Text: James Russell Lowell, “Our Contributors: Edgar Allan Poe,” Graham’s Magazine, February 1845, 27:49-53


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THE situation of American literature is anomalous. It has no centre, or, if it have, it is like that of the sphere of Hermes. It is divided into many systems, each revolving round its several sun, and often presenting to the rest only the faint glimmer of a milk-and-watery way. Our capital city, unlike London or Paris, is not a great central heart, from which life and vigor radiate to the extremities, but resembles more an isolated umbilicus, stuck down as near as may be to the centre of the land, and seeming rather to tell a legend of former usefulness than to serve any present need. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, each has its literature almost more distinct than those of the different dialects of Germany; and the Young Queen of the West has also one of her own, of which some articulate rumor barely has reached us dwellers by the Atlantic. Meanwhile, a great babble is kept up concerning a national literature, and the country, having delivered itself of the ugly likeness of a paint-bedaubed, filthy savage, smilingly dandles the rag-baby upon her maternal knee, as if it were veritable flesh and blood, and would grow timely to bone and sinew.

But, before we have an American literature, we must have an American criticism. We have, it is true, some scores of “American Macaulays,” the faint echoes of defunct originalities, who will discourse learnedly at an hour’s notice upon matters, to be even a sciolist in which would ask the patient study and self-denial of years — but, with a few rare exceptions, America is still to seek a profound, original, and esthetic criticism. Our criticism, which from its nature might be expected to pass most erudite judgment upon the merit of thistles, undertakes to decide upon

“The plant and flower of light.” [column 2:]

There is little life in it, little conscientiousness, little reverence; nay, it has seldom the mere physical merit of fearlessness. It may be best likened to an intellectual gathering of chips to keep the critical pot of potatoes or reputations boiling. Too often, indeed, with the cast garments of some pigmy Gifford, or other foreign notoriety, which he has picked up at the rag-fair of literature, our critic sallies forth, a self-dubbed Amadis, armed with a pen, which, more wonderful even than the fairy-gifts in an old ballad, becomes at will either the lance couched terribly at defiant windmills, or the trumpet for a half-penny paean.

Perhaps there is no task more difficult than the just criticism of cotemporary literature. It is even more grateful to give praise where it is needed than where it is deserved, and friendship so often seduces the iron stylus of justice into a vague flourish, that she writes what seems rather like an epitaph than a criticism. Yet if praise be given as an alms, we could not drop so poisonous a one into any man’s hat. The critic’s ink may suffer equally from too large an infusion of nutgalls or of sugar. But it is easier to be generous than to be just, though there are some who find it equally hard to be either, and we might readily put faith in that fabulous direction to the hiding-place of truth, did we judge from the amount of water which we usually find mixed with it.

We were very naturally led into some remarks on American criticism by the subject of the present sketch. Mr. Poe is at once the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America. It may be that we should qualify our remark a little and say that he might be, rather than that he always is, for he seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his [page 50:] inkstand. If we do not always agree with him in his premises, we are, at least, satisfied that his deductions are logical, and that we are reading the thoughts of a man who thinks for himself, and says what he thinks, and knows well what he is talking about. His analytic powers would furnish forth bravely some score of ordinary critics. We do not know him personally, but we suspect him for a man who has one or two pet prejudices on which he prides himself. These sometimes allure him out of the strict path of criticism,* but, where they do not interfere, we would put almost entire confidence in his judgments. Had Mr. Poe had the control of a magazine of his own, in which to display his critical abilities, he would have been as autocratic, ere this, in America, as Professor Wilson has been in England; and his criticisms, we are sure, would have been far more profound and philosophical than those of the Scotsman. As it is, he has squared out blocks enough to build an enduring pyramid, but has left them lying carelessly and unclaimed in many different quarries.

Remarkable experiences are usually confined to the inner life of imaginative men, but Mr. Poe’s biography displays a vicissitude and peculiarity of interest such as is rarely met with. The offspring of a romantic marriage, and left an orphan at an early age, he was adopted by Mr. Allan, a wealthy Virginian, whose barren marriage-bed seemed the warranty of a large estate to the young poet. Having received a classical education in England, he returned home and entered the University of Virginia, where, after an extravagant course, followed by reformation at the last extremity, he was graduated with the highest honors of his class. Then came a boyish attempt to join the fortunes of the insurgent Greeks, which ended at St. Petersburg, where he got into difficulties through want of a passport, from which he was rescued by the American consul and sent home. He now entered the military academy at West Point, from which he obtained a dismissal on hearing of the birth of a son to his adopted father, by a second marriage, an event which cut off his expectations as an heir. The death of Mr. Allan, in whose will his name was not mentioned, soon after relieved him of all doubt in this regard, and he committed himself at once to authorship for a support. Previously to this, however, he had published (in 1827) a small volume of poems, which soon ran through three editions, and excited high expectations of its author’s future distinction in the minds of many competent judges.

