Text: George E. De Mille, “Poe as a Critic,” American Mercury, vol. IV, no. 16, April 1925, pp. 433-420


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[page 433:]

POE AS A CRITIC

BY GEORGE E. DE MILLE

IN 1845 the editor of Graham’s Magazine asked James Russell Lowell, the brilliant young critic from Boston, to write a review of some prose tales recently published by a young Virginian, Edgar Allan Poe. That editor deserves the thanks of posterity, for by his act he brought into contact the two greatest American critics of his day — perhaps, indeed of any day; the two fathers of American criticism.

There is a singular contrast between the two men. Lowell, the favorite son of the New England literary aristocracy, professor at Harvard, literary ambassador, lived on to be the nearest to a literary dictator America has ever seen, dying in 1891 as one of the grand old men of American letters. Poe, outcast and erratic, after struggling for a few years to make a bare living, died in the gutter, and was buried beneath a heap of Pharisaic censure. Like the fates of the two men have been the fates of their critical writings. Lowell has been the most widely accepted and quoted of American critics, but no two men seem able to agree as to the merits of Poe’s criticism. Opinions have been published ranging all the way from the supercilious sneer of Henry James — “probably the most complete and exquisite specimen of provincialism ever prepared for the edification of men’‘ — to Robertson’s sweeping statement that it “will better stand critical examination today than any similar work produced in America or England in his time.” Until twenty years ago, James’s view was rather generally received, but now, with the corning of another Younger Generation, it has become the fashion to sneer at Lowell and to laud Poe. Amid this welter of opinions [column 2:] one fact stands out clearly: Lowell is read. His phrases have passed into our histories of literature. His criticism is still on sale in the bookshops — or perhaps I should say used to be on sale, for the last few years have made considerable havoc in his reputation and influence. As for Poe, two essays, “The Poetic Principle” and “The Rationale of Verse,” are fairly well known, but save when disturbed by the occasional prowlings of the special student, the rest of his criticism gathers dust on the library shelves.

Reading Poe’s criticism has convinced me of two things: that he has something to say that is genuinely worth saying, and that he is never likely to gain an opportunity of saying it to the general reader. It is with the purpose of explaining these two opinions that I have undertaken this study. I wish here to examine Poe’s criticism in a more detailed and analytical fashion than has yet been done. In the course of this examination I think I can make it clear why his criticism, in spite of its great and peculiar merits, never has been read, and probably never will be read by any large number of people.

II

For convenience, I shall divide Poe’s criticism into two parts, according to whether he deals with a particular writer or is discussing a matter of general literary theory. A mere glance at the titles of his articles on individual authors reveals at once one of the main reasons why he is unread. By far the larger and more important part of Lowell’s criticism deals with classical authors — Spenser, Chaucer, Pope, Dryden, [page 434:] Gray, — but Poe offers nothing of the kind. Again, when Lowell undertakes to review contemporaries, he has an uncanny instinct for picking out the one man in a group of twenty contemporaries who is destined to survive. Practically every man on whom he has written at any length is still a living writer. Poe, on the contrary, treats every author who comes his way. As a result, Lowell is doubly sure of an audience. His essay on Chaucer is apt to be read both by those who are interested in Lowell and by those who are interested in Chaucer. The ordinary reader, to whom literature is a diversion, wants to know what Lowell has to say about “The Færie Queene.” But he cares very little what Poe has to say about Moore’s “Alciphron” or Seba Smith’s “Powhatan.” It is exasperating that so much critical intelligence should have been wasted in the consideration of men not worth bothering with. One ought not to use a sixteen-inch gun to shoot sparrows.

Turning, then, to Poe’s reviews — they are in the fullest sense reviews — let us look first at his critical method. In spite of his pronounced Romantic leanings, his criticism is in at least two important respects in the full Eighteenth Century tradition. It is invariably judicial. Poe has very definite opinions as to the merits of the authors he reads, and no hesitancy whatsoever about expressing these opinions flatly. And they always appear, not as the result of pure inspiration or of innate taste, but as reasoned conclusions from general principles. Does he wish to deny high poetic rank to Drake? He first sets up a distinction between fancy and the imagination. (All respectable critics from the time of Coleridge on had to make this distinction; it was a necessary part of their business. Poe is the only man I know who makes sense of it.) From it he proceeds to show that Drake’s poetry possesses only the lesser quality. Does he wish to form a judgment on Hawthorne’s tales? He preludes his essay by a definition of the prose tale. Does he wish to condemn the didacticism of Longfellow? [column 2:] He must first limit the respective provinces of truth and beauty in poetry.

