Text: Unknown [ed. J. A. Harrison], “Review of The Antediluvians,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), pp. 105-109


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[page 105, continued:]

THE ANTEDILUVIANS, OR THE WORLD DESTROYED: A NARRATIVE POEM, IN TEN BOOKS. BY JAMES MCHENRY, M.D., AUTHOR OF THE “PLEASURES OF FRIENDSHIP,” ETC. ONE VOLUME. J. B. LIPPINCOTT AND CO., PHILADELPHIA.

[Text: Graham’s Magazine, February, 1841.]

THERE are two species of poetry known to mankind, — that which the gods love and that which men abhor. The poetry of the doctor belongs to the latter class, though he seems lamentably ignorant of this from the long essay on taste which he has given to the world in the shape of a preface to the work before us, and in which his own peculiar merits and demerits are discussed at sufficient length. He tells us that he has long been tormented with an itching after immortality; and that, being convinced not only that the writing of a poem was the surest passport to it, but that the choice of a subject was the greatest difficulty in the way of such a work, he has spent some years of his life in selecting the present theme. He has also the modesty to acquaint the public that his subject is inferior to Milton’s alone, leaving us, by a parity of reasoning, to conclude that Dr. McHenry is next in glory to the heavenly bard. We congratulate the doctor on his finesse. There is nothing like connecting one’s name with that of a genius; for if the world is not deceived by it, you persuade yourself, like Major Longbow, by a constant [page 106:] repetition of your story, of its truth. You become a great man in your own conceit, fancy that the world does injustice to your talents, and go down to posterity, if not as the falcon’s mate, at least as —

A tom-tit twittering on an eagle’s back.

Having thus associated himself with Milton, the doctor proceeds to inform us that, in the Deluge, he at length found a theme “exalted and extensive enough for the exercise of poetic talents of the highest order,” leaving us, a second time, to infer, what he is too modest except to insinuate, that his own genius is unequalled. He then calls our attention to the plot, asserting that the general “plan and scope” of a poem is second only to its theme, that is, that diction, style, and imagination, in short, every requisite of a true poet, are but “flimsy stuff.”

The doctor seems to know his own weak points and when the “galled jade winces”; but even his elaborated plot is worse than nine men out of ten would construct, We have gleaned little from it except a few facts, which would be strange were they not ridiculous. There is a description of a harem in the second book, from which we learn that velvets and embroidery were as much in vogue among the antediluvians as now; an account of a siege in the eighth book, which settles the disputed question, whether Greek fire, melted lead, and catapults were used then or not; and a detail of a battle in the same book, which gives the divisions and manceuvres of the contending armies, and puts at rest the assertions of military men, who trace our present tactics back no farther than the invention of gunpowder. Besides this, there are two marriages, a rescued maiden, one or more heroes, and many heroines, with an innumerable [page 107:] catalogue of minor incidents — in short, the materials of half a dozen bad novels woven into a worse poem.

We are told in the outset that the “ versification is not particularly modelled aficr that of any preceding author,” and that our classic poets afford no style “exactly suitable for this work”; and consequently we are but little astonished when we meet with such passages as the following: —

Subservient to the foul, malignant fiends,

The abandoned race of Cain their God forsook,

And to the infernal agents gave their hearts.

Oh! preference worse than foolish, choice insane!

Which drove celestial spirits from their charge

Of guardianship o’er human feebleness,

And left the hapless Cainites in the power

Of hellish tyrants, whom they blindly served,

Lured by the sensual pleasures amply given

In transient, poisonous recompense for guilt.

— Page 14.

Or this —

Here reigned the fierce Shalmazar, giant king,

Sprung from a mixture of infernal strain,

His sire, the power of lewdness, Belial named,

Who, amorous of an earth-born beauty, won

Astoreth, princess of Gal-Cainah’s realm,

To his unhallowed love.

— Page 16.

What the meaning of the author is in the line above italicized, we challenge all Christendom to discover. But even no sense at all is better than mere verbiage or coarse or improbable metaphor, as thus —

Repose at last, where it is ever found

By weary mortals, in the peaceful grave,

In which his heir, that moralizing youth,

The melancholy Lameth, bad before

Laid down the o’erpowering burden of his woes.

— Page 12. [page 108:]

And again —

The harnessed-spirits spreading forth their wings.

— Page 11.

And thus —

Then was the hour of vengeance; then the stern

Hell-generated tyrant felt dismay,

And in his chariot fled

— Page 262.

But we must bring a still heavier charge against the doctor, — that of a total want of originality. The whole plan and conception of the “Antediluvians” is copied, but longo intervallo, after “Paradise Lost.” Had Milton never written poetry, Dr. McHenry would never have published bombast. Yet the one is only the shadow of the other’s shade, This imitation is perceptible not only in various attempts to copy the versification, but oftentimes in more glaring and less defensible plagiarisms. Would it, for instance, be believed that the second book of the “Antediluvians” begins with a passage so nearly resembling the opening of the second book in “Paradise Lost” as to make, as Dogberry has said, “flat burglary.” Thus: —

High on a throne of royal state, which far

Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,

Or where the gorgeous east, with richest hand,

Showers on her kings barbaric, pearls and gold,

Satan exalted sat.

Paradise Lost, Book II.

In royal robes, magnificently bright,

On his imperial throne of burnished gold,

And polished ivory, which sparkling shone,

With gems innumerable, of various hues,

That shed a blaze of streaming radiance round

The gorgeous hall, the haughty monarch sat.

Antediluvians, page 29.

And so on diluting the idea of Milton into a dozen more lines, and showing at once the grandeur of the [page 109:] model and the feebleness of the imitation. Yet Dr. McHenry calls himself a poet, and pretends to the divine afflatus. But again: —

Such scenes of cruelty and blood,

Exhibited before appalled heaven,

To make the angels weep, to look on earth!

Antediluvians, page 202.

But man, frail man,

Drest in a little brief authority,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,

As make the angels weep.

Shakespeare.

We might multiply such instances; but enough. Has the doctor forgotten the celebrated verse of Virgil? —

Hos ego versiculos feci, tulit alter honores.

The doctor appears fond of the use of epithets, especially such ones as “infernal, fiendish, hellish,” and other coarse adjectives. We do not object to the use of the two former, provided they appear sparingly and in place; but really the work before us is seasoned rather highly with such epithets for our taste. The doctor, however, appears to be of the Thompsonian school in literature, and not only spices strongly, but swashes away right and left at the accredited school. We advise him, once for all, to give up poetry, which he disgraces, for physic, which he may adorn. God never intended him for an immortal fame. We are satisfied that, if he should be arraigned for writing poetry, no sane jury would ever convict him; and if, as most likely, he should plead guilty at once, it would be as quickly disallowed, on that rule of law which forbids the judges to decide against the plain evidence of their senses.

 


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Notes:

Although Harrision collected the present review as being by Poe, that attribution is generally dismsed today. T. O. Mabbott considered it too early to be by Poe.

 

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