That no certain augury can be drawn from a poet’s earliest lispings there are instances enough to prove. Shakspeare’s first poems, though brimful of vigor and youth and picturesqueness, give but a very faint promise of the directness, condensation and overflowing moral of his maturer works. Perhaps, however, Shakspeare is hardly a case in point, his “Venus and Adonis” having been published, we believe, in his twenty-sixth year. Milton’s Latin verses show tenderness, [column 2:] a fine eye for nature, and a delicate appreciation of classic models, but give no hint of the author of a new style in poetry. Pope’s youthful pieces have all the sing-song, wholly unrelieved by the glittering malignity and eloquent irreligion of his later productions. Collins’ callow namby-pamby died and gave no sign of the vigorous and original genius which he afterward displayed. We have never thought that the world lost more in the “marvelous boy,” Chatterton, than a very ingenious imitator of obscure and antiquated dullness. Where he becomes original (as it is called) the interest of ingenuity ceases and he becomes stupid. Kirke White’s promises were endorsed by the respectable name of Mr. Southey, but surely with no authority from Apollo. They have the merit of a traditional piety, which, to our mind, if uttered at all, had been less objectionable in the retired closet of a diary, and in the sober raiment of prose. They do not clutch hold of the memory with the drowning pertinacity of Watts; neither have they the interest of his occasional simple, lucky beauty. Burns, having fortunately been rescued by his humble station from the contaminating society of the “best models,” wrote well and naturally from the first. Had he been unfortunate enough to have had an educated taste, we should have had a series of poems from which, as from his letters, we could sift here and there a kernel from the mass of chaff. Coleridge’s youthful efforts give no promise whatever of that poetical genius which produced at once the wildest, tenderest, most original and most purely imaginative poems of modern times. Byron’s “Hours of Idleness” would never find a reader except from an intrepid and indefatigable curiosity. In Wordsworth’s first preludings there is but a dim foreboding of the creator of an era. From Southey’s early poems, a safer augury might have been drawn. They show the patient investigator, the close student of history, and the unwearied explorer of the beauties of predecessors, but they give no assurances of a man who should add aught to stock of household words, or to the rarer and more sacred delights of the fire-side or the arbor. The earliest specimens of Shelley’s poetic mind already, also, give tokens of that ethereal sublimation in which the spirit seems to soar above the region of words, but leaves its body, the verse, to be entombed, without hope of resurrection, in a mass of them. Cowley is generally instanced as a wonder of precocity. But his early insipidities show only a capacity for rhyming and for the metrical arrangement of certain conventional combinations of words, a capacity wholly dependent on a delicate physical organization, and an unhappy memory . An early poem is only remarkable when it displays an effort of reason, and the rudest verses in which we can trace some conception of the ends of poetry, are worth all the miracles of smooth juvenile versification. A school-boy, one would say, might acquire the regular see-saw of Pope merely by an association with the motion of the play-ground tilt.

Mr. Poe’s early productions show that he could see through the verse to the spirit beneath, and that he already had a feeling that all the life and grace of the one must depend on and be modulated by the will of [page 51:] the other. We call them the most remarkable boyish poems that we have ever read. We know of none that can compare with them for maturity of purpose, and a nice understanding of the effects of language and metre. Such pieces are only valuable when they display what we can only express by the contradictory phrase of innate experience. We copy one of the shorter poems written when the author was only fourteen! There is a little dimness in the filling up, but the grace and symmetry of the outline are such as few poets ever attain. There is a smack of ambrosia about it.


Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.


On desperate seas long wont to roam,

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece

And the grandeur that was Rome.


Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche

How statue-like I see thee stand!

The agate lamp within thy hand,

Ah! Psyche, from the regions which

Are Holy Land!

It is the tendency of the young poet that impresses us. Here is no “withering scorn,” no heart “blighted” ere it has safely got into its teens, none of the drawing-room sansculottism which Byron had brought into vogue. All is limpid and serene, with a pleasant dash of the Greek Helicon in it. The melody of the whole, too, is remarkable. It is not of that kind which can be demonstrated arithmetically upon the tips of the fingers. It is that finer sort which the inner ear alone can estimate. It seems simple, like a Greek column, because of its perfection. In a poem named “Ligeia,” under which title he intended to personify the music of nature, our boy-poet gives us the following exquisite picture:

Ligeia! Ligeia!

