Text: Henry Austin, “Poe as a Plagiarist and his Debt to Macaulay,” Literature (New York, NY), vol. II, no. 30, August 4, 1899, pp. 82-84


[page 82, column 2:]

Poe as a Plagiarist and his Debt to Macaulay.


TO what extent one writer may incur just indebtedness to another is not incapable of sufficiently clear and close demonstration. Shakespeare was enormously beholden to his predecessors; he “pounced on his own, wherever he found it”; he never refused a character, a fact, a phrase, or whole sentences merely because they had been used by others; but herein lies the point; nearly everything which he took he re-fused in the glorious crucible of his genius and reminted it with a sovereign stamp for currency among mankind. He added, improved, renewed.

Poe undoubtedly did the same to some degree. Several of his themes, or at least the sufficient suggestions of several, can be found in earlier authors whom he must have read without more than a shadow of doubt to the contrary. And some of the scientific data which he introduces in certain places are taken almost bodily with just a bettering of a phrase here and there from current scientific works; in one case, even, from the Encyclopædia Britannica.

For his horrible “Murders in the Rue Morgue” it is by no means improbably he got the hint of the baboon as a murdering, which Mr. Kipling has improved upon in his ghastlier story, “Bimi,” from an actual incident reported seven years previous in the Shrewsbury Chronicle, as Mr. W. F. Waller has pointed out. The story is of a “ribbon-faced baboon” owned by some itinerant showmen which, it was opined, had been taught to commit robberies at night by climbing up places inaccessible to men, and thereby gaining an entrance through the bedroom window. A Shrewsbury dame was attacked one night by this animal and so fiercely that her husband, coming to the rescue, was fain to let it escape.

Of course, it is well-nigh impossible to settle absolutely that Poe in his reading ran across this fact, and such an idea as this, which makes the dominant of insinuated horror in the tale under consideration, might easily have occurred to any imaginative mind familiar with the prodigious muscular strength and ferocity of the anthropoid ape. But for some of the local coloring, and at least one of the fine touches, in “A Tale of The Ragged Mountains” there can be no shadow of doubt Poe was indebted to Macaulay’s essay on Warren Hastings, published October, 1841, in The Edinburgh Review; unless it could be established that Macaulay was never in Benares and took his facile description from a source to which Poe had equal access. For Poe published his “Tale of the Ragged Mountains” in Godey’s Lady’s Book April, 1844, and it is not likely that so capital a short story should have gone begging among American editors for over three years, because Poe’s powers as a story-teller were fairly well understood at that period. The parallelisms are far too marked in the following passages to be explained away by any theory of curious coincidences: [page 83:]


“On every hand was a wilderness of balconies, of verandas, of minarets, of shrines and fantastically carved oriels. . . . . Besides these things were seen on all sides banners and palanquins, litters with stately dames close-veiled, elephants, gorgeously caparisoned, idols grotesquely hewn, drums, banners and gongs, spears, silver and gilded maces. And amid the crown and the clamor and the general intricacy and confusion — amid the million of black and yellow men, turbaned and robed and of flowing beard, there roamed a countless multitude of holy filleted bulls, while vast legions of the filthy but sacred ape clambered chattering and shrieking about the cornices of the mosques or clung to the minarets and oriels.



“It was commonly believed that half a million of human beings were crowded into that labyrinth of lofty alleys, rich with shrines and minarets and balconies and carved oriels, to which the sacred apes clung by the hundreds. The traveler could scarcely make his way through the press of holy mendicants and not less holy bulls.

* * * * *

“Beyond the limits of the city arose in frequent and majestic groups the palm and the cocoa, with the other gigantic and weird trees of vast age; and here and there might be seen a field of rice, the thatched hut of a peasant, a tank, a stray temple, a gypsy camp, or a solitary graceful maiden taking her way with a pitcher upon her head to the banks of the magnificent river.”


“The burning sun, the strange vegetation of the palm and the cocoa tree, the rice field, the tank, the huge trees, older than the Mogul empire, under which the village crowds assemble, the thatched roof of the peasant’s hut . . . the drums, the banners and gaudy idols, the devotees swinging in the air, the graceful maiden, with her pitcher on her head, descending the steps to the riverside, etc.”


Is it not a just inference from the italicized places (and there are other points that might be added, were they needed) that Poe plagiarized the local color he wanted for a portion of his narrative from the famous English essayist? It may comfort some of the many who have stolen from Poe to find that on occasion he would do such a thing and in so marked a manner; but it will be noted that, even here, are some fine retouches of intensification in the movement and coloring, besides a very considerable editorial improvement of the Englishman’s English.

