Text: Anonymous, “Tennyson, Poe and Shaw,” the Academy (London, UK), vol. 76, January 13, 1909, pp. 703-704


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[page 703, column 1: continued:]

TENNYSON, POE AND SHAW

MR. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW would appear to be arriving at somewhat hasty conclusions with respect to Mr. George Bernard Shaw. As we pointed out in these columns last week a certain friend and humble admirer of his has taken the trouble to place him upon “a recognised and unassailable critical throne.” We have most of us heard of the imaginary lion which runs round the world. Mr. Shaw’s recognised and unassailable critical throne is just as illusory, and even a great deal less true to the imagination. But Mr. Shaw is pleased with “recognised” and delighted with “unassailable,” and he has lost no time in sitting down upon thin air, as it were. To his hand, of course, “ready, aye, ready,” and willing as Barkis, there are journals — the penny Socialist weekly, and the Nation, which is a mere Radical print at sixpence. In the penny Socialist weekly Mr.. Shaw has been accustomed to toy tenderly with his aforesaid humble admirer. For his high critical fulminations, however, he prefers the Nation, probably because if is sixpence, and therefore fivepence “heavier,” and fivepence more “influential” than its vapid penny contemporary. We do not know, of [column 2:] course, but we wonder if some time last week Mr. Shaw wrote to Mr. Massingham as follows

My dear Massingham, — As you will gather from the Illustrated London News I now occupy a recognised and unassailable critical throne. Poe is about just now. Might I put the comether over him for you at the usual rates. Of course, Orage will be glad for me to do it; but — well, there you are.

Thine,  
G. B. S.

To which Mr. Massingham may conceivably have replied:

Mon cher Confrère, — Certainly. Make it two pages, and be quite sure I have the copy by Wednesday morning without fail, please.

Yourn,  
W. H. M.

In any case, under the head of “Life and Letters” — which we seem, by the way, to recognise — there duly appeared in the Nation of Saturday an article nobly entitled “Edgar Allan Poe,” and modestly signed “G. B. S.” We cannot suppose for a moment that when Mr. Massingham commissioned or agreed to accept Mr. Shaw’s panegyric, he expected to get his money’s worth in the shape of criticism, explication, or appraisement of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. Nowhere in his three columns and a half does Mr. Shaw say a word as to the only point which should really concern your recognised unassailable critic — namely, Poe’s poetry. The reasons for this omission are not far to seek, and we may set them down simply to want of capacity. It is impossible for Mr. Shaw, or any other person of his peculiar temperament, to have any opinion of poetry at all. The sixth sense of the Socialist is not for poetry, but for property. Socialism and poetry, like Socialism and religion, may be counted plain contradictory terms. Of course, the Socialists will deny this, but we know. They possess no poet or critic of poetry at the present moment; they never have possessed a poet or a critic of poetry, and they never will possess a poet or a critic of poetry. And if they cry “Shelley,” as they are wont to do when it suits them, we have plenty of good answers for them. Meanwhile we must take the recognised and unassailable criticism of Shaw. This is how Mr. Shaw commences operations on Edgar Allan Poe:

There was a time when America, the Land of the Free, and the birthplace of Washington, seemed a natural fatherland for Edgar Allan Poe. Nowadays the thing has become inconceivable; no young man can read Poe’s works without asking incredulously what the devil he is doing in that galley. America has been found out, and Poe has not — that is the situation. But did he live there, this finest of fine artists, this born aristocrat of letters? Alas he did not live there; he died there, and was duly explained away as a drunkard and a failure, though it remains an open question whether he really drank as much in his whole lifetime as a modern successful American drinks, without comment, in six months.

We are informed, too, that “if the judgment Day were fixed for the centenary of Poe’s birth, there are among the dead only two men born since the Declaration of Independence whose plea for mercy could avert a prompt sentence of damnation on the entire [American] nation; and it is extremely doubtful whether these two could be persuaded to pervert eternal justice by uttering it. The two are, of course, Poe and Whitman.” Mr. Shaw’s unassailable critical position will be obvious. After his headline “Edgar Allan Poe,” he prints a pretty little asterisk, referring the reader to the bottom of the column, where we read “Copyright U.S. America, 1909.” Mr. Shaw knows full well what made him write the passages we have quoted. Plainly, his motive cannot have been a literary [page 704:] motive; neither can it have been a philosophical motive nor a sociological motive. The American people are a newspaper-fed people, and they pant after the sensation, even as Texas is understood to have panted for Taft. Mr. Shaw remembers dimly that his own “stupid” and “ill-bred” criticisms of Shakespeare have made considerable noise in America, and that his fame in that delightful country rests mainly upon them. His plays no doubt have scored in New York and, for anything we know to the contrary, in Ratville, Mo. But it is as the “Guy who hoodooed Shakespeare” that Mr. Shaw is dear to the cultivated, enlightened, democratic, ring-tailed American. And persiflage about Shakespeare being nowadays rather “played out,” Mr. Shaw hazarded his remarks about Poe and the common American’s capacity for strong drink, not to mention the Day of Judgment and a sentence of damnation upon the entire nation, purely with a view to the inevitable advertisement. Even as we write Mr. Shaw’s American confrères will be at it. We can see all the half-columns of headlines exactly as Mr. Shaw can see them :