My beautiful one,

Whose harshest idea

Will to melody run,

Say, is it thy will

On the breezes to toss,

Or, capriciously still,

Lik [[Like]] the lone albatross,

Incumbent on night,

As she on the air,

To keep watch with delight

On the harmony there?

John Neal, himself a man of genius, and whose lyre has been too long capriciously silent, appreciated the high merit of these and similar passages, and drew a proud horoscope for their author, The extracts which we shall presently make from Mr. Poe’s later poems fully justify his predictions.

Mr. Poe has that indescribable something which men have agreed to call genius. No man could ever tell us precisely what it is, and yet there is none who is not inevitably aware of its presence and its power. Let talent writhe and contort itself as it may, it has no such magnetism. Larger of bone and sinew it may be, but the wings are wanting. Talent sticks fast to earth, and its most perfect works have still one [column 2:] foot of clay. Genius claims kindred with the very workings of Nature herself, so that a sunset shall seem like a quotation from Dante or Milton, and if Shakspeare be read in the very presence of the sea itself, his verses shall but seem nobler for the sublime criticism of ocean. Talent may make friends for itself, but only genius can give to its creations the divine power of winning love and veneration. Enthusiasm cannot cling to what itself is unenthusiastic, nor will he ever have disciples who has not himself impulsive zeal enough to be a disciple. Great wits are allied to madness only inasmuch as they are possessed and carried away by their demon, while talent keeps him, as Paracelsus did, securely prisoned in the pommel of its sword. To the eye of genius, the veil of the spiritual world is ever rent asunder, that it may perceive the ministers of good and evil who throng continually around it. No man of mere talent ever flung his inkstand at the devil.

When we say that Mr. Poe has genius, we do not mean to say that he has produced evidence of the highest. But to say that he possesses it at all is to say that he needs only zeal, industry, and a reverence for the trust reposed in him, to achieve the proudest triumphs and the greenest laurels. If we may believe the Longinuses and Aristotles of our newspapers, we have quite too many geniuses of the loftiest order to render a place among them at all desirable, whether for its hardness of attainment or its seclusion. The highest peak of our Parnassus is, according to these gentlemen, by far the most thickly settled portion of the country, a circumstance which must make it an uncomfortable residence for individuals of a poetical temperament, if love of solitude be, as immemorial tradition asserts, a necessary part of their idiosyncrasy. There is scarce a gentleman or lady of respectable moral character to whom these liberal dispensers of the laurel have not given a ticket to that once sacred privacy, where they may elbow Shakspeare and Milton at leisure, A transient visiter, such as a critic must necessarily be, sees these legitimate proprietors in common, parading their sacred enclosure as thick and buzzing as flies, each with “Entered according to act of Congress” labeled securely to his back. Formerly one Phoebus, a foreigner, we believe, had the monopoly of transporting all passengers thither, a service for which he provided no other conveyance than a vicious horse, named Pegasus, who could, of course, carry but one at a time, and even that but seldom, his back being a ticklish seat, and one fall proving generally enough to damp the ardor of the most zealous aspirant. The charges, however, were moderate, as the poet’s pocket formerly occupied that position in regard to the rest of his outfit which is now more usually conceded to his head. But we must return from our little historical digression.

Mr. Poe has two of the prime qualities of genius, a faculty of vigorous yet minute analysis, and a wonderful fecundity of imagination, The first of these faculties is as needful to the artist in words, as a knowledge of anatomy is to the artist in colors or in stone. This enables him to conceive truly, to maintain a proper relation of parts, and to draw a correct outline, [page 52:] while the second groups, fills up, and colors. Both of these Mr. Poe has displayed with singular distinctness in his prose works, the last predominating in his earlier tales, and the first in his later ones. In judging of the merit of an author and assigning him his niche among our household gods, we have a right to regard him from our own point of view, and to measure him by our own standard. But, in estimating his works, we must be governed by his own design, and, placing them by the side of his own ideal, find how much is wanting. We differ with Mr. Poe in his opinions of the objects of art. He esteems that object to be the creation of Beauty,* and perhaps it is only in the definition of that word that we disagree with him. But in what we shall say of his writings we shall take his own standard as our guide. The temple of the god of song is equally accessible from every side, and there is room enough in it for all who bring offerings, or seek an oracle.