No one could say of Poe, as has been so often said of modern reviewers, that he was not in the habit of reading the books he reviewed. Once he had made his definition, stated his general law, established his major premise, he proceeded in logical fashion to prove his case, not by vague generalizations, but by a most minute examination of the book under review. Nothing was too small to escape his critical eye, no detail too minute, no analysis too technical. Here, for instance, is his article on Longfellow’s “Spanish Student.” He begins by discussing the general theitne of the play, endeavoring to find out how far Long-fellow’s conception is original. From the theme, he proceeds logically to the plot. His first move is to give a synopsis of the whole story. Then follows a discussion of the irrelevancy of certain scenes, Poe taking pains in each case to show just why the incident in question adds nothing to the advance of the plot. After this, he points out half a dozen inconsistencies in the conduct of the story. Finally, he shoots the whole plot full of holes by naming incident after incident that is as old as the hills and as stageworn as the familiar missing will. The plot thus disposed of, Poe attacks Longfellow’s attempts at humor — mainly by the simple yet effective device of quotation without comment. Finally, the facts being all presented, he arrives with the utmost logic at the conclusion that the whole piece, while containing here and there a line of passable poetry, is as a play quite unworthy of any critical respect.

This attention to detail is highly characteristic of all his criticism. He never discusses poetry without delving into scansion, without noting bad rhymes, misplaced accents. He spends two pages in a review of “Horse-shoe Robinson,” calling attention to mistakes in punctuation. He is forever assailing authors for their errors in grammar. Here is a bit from an article on Bryant: [page 435:]

The five concluding lines of the stanza are not equally effective:

“When o’er the buds of youth the death-wind blows,

And blights the fairest; when our bitterest tears

Stream, as the eyes of those that love us close,

We think on what they were, with many fears

Lest goodness die with them, and leave the coming years”

The defects, here, are all of a metrical and of course minor nature, but are still defects. The line

“When o’er the buds of youth the death-wind blows”

is impeded in its flow by the final th in youth, and especially in death where w follows. The word tears cannot readily be pronounced after the final st in bitterest; and its own final consonant, rs, in like manner renders an effort necessary in the utterance of stream, which commences the next line.

Now all this makes Poe a good critic, but devilish hard reading. He is, and rightly, technical, but that is not all of criticism. It is not even the most pleasant part. It is, however, a necessary part. The foundation of judicial criticism, if the judgment is to be worth anything, must be an examination of technicalities. Unfortunately the ordinary intelligent reader, to whom literature is an amusement, is not interested in technicalities. A few pages of the sort of thing I have quoted puts him to sleep. And so Poe stays on the shelf.

III

I am sometimes inclined to divide critics into two classes — those who think and those who don’t. To the latter group — to return to the original antithesis — Lowell belongs. So long as he deals with questions of pure taste, so long as he remains in the region of feeling, he is safe. But when he tries to prove his case, to give reasons for his instinctive conclusions, the reader is in for a bit of high comedy. The man simply couldn’t think, and his attempts to do so are often downright funny. Poe is his exact .opposite. At first glance, one would unhesitatingly class the author of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Annabel Lee” as an emotionalist — and correctly. [column 2:] But when the emotionalist — or even the sensualist — can reason in any sort, he is apt to reason with unequalled power and clearness. Poe himself noted and commented on this frequent and yet surprising combination of faculties. “The reasoning powers,” he said, “never exist in perfection unless when allied with a high degree of the imaginative faculty.” In his tales, his poems, his life, Poe appears at first glance as the incarnation of the popular notion of the literary man — a creature of pure feeling, of sensitive, tingling nerves, unordered by reason. And yet this is the same man who offered to solve any cipher the readers of his magazine might devise — and succeeded.