SHAW SHOUTS A PÆAN

FOR POE,

BUT HE SAYS THAT

THE AMERICAN PEOPLE DRINK

MORE THAN POE DRANK,

AND THAT

THEY ARE ALL DAMNED.

The American people may not relish Mr. Shaw’s view of them, but every man jack of them will hear of it, and the great name of Shaw will be once more “wafted on the tongues of men from Coney Island to the Golden Gate, and from Nebraska to the southernmost Philippines.” And this, of course, is exactly what Mr. Shaw requires. If he had wished to praise Poe, we will do him the credit to believe that he could have praised him in some sort of passable literary way; if he had wished to condemn the Americans he would have done it in a pamphlet, or more probably in a play. But Mr. Shaw is palpably striving after neither of these desirable businesses, his single idea being that the time has once more arrived when Shaw must be talked about in America. Of course, if we are wrong, and Mr. Shaw really believes that his article on Edgar Allan Poe is a serious contribution to criticism, we can only say that he has succeeded in proving at the end of his own pen that he is the very worst critic in the world. Still further to rouse, inflame, egg on, provoke, capture, and otherwise compass the persons upon whom good advertising depends, Mr. Shaw pretends to make comparison between Tennyson and Poe. “Tennyson,” he says, “never produced a success that will bear reading after Poe’s failures. Poe constantly and inevitably produced magic where his greatest contemporaries produced only beauty. Tennyson’s popular pieces, ‘The May Queen’ and ‘The Charge of the Six Hundred’ (sic) cannot stand hackneying; they become positively nauseous after a time. ‘The Raven,’ ‘The Bells,’ and ‘Annabel Lee’ are as fascinating at the thousandth repetition as at the first.”

For our own part, if we were asked to choose between the two evils, we should prefer to hear for the thousandth time:

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volleyed and thundered,

than to hear even for the tenth time the “tintinabulation of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells,” and so on. Besides which nobody but a gauche and indiscriminate judge would compare “The Raven” with the “May Queen,” or “The Bells” with “The [column 2:] Charge of the Light Brigade,” or “Annabel Lee” with ‘either of them. And nobody but a critic like Mr. Shaw would forget that practically all of Poe that is worth remembering is popular in a slightly vulgar sense, whereas Tennyson has always been “popular” in the literary and proper sense. As for Tennyson never having “produced a success that will bear reading after Poe’s failures,” we are not acquainted with the precise bearing of the blessed substantive “success” as applied to a poem, but if Mr. Shaw means that Poe’s less distinguished lyrics are better poetry than, say, “The Lady of Shalott” (or to bring the argument within range of Mr. Shaw’s poetical outlook, better than “The Brook”), we shall take leave to assure him that he is most seriously in error — so seriously, in fact, that he should either withdraw the statement or nevermore hazard an opinion about poetry. Mr. Shaw will recognise that “nevermore” is the Raven’s word. It is a good word, though really not very poetical, and it does not rhyme with Shaw as the Socialist versifiers appear to imagine. For the rest, we are astonished that Mr. Massingham should allow Mr. Shaw to imitate the critical methods of Mr. Chesterton in the columns of the Nation. We have heard of men digging their graves with their teeth, but Mr. Shaw appears to have set to work in earnest to scratch his initials on a coffin-plate with his aforesaid “pen.” And as for recognised and unassailable critical thrones, we do not recognise Mr. Shaw’s affair; though dealing as we are with an Irishman, we have ventured to assail it.


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Notes:

The editor of The Academy was Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), perhaps best remembered today as the youthful companion of Oscar Wilde. He may well be the author of the present article. Although Douglas (as a member of the aristocracy) and Shaw (an admitted radical and socialist) represented very different economic principles, and could exchange very harsh words when they disagreed, the two men maintained a long and animated correspondence, and Shaw praised Douglas’s poetry and even loaned Douglas money.

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[S:0 - ACUK, 1909] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Tennyson, Poe and Shaw (Anonymous, 1909)