Text: William Henry Smith, [Review of Poe's Tales],” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (Edinburgh), vol. LXII, no. 5, November 1847, pp. 574-587


[page 574:]


WE are not — as the title placed at the head of this paper, till further explained, might seem to imply — we are not about to pass in review the whole literature of America. Scanty as that youthful literature is, and may well confess itself to be, it would afford subject for a long series of papers. Besides, the more distinguished of its authors are generally known, and fairly appreciated, and we should have no object nor interest just at present in determining, with perhaps some nearer approach to accuracy than has hitherto been done, the merits of such well-known writers as Irving, Cooper, Prescott, Emerson, Channing, and others. But the series now in course of publication by Messrs Wiley and Putnam, under the title of “Library of American Books,” has naturally attracted our attention, bringing as it were some works before us for the first time, and presenting what — after a few distinguished names are bracketed off — may be supposed to be a fair specimen of the popular literature of that country.

It will be seen that we have taken up a pretty large handful for present examination. Our collection will be acknowledged, we think, to be no bad sample of the whole. At all events we have shaken from our sheaf two or three unprofitable cars, and one in particular so empty, and so rotten withal, that to hang over it for close examination was impossible. How it happens that the publishers of the series have admitted to the “Library of American Books” as if it were a book — a thing called “Big Abel and The Little Manhattan,” is to us, at this distance from the scene of operations, utterly inexplicable. It is just possible that the author may have earned a reputable name in some other department of letters; pity, then, he should forfeit both it, and [column 2:] his character for sanity, by this outrageous attempt at humour. Perhaps he is the potent editor of some American broad-sheet, of which publishers stand in awe. We know not; of this only we are sure, that more heinous trash was never before exposed to public view. We read two chapters of it — more we are persuaded than any other person in England has accomplished — and then threw it aside with a sort of charitable contempt. For the sake of all parties, readers, critics, publishers and the author himself, it should be buried, at once, out of sight, with other things noisome and corruptible.

On the other hand, we shall be able to introduce to our readers (should it be hitherto unknown to them) one volume, at least, which they will be willing to transfer from the American to the English library. The “Mosses from an old Manse,” is occasionally written with an elegance of style which may almost bear comparison with that of Washington Irving; and though certainly it is inferior to the works of that author in taste and judgment, and whatever may be described as artistic talent, it exhibits deeper traces of thought and reflection. What can our own circulating libraries be about? At all our places of summer resort they drug us with the veriest trash, without a spark of vitality in it, and here are tales and sketches like these of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which it would have done one's heart good to have read under shady coverts, or sitting — no unpleasant lounge — by the sea-side on the rolling shingles of the beach. They give us the sweepings of Mr Colburn's counter, and then boastfully proclaim the zeal with which they serve the public. So certain other servants of the public feed the eye with gaudy advertisements of every [page 575:] generous liquor under heaven, and retail nothing but the sour ale of some crafty brewer who has contrived to bind them to his vats and his mash-tub.

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[page 582, column 2, continued:]

Tales, by Edgar A. Poe,” is the next book upon our list. No one can read these tales, then close the volume, as he may with a thousand other tales, and straightway forget what manner of book he has been reading. Commonplace is the last epithet that can be applied to them. They are strange — powerful — more strange than pleasing, and powerful productions without rising to the rank of genius. The author is a strong-headed man, which epithet by no means excludes the possibility of being, at times, wrong-headed also. With little taste, and much analytic power, one would rather employ such an artist on the anatomical model of the Moorish Venus, than intrust to his hands any other sort of Venus. In fine, one is not sorry to have read these tales; one has no desire to read them twice.

They are not framed according to the usual manner of stories. On each occasion, it is something quite other [page 583:] than the mere story that the author has in view, and which has impelled him to write. In one, he is desirous of illustrating La Place's doctrine of probabilities as applied to human events. In another, he displays his acumen in unravelling or in constructing a tangled chain of circumstantial evidence. In a third, (“The Black Cat”) he appears at first to aim at rivalling the fantastic horrors of Hoffman, but you soon observe that the wild and horrible invention in which he deals, is strictly in the service of an abstract idea which it is there to illustrate. His analytic observation has led him, he thinks, to detect in men's minds an absolute spirit of “perversity,” prompting them to do the very opposite of what reason and mankind pronounce to be right, simply because they do pronounce it to be right. The punishment of this sort of diabolic spirit of perversity, he brings about by a train of circumstances as hideous, incongruous, and absurd, as the sentiment itself.

