Text: George Ripley, “Review of The Works of the late Edgar Allan Poe,” New-York Daily Tribune, vol. IX, no. 243 (whole no. 2734), January 19, 1850, p. 4, cols. 2-3


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If we were disposed to point a moral with the exhibition of the errors of wasted genius, we could not be furnished with more fruitful materials than are presented in these volumes. Judging from their contents, which is the only means we possess of forming an estimate of Mr. Poe, he was a man of extraordinary boldness and originality of intellect, with a power of sharp and subtle analysis that has seldom been surpassed, and an imagination singularly prolific both in creations of beauty and of terror. The ingenuity, with which he combines the delicate filaments of thought into what seems a compact and substantial texture, is a perpetual surprise. His ability in the sphere of artistic invention was sufficient to have insured him a permanent fame as a writer of romance or dramatic poetry, had the truthfulness of his intellect been in proportion to its energy. The skill with which he throws an air of probability over the most absurd, and often the most horrible and revolting situations — the apparent good faith with which he weaves up a tissue of complicated details into a plot which beguiles the reader, until he arrives at the audacious denouement, is equaled only by the exquisite propriety and force of the language, which he always selects with the unerring instinct of genius. With these rare gifts of invention and expression, Mr. Poe might have attained an eminent rank in literature, and even have been classed among the intellectual benefactors of society.

Unhappily he had no earnestness of character, no sincerity of conviction, no faith in human excellence, no devotion to a high purpose, — not even the desire to produce a consummate work of art, — and hence, his writings fail of appealing to universal principles of taste, and are destitute of the truth and naturalness, which are the only passports to an enduring reputation in literature. He regarded the world as an enormous humbug, and, in revenge, would repay it in kind. His mind was haunted with terrific conceptions, which he delighted to embellish and work up, by the aid of his preternatural analysis, into the strangely plausible fictions, which at length disgust the reader with their horrible monstrosities. — The effect of his writings is like breathing the air of a charnel-house. The walls seem to sweat with blood, we stumble on skulls and dead men’s bones, and grinning spectres mock us in the dim, sepulchral light. There is no smell of the fresh earth, we see no Spring blossoms or Autumn fruits, we hear no cattle lowing on the hills, the song of forest birds is hushed, all the blessed sights and sounds of Nature are no more, and some foul, accursed demon is throttling us with his infernal grasp. Even the title of many of Mr. Poe’s tales is a nightmare.

If these grim, ghastly creations contributed to any true æsthetic effect — if they were redeemed by any touches of humanity — if their lurid blackness were intended to heighten the splendor of any celestial dawn, one might forgive such a horrible play of the imagination to the purposes of the artist. But there is no such apology. Mr. Poe luxuriates in the wantonness of his ingenuity, and evokes the most terrific spectres merely for terror’s sake. This would be fatal in any kindred spheres of Art. Conceive of one of those demoniacal scenes being embodied in painting or sculpture! It is equally fatal in literature. And hence these writings (we refer particularly to the prose articles) bear the seal of early death upon their face.

Many of the poetical pieces contained in these volumes are of a different character. Some of them are remarkable for their limpid smoothness and sweetness. But they are destitute of the freedom, the gushing spontaneity, the inspired, ecstatic burst of soul, which are essential to an immortal song. They show a profound study of the theory and resources of versification, but seem to be composed as an intellectual experiment, not the expression of the rapt spirit, to which poetry is as natural as the “wood notes wild” to the bird. Their prevailing characteristic is an extreme artificiality, a certain cunning skill in construction, and displays of artistic force which have no merit but their ingenuity, like the singular conceit of enveloping the name of a favorite in the mazes of a sonnet. No one can find it till he knows the trick, and when known, it loses its interest.

Mr. Poe’s own account of the composition of his most popular piece, “The Raven,” lets us into the secret of his methods, unless, indeed, this very confession is a quiz, which, with his monomaniacal love of mystification, is very likely to bo the case. At all events, however, it is too curious a specimen of analysis, too characteristic of Poe’s refining, hair-splitting intellect, not to reward a moment’s attention.

