Text: Lewis Gaylord Clark, “[Review of The Raven and Other Poems],” Knickerbocker Magazine, vol. 27, no. 1, January 1846, pp. 69-72


[page 69:]


THE RAVEN, AND OTHER POEMS. By EDGAR A. POE. In one volume, pp. 91. Number Eight of WILEY AND PUTNAM'S ‘Library of American Books.’

THE author of this slender volume is of course one of the ‘sundry citizens of this good land, meaning well, and hoping well, who, prompted by a certain something in their nature, have trained themselves to do service in various essays, poems, histories, and books of art, fancy and truth;’ for we find this very remarkable passage as a motto on the cover of his poems. But the ‘certain something’ which has prompted him to publish, according to his preface, is not the ‘paltry compensations nor the more paltry commendations of mankind.’ These have been powerful ‘somethings’ with most poets, but we think that the author of ‘The Raven’ has wisely chosen to regard them as nothings; for the amount of either likely to be bestowed upon him as a poet by the ‘mankind’ he esteems so lightly we fear will be small. Mr. POE says in his preface: ‘Events not to be controlled have prevented me from making, at any time, any serious efforts in what, under happier circumstances, would have been the field of my choice. With me poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion.’ This is very pitiable, but entirely incomprehensible. According to the biographies of Mr. POE, he must be very near the age at which BYRON died, and beyond that at which all the great poets produced their greatest works; and according to his own story, he began writing poetry at an age much earlier than any poet of whom we know anything. His whole life has been spent in literary pursuits, and here we have the results of his poetical career. At what period he commenced writing verses we do not know; but he tells us in a note that it was in his ‘earliest boyhood’, which begins we believe with the jacket-and-trousers, generally at three or four years. If Mr. POE wrote the ‘Ode to Science’ at that early period, he was certainly a remarkable boy, but hardly a poet. We have heard that, in the paper of which he is the editor, he has stated that he wrote ‘Al Aaraaf’, the poem with which he professes to have humbugged the poor Bostonians, in his tenth year. The ‘Boston Post’ thought it must have been produced at a much earlier age. We have no opinion on the subject ourselves, not having read it, but are disposed to believe the author, and should believe him if he said the same of the poems which we have read. We see no reason why they might not have been written at the age of ten: children are more apt, in remembering words, than men; and as there have been infant violinists, pianists, mimics and dancers, we see no reason why there should not be an infant rhythmist. A talent for versification may exist without a genius for poetry; and according to our own estimate of Mr. POE's abilities, his poetical constitution is nothing more than an aptitude [page 70:] for rhythm. We should judge as much, from reading his criticisms of poetry, which seem to have been written after a very thorough cramming of BLAIR's lectures and the essays of Lord KAIMES. In several instances he has asserted that there cannot be such a thing as a didactic poem. This demolishes at one swoop about nine-tenths of what the world has heretofore considered the highest poetry. If we can glean any distinct meaning from Mr. POE's criticisms and verses, respecting his ideas of what constitutes a poem, it is this: a poem is a metrical composition without ideas. ‘The Haunted Palace’ and other of his best performances were certainly composed upon such a principle; and the same might be said of many of his prose essays, words being the sole substance in them. One of the reasons which he gives for publishing the ‘poems written in youth’ is a ‘reference to the date of TENNYSON's first poems’. Whether he means by this to clear his own or TENNYSON's skirts from the taint of plagiarism, we do not understand. But we do not believe that anybody has ever dreamed of charging Mr. POE with imitating TENNYSON in any of these ‘poems written in youth’. It will not be a very easy matter, however, for him to convince the readers of TENNYSON that he did not draw largely upon that poet when he wrote ‘Lenore.’ It is a much more palpable imitation than LONGFELLOW's in his ‘Midnight Mass for the Dying Year,’ which Mr. POE has made so much noise about. Mr. POE's tendency to extreme vagueness, which is the antipodes of poetical expression, shows itself plainly in the titles of his poems: one is addressed ‘To the River,’ as though there were something mighty private or naughty in his address to a running stream, which might compromise its character, if known. There are poems addressed ‘To ——’, which, according to our author's theory, is a highly poetical designation, ‘——’ being hazy to the last extreme: there is a poem addressed ‘To F—————’ and another ‘To F——S S. O——D’. This last is suggestive of a lady's name, FRANCES S. OSGOOD, and being a poetess herself, we extract the poem, both as a specimen of Mr. POE's matured powers, and of the kind of epistle which a poet sends to a poetess:

‘THOU wouldst be loved? — then let thy heart

From its present pathway part not!

Being every thing which now thou art,

Be nothing which thou art not.

