Text: John H. Ingram, “[Review of Sorrow and Song ],” Academy (London), vol. VII, March 13, 1875, pp. 262-263


­[page 262, column 3:]

Sorrow and Song: Studies of Literary Struggle. By Henry Curwen. In Two Volumes. (London: H. S. King & Co, 1874.)

MR. CURWEN, if we do not misunderstand his exordium, has written these six “studies of literary struggle” to prove that Grub Street and its attendant misery are not things of the past. But of the half-dozen writers whose stories he adduces, not one, it should be pointed out, is an Englishman, or in other respects confirms the truth of his proposition. Henri Murger, who has the post of honour in this series, notwithstanding the lowness of his origin, and the excesses of his youth, was only prevented by a premature death from reaping the rewards of past labour. We must most emphatically protest against “Novalis” (Von Hardenberg) being deemed, in any way, a representative of “literary struggle,” as from birth to burial nothing but the loss of his first love ever impeded the even tenour of his way. Petöfi and Edgar Poe both died a quarter of a century ago, and in lands where literature was but newly born. Eighty years have passed by since young Chénier perished on the scaffold, and if Balzac did not grow wealthy and prosper, ere he died four and twenty years ago, neither public nor publishers were to blame. If the aim premised were really Mr. Curwen’s, he certainly has not kept to it, and we are glad he has not.

The authors whose lives Mr. Curwen has selected to typify the suggestively alliterative compound of “sorrow and song” are men whose stories must be badly told indeed not to prove interesting, even though the teller have few or no new facts to tell. But Mr. Curwen is determined not to be placed in the same category as Canning’s “Knife Grinder:” rather than have no story to tell, he will construct one out of his heroes’ books. “I have endeavoured,” he candidly confesses, “to read the lives of my authors more through the medium of their own works than from any recognised biographies of the men themselves.” Had Mr. Curwen been writing critical essays on the mental labours of these six men, we should have acknowledged the necessity of this method; but, in the present circumstances, such a system seems radically wrong. And the unavoidable result is that, instead of producing a standard work of reference, Mr. Curwen has contented himself with writing two volumes of very fascinating reading. Doubtless the reward, if less lasting, comes quicker for such books than for biographies which are strictly mémoires pour servir à l’histoire.

And yet Mr. Curwen has only partially adhered to his plan: Do Mirecourt, for instance, would appear to have served for the basis of his story of Henri Murger. And a very charming, although ultra-romantic narrative has he contrived to construct out of it by the aid of several of les scènes of their unfortunate author’s own Vie de Bohême. That Murger was, to some extent, the hero of his own works, it would be idle to deny; but that one tithe of the paradoxical sayings and improbable, not to say impossible, miseries endured by his Bohemians are to be fathered upon their author, is ridiculous, all dispassionate people will allow. Even Mr. Curwen cannot expect his readers to ­[page 263:] accept as anything but satire the passage he quotes from La Vie respecting one of the clique, whose residence, during a severe winter, was in the “Avenue de St. Cloud, in the third tree to the left after leaving the Bois de Boulogne, and on the fifth branch.” Beginning life at the very lowest rung of the social ladder, and getting only the barest rudiments of education, Murger had necessarily to fight his way upwards through more than ordinary difficulties, and, dying early, had had no time in which to realise the results that would otherwise have followed his labours. The verity of his miseries cannot be denied, but the fact that he had selected literature for a profession must not be held accountable for them all. His employment by Count Tolstoy was the most fortunate circumstance of his youth, not so much because it lifted him into a superior sphere of life as from its leaving him plenty of leisure for study. His chief occupation at the Russian’s seems to have been to cut and peruse the pages of new papers and journals intended for transmission to the Czar. Some of these publications passed through the hands of eight readers before they reached their destination, and De Mirecourt’s remark that “when everyone else was served autocracy received them,” is a fit satire on the way a despot is served. Mr. Curwen relates an anecdote of this period of Murger’s career which, if true, illustrates the Frenchman’s note: —

“At the time of the Revolution of February, Count Tolstoy was so overburthened with work that he requested his secretary to aid him in writing his despatches. . . . Murger finished the official letters, and then betook himself to the eighth chapter of Orbasson, for which the printers were waiting. This done, he directed his correspondence, and in error sent the secret despatch destined to the Czar to the editor of the Cortaire’s ire, — The Revolution is triumphant; Louis Philippe and his family have fled. MM. Lamartine, Ledni Rollin have — &c,&c.’ If Niermaîitre was astounded at this official intelligence, the Czar was not less perplexed at the news he had so anxiously expected taking the undecipherable form of an odd chapter of a sensational story, with the promise ‘to be continued in the following number.’ ”

The grandson of Peter the Great, De Mirecourt adds, had not the delicacy to return Murger’s copy. In parting from Mr. Curwen’s sketch of Murger, we note that his story of the “Bohemian’s” last moments differs somewhat from other accounts. M. Pelloquet states that just before the poor fellow’s death, a friend who had been to see him in the hospital withdrawing his hand said “An revoir.” “Non, adieu,” responded Murger, and never spoke again. “He passed away,” says the author of Sorrow and Song, “murmuring ‘Pas de musique, pas de bruit, pas de Bohême.’ ”