In criticism it is his reasoning side that is always uppermost. Not that he makes the Eighteenth Century mistake of applying the test of common sense to everything in literature. He is too good a reasoner for that. He always allows — witness his theory of poetry — for the function of emotion. But he also sticks to this logical method, which has one defect — a very grave defect, indeed. He has in perfection the art of putting two and two together — but in criticism, unfortunately, two and two do not make four. They must be stretched to make five, or seven, or sometimes seventeen. A poem may be composed of four lines, but an examination of those four lines with respect to scansion, rhyme scheme, diction, and ideas, no matter how keenly and searchingly carried out, does not quite bring us to a complete and final judgment. After all the syllables have been counted, after all the ideas have been evaluated, we are still far from having reached our destination. To bridge the gap, the critic has nothing on which he can rely save his inborn literary instinct. And it is just at this point that Poe most often fails.

I believe that there has never been a critic of equal rank with Poe who has been equally unreliable in his literary judgments. His processes are admirable, but when it comes to the final step, his taste is subject to frequent and ridiculous aberrations. [page 436:] Speaking of contemporary English novelists, he asserts that he knows of “none that possess the power of Bulwer.” He goes even farther. “Viewing Bulwer as a novelist,” he grandly declares, “he is unsurpassed by any writer living or dead.” Southey is “great in every department of literature he has attempted.” And how it must gladden the heart of Henry van Dyke to hear this demi-god of the younger generation say of Tennyson, “In perfect sincerity I regard him as the noblest poet that ever lived.” But best of all his wild-cat admirations is his idolatry of Moore. Moore, he says, “is the most skilful literary artist of his day — perhaps of any day.” Of Moore’s “Alciphron” he remarks, in his sweeping fashion, “We could not point out a poem in any language which, as a whole, greatly excels it.” All this worries me. I am a professional student of literature; I am supposed to have a bowing acquaintance with most of the classics. And yet I had never before heard the name of this stupendous work !

Fortunately, Poe was not always like that. Most of his specific judgments were correct. He was one of the first critics in America to appreciate Dickens. He saw clearly that Bryant stood far above all the other American poets of his day. He hailed Longstreet’s “Georgia Scenes” as a “sure omen of better days for the literature of the South.” Four years after it was made, he retracted his first judgment of Bulwer, and placed that flashy gentleman among the second-raters. With exceeding critical tact, he separated the mountain of chaff in Longfellow from the small but precious half-bushel of poetry. And one of the keenest bits of critical analysis I remember having seen anywhere is his review of Macaulay’s “Essays.” In two pages, he gives us Macaulay in a nutshell — his clarity, his closeness of logic, his practical sagacity and fatal lack of depth, his dazzling luminousness that prevents our seeing the casuistry behind it — all set forth with a keenness and clearness unexcelled by Macaulay himself.

But, since Poe is always systematically [column 2:] judicial, his likes — whether right or wrong, are of less importance than his dislikes. Systematic judicial criticism is primarily a means, not of discovering truth, but of exposing error. The particular function of the judicial critic, the thing that he can do and that no one else can do, is the flagellation of bad authors. It is impossible to comprehend Poe’s position as a critic unless one understands clearly that he was a literary reformer. At about the same time Lowell was also setting out with the definite idea of raising the literary standards of America. In this work, Lowell was the evangelist, whose function it was to preach to the cultural heathen of America the gospel according to Chaucer and Spenser. Poe was rather the prophet, denouncing literary vice, and pointing the moral of his sermons by dealing out resounding thwacks on the heads of literary sinners. His text, as he himself stated it, was plain enough: “As a literary people, we are one vast perumbulating humbug. ... We should have no trouble in pointing out today some twenty or thirty so-called literary personages, who, if not idiots, as we half think them, or if not hardened to all shame by a long course of disingenuousness, will now blush, in the perusal of these words, through consciousness of the shadowy nature of that purchased pedestal upon which they stand. With the help of a hearty good will, even we may yet tumble them down.” Against humbuggery, quackery, puffing, against bad books and bad authors, Poe waged unceasing and bitter war. No one can accuse him of any slowness in bidding quacks go to the devil. Here are some of the critical bricks he hurled:

“The simple truth is, Mr. Downing never committed a greater mistake in his life than when he fancied himself a poet, even in the ninety-ninth degree.” [That for the illustrious author of ‘ ‘Powhatan, an Epic.’

