apparently springs, from the brain of the poet, enveloped in the moral sentiments of grace, of color, of motion — of the beautiful, of the mystical, of the august — in short, of the ideal.

The truth is that the just distinction between the fancy and the imagination (and which is still but a distinction of degree) is involved in the consideration of the mystic. We give this as an idea of our own, altogether. We have no authority for our opinion — but do not the less firmly hold it. The term mystic is here employed in the sense of Augustus William Schlegel, and of most other German critics. It is applied by them to that class of composition in which there lies beneath the transparent upper current of meaning, an under or suggestive one. What we vaguely term the moral of any sentiment is its mystic or secondary expression. It has the vast force of an accompaniment in music. This vivifies the air; that spiritualizes the fanciful conception, and lifts it into the ideal.

This theory will bear, we think, the most rigorous tests which can be made applicable to it, and will be acknowledged as tenable by all who are themselves imaginative. If we carefully examine those poems, or portions of poems, or those prose romances, which mankind have been accustomed to designate as imaginative, [page 66:] (for an instinctive feeling leads us to employ properly the term whose full import we have still never been able to define,) it will be seen that all so designated are remarkable for the suggestive character which we have discussed. They are strongly mystic — in the proper sense of the word. We will here only call to the reader’s mind, the Prometheus Vinctus of Æschylus; the Inferno of Dante; the Destruction of Numantia by Cervantes; the Comus of Milton; the Auncient Mariner, the Christabel, and the Kubla Khan, of Coleridge; the Nightingale of Keats; and, most especially, the Sensitive Plant of Shelley, and the Undine of De La Motte Fouqué. These two latter poems (for we call them both such) are the finest possible examples of the purely ideal. There is little of fancy here, and every thing of imagination. With each note of the lyre is heard a ghostly, and not always a distinct, but an august and soul-exalting echo. In every glimpse of beauty presented, we catch, through long and wild vistas, dim bewildering visions of a far more ethereal beauty beyond. But not so in poems which the world has always persisted in terming fanciful. Here the upper current is often exceedingly brilliant and beautiful; but then men feel that this upper current is all. No Naiad voice addresses them from below. The notes of the air of the song do not tremble with the according tones of the accompaniment.

It is the failure to perceive these truths which has occasioned that embarrassment which our critics experience while discussing the topic of Moore’s station in the poetic world that hesitation with which we are obliged to refuse him the loftiest rank among the most noble. The popular voice, and the popular heart, [page 67:] have denied him that happiest quality, imagination — and here the popular voice (because for once it has gone with the popular heart) is right — but yet only relatively so. Imagination is not the leading feature of the poetry of Moore; but he possesses it in no little degree.

We will quote a few instances from the poem now before us — instances which will serve to exemplify the distinctive feature which we have attributed to ideality.

It is the suggestive force which exalts and etherealizes the passages we copy.

Or is it that there lurks, indeed,

Some truth in man’s prevailing creed,

And that our guardians from on high,

Come, in that pause from toil and sin,

To put the senses’ curtain by,

And on the wakeful soul look in!

Again —

The eternal pyramids of Memphis burst

Awfully on my sight — standing sublime

’Twixt earth and heaven, the watch-towers of time,

From whose lone summit, when his reign hath past,

From earth for ever, he will look his last.

And again —

Is there for man no hope — but this which dooms

His only lasting trophies to be tombs!

But’tis not so — earth, heaven, all nature shows

He may become immortal, may unclose

The wings within him wrapt, and proudly rise

Redeemed from earth a creature of the skies!

And here —

The pyramid shadows, stretching from the light,

Look like the first colossal steps of night,

Stalking across the valley to invade

The distant hills of porphyry with their shade! [page 68:]

And once more —

There Silence, thoughtful God, who loves

The neighborhood of Death, in groves

Of asphodel lies hid, and weaves

His hushing spell among the leaves.

Such lines as these, we must admit, however, are not of frequent occurrence in the poem — the sum of whose great beauty is composed of the several sums of a world of minor excellences.

Moore has always been renowned for the number and appositeness, as well as novelty, of his similes; and the renown thus acquired is strongly indicial of his deficiency in that nobler merit — the noblest of them all. No poet thus distinguished was ever richly ideal. Pope and Cowper are remarkable instances in point. Similes (so much insisted upon by the critics of the reign of Queen Anne) are never, in our opinion, strictly in good taste, whatever may be said to the contrary, and certainly can never be made to accord with other high qualities, except when naturally arising from the subject in the way of illustration — and, when thus arising, they have seldom the merit of novelty. To be novel, they must fail in essential particulars. The higher minds will avoid their frequent use. They form no portion of the ideal, and appertain to the fancy alone.

