Text: Francis Gerry Fairfield, “Poe’s Masterpieces,” Home Journal (New York, NY), series for 1866, no. 13, March 28, 1866, p. 4, cols. ?-?


[page 1, column 4:]

For the Home Journal.






IN order to give a lucid idea of the singular genius of Mr. Poe, a thorough perusal of his masterpieces, in prose as well as poetry, is not only necessary but absolutely indispensable. Poe possessed other qualities of mind quite as wonderful within their province as the one master element of poetry, which he possessed to a degree inapproproximable to any other American, viz., imagination. His powers of subtle and minute analysis were equally as rare and marvellous as his poetic genius. Hence, with this faculty added to his clear, imaginative perception of the beautiful, he was a critic of no common order. He wrote no vulgar puffs, and was severe, even to harshness, in his comments upon that which bore the stamp of simple mediocrity. For specimens of this sort of criticism, butter, biting, and sardonic, we can barely refer our readers to his articles on Cornelius Mathews, W. W. Lord, Captain Marryat, Henry B. Hirst, et al., et. al., and pass on to the consideration of his nobler and more elaborate criticisms. In his admiration for the beautiful and for the sublime, in poetry, he was, on the other hand, fiery and enthusiastic. He had no epithets too bold, too ideal, too abanonnés for whatever is beautiful in the creations of genius. None, who have read his criticism on Mrs. Browning, will ever forget the weird magnificence of his cadences of praise, when he quotes the following lines: —

“The divine impulsion cleaves

In dim music to the leaves,

Dropt and lifted, dropt and lifted

In the sunshine greenly sifted —

Greenly sifted through the trees:

Ever wave the Eden trees

In the sunlight and the moonlight,

In the nightlight and the noonlight,

Never stirred by rain or breeze.”

Nor will any ever forget the indignant scorn with which he repels the captious and misjudged animadversions of “Kit North,” aimed at one of the finest similes ever penned by Mrs. Browning — that in italics: —

“Eyes, he said, now throbbing through me!

Are ye eyes that did undo me —

Shining eyes like antique jewels set in Parian statue stone!

Underneath that calm white forehead

Are ye burning ever torrid,

O’er the desolate sand-desert of my heart and life undone!

But, after all, his highest merit in this field of letters was his impulsive independence. He was, in every respect, an American, and paid little heed to the musty precedents of English reviewers. He believed thoroughly in all things American, and defended the poets of his native land with restless, vigilant, and sarcastic energy against the sneering and sardonic comments of his trans-Atlantic contemporaries. And this, if nothing else, should shield him dead, and his living fame from the malice of American enemies — although, alas! it has not — and, for this reason, if for no other, his best efforts in the critical line should be in the hands of every true-hearted American.

In the region of tale writing — that region which he himself designated as furnishing the widest scope, poetry excepted, for the exercise of artistic skill he was without peer in his day, and will, in the domain of purely fantastic and ratiocinative construction, probably remain so until the end of time. This was, or rather these added to a wonderful power in the construction of mere tales of verisimilitude, constituting his distinctive field — a field upon which none after him can enter without sinking their originality. Like all master-minds in letters, he was of no school, and founded a school for himself, so distinctive from all others in the weird magnificence of its imagery, the boldness of tis imagination, and the idiosyncrasy of its style, that, in the language of a heathen philosopher, he, (Poe,) in letters, is “one by himself solely.” We are aware that this is awarding him the highest praise. We are aware, furthermore, that his ghastly imaginative grandeur of conception, so far removed from the general ideas or idealism of ordinary men, has caused many of lesser telescopic imaginative vision to accuse him of vague unreality in his creations, and even of superstition; and this has partly resulted from his own expressed opinion on the adequacy of words, of language to express any imagining, however shadowy, of which human intellect is susceptible. But, when men, when critics, who are supposed to be men, put forth propositions of this sort to belittle the genius of Poe, they are simply playing the crab to Hercules, and stultify themselves in the opinion of all those whose powers of analysis are sufficiently penetrating to traced what they are please to term “vague unreality” to its legitimate cause — to an imaginative sight too subtle to be followed by their more sensuous vision. Skill in the management of words is by no means inconsistent with the highest imaginative qualities. In fact, it is just these qualities which are necessary in order that the ebb and flow of rhythm and rhyme may fluctuate with every impulse of the fiery fantasies beneath them; it is these which render the undulation of sound to soul perfect; and it is these which demonstrate in Poe the existence of an almost perfect poetic intuition. Take a stanza or two from “Annabel Lee,” as an illustration: —