In his tales, Mr. Poe has chosen to exhibit his power chiefly in that dim region which stretches from the very utmost limits of the probable into the weird confines of superstition and unreality. He combines in a very remarkable manner two faculties which are seldom found united; a power of influencing the mind of the reader by the impalpable shadows of mystery, and a minuteness of detail which does not leave a pin or a button unnoticed. Both are, in truth, the natural results of the predominating quality of his mind, to which we have before alluded, analysis. It is this which distinguishes the artist. His mind at once reaches forward to the effect to be produced. Having resolved to bring about certain emotions in the reader, he makes all subordinate parts tend strictly to the common centre. Even his mystery is mathemathical to his own mind. To him x is a known quantity all along. In any picture that he paints, he understands the chemical properties of all his colors. However vague some of his figures may seem, however formless the shadows, to him the outline is as clear and distinct as that of a geometrical diagram. For this reason Mr. Poe has no sympathy with Mysticism. The Mystic dwells in the mystery, is enveloped with it; it colors all his thoughts; it affects his optic nerve especially, and the commonest things get a rainbow edging from it. Mr. Poe, on the other hand, is a spectator ab extrà. He analyzes, he dissects, he watches

——— “with an eye serene,

The very pulse of the machine,”

for such it practically is to him, with wheels and cogs and piston-rods all working to produce a certain end. It is this that makes him so good a critic. Nothing baulks him, or throws him off the scent, except now and then a prejudice.

This analyzing tendency of his mind balances the poetical, and, by giving him the patience to be minute, enables him to throw a wonderful reality into his most unreal fancies. A monomania he paints with great power. He loves to dissect these cancers of the mind, and to trace all the subtle ramifications of its roots. [column 2:] In raising images of horror, also, he has a strange success; conveying to us sometimes by a dusky hint some terrible doubt which is the secret of all horror. He leaves to imagination the task of finishing the picture, a task to which only she is competent.

“For much imaginary work was there;

Conceit deceitful, so compact, so kind,

That for Achilles’ image stood his spear

Grasped in an armed hand; himself behind

Was left unseen, save to the eye of mind.”

We have hitherto spoken chiefly of Mr. Poe’s collected tales, as by them he is more widely known than by those published since in various magazines, and which we hope soon to see collected. In these he has more strikingly displayed his analytic propensity.*

Beside the merit of conception, Mr. Poe’s writings have also that of form. His style is highly finished, graceful and truly classical. It would be hard to find a living author who had displayed such varied powers. As an example of his style, we would refer to one of his tales, “The House of Usher,” in the first volume of his “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.” It has a singular charm for us, and we think that no one could read it without being strongly moved by its serene and sombre beauty. Had its author written nothing else, it would alone have been enough to stamp him as a man of genius, and the master of a classic style. In this tale occurs one of the most beautiful of his poems. It loses greatly by being taken out of its rich and appropriate setting, but we cannot deny ourselves the pleasure of copying it here. We know no modern poet who might not have been justly proud of it.


In the greenest of our valleys,

By good angels tenanted,

Once a fair and stately palace —

Radiant palace — rear’d its head.

In the monarch Thought’s dominion —

It stood there!

Never seraph spread a pinion

Over fabric half so fair!


Banners yellow, glorious, golden,

On its roof did float and flow,

(This — all this — was in the olden

Time, long ago,)

And every gentle air that dallied,

In that sweet day,

Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,

A winged odor went away.


Wanderers in that happy valley,

Through two luminous windows, saw

Spirits moving musically,

To a lute’s well-tuned law, [page 53:]

Round about a throne where, sitting


In state his glory well befitting,

The ruler of the realm was seen.


And all with pearl and ruby glowing

Was the fair palace door,

Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,

And sparkling evermore,

A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty

Was but to sing,

In voices of surpassing beauty,

The wit and wisdom of their king.


But evil things, in robes of sorrow,

Assail’d the monarch’s high estate.

(Ah, let us mourn! — for never morrow

Shall dawn upon him desolate!)

And round about his home the glory

That blush’d and bloom’d,

Is but a dim remember’d story

Of the old time entomb’d.


And travelers, now, within that wailey,

Through the red-litten windows see

Vast forms, that move fantastically

To a discordant melody,

While, like a ghastly rapid river,

Through the pale door,

A hideous throng rush out forever,

And laugh — but smile no more.

Was ever the wreck and desolation of a noble mind so musically sung?

A writer in the London Foreign Quarterly Review, who did some faint justice to Mr. Poe’s poetical abilities, speaks of his resemblance to Tennyson. The resemblance, if there be any, is only in so sensitive an ear to melody as leads him sometimes into quaintness, and the germ of which may be traced in his earliest poems, published several years before the first of Tennyson’s appeared.