“There are twenty young men of our acquaintance who make no pretence to literary ability, yet who would produce a bett book in a week.” [And that for the still remembered Captain Marryat.] [page 437:]

“As a history this work is invaluable; as a novel, it is well-nigh worthless.” [Oh, heresy! He is speaking of James Fenimore Cooper, the American Scott, the first great American novelist!]

“Without design, without shape, without beginning, middle, or end, what earthly object has his book accomplished?” [“Hyperion,” by the sainted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.]

“What is ‘The Vision of Rubeta’ more than a vast gilded swill-trough, overflowing with ‘Dunciad’ and water?”

“We readily forgive a man for being a fool if he only be a perfect fool — and this is a particular in which we cannot put our hands upon our hearts and say that Mr. Headley is deficient.”

Drake’s “American Flag,” which still survives in school readers, “owes its high and undeserved reputation to our patriotism — and not to our judgment.” But most charming of all are his verdicts on that gloomy bore, William Harrison Ainsworth. “The Tower of London” is “a somewhat ingenious admixture of pedantry, bombast and rigmarole. ... The writer keeps us in a perpetual state of preparation for something magnificent, but the something magnificent never arrives. ... If ever, indeed, a novel were less than nothing, that novel is ‘Guy Fawkes’.” I like that: I once read “Guy Fawkes”!

One might go on indefinitely with such quotations. For nearly eleven years this warfare against literary idiocy was the main business of Poe’s life. The Brook Farm colony, the novels of G. P. R. James, the Boston literary clique, even such consecrated objects as “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “Paradise Lost” receive attention from his critical flail.

IV

So much for Poe the reviewer. But I have not touched on the best side of his criticism. His particular excellence lies in his almost unique ability to apply a keen and marvellously logical thinking machine to [column 2:] the problems of literature. As I have tried to show, when it is a question of pronouncing on the merits of an author, intelligence is not enough. There Poe often fails. But criticism does not consist merely of bringing authors before a court of review and there passing judgment on their evil deeds. It has also its scientific side. Here Poe excels. Looking over as much of the field of literature as he knows, he constantly exercises his powers of analysis to induce from literary phenomena the general laws that govern them.

Before I go on to examine his contributions to literary theory, I must note one weakness that injured much of his work in that field. The task of the literary generalizer is analogous to that of the natural scientist. Gathering as many facts as he can amass, he must endeavor to discover in them some common denominator, some guiding principle. Obviously, the value of his generalization must depend considerably on the completeness of his collection of facts. Just here Poe is undoubtedly weak. He was in no sense of the word a scholar. In the English and American literature of his day he was quite thoroughly read, but of English literature previous to the Nineteenth Century he knew very little. His occasional dissertations on Latin prosody are highly revealing — of his ignorance of Latin literature. His knowledge of foreign literatures was almost a blank. I doubt whether there is a practicing critic of any standing today whose ignorance of many of the subjects essential to the proper carrying on of the trade is as profound as was Poe’s. That, with his incomplete knowledge, his theories were so generally sound, is the best evidence I know of the extraordinary power of his mind.

Let us look, first, at his theory of criticism. I believe I can best explain it by standing aside for an instant, and letting Poe speak for himself:

Of one who instructs we demand, in the first instance, a certain knowledge of the principles which regulate the instruction.

When we attend less to authority and more to [page 438:] principles, when we look less at merit and more at demerit, we shall be better critics than we are. ...

Criticism is not an essay, nor a sermon, nor an oration, nor a chapter in history, nor a philosophical speculation, nor a prose-poem, nor an art-novel, nor a dialogue. We would wish to limit literary criticism to comment on Art. A book is written, and it is only as the book that we subject it to review. With the opinions of the author the critic really has nothing to do. It is his part simply to decide upon the mode in which these opinions are brought to bear. And this art now no more than in the days of the “Dunciad” can, without neglect of its duty, dismiss errors of grammar, or hand over an imperfect rhyme or a false quantity to the proof-reader.