There is, in the usual sense of the word, no passion in these tales, neither is there any attempt made at dramatic dialogue. The bent of Mr Poe's mind seems rather to have been towards reasoning than sentiment. The style, too, has nothing peculiarly commendable; and when the embellishments of metaphor and illustration are attempted, they are awkward, strained, infelicitous. But the tales rivet the attention. There is a marvellous skill in putting together the close array of facts and of details which make up the narrative, or the picture, for the effect of his description, as of his story, depends never upon any bold display of the imagination, but on the agglomeration of incidents, enumerated in the most veracious manner. In one of his papers he describes the Mahlstrom or what he chooses to imagine the Mahlstrom may be, and by dint of this careful and De Foe-like painting, the horrid whirlpool is so placed before the mind, that we feel as if we had seen, and been down into it.

The “Gold Bug” is the first and the most striking of the series, owing to the extreme and startling ingenuity with which the narrative is constructed. It would be impossible, however, to [column 2:] convey an idea of this species of merit, without telling the whole story; nor would it be possible to tell the story in shorter compass, with any effect, than it occupies here. The “Murders of the Rue Morgue,” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” both turn on the interest excited by the investigation of circumstantial evidence. But, unlike most stories of this description, our sympathies are not called upon, either in the fate of the person assassinated, or in behalf of some individual falsely accused of the crime; the interest is sustained solely by the nature of the evidence, and the inferences to be adduced from it. The latter of these stories is, in fact, a transfer to the city of Paris of a tragedy which had been really enacted in New York. The incidents have been carefully preserved, the scene alone changed, and the object of the author in thus re-narrating the facts seems to have been to investigate the evidence again, and state his own conclusions as to the probable culprit. From these, also, it would be quite as impossible to make an extract as it would be to quote a passage from an interesting case as reported in one of our law-books. The last story in the volume has, however, the advantage of being brief, and an outline of it may convey some idea of the peculiar manner of Mr Poe. It is entitled “The Man of the Crowd.”

The author describes himself as sitting on an autumnal evening at the bow-window of the D —— coffee-house in London. He has just recovered from an illness, and feels in that happy frame of mind, the precise converse of ennui, where merely to breathe is enjoyment, and we feel a fresh and inquisitive interest in all things around us.

The passing crowd entertains him with its motley variety of costume and character. He has watched till the sun has gone down, and the streets have become indebted for their illumination solely to the gas lamps. As the night deepened, the interest of the scene deepened also, for the character of the crowd had insensibly but materially changed, and strange features and aspects of ill omen begin to make their appearance.

With his brow to the glass of the [page 584:] window, our author was thus occupied in scrutinising the passengers, when suddenly there came within his field of vision a countenance, (it was that of a decrepid old man of some sixty-five or seventy years of age) which at once arrested and absorbed all his attention. It bore an expression which might truly be called fiendish, for it gave the idea of mental power, of cruelty, of malice, of intense — of supreme despair. It passed on. There came a craving desire to see the face of that man again — to keep him in view — to know more of him. Snatching up his hat, and hastily putting on an over-coat, our excited observer ran into the street, pursued the direction the stranger had taken, and soon overtook him.

He noticed that the clothes of this man were filthy and ragged, but that his linen, however neglected, was of finest texture. The strong light of a gas lamp also revealed to him a diamond and a dagger. These observations it was easy for him to make, for the stranger never looked behind, but with chin dropped upon his breast, his glaring eyes rolling a little to the right and left in their sunken sockets, continued to urge his way along the populous thoroughfare.

By and by he passed into a cross street, where there were fewer persons. Here a change in his demeanour became apparent. He walked more slowly, and with less object than before — more hesitatingly. He crossed and re-crossed the way repeatedly without apparent aim. A second turn brought him to a square, brilliantly lighted and overflowing with life. The previous manner of the stranger now re-appeared. With knit brows, and chin dropped upon his breast, he took his way steadily through the throng. But his pursuer was surprised to find that having made the circuit of this crowded promenade, he turned, retraced his steps, and repeated the same walk several times.

