Text: William S. Gaffney, “[Review of Edgar Poe and His Critics],” People’s Press (Kingston, NY), January 24, 1861, p. 2, cols. 1-2


[page 2, column 1, continued:]

Prepared for the Press.

Literary Notices.


EDGAR POE AND HIS CRITICS. — By Sarah Helen Whitman. Rudd & Carleton, Publishers, New York City.

Of all men of acknowledged genius, none perhaps, have been so palpably misrepresented as the author of the “Raven.” His enemies have most grossly reviled him, and his friends have seemed slow to deny the charges. But this volume, which first made its appearance nearly a year ago, and which should be more generally and impartially read by the literati, is a generous defense of Poe against the aspersions of the late Rufus W. Griswold. This lady — one who was intimately acquainted with him — has generously undertaken the task of disabusing the public mind, and to tell from personal knowledge what Poe really was. Unfortunate in temperament and habits she admits him to have been, but full of warm, generous and sublime impulses. That “he knew no beauty but that which is purely sensuous,” as one of his biographers has asserted, she emphatically and implicitly denies. And she speaks upon the honor of an American lady. Can she not be relied on? She claims that he was possessed of a perception of the ideally beautiful, pure, and sublime, that was far beyond common comprehension; and thus it is why he has been so wofully [[woefully]] misunderstood.

The reviewer of New Books, in “Peterson’s Magazine,” April No., 1860, says: “We knew Poe well, having edited ‘Graham’s Magazine’ in conjunction with him, during the palmy days of that once popular periodical, and we can testify to the substantial accuracy of Mrs. Whitman’s estimate of the poet’s character.” The same writer adds: “and of all men we have known, he was the lest synthetical, and the most analytical; what he wrote was always elaborately forged, chiseled and polished, never poured fourth, molten, to take form instantaneously. * * * No correct judgement of Poe’s genius can be had if this is ignored.”

The foregoing, in regard to Poe’s method of composing, we may take for granted, coming, as it does, from one who was his literary associate. But this is only one mark of his excelsior powers. That he was possessed of an exalted genius, who will deny? We find him, even admitting what his revilers say, putting forth his most elaborate productions under the most trying circumstances. We do not justify any immoralities of the man; but we do claim to defend him from his enemies, now that he has passed to that “bourne from whence no traveler returns.” He had to bear his share of persecutions and ingratitude, an ordeal which every votary of literature must undergo. He was an orphan, thrown early upon the charity of a cold, selfish, unappreciative world. That Mr. Allan, his benefactor, was a good man, is of no consequence with us; but it is apparent that he was not the one to point the course or train the lofty soarings of the elect spirit of his ward. Poe, under the love-expanding wings of a devoted mother, would still have been Poe the poet; and, may we not rationally entertain the opinion that he would have been Poe the better man!

The heart has sorrows which the world knows not of. And who knows but what the unfortunate poet’s dissipated course was brought about by his sense of loneliness. The poet, from his nature, is a philosopher. He reads the hearts and impulses of men as one would read a book, and ingratitude to him is a living death! Poe, we judge, was of an extremely sensitive, melancholy temperament — his writings will bear us out in this assertion — yet for this should he be tried and condemned? The poet is encased in a mortal shell — an embodiment of “all the ills which flesh is heir to” — just the same as the artisan; and it is not a “fixed fact” that literary talent of genius of any order always brings a man happiness and tells on the betterment of the world at large. But we cannot help admiring genius, let it be cased in ever so light a shell, as we opine that it comes directly from God! The poet is born, not made.

It is charged that Poe was morally deficient (bou de Paris); “daringly speculative, but grovellingly sensual; with the aspirations of an angel, but the low appetites of a brute,” etc. But Mrs. Whitman’s work nails the lie upon the author of these base assertions. It is certain, that whatever Edgar Poe did or was, — and he had faults and committed errors, — he was not, nor did he do, as Dr. Griswold has represented. Mrs. Whitman’s testimony in behalf of that “sad star, forever fixed” in our literary horizon, is worthy of a peculiar authority. She is well known by the rare imaginative beauty of her own poems, which have secured her an honorable niche in our literature, and even Dr. Griswold, himself, speaks of her as “one of the most brilliant women in New England.” She was personally and intimately [column 2:] acquainted with Poe, and the true force of her book is in the manifest truth of its conception of his character that went far toward shaping his sorrowful career, and also in its logical disproval of many injurious statements respecting his life and writings, and its presentation of traits and incidents which go far toward establishing a kindlier theory of his life than that now held.

As we before said, Poe, as a poet, has been strangely accounted deficient in the moral element — accused of being “one who did love Beauty only.” Yes, he who gave the true tone to American literature, has been accused by moral (?) editors of being immoral! Yet, he himself has said that the poet’s office is to celebrate “all noble thoughts, all holy impulses, all chivalrous, generous and self-sacrificing deeds.” And if he had no ideas of right and wrong, what are “The Main in the Crowd,” “The Black Cat,” “The Golden Bug [[Gold-Bug]],” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and others of his productions, but so many dreadful sermons on conscience, on justice, on the sure judgement that follows sin and wrong? What keeps his own thought and speech so pure through all his pages, from first to last? There is not one prurient fancy, not one base, double-meaning or indecent illusion anywhere from beginning to end! Vice culls no defending line from anything he ever wrote — wickedness no sanctioning word! Was this because he had no moral nature — no ideas of right or wrong? Is truth and charity morally dead? Truly the verdicts of this world are strange!

Reader, if you have any of the “mild of human kindness” in your heart, get Mrs. Whitman’s book and read it. It gives a key to a life full of strange sorrows and errors, yet one which, to know truly, excites compassion and love.

We will conclude this review — already lengthy — by adding the following poem, a tribute we offered at the time of the excitement in regard to the “Poe Monument.” We lay it upon the grave of a dead poet:




Ye, who upon God’s foot-stool move,

Humble yourself to-day;

Move sympathy’s great chord for him

Who fell beside the way!

Nor stop to solve a mystic theme,

Which only Heaven can —

Be it enough for us to know

He was a fellow-man.

Speak not of that supernal gift

Which Heaven doth impart;

That potent key-note of the soul,

Which moves the human heart!

Leave God to judge, in His own way,

The hand-work of his will;

Let us with fearful, trembling hearts,

His Charity fulfill.

Yes! brothers of one nature born,

Honor the god-like part;

Nor e’en discard the mortal shell

That cased a poet-heart!

O weep! that that soul-gifted one

Perished in life’s young day”

Let Pity mourn that pleiad, which

Fell from the starry way!

Let him who stands in pride today,

Take heed least he should fall:

Know ye, that Father Adam’s sin

Is grafted on us all?

And in the regions of the pure,

(O wonderful to tell!)

Whilst moving round the Mighty One,

Even the angels fell!

O let us not, in judgement, then,

Pass sentence on the dead;

But pray that heaven’s part in man,

May rest in heaven’s bed:

And let us, as we loved the man,

Do honor to his dust;

And leave the rest to God’s own time,

And in His mercy trust!


School Examiner, D. C. I.

Washington, Ind., Jan., 1861.



William S. Gaffney had been a student in Indiana University, and been a teacher in Washington Indiana. He was appointed as a school examiner 1857-1861. He was known locally as the “Irish Poet,” having contributed a number of poems to Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine about the time of this review.


[S:0 - PP, 1861] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Review of Edgar Poe and His Critics (William S. Gaffney, 1861)