In general, we should not be overscrupulous about niceties of phrase, when the matter in hand is a dunce to be gibbeted. Speak out — or the person may not understand you. He is to be hung? Then hang him by all means; but make no bow where you mean no obeisance, and eschew the droll delicacy of the Clown in the play — “Be so good, sir, as to rise and be put to death.”

Unless I am very much mistaken, there is a complete theory of criticism contained in these brief passages. Furthermore, I think I have demonstrated that Poe, unlike the vast majority of critics, actually stuck to his system. I don’t believe that his system is all there is of criticism; but at least it is coherent, and he consistently and constantly followed it.

Underlying all his theories there is an implicit division of literature into two classes — one appealing mainly to the intelligence, the other directed purely at the emotions. In the first class we find the novel and the drama, in the second the short story and the lyric. The longer forms of poetry, it will be noted, have no place here; Poe does not recognize the long poem as a literary form at all.

Although a good half of his reviews deal with novels, his theory of the novel is less complete than his theory of any other form. But one can still reconstruct the outlines of it from his random observations. Of plot, he has a very high notion, as his definition shows; it is “that in which no part can be displaced without ruin to the whole.” Plot is to him not merely a vehicle for carrying along a number of characters, but an end in itself. He is interested in it as a manifestation of the author’s [column 2:] skill; the pleasure he gets from it is the purely intellectual delight of contemplating good workmanship. But he realizes, nevertheless, that plot is not essential to the novel. If it lacks such a complex and carefully constructed framework, it should be “a work of genuine realism.” Unfortunately, he did not define what he meant by realism. I should like to hazard a guess that he vaguely anticipated the modern distinction between realism and naturalism. Such a statement as the following, taken in conjunction with his frequent remarks about truth and nature in the novel, seems to point that way: “In my view, if an artist must paint decayed cheeses, his merit will lie in their looking as little like decayed cheeses as possible.” However that may be, we find Poe invariably criticising novels for one of two faults — inconsistency of plot, or unnaturalness of characterization.

V

Akin to his theory of the novel is his theory of the drama. I have experienced a good many surprises in reading his criticism, but I think the greatest came when I ran across his dramatic reviews. No one, as far as I am aware, has ever mentioned Poe as a theorist of the drama. Quantitatively, he had very little to do with the drama; there are only eight dramatic reviews, totaling some fifty pages, in the whole six volumes of his collected criticism. Yet these bits of articles contain the elements of a complete theory of the theatre. They are easily seventy-five years in advance of their time.

Alone in his day, Poe realized that the drama is, of all literary forms, the one that calls loudest for realistic treatment. He is continually demanding greater reality on the stage, continually attacking theatricality in all its forms — the hackneyed plot, the standard tricks of melodrama, the artificial expository device, the set type of character, all of which belonged to the stock in trade of the professional dramatist of his day. Although a lover of plot for plot’s sake, or, better, plot for construction’s sake, he declares that the complicated intrigue is a mistake. “It is not an essential. In its intense artificiality it may even be conceived injurious in a certain degree (unless constructed with consummate skill) to that real life-likeness which is the soul of the drama of character.” Thus in a sentence he anticipates the realistic and naturalistic movements of 1880 and 1890.

