Text: Anonymous, “Poe as a Critic,” Field and Fireside (Raleigh, NC), vol. XI, no. 52, December 30, 1865, p. 5, cols. 1-2


[page 5, column 1, continued:]

For the Field and Fireside.


[Extracts from a letter.]

* * I am both surprised and indignant at your pert, conceited, superficial and unjust strictures on the critical writings of Edgar A. Poe; and if you will listen to me candidly for a few moments, without turning up that huge “smeller” of yours and hissing like a goose “that I am Poe’s partisan” — “that I am so biased in his favor that I take for gospel all that he says” — “that I am blind to his defects, and that my poetic taste has been warped by an early and continuous study of his works” — if you will just refrain from all this, and act like a rational being, and listen dispassionately the while I defend him, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Why, I will not even hint to any of my literary acquaintances — nay, more! I will promise never again to intimate, even in your presence, that you ever entertained and expressed the belief that Alexander Smith is a greater poet than Homer or anybody else, and that “very few women can write any how.” This last opinion, delivered as “ex cathedra” in your last letter, I shall never publish, lest the glorious wreaths of immortelles which encircle the names of illustrious women, who have left rich legacies to the noble guild of literature and art, should wilt and crumble into dust and their names be darkened forever!

  * * * * * * * *  

At the time when I broke off, the impulse was upon me. I had coherently arranged what I would say in defence of Poe, upon whom you made so savage and unjust an onslaught. Indeed, I then felt the glow of composition as in other days, had felicitous language at command, and was, in a word, ripe for a thorough ventilation — a complete and utter demolition of the crude and hasty asperities which marked your reference to Poe’s “Literati.” But alas! dinner time had arrived — I never could resist dinner time — and afterwards a pressure of business engagements precluded an immediate resumption of my letter. I more than once commenced to continue, but with proverbial fickleness the humor had left me — I could recall nothing but a vague, cold outline of all I had to say, and stuck, and stuck, and stuck, where I am sticking now. As you may not remember all you said of Poe as a reviewer, I will refresh your memory a little by a choice quotation from your letter. Were Poe alive, and were he so scurrilous in his criticisms as you say he is, he might well tremble for his laurels in that regard when B’s review of his “Literati” appears. You say, “the book has taught me to despise its author.” “He was mean, unjust, self-conceited. No person wrote correctly, and no person was without serious fault and blemish but Edgar A. Poe himself.” Such is your language of one to whose justice and candor — to whose instinctive purity of taste — to whose more than worship of the beautiful and true, wherever or however manifested — to whose profound reverence for the poetic art we are this day indebted for our freedom from that literary vassalage — that disgraceful and disgusting subservience to foreign opinion, that was studiously blind to the merit of an American book until some British book seller’s hack — some hireling sub-editor of an English or Scotch Review, had first pronounced it readable! His striking originality, the unstudied classicism of his style, his intuitive perception of false and true in sentiment, metaphor, metre, and rhythm, and the chivalrous daring with which this man (so gloriously gifted!) combatted singly and alone, the prejudices and prepossessions of the mass; exposing the little arts of those cliques of litterateurs, who united to exalt into apotheosis writers of inferior merit, damning their betters the while with faintest praise — for this — all this, and more than this — he has entitled himself to the lasting gratitude of the world of letters! He rarely uttered a critical opinion relative to a particular work or passage, that does not carry home to the mind or heart of the intelligent reader a thorough conviction of its truth. The novelty and boldness of some of his general opinions upon literary topics may occasion momentary distrust of their soundness, but an impartial examination of the premises on which they were based will usually suffice to establish their justice.

I shall not now advert to the many, many cruel circumstances which combined to render the life of this ill-starred genius, a grief and a burthen, nor will I make more than passing allusion to the fell malignity — the merciless hate which has studiously sought to damn his memory and cover his name with infamy. His genius in its transit from earth to culminate, mayhaps, in some kindlier sphere, has left as a priceless legacy to “the few

“The light that never was on sea or land.

The consecreation and the poet’s dream.”

Truly he was one who, in the language of Keats, died and

“Left great verse unto a little clan.”