“It was many and many a year ago,

In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know

By the name of Annabel Lee;

And this maiden she lived with no other thought

Than to love and be loved by me.

* * * * * * * * *

“But our love it was stronger by far than the love

Of those who were older than we —

Of many far wiser than we —

And neither the angels in heaven above,

Nor the demons down under the sea,

Can ever dissever my soul from the soul

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.”

Now, here it will be observed, that not a little of the imaginative effect is due to the ethereal air of the rhythmical collocation; and this is true, all true poetry, be its author Edgar Allen [Allan]] Poe or any one else of all the thousand and one poets who have written or rhymed since the days of the Anakim. The rhythm of “Annabel Lee,” although the anapaestic predominates, is indeterminate, and it is just this peculiarity which renders it unearthly, ethereal, spiritual in its cadences — it is just this quality, in short, which renders the poem august, imaginative, ideal. There are no lines in the English language to compare with “Annabel Lee,” in this respect, unless we may except possibly the graceful insouciance of Mr. Longfellow’s proem to the “Waif:” —

The day is done, and the darkness

Falls from the wings of Night,

As a feather is wafted downward

From an eagle in his flight.


“I see the lights of the village

Gleam through the rain and the mist,

And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me

That my soul cannot resist:


“A feeling of sadness and longing,

That is not akin to pain,

And resembles sorrow only

As the mist resembles the rain.

Or, lastly: —

“And the night shall be filled with music,

And the cares, that infest the day,

Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

And as silently steal away.

For prose illustrations of this peculiar sensuous passion for musical effect, which was one of Poe’s idiosyncrasies, we may, en passant, just refer the reader to his “Eleonora,” and “Morella” — two of the most airily imaginative creations ever penned in any language. And now to descend from the critical to the practical.

There are multitudes of people who would like to read Poe, but are prevented by reason of the high price of his complete works, now costing some seven or eight dollars. Consequently, a volume of his masterpieces would find a market ready prepared for its advent, and would be no speculation, being simply the publication of a book which is sure of i8ts sale, and upon which, of course, there can be very little risk. Neither is there any difficulty in the editing of such a volume, of which, craving further patience on the part of our readers, we herewith present a rough draft, with the number of pages to be assigned to each article, taking the page of Widdleton’s Griswold edition as our measure, in point of size.

Of tales of verisimilitude we would select[[:]]
    The Mesmeric Revelations, including the case of Valdemar 20
    The Descent into the Maelstrom 16
    Manuscript Found in a Bottle 10
Of tales of ratiocination:
    The Gold Bug 30
    The Murders of the Rue Morgue 34
    The Mystery of Marie Roget 48
Of tales of metaphysical analysis:
    The Fall of the House of Usher 18
    The Imp of the Perverse 7
    William Wilson 20
    Berenice 7
Tales of imaginative creation:
    The Masque of the Red Death 7
    Eleonora 6
    Morella 5
    Ligeia 15

Among his essays, excluding “Eureka,” as too long, we would select:

    The Poetic Principle   20
    The Rationale of Verse 44
    The Philosophy of Composition 10
    Colloquy of Monos and Una 9

Of poems:

“The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “Lenore,” “To Helen,” “The Bells,” “The Conqueror Worm,” “The Dreamland,” “Eulalie,” “The Haunted Palace,” Eldorado,” “Israfel,” “The Bridal Ballad,” “Ulalume,” and “Ligeia.”