Still more remarkable, he has the courage to apply the test of reality to the classics of the theatre. It is a fairly well-known fact in literary history that during the first half of the Nineteenth Century the drama in England and America was stunted, almost killed, by that exaggerated worship of the Elizabethans introduced by Charles Lamb, and carried to its reductio ad absurdum by Swinburne. In 1844 Lowell brought this doctrine of Elizabethan perfection to America in his excessively laudatory chapters on Ford and Chapman in “Conversations on Some of the Old Poets.” But in 1845, when this religion was at its undisputed height, Poe remarked, casually, in the course of a two-page notice of Hazlitt: “The drama has not declined as many suppose: it has only been left out of sight by everything else. We must discard all models. The Elizabethan theatre must be abandoned. We need thought of our own — principles of dramatic action drawn not from the old dramatists but from the fountain of a nature that can never grow old.” Thus by seventy-five years he anticipated William Archer. Not only did he attack in this fashion the demi-gods of early Romanticism; he even strolled into the temple and disrespectfully thumbed his nose at the deity itself — he dared to question the celestial perfection of Shakespeare. “We talk of Hamlet the man,” he said, instead of Hamlet the dramatis persona — of Hamlet that God, in place of Hamlet that Shakespeare created. It is not then the inconsistencies of the acting man which we have as a subject of discussion (although [column 2:] we proceed as if it were, and thus inevitably err) but the whims and vacillations, the conflicting energies and indolences of the poet.” That sort of common sense is common enough now, but it was shocking heresy in 1845.

In one other respect Poe showed himself, as a dramatic critic, far ahead of his time. Paying no attention to the horrible distinction, common in his day and throughout the greater part of his century, between the literary drama, written only to be read, and the acted drama, a thing not to be considered seriously by true critics, he treated all drama as something devised for actual performance on a stage. On one occasion, he received for review a copy of a forgotten play by a forgotten authoress —. Mrs. Mowatt’s “Fashion.” He read it, and wrote his review. On the next night he went to see the play performed, found that many of his impressions received from reading were wrong, and wrote a second review, correcting his first judgments in the light of the stage performance. Carrying the same principle to its logical conclusion, he condemned on the one hand revivals of Greek tragedy, and declared, on the other, that the so-called “dramatic poem,” the pet of Byron, Tennyson, and Browning, was a bastard form.

VI

Poe has been called the inventor of the short story, but the ascription is highly doubtful. Certainly, however, he was the first critic to discuss the short story as an independent literary form. His half-dozen pages of theorizing on the subject are as important to the theory of the short story as is Aristotle’s “Poetics” to the theory of the drama. Every work that has been written on the same subject since his time has either amplified or contradicted his notion. This notion is, in brief, that the short story should be constructed with the single aim of producing one single effect, evoking one single mood. Its particular characteristic, its particular virtue is in its [page 440:] unity, its air of totality. Everything in the story should contribute to this effect. The result should be, what the novel because of its length cannot be, a perfect and complete work of art. On this’ tiny foundation of theory has been built the enormous structure of the modern short story.

Now, all the literary doctrines I have so far noted have one characteristic in common. They are all purely incidental or casual in their nature. That, I think, is the main reason why they have been so generally overlooked. They are buried away in the most inaccessible places; one plods through page after page of plot summary and grammatical fault-finding to come suddenly upon one brief, flashing sentence that kills, once and for all, some senile literary fallacy, or states, with as near finality as is possible in such matters, a lasting law of literature.

I have left untouched Poe’s most important body of literary theory — his principles of poetry. I intend to leave it untouched. As I remarked at the beginning of this study, two of his critical essays are fairly well known — “The Poetic Principle,” and “The Rationale of Verse.” They constitute together the only fully developed body of literary theory he left to us. In the first of these essays, he lays down his general ideas as to the aims and ends of poetry. In the second he works out a system of poetic mechanics. The two can be found in almost any anthology of American prose, in almost any collection of critical essays. Whoever is interested may hunt them out for himself. As examples of literary theorizing they are almost without equal — tantalizing samples of what Poe could do when he tried. The man really had something to say. Given leisure, given twenty years more in which to remedy his ignorance, given even a decent home and a “living wage,” there were no limits to what he might have done.

Even as he was, he remains a great critic. He raised bumps on the heads of more literary idiots than any other man of his time. He was the first critic of the Nineteenth Century to formulate a consistent and comprehensible theory of criticism. He laid down principles of the drama that we are just now beginning to have sense enough to follow. He made the short story a respectable form of literature. Finally, he worked out in its entirety the most complete and logical theory of poetry that has yet been written down, topping it with a prosody that knocks the syllable-counting system of Latinizing pedants into a cocked hat. Not a bad life’s work, after all.

 


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - AM, 1925] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Poe as a Critic (De Mille)