However tempted to dwell on these things, I return to the matter in hand — his critical writings — the general opinion concerning them, and lastly yours, which is but an echo of that unjust general opinion. I have already intimated that the fearlessness and causticity with which Poe assailed the adherents of false taste in literary matters, and the ineffable scorn with which he regarded that grovelling spirit that praised or blamed at foreign dictation and had not the manliness to form or utter an opinion of its own, had made him many and bitter enemies; enemies who decried his genius, aspersed his character, magnified his peccadilloes into crimes, and stigmatised as insolent egotism his eloquent, indignant protests against their subserviency. [column 2:]

These herded wolves, “bold only to pursue,” enjoyed their little day of petty triumph; they too well knew their craft, and easily biased public opinion against the public benefactor. The relentless hate which hounded him to his unknown grave “in a potter’s field” — which inked with deadliest venom the pen of the reverend villain — this posthumous maligner! who basely recreant to his trust (as literary executor) gloated like a ghoul over the poet’s infirmities, is now somewhat appeased! Rufus Wilmot Griswold — Griswold — the immaculate! the spectacled! the sleek and oily man of God! who paraded in tumid tropes, and pompous periods, and ornate invective, (stolen verbatim from Bulwer’s “Caxtons”)* the faults and foibles of the dead — he too has gone the way of all flesh, and woe to his dastard soul if ever he prayed.

“That mercy I to others show,

That mercy show to me!”

Poe lived before his age — in advance of his time, as all reformers do, and his fate was that of all reformers. But the mists of detraction — the clouds of obloquy which have brooded so long over his lonely grvea [[grave]] are being scattered now. His fame broadens, his memory brightens, and his critical dicta, inspired by the divinest instinct and the intensest adoration of the beautiful are being daily — hourly — more widely disseminated and approved. A thorough master of versification himself, it vexed him that poets should pay so little attention to their art, and that poems — otherwise of high merit — should be marred by a heedless disregard of its commonest rules. Is it any marvel that an organization so sensitive — so keenly alive to all melody, should be shocked by the slightest discord? A taste so singularly pure, revolted from all that was low, and his deep and tender reverence for his art — so proud of its glory and jealous for its honor — was the source of much of that critical acerbity so commonly attributed to personal pique or secret envy. Miss Whitman, in a little volume entitled “E. A. Poe and his Critics” — a book which explodes many of the base calumnies of Griswold and others, and which does infinite credit both to her head and her heart, says that “a recent and not too lenient critic tells us that ‘it was his sensitiveness to artistic imperfections rather than any malignity of feeling that made his criticisms so severe, and procured him a host of enemies among persons towards whom he entertained no personal ill-will.’ ” Longfellow, whose genius Poe fully appreciated while severely condemning his inveterate penchant to plagiarise a good thing wherever he found it, has very generously said of Poe, “the harshness of his criticism I have always attributed to the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong.” Wrong to what? Why wrong to his mistress — to the Egeria of his dreams — to the goddess before whose shrine he knelt a rapt idolater — wrong done to the genius of Poesy and the art to which he was fated to be both minister and martyr! But enough of this! It is not true that he held or expressed the opinions that you in your haste have ascribed to him. He did not hold that “no person wrote correctly and no person was without serious fault and blemish but Edgar A. Poe himself.” Many of his critical papers glow with genuine enthusiasm elicited by the meritorious passages, whose beauties he indicates, arranges as an artist his pictures in the best of lights, pausing the while to praise them. If some of his reviews are made the vehicle of personal spleen and invective, who can tell, but (as in the case of Hirst) they were provoked by anonymous libels, or malevolent attempts to depreciate his well-earned reputation, which Poe had traced to their authors? Thus much at least may said in palliation of the gravest blemish that appears in his “Literati.” As showing that Poe could praise, as well as blame — praise without stint and with sincerest fervor, I could refer to many of his reviews — but I will instance only his notices of Mrs. Osgood, Mrs. Hewitt, Mrs. Browning, Estelle Anna Lewis and other women who — though they were women — were thought by Poe to have written well, and to his reviews of Hawthorne, Simms, Willis, Halleck, Bryant, Taylor, Wallace, and Horne. In the review of Horne’s “Orion” — to which I would call especial attention, you will find passage after passage, cited and italicised, on which he has lavished the warmest encomium. In this connection I would also state that I saw several years since a copy of “Wild Western Scenes” — a book you have doubtless read and laughed over — containing a prefatory notice, which was merely a grateful acknowledgement to Edgar A. Poe, for a commendatory notice of his book, which had secured to its author — then unknown — what he long had vainly sought — a publisher. I defy any one to point out a sentence which Poe has censured that does not more than merit the blame he bestows, or one italicised for its beauty that does not deserve the praise it receives. If this be true of particular citations, then your charge of injustice as a critic must rest, not upon Poe’s comments on quotations he makes, but must fall upon his general estimates of the abilities and performances of the authors reviewed. And now I ask you to name one of the “Literati” to whom Poe has assigned a lower position than is now accorded him or her by persona possessed of cultivated tastes and polite attainments. You can’t do it, —— !