We copy one more of Mr. Poe’s poems, whose effect cannot fail of being universally appreciated.


Ah, broken is the golden bowl! the spirit flown forever!

Let the bell toll! — a saintly soul floats on the Stygian river.

And, Guy De Vere, hast thou no tear? — weep now or never more!

See! on yon drear and rigid bier, low lies thy love, Lenore!

Come! let the burial rite be read — the funeral song be sung! —

An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young —

A dirge for her the doubly dead in that she died so young!


“Wretches! ye loved her for her wealth and hated her for her pride,

And when she fell in feeble health, ye blessed her — that she died!

How shall the ritual, then, be read? — the requiem how be sung

By you — by yours, the evil eye, — by yours, the slanderous tongue [column 2:]

That did to death the innocence that died, and died so youug [[young]] ?”


Peccavimus; but rave not thus! and let a Sabbath song

Go up to God so solemnly the dead may feel no wrong!

The sweet Lenore hath “gone before,” with Hope, that flew beside,

Leaving thee wild for the dear child that should have been thy bride —

For her, the fair and debonair, that now so lowly lies,

The life upon her yellow hair but not within her eyes —

The life still there, upon her hair — the death upon her eyes.


“Avaunt! to night [[to-night]] my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise,

But waft the angel on her flight with a pæan of old days!

Let no bell toll! — lest her sweet soul, amid its hallowed mirth,

Should catch the note, as it doth float — up from the damnéd earth.

To friends above, from fiends below, the indignant ghost is riven —

From Hell unto a high estate far up within the Heaven —

From moan and groan, to a golden throne, beside the King of Heaven.”

How exquisite, too, is the rhythm!

Beside his “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque,” and some works unacknowledged, Mr. Poe is the author of “Arthur Gordon Pym,” a romance, in two volumes, which has run through many editions in London; of a system of Conchology, of a digest and translation of Lemmonnier’s Natural History, and has contributed to several reviews in France in England, and in this country. He edited the Southern Literary Messenger during its novitiate, and by his own contributions gained it most of its success and reputation. He was also, for some time, the editor of this magazine, and our readers will bear testimony to his ability in that capacity.

Mr. Poe is still in the prime of life, being about thirty-two years of age, and has probably as yet given but an earnest of his powers. As a critic, he has shown so superior an ability that we cannot but hope that he will collect his essays of this kind and give them a more durable form. They would be a very valuable contribution to our literature, and would fully justify all we have said in his praise. We could refer to many others of his poems than those we have quoted, to prove that he is the possessor of a pure and original vein. His tales and essays have equally shown him a master in prose. It is not for us to assign him his definite rank among cotemporary authors, but we may be allowed to say that we know of none who has displayed more varied and striking abilities.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 50, column 1:]

*  We cannot but think that this was the case in his review of W. E. Charming’s poems, in which we are sure that there is much which must otherwise have challenged Mr. Poe’s hearty liking.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 52, column 1:]

*  Mr. P.’s proposition is here perhaps somewhat too generally stated. — Ed. Mag.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 52, column 2:]

*  Since the publication of the “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque,” Mr. P. has written, for this and other journals, the following tales, independently of essays, criticisms, &c.: The Mystery of Marie Roget, Never Bet Your Head, A Tale of the Ragged Mountains, The Masque of the Red Death, The Colloquy of Monos and Una, The Landscape Garden, The Pit and the Pendulum, the Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat, The Man of the Crowd, The System of Doctors Tarr and [[Professor]] Fether, The Spectacles, The Elk, The Business Man, The Premature Burial, The Oblong-Box, Thou Art the Man, Eleonora, Three Sundays in a Week, The Island of the Fay, Life in Death, The Angel of the Odd, The Literary Life of Thingum-Bob, The Descent into the Maelstrom, The 1002d Tale of Scherherazade, Mesmeric Revelation, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purolined Letter, and The Gold-Bug. He is also the author of the late Balloon-Hoax. The “Grotesque and Arabesque” included, 25 tales.




Note: The “poem named ‘Ligeia’ ” quoted above is actually an extract from “Al Aaraaf.” The tale referred to as “The System of Doctors Tarr and Fether” is more accurately “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”; and “House of Usher” is more properly “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was published in one, not two volumes. Lowell may have confused the fact that there were American and English editions, printed at the same time.


[S:0 - GM, 1845] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Edgar A. Poe (J. R. Lowell, 1842)