So with the world thy gentle ways,

Thy grace, thy more than beauty,

Shall be an endless theme of praise,

And love — a simple duty.’

This is not one of the poems ‘written in youth’, but this which follows is:

‘TO ——’

‘THE bowers whereat, in dreams, I see

The wantonest singing birds,

Are lips, and all thy melody

Of lip-begotten words:

Thine eyes, in Heaven of heart enshrined,

Then desolately fall,

O GOD! on my funereal mind

Like starlight on a pall.

Thy heart! thy heart! I wake and sigh

And sleep to dream till day,

Of the truth that gold can never buy,

Of the baubles that it may.

‘The child is father of the man’, but the father in this case is superior to the offspring. There are probably very few boys who have enjoyed the privilege of a common-school education who have not written scores of verses like these; but it is a [page 71:] very rare occurrence for verses ‘To —— ‘ to be published by their authors when they become men. This, however, is a mere matter of taste.

We have no disposition to criticise Mr. POE's poems: such as they are, we give them welcome. His reputation as a poet rests mainly upon ‘The Raven,’ which, as we have already said, we consider an unique and musical piece of versification, but as a poem it will not bear scrutiny. If we were disposed to retort upon Mr. POE for the exceedingly gross and false statements which, upon an imaginary slight, he made in his paper respecting this Magazine, we could ask for no greater favour than to be allowed to criticise his volume of poems. Surely no author is so much indebted to the forbearance of critics as Mr. POE, and no person connected with the press in this country is entitled to less mercy or consideration. His criticisms, so called, are generally a tissue of coarse personal abuse or personal adulation. He has praised to the highest degree some of the paltriest writers in the country, and abused in the grossest terms many of the best. But criticism is his weakness: ‘to that music he rises and flutters.’ In ladies’ magazines he is an ARISTARCHUS, but among men of letters his sword is a broken lath.

We are not much disappointed in the quality of Mr. POE's poems, but the meagreness of his volume as to quantity is really surprising. He is one of the few authors by profession known to American readers; and considering that poetry is ‘a passion’ with him, and ‘not a purpose,’ the little of any kind that he has produced is a thing to be wondered at. We do not know what the unhappy circumstances may be which have prevented him from making any ‘serious effort’ in his favorite pursuit; but his hinderances can hardly be greater than those under which the greater part of that which the world calls poetry has been produced. Has he been blind, like MILTON; has he been mad, like TASSO; been starved, like CHATTERTON; persecuted, like DANTE; exposed, like BYRON; harassed, like BURNS; depressed, like COWPER? Has he labored like ELLIOT; fought, like KÖRNER; been neglected, like BUTLER; bent, like DRYDEN, or tempted, as many noble poets have been, by luxury and sloth? A real poet will never tell of the hinderances to effort. It is overcoming hinderances which gives the surest testimony of ability. Nothing will excuse a poet for non-production but non-ability. Let the author produce his talent and say, ‘'Tis the best I could do;’ excuses for not doing better will avail him nothing. Indeed, we are believers in CARLETON's Irish paradox, and think it as applicable to poets, ‘who dare have it in them,’ as to any body else; namely, that ‘more men have risen in the world from the enmity of their enemies than from the kindness of their friends.’ Poets, like other men, may become ‘blue-moulded for want of a batin’.’ Whatever circumstances the true poet may be placed in, whether worried by affluence or depressed by misery, he will be a poet in spite of them; and his overcoming difficulties will be the best evidence of his ‘passions’. Mr. POE's passion for poetry must be a very tender one, or he would not come before the world at his age with such a volume, and with such an excuse for its meagreness. The history of genius hardly affords an instance of one born upon ‘the field of his choice.’ Shepherds have become astronomers, shoemakers mathematicians, barbers commanders, physicians architects, ploughmen poets, tailors statesmen, weavers artists. Judging from Mr. POE's memoirs, which must be correct, since he circulates them himself, his opportunities for cultivating his passion have been superior to those enjoyed by any writer of reputation among us. But ‘every heart knoweth its own bitterness,’ and we doubt not that Mr. POE's complaint is well founded. It is a painful reflection, however, that we have a great poet [page 72:] among us in such unhappy circumstances that he cannot develop his genius, nor make a serious effort in that kind of composition for which he has a consciousness of being qualified by nature. The circumstances must indeed be exceedingly unhappy and distressing, which would cause a poet to accept an invitation from a learned society to deliver an original poem at its annual meeting, and after receiving pay therefore, to read a rhapsody composed and published in his tenth year, and afterward bring forward, as proof of the stupidity of his audience, that they listened to him with civil attention. ‘But something too much of this.’





[S:0 - KM, 1846] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Review of The Raven and Other Poems (Lewis Gaylord Clark, 1846)