“No one point in the composition of that poem is referable either to accident or intuition; the work proceeded step by step to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.” The first point to be settled was the length of the intended poem. This should not be much over one hundred lines, in order that it might be read at a single sitting. A break in the reading would destroy the continuity of the impression. — The province of the poem was to be the expression of beauty, not of truth, the satisfaction of the intellect, not of passion, the excitement of the heart. Beauty demands the tone of sadness for its highest manifestation. Thus far the artist has the length, the province, and the tone of the poem. Next he wishes for some artistic piquancy to serve as a key-note in its construction — a pivot on which the whole structure may turn. The use of the refrain was at once suggested. But this was susceptible of improvement. As commonly employed, it depends for its impression on the force of monotone, both in sound and thought. He resolved to diversify and heighten the effect by adhering to the monotone of sound, while he continually varied that of thought; that is, he determined to produce continually novel effects, by varying the application of the refrain, while the refrain itself, for the most part, remained unchanged. He was then to decide on the nature of his refrain. It must be brief, for the sake of facility of variation. It must form the close of each stanza, and in order to have force must be sonorous and capable of protracted emphasis. This led to the selection of the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant. Now to select a word embodying this sound, and in keeping with the predetermined melancholy tone of the poem. The word “Nevermore” could not be overlooked, and in fact was the first to present itself. He was now to find a pretext for its continuous repetition. The difficulty in this arose solely from the supposition that it was to be spoken by a human being, since such a monotony of utterance would argue the absence of reason. — Hence he must pitch upon a non-reasoning creature capable of speech. The Parrot was first suggested. Then the Raven. The last was adopted as equally capable of speech, and far more in harmony with the intended tone.

The poet has now the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the word “Nevermore” at the close of each stanza, in a piece of one hundred lines, with a tone of sadness. The next question is, What is the most melancholy topic? Of course, the reply is Death. Closely allied with beauty, as in the death of a beautiful woman it is also the most poetical.

He has, then, the two ideas, of a Lover lamenting his deceased mistress and of a Raven repeating the word “Nevermore!” Now to determine the application. Here day-light begins to shine on the obscure problem. The Raven is to be imagined employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. But the effect would depend on the variation of application. There must be a gradation in the queries and replies, from obvious common-place to superstition and frenzied self-torture. Thus the climax was decided, or the last query, in reply to which the word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair. Here the poem had its beginning. The last stanza was the first written. Now the lover and the Raven were to be brought together. The locale being fixed on, as the chamber sacred to the lover by the memories [column 3:] of her who had frequented it, the bird was to be introduced. This being accomplished, everything hastens to the denouement. The successive steps, as they were suggested to his mind, are described by Mr. Poe with the minute circumstantiality of detail, with which he gains possession of the reader in the narrative of the most fantastic and monstrous horrors.

Whether this psychological revelation is to be taken in jest or earnest — historically or as a shrewd after-thought, — it is singularly illustrative of the tendency of mind to which we have before alluded, and which formed such a disproportionate element in Mr. Poe’a intellectual composition.

The announcement on the title page of these volumes that they are to contain notices of the life and genius of their author by J. R. Lowell, N. P. Willis, and R. W. Griswold is not fulfilled in a manner to satisfy the reasonable expectations of the reader. Mr. Lowell contributes only a short essay written for one of the magazines a few years since at the request of Mr. Poe. It abounds in admirable criticisms, and fully meets the object for which it was originally designed. But it is not the tribute of one poet to another which we had a right to look for from the announcement. Mr. Willis gives nothing but an article published in the Home Journal soon after Mr. Poe’s death, into which are interwoven some paragraphs of Mr. Griswold’s notice of that event in The Tribune. We wonder that these gentlemen should have allowed the use of their names to authorise a promise of which there is such a meager fulfilment.

In spite of the criticisms, which we could not avoid making, if we noticed the subject at all, we need not say that these volumes will be found rich in intellectual excitements, and abounding in remarkable specimens of vigorous, beautiful, and highly suggestive composition. They are all that remains to us of a man, whose uncommon genius it would be folly to deny, and which alone justifies our protracted consideration of his brilliant errors as a literary artist. We cannot doubt that the edition will command a rapid and extensive sale, no less by reason of the undeniable interest of the work than of the beneficent object to which its avails are consecrated.




This review was reprinted in the New-York Weekly Tribune for January 26, 1850, and in Littell’s Living Age, vol. 25, no. 2 (whole number 308), April 13, 1850, p. 77-78.

Although the review is unsigned, the author is presumed to have been George Ripley (1802-1880), who was the editor for literary criticisms in the Tribune beginning in 1849 (following the sudden death of Margaret Fuller). Ripley was a Unitarian minister and a Transcendentalist, with a strong tendency to encouraging high morals in literary works.



[S:1 - NYDT, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (G. Ripley, 1850)