We proceed with a few random observations upon Alciphron. The poem is distinguished throughout by a very happy facility which has never been mentioned in connection with its author, but which has much to do with the reputation he has obtained. We allude to the facility with which he recounts a poetical story in a prosaic way. By this is meant that he preserves [page 69:] the tone and method of arrangement of a prose relation, and thus obtains great advantages over his more stilted compeers. His is no poetical style, (such, for example, as the French have — a distinct style for a distinct purpose,) but an easy and ordinary prose manner, ornamented into poetry. By means of this he is enabled to enter, with ease, into details which would baffle any other versifier of the age, and at which La Martine would stand aghast. For any thing that we see to the contrary, Moore might solve a cubic equation in verse, or go through with the three several demonstrations of the binomial theorem, one after the other, or indeed all at the same time. His facility in this respect is truly admirable, and is, no doubt, the result of long practice after mature deliberation. We refer the reader to page 50, of the pamphlet now reviewed; where the minute and conflicting incidents of the descent into the pyramid are detailed with absolutely more precision than we have ever known a similar relation detailed with in prose.

In general dexterity and melody of versification the author of Lalla Rookh is unrivalled; but he is by no means at all times accurate, falling occasionally into the common foible of throwing accent upon syllables too unimportant to sustain it. Thus, in the lines which follow, where we have italicized the weak syllables:

And mark’tis nigh; already the sun bids —


While hark from all the temples a rich swell


I rushed into the cool night air —

He also too frequently draws out the word Heaven into two syllables — a protraction which it never will support. [page 70:]

His English is now and then objectionable, as, at page 26, where he speaks of

lighted barks

That down Syene’s cataract shoots,

making shoots rhyme with flutes, below; also at page 6, and elsewhere, where the word none has improperly a singular, instead of a plural force. But such criticism as this is somewhat captious, for in general he is most highly polished.

At page 27, he has stolen his “woven snow” from the ventum textilem of Apuleius.

At page 8, he either himself has misunderstood the tenets of Epicurus, or wilfully misrepresents them through the voice of Alciphron. We incline to the former idea, however; as the philosophy of that most noble of the sophists is habitually perverted by the moderns. Nothing could be more spiritual and less sensual than the doctrines we so torture into wrong. But we have drawn out this notice at somewhat too great length, and must conclude. In truth, the exceeding beauty of “Alciphron” has bewildered and detained us. We could not point out a poem in any language which, as a whole, greatly excels it. It is far superior to Lalla Rookh. While Moore does not reach, except in rare snatches, the height of the loftiest qualities of some whom we have named, yet he has written finer poems than any, of equal length, by the greatest of his rivals. His radiance, not always as bright as some flashes from other pens, is yet a radiance of equable glow, whose total amount of light exceeds, by very much, we think, that total amount in the case of any cotemporary writer whatsoever. A vivid fancy; an epigrammatic spirit; a fine taste; vivacity, [page 71:] dexterity and a musical ear; have made him very easily what he is, the most popular poet now living — if not the most popular that ever lived — and, perhaps, a slight modification at birth of that which phrenologists have agreed to term temperament, might have made him the truest and noblest votary of the muse of any age or clime. As it is, we have only casual glimpses of that mens divinior which is assuredly enshrined within him.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 60:]

1.  The reader will find it both interesting and profitable, as a comparative study of Poe’s critical method, to place this review of “Alciphron” side by side with the joint review of “The Culprit Fay” by Joseph Rodman Drake, and “Alnwick Castle” by Fitz-Greene Halleck (Volume VIII., page 275 et seq.). Poe had the latter review in mind when writing the present one. Here his critical instinct urges him to laud the British poet, just as it had caused him to condemn the Americans. How far his judgment was superior to that of his contemporaries, who bestowed extravagant encomiums upon the native poets, time has proved. Poe sounds the keynote of his international, rather than national, attitude in the first pages of the Drake-Halleck criticism where lie says that after “a most servile deference to British critical dicta” . . . “we are becoming boisterous and arrogant in the pride of a too speedily assumed literary freedom” . . . “we forget that the world is the true theatre of the biblical histrio.” — ED.





[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Alciphron: A Poem)