Text: Nathaniel P. Willis and John R. Thompson, “Estimates of Edgar A. Poe,” Home Journal (New York, NY), 30 March 1850, p. 2, cols. 6-7


[page 2, column 6, continued:]


[THE certainty with which you hear from a mustard plaster, is nothing to the certainty with which rejected articles drew out a purulent discharged on the rejecting Editor; and we silently throw aside the abusive articles which come to us from various parts of the country, and which indicate the residences of contributors, we have declined — submitting thus to one of the penalties necessarily incurred in throwing off rubbish that would also overwhelm us. On the last page of a late number of the Southern Literary Messenger, edited by our friend, John R. Thompson, we find a regret expressed that an article printed in the first sheets of that number should have been found irrevocable, inserted, as it was, accidentally, during his absence in New-York. The abuse of one of the Editors of the Home Journal, however, (whom the writer elegantly calls one of the “dirty little fleas and flies embalmed in the Memoir of Edgar A. Poe”) is unimportant in comparison with the misrepresentation inflicted on the character of the dead poet; and to this a Southern gentleman has replied in the following well-written communication. — EDS.]


GENTLEMEN, — In the absence of the Editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, there appeared in the number for March 1850, an article upon the late edition of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, which I am sure would never have found admission into its pages with his knowledge and consent. He speaks of the author as a contributor: but he must certainly have recommended himself by offerings of a very different kind. Of the present one it is difficult to say, whether it is most deficient in [column 7:] judgment, modesty, taste, or feeling. I knew something of the individual to whom it relates, both in his boyhood and towards the close of his life. I know something of the opinion generally entertained of him, by those who were best qualified to judge; and I think I may safely say that few will recognize the fidelity of this portraiture. The whole tone of it is exaggerated. The picture is a frightful caricature.

In the first place, his idea of Poe's intellectual character is mistaken. There was nothing of the philosopher about him. To compare him with Copernicus and Kepler, is simply absurd. To talk of the “Eureka” as a stupendous discovery, outstripping by three centuries the progress of human science — to laud it in such phrases as “demonstrating the law by which the universe was formed, and is to be again reduced into chaos,” or “the logical concatenation of self-evident ideas” — is an abuse of words. There is nothing really original in the book, save the ingenuity with which vague hypotheses, set afloat by other dreamers, have been combined into shape.

“If shape that may be called, which shape had none.”

It certainly does exhibit that extraordinary command of language which the critic justly attributes to the author, and which often in the music and force of its cadences, seems to be fraught with a meaning, that melts away as it is repeated to the ear. Poe himself called it a poem: and it is not clear to my mind that he meant it for anything else: or that the lofty tone in which he commits it to posterity is more than one of the artifices which he sometimes employed (as in his mesmeric story) to heighten the effect of an elaborate and mystical hoax. Be that as it may, it is plain to any sober vision, that it is full of Poe's leading characteristic imagination: imaginations wild, reckless, metaphysical, delighting in paradox, reveling in the marvellous, but preserving in its most erratic flights, a singular aspect of earnestness that gave “a method to his madness,” unlike that of other men. This is the peculiar feature of his mind. In his prose works it is united with an extraordinary power of analysis and re-combination of minute circumstances. In his poems the images, sometimes gorgeous, oftener gloomy, are invested with a mysterious sadness, and a pathos that sinks into the very heart. But I do not mean to attempt a regular criticism. Let us proceed.

We are told by the reviewer that about one person in two hundred is competent to form an opinion of these productions: and in relation to the Eureka, he goes on to say — ”The plan of the work is one which, in him who would thread its labyrinth, requires an extensive knowledge of the entire cycle of material and metaphysical knowledge, etc.” Now, inasmuch as the critic is evidently the one man of the two hundred, and as he has threaded the labyrinth, it must follow, “by a logical concatenation of self-evident ideas,” that he is possessed of that extensive knowledge of the entire cycle of knowledge, vouchsafed only to men who are three centuries ahead of their contemporaries! A modest claim, truly, and one less likely to be admitted by the blind multitude than the supposed merits of “Eureka” itself.

The taste of the article is manifested in the profuse abundance of certain flowers of rhetoric, which seem transplanted from Billingsgate, and which, I trust, will never become acclimated in the Messenger. It is impossible to see, without disgust, such epithets as “dirty little fleas and flies,” — ”the newest, the boldest, the most offensive, and the most impudent humbug,” — “swindle on the purchases,” — ”counterfeit shinplaster, ragged, dirty, ancient, and worn” — ”honey-eyed dunces,” and other like expressions, which join the coarseness of Peter Porcupine to the spurious sign of Grub-street. But this is an unpleasant theme. May such a style not be mistaken for a sample of the sense and courtesy of Southern literature.

I come now to the feeling of this performance. In proportion as the ire of the critic was provoked by the supposed wrongs of the author, and misdeeds of his editors, I had looked for some touches of sympathy and tenderness for his reputation. But, excepting the ill-judged attempt to class him with the great astronomers, and a panegyric on his conversational talent, all that is said is calculated to sink him to a very low place in the public esteem. His intellectual excellence is the only thing praised. His moral character is absolutely blackened. His infirmities and vices are thrust upon our notice over and over, and in the grossest terms of description. We are told that he had “no conception or perception of the claims of civilized society,” — that he cared not what company he kept — that he believed in nobody, and cared for nobody — and that nothing prevented him from being a mocker and sneerer at religion, but an incapacity to perceive reverential things, so as to give them sufficient importance to be mocked. And this delineation, which could only be true of an outcast from society, an enemy to his kind, is prefaced by a declaration that his blemishes were the result of character, rather than of circumstance! Verily, the defence of the dead poet hath fallen into unfortunate hands. I venture little in saying, that this barbarous desecration of his remains will shock the least friendly of those who have survived him. I am sure that, among those who suffered most from his critical severity, not one could be found who would have lent his hand to such work as this. The indictment (for it deserves no other name) is not true. It is full of cruel misrepresentations. It deepens the shallows into unnatural darkness, and shuts out the rays of sunshine that ought to relieve them. I do not deny that there were shadows. The wayward disposition and the checkered life, which are too often the heritage of genius, did indeed fall to the lot of this gifted man. But it is not true that he lived and died the wretch that he is painted; nor is it true that the unhappy results were those of character alone. Those who remember the admiration and flattery which sounded in his boyish ears — the mistaken fondness which indulged him in every caprice and nourished his pride and willfulness into a pernicious growth — cannot but know that education and circumstance had much to do with his career. And with the evidence before us of the devotion to him displayed by his wife's mother, and the fact that even to the last, the hearts of his nearest kindred and friends still beat warmly for him, it is impossible to believe him so bad as he is here represented.

But, whatever he was, why this wanton exposure of the darker traits of his character? It is unnecessary, and it is unfeeling: — it seems as though the writer were reckless of the memory of the dead, or the sufferings of the living. One might imagine that he had dipped his pen in gall, and could not divest it of the bitter venom. It seems to overflow with angry and malignant feeling, with an Ishmaelitish spite such as is imputed to Poe himself, raising the hand against every man, without distinction of friend or foe. Has the critic unconsciously caught the spirit of that which he was describing? Or has he transferred to the subject of his sketch the feelings that corrode his own bosom? At all events, may he not find imitators anywhere in respectable journals, North or South: and may he himself, when he resumes his pen, do so in better temper, and with better manners.





The article for which Thompson is apologizing was written by John Moncure Daniel and appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger for March 1850.



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