It was now growing late, and it began to rain. The crowd within the square dispersed. With a gesture of impatience, the stranger passed into a bye-street almost deserted. Along this he rushed with a fearful rapidity which could never have been expected from so old a man. It brought him [column 2:] to a large bazaar, with the localities of which he appeared perfectly acquainted, and where his original demeanour again returned, as he forced his way to and fro, without aim, amongst the host of buyers and sellers, looking at all objects with a wild and vacant stare.

All this excited still more the curiosity of his indefatigable observer, who became more and more amazed at his behaviour, and felt an increased desire to solve the enigma. The bazaar was now about to close; lamps were here and there extinguished, every body was preparing to depart. Returning into the street, the old man looked anxiously around him for an instant, and then with incredible swiftness, threaded a number of narrow and intricate lanes which led him out in front of one of the principal theatres. The amusements were just concluded, and the audience was streaming from the doors. The old man was seen to gasp as he threw himself into the crowd, and then the intense agony of his countenance seemed in some measure to abate. He took the course which was pursued by the greater number of the company. But these, as he proceeded, branched of right and left to their several homes, and as the street became vacant, his restlessness and vacillation re-appeared. Seized at length as with panic, he hurried on with every mark of agitation, until he had plunged into one of the most noisome and pestilential quarters, or rather suburbs of the town. Here a number of the most abandoned of the populace were reeling to and fro.

“The spirits of the old man,” the author shall conclude the story in his own words, “again flickered up, as a lamp which is near its death hour. Once more, he strode onward with elastic tread. Suddenly a corner was turned, a blaze of light burst upon our sight, and we stood before one of the huge, suburban temples of intemperance — one of the palaces of the fiend, Gin.

“It was near day-break; but a number of wretched inebriates still pressed in and out of the flaunting entrance. With a half shriek of joy, the old man forced a passage within, resumed at once his original bearing, [page 585:] and stalked backward and forward, without apparent object among the throng. He had not been thus long occupied, however, before a rush to the doors gave token that the host was closing them for the night. It was something even more intense than despair that I then observed upon the countenance of the singular being I had watched so pertinaciously. Yet he did not hesitate in his career, but, with a mad energy, retraced his steps at once to the heart of the mighty London. Long and swiftly he fled, while I followed him in the wildest amazement, resolute not to abandon a scrutiny in which I now felt an interest all-absorbing. The sun arose while we proceeded, and when we had once again reached that most thronged mart of the populous town, the street of the D —— Hotel, it presented an appearance of human bustle and activity scarcely inferior to what I had seen on the evening before. And here, long, amid the momently increasing confusion, did I persist in the pursuit of the stranger. But, as usual, he walked to and fro, and during the day did not pass out of the turmoil of that street. And, as the shades of the second evening came on, I grew wearied unto death, and stopping fully in front of the wanderer, gazed at him steadfastly in the face. He noticed me not, but resumed his solemn walk, while I, ceasing to follow, remained absorbed in contemplation. ‘This old man,’ I said at length, ‘is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow, for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.’”

In this description it would be difficult to recognise the topography of London, or the manners of its inhabitants. That Square brilliantly illuminated and thronged with promenaders, the oldest inhabitant would scarcely find. He closes his gin-palace at the hour when, we believe, it would be about to re-open; and ejects his multitude from the bazaar and the theatre about the same time. When he lays his scene at Paris there is the same disregard to accuracy. There is no want of names of streets and passages, but no Parisian would find them, or find them in the juxtaposition he has [column 2:] placed them. This is a matter hardly worth remarking; to his American readers an ideal topography is as good as any other; we ourselves should be very little disturbed by a novel which, laying its scene in New York, should misname half the streets of that city. We are led to notice it chiefly from a feeling of surprise, that one so partial to detail should not have more frequently profited by the help which a common guide-book, with its map, might have given him.