Grimm’s declaration that “Petöfi will rank among the very greatest poets of all times and tongues” will sound strange in the ears of most Englishmen, but to his myriad admirers in other European countries such praise will not appear exaggerated. The man whose poems translators have made almost as popular in German, Polish, French, Flemish, Danish and Italian, as in his native Hungarian, must necessarily be a poet of mark, although with the exception of the [column 2:] short biographical sketch prefixed to a volume of translations from Petöfi by the late Sir John Bowring, and the usual scanty notices in the encyclopaedias, what English publication refers to the great Magyar poet? And yet, despite its brevity, the life of Alexander Petöfi was replete with romantic and strange vicissitudes, and in including it in his series Mr. Curwen has done well. For our part we are inclined to believe that Petöfi will some day be universally placed in the very first rank of lyrical poets. In short, we know of no recent memoir which has had a better raison d’étre, and only regret that Mr. Curwen had not greater space at his disposal for a more extended sketch. The few translations which he gives of Petöfi’s poems are less literal, but more fluent than those by Bowring, and seem to be a pretty close rendering of Chassin’s, as his sketch, indeed, is apparently based upon the same authority’s, but it is utterly impossible to transfer into the French the passionate language of Petöfi: there is something more akin to the great Magyar’s “ever-questioning philosophy” in the English or the German, and Kertbeny’s translations from Petöfi into the latter tongue are probably as close as poetical restriction will admit of. En passant, we would point out that the song which Mr. Curwen gives a translation of under the title of “Forward!” is not the “Talpra Magyar” at all, but a much less spirited composition; he has probably been misled by his French, or rather Belgian, authority.

In his memoir of Edgar Poe Mr. Curwen seems to have been rather more desirous to “adorn a tale” than to give the somewhat commonplace story of the poet’s life. In all fairness to Mr. Curwen, however, it must be acknowledged that the inaccuracies of this life are not so much due to him as to his American authorities. In reading Griswold’s Memoir of Poe, he has, like all impartial persons, naturally been disgusted with the biographer’s open display of hatred for the subject of his story, and, asserts Mr. Curwen, when resolved to write the poet’s life, “I began with a thorough determination to vindicate Poe from the aspersions Dr. Griswold had so cruelly cast upon him.” After this assertion it seems strange to find Mr. Curwen declaring that “after sifting every item of evidence I could lay hands on for Poe and against Poe, my present monograph has turned out very differently from what I had hoped,” and that he should then, notwithstanding the fact that there is scarcely an accusation made against Poe by his biographer but has been frequently refuted in print, repeat, as matter of fact, almost the whole of Griswold’s calumnies! Elsewhere we have shown, upon irrefutable testimony, the utter falsity of Griswold’s pseudo-Memoir of Poe, and it is neither necessary nor possible to recapitulate here the facts of the poet’s career. Besides the misstatements, however, which Mr. Curwen has been led to make through following Griswold and his alter ego in the Southern Literary Messenger — this latter, doubtless, from Baudelaire’s quotations — we find a few others new to us. Poe was born in 1809, not 1811, and we much doubt whether Mr. Curwen can give any authority, other than Griswold’s, [column 3:] for saying that the author of “The Raven” ever gave any other date. Upon what basis Mr. Curwen has raised his romantic superstructure of Poe’s passion for Virginia Clemm having originated in 1822 we know not; but this we can say, if it be true, it is the most wonderful circumstance of Poe’s life, the precocious young lady then being in her second year! Poe was first married to Miss Clemm in 1834, but she continued to reside with her mother until 1835, when, being only fifteen, she was again married to Poe, some doubts having been expressed as to the legality of the former ceremony. Poe’s expulsion from the University of Virginia the unimpeachable records of the faculty disprove; and the statement, transcending Griswold, “that there was not a vice in the whole catalogue of human sins” that this young Yankee Heliogabalus “did not hasten to commit,” is utterly disproved by facts. It is needless, however, to re-tread the weary maze of lies in which Griswold and others involved Poe’s history, and which Mr. Curwen, through no fault of his own, has so innocently followed, quoting letters which we do not hesitate to call forgeries, and recounting disgraceful anecdotes which had no foundation in fact. How apt he has been to adopt the idea of Poe’s badness is shown by his statement that the poet’s first use of the Broadway Journal was “to attack his enemies at Boston” — an assertion which reference to the pages of that journal in the British Museum Reading Room would have disproved. That the “Helen” of the poem quoted at page 155, vol. ii., was “one of the wealthiest women” of New England will doubtless surprise the lady to whom Poe wrote the lines. She was not, is not, even rich. The poet’s engagement with her was not secret, as stated by Mr. Curwen, nor was it broken off in the way he describes, as reference to the New York Tribune for June 7, 1852, will show. But enough has been said to prove that Mr. Curwen has been misled by his authorities with regard to Poe’s character; he has dealt with him less leniently than either Hannay or Baudelaire did, and yet doubtless with quite as much desire for veracity as they had. Should Sorrow and Song reach a second edition — and we trust it may — it is to be hoped that Mr. Curwen will retell this story of a life which is certainly worth the telling.

Of Honoré de Balzac and of André Chénier, to whom the two other chapters of Mr. Curwen’s interesting work are devoted, we have left no space to speak. In the monograph of the latter the author, who seems most at home in French literature, has depicted with sparkling vivacity some picturesque episodes of the first French Revolution. As a work of art, we consider his last sketch of the half-dozen the best. It is not often, indeed, that such fresh and piquant volumes pass through our hands as are these Studies of Literary Struggle.






[S:1 - ACDMY, 1875] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Review of Curwen's Sorrow and Song (J. H. Ingram, 1875)