Of his criticisms the following may be reckoned as his masterpieces:

    N. P. Willis   7
    Mrs. Osgood 12
    Rufus Dawes 12
    Hawthorne 14
    Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Willis, and the American Drama 28
    Longfellow’s Ballads 12
    Moore’s Alciphron 8
    Mrs. Browning 24
    Dickens (Barnaby Rudge) 18
    R. H. Horne (Orion) 20

Of course, the above arrangement is purely at random. Some articles have been left out which ought to be in, some, perhaps, have been inserted in the list, which might better have been left out, and others have been inserted to the exclusion of better ones. But, on the whole, the matter is seen to be perfectly feasible. The whole only makes a volume of the size of one of the single volumes of the Widdleton-Griswold edition, and ought to be afforded at one dollar and a half — at which price edition after edition could be sold.

It will be seen that, in the above draught of Poe’s masterpieces, we have omitted his “Eureka,” probably his only attempt in the line of pure metaphysical speculation; and this we have done not because it is not a masterly effort in the region of that shadowy ratiocination which, of all things, marks the metaphysical genius, but, for three other reasons which he have deemed conclusive:

1. The extreme abstruseness of the work makes it a mass of unintelligiblity to the majority of readers.

2. Some objections have been preferred against it as pantheistic, which, in our opinion, are of valid force. Every imaginative mind has within it a certain tendency toward pantheism — there is no sublime order of genius without a certain vague, pantheistic superstition accompanying.

3. The work (“Eureka”) is alone of sufficient length for publication in a distinct volume.

These reasons we have deemed conclusive, and we think when intelligently considered, our judgment will commend itself to the reader as the only just and safe one deducible from the premises. Besides, the insertion of “Eureka” would necessitate the exclusion of other and more desirable articles. But, passing this point, as still debatable, we have, in conclusion, one or two further suggestions to make in regard to the volume proposed.

Critical notes should also accompany the text, exhibiting, in the clearest light possible, the subtle trains of speculation upon which many of his most imaginative tales are founded. The general scope of these notes we shall, however, from present want of space, treat of, in a separate paper, devoted to an analytic criticism of “Ligeia,” at once the most nearly perfect, most imaginative, and most wonderful creation of the purely ideal ever indited in prose.

Meantime, we have to say, in conclusion, that justice to the memory of Poe demands that a volume, similar to that indicated in the foregoing paragraphs, be issued. The public also demand it; first, that the best prose efforts of Poe may be afforded in convenient form; and, secondly, that the fame of the most brilliant and erratic star of American letters may not be left to rot upon the shelves of bookworms, in the ponderous and expensive tomes, in which his publishers have embalmed it. Give us a live edition of the poets masterpieces, and, while we popularize his fame, we will swell the coffers of his publishers.




“Ligeia,” of course, is not a poem, and Fairfield has already listed it under tales of imaginative creation. What he did intend is not clear, although it may have been the portion of “Al Aaraaf” in part II that invokes Liegia, beginning “Ligeia! Ligeia! [[/]] My beautiful one!”

A separate edition of Poe’s poems had been issued as early as 1858, and regularly reprinted thereafter. In 1867, Widdleton would issue a “first” and “second series” of Poe’s Prose Tales. In 1876, Widdleton would issue a one-volume selection of poetry and prose, with a memoir translated from the French of Baudelaire. Another one-volume edition of Poe’s Selected Works would be issue by Widdleton in 1880,with a memoir by R. H. Stoddard. None of these editions included the critical notes suggested by Fairfield, and although the New York Library Table of March 2, 1878 (p. 161) announced that Fairfield had “in preparation” a volume of Poe’s masterpieces, with a critical biography by Fairfield, no such collection or biography was printed. Instead, Fairfield became addicted to morphine and died in poverty on April 4, 1887 at the age of 42.



[S:0 - HJ, 1866] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe's Masterpieces (Francis Gerry Fairfield, 1866)