Still less should we raise an objection on the manifest improbability of this vigilant observer, a convalescent too, being able to keep upon his legs, running or walking, the whole of the night and of the next day, (to say nothing of the pedestrian powers of the old man.) In a picture of this kind, a moral idea is sought to be portrayed by imaginary incidents purposely exaggerated. The mind passing immediately from these incidents to the idea they convey, regards them as little more than a mode of expression of the moral truth. He who should insist, in a case of this kind, on the improbability of the facts, would find himself in the same position as that hapless critic who, standing before the bronze statue of Canning, then lately erected at Westminster, remarked, that “Mr Canning was surely not so tall as he is there represented;” the proportions, in fact, approaching to the colossal. “No, nor so green,” said the wit to whom the observation had been unhappily confided. When the artist made a bronze statue, eight feet high, of Mr Canning, it was evidently not his stature nor his complexion that he had designed to represent.

Amongst the tales of Mr Poe are several papers which, we suppose, in the exigency of language, we must denominate philosophical. They have at least the merit of boldness, whether in the substratum of thought they contain, or the machinery employed for its exposition. We shall not be expected to encounter Mr Poe's metaphysics; our notice must be here confined solely to the narrative or inventive portion of these papers. In one of these, entitled “Mesmeric Revelations,” the reader may be a little startled to hear that he has [page 586:] adopted the mesmerised patient as a vehicle of his ideas on the nature of the soul and of its immortal life; the entranced subject having, in this case, an introspective power still more remarkable than that which has hitherto revealed itself only in a profound knowledge of his anatomical structure. As we are not yet convinced that a human being becomes supernaturally enlightened — in mesmerism more than in fanaticism — by simply losing his senses; or that a man in a trance, however he got there, is necessarily omniscient; we do not find that Mr Poe's conjectures on these mysterious topics gather any weight whatever from the authority of the spokesman to whom he has intrusted them. We are not quite persuaded that a cataleptic patient sees very clearly what is going on at the other side of our own world; when this has been made evident to us, we shall be prepared to give him credit for penetrating into the secrets of the next.

In another of these nondescript papers, “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” Mr Poe has very boldly undertaken to figure forth the destruction of the world, and explain how that great and final catastrophe will be accomplished. It is a remarkable instance of that species of imaginary matter of fact description, to which we have ventured to think that the Americans show something like a national tendency. The description here is very unlike that with which Burnet closes his “Theory of the Earth;” it is confined to the natural history of the event; but there is nothing whatever in Mr Poe's manner to diminish from the sacredness or the sublimity of the topic. With some account of this singular and characteristic paper we shall dismiss the volume of Mr Poe.

The world has been destroyed. Eiros, who was living at the time, relates to Charmion, who had died some years before, the nature of the last awful event.

“I need scarcely tell you,” says the disembodied spirit, “that even when you left us, men had agreed to understand those passages in the most holy writings which speak of the final destruction of all things by fire, as having reference to the orb of the earth alone. But in regard [column 2:] to the immediate agency of the ruin, speculation had been at fault from that epoch in astronomical knowledge in which the comets were divested of the terrors of flame. The very moderate density of these bodies had been well established. They had been observed to pass among the satellites of Jupiter without bringing about any sensible alteration either in the masses or in the orbits of these secondary planets. We had long regarded the wanderers as vapoury creations of inconceivable tenuity, and as altogether incapable of doing injury to our substantial globe, even in the event of contact. But contact was not in any degree dreaded; for the elements of all the comets were accurately known. That among them we should look for the agency of the threatened fiery destruction, had been for many years considered an inadmissible idea. But wonders and wild fancies had been, of late days, strangely rife among mankind; and although it was only with a few of the ignorant that actual apprehension prevailed upon the announcement by astronomers of a new comet, yet this announcement was generally received with I know not what of agitation and mistrust.

“The elements of the strange orb were immediately calculated, and it was at once conceded by all observers that its path, at perihelion, would bring it into very close proximity with the earth. There were two or three astronomers, of secondary note, who resolutely maintained that a contact was inevitable. I cannot very well express to you the effect of this intelligence upon the people. For a few short days they would not believe an assertion which their intellect, so long employed among worldly considerations, could not in any manner grasp. But the truth of a vitally important fact soon makes its way into the understanding of even the most stolid. Finally, all men saw that astronomical knowledge lied not, and they awaited the comet.

“Its approach was not, at first, seemingly rapid, nor was its appearance of very unusual character. It was of a dull red, and had little perceptible train. For seven or eight days we saw no material increase in its apparent diameter, and but a partial alteration in its colour. Meantime the ordinary affairs of men were discarded, and all interest absorbed in a growing discussion, instituted by philosophers in respect to the cometary nature.”