Poe could afford, perhaps, in the press of his life to do a thing like this occasionally, but his admirers naturally would rather he had not done it so complacently and so obviously; more especially, when one reflects that as a critic Poe was always ready to fling a thunderbolt of Olympian wrath against petty plagiarists; indeed, he was even so rude and rabid as to attack Professor Longfellow with unnecessary violence for his graceful resettings of the poetic jewels of others and for his facile adoptions of literary manners and methods. Professor Longfellow’s lack of original power, however, never disturbed the public then any more than it does now. He pleased by a certain modesty of character, which was reflected in his rhymes; by an ease of utterance and by a simplicity of domesticity, shall we say? that went home to the average mind, or “the bourgeois bosom,” as one writer amusingly puts it. Few outside of literary circles cared a rap whether the amiable Cambridge Professor was a thoroughbred, a born poet of imperative impulse, or merely a gentleman of broad literary culture and refined taste who had learned to poetise pleasantly.

But while thus connoting Poe’s bit of plagiary in this particular instance, it would be manifestly unjust not to comment to some extent on the original features of “A Tale of The Ragged Mountains” and the quiet power of style with which the theme of reincarnation is therein handled. Poe was a master of quietude as well as of intensity, of the [column 2:] lingering delicate touch as of the swift, strong stroke; and in this play of his imagination there is a peculiarly happy blend of light and shadow, while the climactic passage is highly original in its reinforcement of the created and explained mystery by the apparently almost accidental addition of a curious coincidence, offered by a common and otherwise commonplace occurrence. Poe could be parsimonious of his artistic effects, or lavish, just as he chose.

But his unique power in differentiating his treatments of related and often closely related themes in even more wonderful to my mind than his intense clarity of primal conception and his variety in the invention of illuminative incidents for the building up of his conceptions to harmonious wholes, firm and massive and almost always with an aerial apex of rememberable finish.

In several instances he treats the reader to a first and second climax; or he reaches a climax, as in “The Gold-Bug,” at the discovery of the treasure and then in explaining it logically gains a second, of a reflective kind.

In “A Tale of The Ragged Mountains,” as the student of literary values will readily see, he might have closed with the introduction of the sangsue (or poisonous leech of serpentine character and resembling the serpentine Indian arrow which killed Oldeb in Benares) as the immediate cause of Bedloe’s death after his weird experience in the West Virginia Mountains. That would have been a climax — is, indeed, a first-rate climax: but Poe lightly tosses another one upon it — and such an easy, natural, realistic one, too, that it delights almost like a humorous touch relieving the pressure of a difficult situation, while at the same time it cunningly heightens the quintessential queerness, the suggestive subtlety of this delicately brilliant story. Lowell, writing of Poe before they fell apart, says of “The Fall of The House of Usher,” that, had Poe written nothing else, it would have been enough to have stamped him as “a man of genius and the master of a classic style.” That is indeed, a far greater, because grander, story of “serene and sombre beauty in concept” and color-scheme and is told in a style of towering power; but one could speak in a somewhat similar vein concerning “A Tale of The Ragged Mountains,” even with full admission of the plagiary of color in its Oriental scene; for it reveals Poe’s exquisite mastery over his materials, his flow and glow of language, and his never-surpassed innate faculty of communicating as fact that universal sense of the occult which is no dream, though it relates itself, perforce, to dreams and visions.

If the doctrine of the indestructibility of individuality be a delusion, Poe must hold rank as the most logical and most convincing of dreamers. If there be such a thing in men, or in any man, as an immortal soul, Poe must be accounted one of its noblest, although unordained, proclaimers and priests. In others of his graver stories one could point out the metaphysical and religious value of his contributions to the cause of reasoned spirituality, now meeting an organised pressure from the ranks of a crass and scientifically bigoted Materialism, and could easily show what a large debt is owing to this long-abused and [page 84:] imperfectly understood artist by that conservative portion of society which has been absurdly taught to regard him as an Ishmaelite, chiefly because in his latest adventure amid the “Ragged Mountains” of this world Poe, the man, so often fell by the wayside and the Griswolds and Gilfillans threw stones at him from a safe distance.



In referring to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” as “horrible,” Mr. Austin intended to evoke the sense of fear inspired by the tale, and not to dismiss the quality of the story. In calling Longfellow “a Cambridge Professor,” Austin refers to Cambridge, MA. To avoid confusion with the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, this reference was changed in the later version to “a Harvard Professor.” Many other small changes scattered throughout the article are primarily minor stylistic touches.

A version of this article was subsequently used as the preface to one of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” published by R. F. Fenno in 1899. That set was apparently printed at the end of 1899, and is reviewed in Dial for January 16, 1900.


[S:1 - LIT, 1899] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe as a Plagiarist and his Debt to Macaulay (H. Austin, 1899)