As one possessed of a gem of the purest water, discovers with deep chagrin, a flaw on its surface that mars its symmetry and lessens its brilliance, so Poe in a poem, regarded false rhymes and quantities — contractions, expletives, inversions and other defects which usually result from the culpable negligence or sloth of the writers. And he was right! A poem should be made as near perfection as possible. A poem is but the embodiment of the beautiful, and should approach, in grace, and proportion and comeliness, as nearly as possible to its divine original — the poet’s ideal! A low aim is an invincible barrier to the accomplishment of aught that is truly great. The higher one’s standard, the nearer will be the approach to that ultimate perfection which ever eludes our grasp. It was Poe’s aim to elevate his art and its devotees — to prevent its prostitution to ignoble uses — to develop and define its truest and highest ends. I have feebly but earnestly essayed his defence, because I deeply feel how much I am indebted to him for the high estimation in which I hold the literary art — and especially poetry — which is its divinest phase. From a study of his works, I know I have attained a purer taste, and I sincerely believe that an attentive perusal of his “Literati” will do much towards inspiring and fostering a love of letters — towards elevating and guiding the untutored judgment to eschew blemishes and errors it else had never perceived. I could write as much more, but as I have doubtless wearied you already, I will now bring my letter to a close.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 5, column 2:]

* Griswold accuses Poe of plagiarism, while guilty himself, in his memoir of the poet, of one of the meanest plagiarisms on record. After saying that “Poe resembled in many respects the character of Sir Francis Vivian in Bulwer’s novel of “[[‘]]The Caxtons,”[[’ ”]] he proceeds to appropriate, word for word, without mark of quotation, that delineation of Vivian’s character! The reverend critic was well aware, that many who had read “The Caxtons” would not remember the passage distinctly, and that all others would deem its eloquence his own. Had he wished to be credited alone with is malicious ex parte application to the poet, whose dying trust he so foully betrayed, common decency would have suggested the use of inverted commas.




In the opening paragraph, the use of quotation marks mixed with the use of “I,” clearly intended to refer to the author and not to the supposed speaker, may be a bit confusing to readers. It suggests that the author may be “quoting” a paraphrasing from memory of something spoken during a previous conversation, or an assumed reaction to what the author is about to say, rather than something actually written to the author in the form of a letter. Only the comments toward the end of the paragraph, that “very few women can write any how,” and several lines down in the second paragraph, “the book has taught me to despise its author ... ,” are clearly from a letter, as specifically noted in the text.

To address the charge given in the footnote, the earlier form of the memoir, printed as an obituary of Poe over the pseudonym of Ludwig, does give the sentences from The Caxtons in quotation marks. In the memoir, the quotation marks have been omitted, although the reference is still suggested by the sentence immediately proceeding them.

The lines beginning “The light that never was on sea or land” are from William Wordsworth, “Elegiac Stanzas. Suggested by a Picture of Peel Castle in a Storm, painted by Sir George Beaumont,” first published in 1805.

The line “Left great verse unto a little clan” is adapted from John Keats’ “Leaving great verse unto a little clan,” “Fragment of an Ode to Maia” (written on May-Day, 1818).

The lines beginning “That mercy I to others show” are from Alexander Pope, “Universal Prayer,” first published in 1738.

Copies of the Field and Fireside are extremely scarce. A bound volume for 1865 is in the Rubenstein Library of Duke University. A scan of the article was kindly provided to the Poe Society by David Pavelich, of the Rubenstein Library.



[S:1 - FFS, 1865] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe as a Critic (anonymous, 1865)