That no material injury to the globe, or its inhabitants would result from contact (which was now, however, [page 587:] certainly expected) with a body of such extreme tenuity as the comet, was the opinion which gained ground every day. The arguments of the theologians coincided with those of men of science in allaying the apprehensions of mankind. For as these were persuaded that the end of all things was to be brought about by the agency of fire, and as it was proved that the comets were not of a fiery nature, it followed that this dreaded stranger could not come charged with any such mission as the destruction of the globe.

“What minor evils might arise from the contact were points of elaborate question. The learned spoke of slight geological disturbances, of probable alterations in climate, and consequently in vegetation, of possible magnetic and electric influences. Many held that no visible or perceptible effect would in any manner be produced. While such discussions were going on, their subject gradually approached, growing larger in apparent diameter, and of a more brilliant lustre. Mankind grew paler as it came. All human operations were suspended.

“It had now taken, with inconceivable rapidity, the character of a gigantic mantle of rare flame, extending from horizon to horizon. Yet a day, and men breathed with freedom. It was clear that we were already within the influence of the comet; yet we lived. We even felt an unusual elasticity of frame and vivacity of mind. The exceeding tenuity of the object of our dread was apparent; for all heavenly bodies were plainly visible through it. Meantime our vegetation had perceptibly altered; and we gained faith, from this predicted circumstance, in the foresight of the wise. A wild luxuriance of foliage, utterly unknown before, burst out upon every vegetable thing.

“Yet another day, and the evil was not altogether upon us. It was now evident that its nucleus would first reach us. A wild change had come over all men; and the first sense of pain was the wild signal for general lamentation and horror. This first sense of pain lay in a rigorous constriction of the breast and lungs, and an insufferable dryness of the skin. It could not be denied that our atmosphere was radically affected; and the conformation of this atmosphere, and the possible modifications to which it might be subjected, were now the topics of discussion. The result of investigation sent an electric [column 2:] thrill of the intensest terror through the universal heart of man.

“It had been long known that the air which encircled us was a compound of oxygen and nitrogen gases, in the proportion of twenty-one measures of oxygen and seventy-nine of nitrogen in every one hundred of the atmosphere. Oxygen, which was the principle of combustion and the vehicle of heat, was absolutely necessary to the support of animal life, and was the most powerful and energetic agent in nature. Nitrogen, on the contrary, was incapable of supporting either animal life or flame. An unnatural excess of oxygen would result if it had been ascertained, in just such an elevation of the animal spirits as we had latterly experienced. It was the pursuit, the extension of the idea which had engendered awe. What would be the result of a total extraction of the nitrogen? A combustion, irresistible, all-devouring, omniprevalent, immediate; — the entire fulfilment, in all their minute and terrible details, of the fiery and horror-inspiring denunciations of the prophecies of the Holy Book.

“Why need I paint, Charmion, the now disenchained frenzy of mankind? That tenuity in the comet which had previously inspired us with hope, was now the source of the bitterness of despair. In its impalpable gaseous character was clearly perceived the consummation of fate. Meantime a day again passed, bearing away with it the last shadow of hope. We gasped in the rapid modification of the air. The red blood bounded tumultuously through its strait channels. A furious delirium possessed all men; and with arms rigidly outstretched towards the threatening heavens, they trembled and shrieked aloud. But the nucleus of the destroyer was now upon us; — even here in Aidenn, I shudder while I speak. Let me be brief — brief as the ruin that overwhelmed. For a moment there was a wild lurid light alone, visiting and penetrating all things. Then — let us bow down, Charmion, before the excessive majesty of the great God! — then there came a shouting and pervading sound, as if from the mouth itself of Him; while the whole incumbent mass of ether in which we existed, burst at once into a species of intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the angels in the high heavens, of pure knowledge, have no name. Thus ended all.”

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[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 547:]

*Views and Reviews of American Literature. By the author of The Yemassee, &c. &c.

The Wigwam, and The Cabin. By the same.

Papers on Literature and Art. By S. MARGARET FULLER.

Tales. By EDGAR A. POE.

Mosses from an old Manse. By NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.





[S:0 - BEM, 1847] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Review of the American Library (W. H. Smith, 1847)