Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of N. P. Willis,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XII: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 36-40


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[page 36:]

AMERICAN PROSE WRITERS. NO. 2. N. P. WILLIS. NEW VIEWS — IMAGINATION — FANCY — FANTASY — HUMOR — WIT — SARCASM — THE PROSE STYLE OF MR. WILLIS.

[Text: Broadway Journal, Jan. 18, 1845.]

IN his poetry, and in the matter of his prose, the author of “Melanie” and of the “Inklings of Adventure” has, beyond doubt, innumerable merits: — still, they are merits which he shares with other writers — which he possesses in common with Proctor, with Heber, and with Halleck — in common with Neele, with Hunt, with Lamb, and with Irving; his prose style, however, is not only a genus per se, but it is his own property “in fee simple impartite,” and no man living has ever yet set foot upon it except himself.

Now, if any style has been long distinct — has been long markedly and universally peculiar — we must, of course, seek the source of the peculiarity not, as some persons are prone to suppose, in any physical habitude or mannerism — not in any quipping and quibbling of phrase — not in any twisting of antique conventionalities of expression — not, (to be brief,) in any mere sleight-of-pen trickeries which, at all times, may be more dexterously performed by an observant imitator than by the original quack — but in some mental idiosyncrasy, which, unimitated itself because inimitable, [page 37:] preserves the style which is its medium and its exponent from all danger of imitation.

In the style of Mr. Willis we easily detect this idiosyncrasy. We have no trouble in tracing it home — and when we reach it and look it fairly in the face, we recognize it on the instant. — It is Fancy.

To be sure, there is quite a tribe of Fancies — although one half of them never suspected themselves to be such until so told by the metaphysicians — but the one of which we speak has never yet been accredited among men, and we beg pardon of Mr. Willis for the liberty we take in employing the topic of his style, as the best possible vehicle and opportunity for the introduction of this, our protégé, to the consideration of the literary world.

“Fancy,” says the author of “Aids to Reflection” (who aided Reflection to much better purpose in his ” Genevieve”) — Fancy combines — Imagination creates.” This was intended, and has been received, as a distinction; but it is a distinction without a difference-without even a difference of degree. The Fancy as nearly creates as the imagination, and neither at all. Novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations. The mind of man can imagine nothing which does not exist — if it could, it would create not only ideally, but substantially — as do the thoughts of God. It may be said — “We imagine a griffin, yet a griffin does not exist.” Not the griffin certainly, but its component parts. It is no more than a collation of known limbs — features — qualities. Thus with all which claims to be new — which appears to be a creation of the intellect: — it is re-soluble into the old. The wildest effort of the mind cannot stand the test of the analysis. [page 38:]

We might make a distinction of degree between the fancy and the imagination, in calling the latter the former loftily employed. But experience would prove this distinction to be unsatisfactory. What we feel to be fancy, will be found still fanciful, whatever be the theme which engages it. No subject exalts it into imagination. When Moore is termed a fanciful poet, the epithet is precisely applied; he is. He is fanciful in “Lalla Rookh,” and had he written the “Inferno,” there he would have been fanciful still: for not only is he essentially fanciful, but he has no ability — to be anything more, unless at rare intervals — by snatches — and with effort. What we say of him at this point, moreover, is equally true of all little frisky men, personally considered.

The fact seems to be that Imagination, Fancy, Fantasy, and Humor, have in common the elements, Combination, and Novelty. The Imagination is the artist of the four. From novel arrangements of old forms which present themselves to it, it selects only such as are harmonious: — the result, of course, is beauty itself — using the term in its most extended sense, and as inclusive of the sublime. The pure Imagination chooses, from either beauty or deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined; — the compound, as a general rule, partaking (in character) of sublimity or beauty, in the ratio of the respective sublimity or beauty of the things combined — which are themselves still to be considered as atomic — that is to say, as previous combinations. But, as often analogously happens in physical chemistry, so not unfrequently does it occur in this chemistry of the intellect, that the admixture of two elements will result in a something that shall have nothing of the quality of [page 39:] one of them — or even nothing of the qualities of either. The range of Imagination is therefore, unlimited. Its materials extend throughout the Universe. Even out of deformities it fabricates that Beauty which is at once its sole object and its inevitable test. But, in general, the richness or force of the matters combined — the facility of discovering combinable novelties worth combining — and the absolute “chemical combination” and proportion of the completed mass — are the particulars to be regarded in our estimate of Imagination. It is this thorough harmony of an imaginative work which so often causes it to be undervalued by the undiscriminating, through the character of obviousness which is superinduced. We are apt to find ourselves asking “why is it that these combinations have never been imagined before?”

Now, when this question does not occur — when the harmony of the combination is comparatively neglected, and when in addition to the element of novelty, there is introduced the sub-element of unexpectedness — when, for example, matters are brought into combination which not only have never been combined but whose combination strikes us as a difficulty happily overcome — the result then appertains to the FANCY — and is, to the majority of mankind more grateful than the purely harmonious one — although, absolutely, it is less beautiful (or grand) for the reason that it is less harmonious.

Carrying its errors into excess — for, however enticing, they are errors still, or Nature lies. — Fancy is at length found impinging upon the province of Fantasy. The votaries of this latter delight not only in novelty and unexpectedness of combination, but in the avoidance of proportion. The result is therefore abnormal, [page 40:] and to a healthy mind affords less of pleasure through its novelty, than of pain through its incoherence. When, proceeding a step farther, however, Fantasy seeks not merely disproportionate but incongruous or antagonistical elements, the effect is rendered more pleasurable from its greater positiveness; — there is a merry effort of Truth to shake from her that which is no property of hers; — and we laugh outright in recognizing Humor.

The four faculties in question appear to me all of their class; — but when either Fancy or Humor is expressed to gain an end — is pointed at a purpose — whenever either becomes objective in place of subjective — then it becomes, also, pure Wit or Sarcasm, just as the purpose is well-intentioned or malevolent.

Having thus comfortably defined our position, we shall be the more readily understood when we repeat that the marked idiosyncrasy of the prose style of Mr. Willis — that the charm which has wrought for it so vast and so well-merited a popularity — is traceable, in the last result, to the brilliant FANCY with which it perpetually scintillates or glows — a fancy possessed, not as in the case of Moore, to the exclusion of qualities more noble — but possessed, certainly, to an extent altogether unparallelled, and of a kind both relatively and intrinsically the most valuable, because at once the most radiant and the most rare.

 


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Notes:

None.


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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 N. P. Willis)