Text: Killis Campbell, “Contemporary Opinion of Poe,” The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (1933), pp. 34-62 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 34:]

CONTEMPORARY OPINION OF POE(1)

I

A DIVERSITY preparation of opinion has been expressed as to Poe’s contemporary vogue, but the view has been widely held that he was but little esteemed in his own day. Thus so distinguished a scholar as the late Sir Walter Raleigh, of Oxford, in a letter addressed to the celebrators of the Poe centenary at the University of Virginia (1909), makes the statement that Poe was “barely recognized while he lived.”(2) Baudelaire, who did more than any other to light the flame of Poe’s reputation abroad, held that Poe had been cruelly neglected by his fellow-countrymen;(3) and a similar view has been held, I believe, by most other Frenchmen. In America, too, there has long existed a tradition that Poe was but little appreciated while he lived, — a tradition that has flourished especially in the South, though it has not been confined to the [page 35:] South.(1) On the other hand, some of the ablest of our students of Poe have held that this tradition is without any substantial basis in fact. The lamented Professor Charles F. Richardson, for instance, in one of the most sympathetic and discriminating essays that we have on the Southern poet, asserts that it is “a serious mistake” to assume that Poe was unpopular in his own day.(2) And Professor W. P. Trent, a no less eminent authority on our literary history, has recorded the belief that “Poe is no exception to the rule that the writers who really count began by counting with their contemporaries.”(3)

With a view to ascertaining the facts in the case — of discovering, if possible, just what the attitude of Poe’s contemporaries toward him was — I have entertained myself at off hours by collecting from the periodicals of Poe’s time the principal comments on his work that I have come across in the course of my browsings. I have also taken account of such contemporary evidence as I chanced to find in letters and other manuscripts belonging to this period, and likewise of the chief critical judgments called out by [page 36:] Poe’s death and by the publication of his collected works.(1) Naturally I have confined myself mainly to American periodicals,(2) but I have also taken account of the more significant among the contemporary foreign criticisms that have come under my notice.(3)

The conclusions which these contemporary judgments [page 37:] seem to warrant may be summarized as follows:

1. That as poet Poe was not held in very high esteem by his contemporaries, and that he was all but ignored until after the publication of “The Raven” in 1845.

2. That as a writer of gruesome and fantastical tales he early achieved considerable local fame, and that before his death he had come to be generally recognized as one of the leading writers of short stories in America.

3. That it was as a critic that he was chiefly known in his day in America, though as a fearless and caustic and not always impartial critic rather than as a just and discriminating critic.

4. That his early reputation abroad, however, rested almost solely on his work as poet and romancer.

II

Poe’s first two volumes of poetry, the editions of 1827 and 1829,(1) — his first publications of any sort, so far as is now known, — appear to have fallen still-born from the press. There were, it seems, no reviews of the volume of 1827, the only public notice that appeared at the time being, apparently, the bare mention of the title in the monthly book-lists of two New [page 38:] England magazines(1) and in the “Catalogue of American Poetry” compiled by Kettell in his Specimens of American Literature.(2) And the only reviews of the second of these volumes that have come to my attention are the well-known advance notice published by John Neal in the Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette for December, 1829, a perfunctory judgment based mainly on excerpts from “Al Aaraaf” and “Tamerlane,”(3) and a more discriminating notice, attributed to Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, published in the Boston Ladies’ Magazine for January, 1830 (see J. H. Whitty in the New York Evening Post, August 13, 1921). There were, however, two contemporary notices of “Fairy-Land,” which appeared in the volume of 1829, that will serve to indicate the attitude of the press toward Poe. John Neal, in printing the poem in the Yankee, observes that, “though nonsense,” it is at least “exquisite nonsense”;(4) while N. P. Willis in the American Monthly Magazine for November, 1829,(5) in editorially rejecting the poem for publication, describes it as “some sickly rhymes.”

Of Poe’s third volume of verses, published in 1831 and containing among other things “Israfel,” “The [page 39:] City in the Sea,” and the early lyric “To Helen,” there was a brief notice in the Philadelphia Casket for May, 1831,(1) and a longer and more sympathetic notice, apparently by George P. Morris, in the New York Mirror of May 7, 1831, the reviewer observing that the language employed revealed “poetic inspiration” and that some of the lyrics possessed “a plausible air of imagination,” but that the volume exhibited a “general indefiniteness of the ideas,” “numerous obscurities,” and an occasional “conflict of beauty and nonsense.”(2)

In Cheever’s American Commonplace Book of Poetry (1831) Poe’s name did not appear among the three score poets there represented, and he was similarly ignored in several magazine articles on American poetry published in the thirties.(3) Here and there in the Southern Literary Messenger during the period of Poe’s connection with it (1835-1837), one stumbles upon some word of comment on stray poems of his published there; but these notices are invariably lacking in warmth; and it is plain that neither Thomas W. White(4) (the proprietor of the Messenger) nor any of his literary advisers, among whom he counted [page 40:] Beverly Tucker and John Pendleton Kennedy,(1) had any just conception of Poe’s capabilities as a poet.

A similar neglect attended the poet through his first New York period (1837-1838) and his Philadelphia period (1838-1844). He was not mentioned by Keese in his Poets of America (1838), nor by Bryant in his Selections from the American Poets (1840); and Griswold in his voluminous anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America (1842), included only three of his poems, although he made room for upwards of a dozen from Pierpont and more than a score from Percival. In a review of Griswold’s anthology by John Forster (biographer of Dickens) in 1844, Poe is held to possess genuine gifts as artist and something of spirituality, but to be too obviously imitative.(2) Henry B. Hirst, to be sure, in his sketch of Poe in the Saturday Museum of February 25, 1843, praises him at some length, declaring his poems to be “remarkable for vigor, terseness, brilliancy, and for their chaste and finished style”; but little importance attaches to a judgment proceeding from so undisguised a tool as Hirst was at that time.

The first contemporary notice of any importance in which Poe is conceded to possess more than ordinary merit as poet is that of James Russell Lowell in Graham’s Magazine for February, 1845(3) (published [page 41:] before January 29).(1) In a letter to Poe of May 8, 1843, Lowell had written: “Your early poems display a maturity which astonished me & I recollect no individual . . . whose early poems were anything like as good.”(2) In his notice in Graham’s(3) he reiterates this judgment, and then goes on to praise Poe’s lyrics for their melody, for their felicity of diction, and for the “fecundity of imagination” displayed by them, remarking of “The Haunted Palace” that he knew “no modern poet who might not have been justly proud of it.”

With the publication of “The Raven,” some ten days after the first publication of Lowell’s article, Poe came to enjoy for the time being a country-wide notoriety. The poem was copied far and wide in the press of America, and was generously received in England. Mrs. Browning wrote from London in 1846 that it had “produced a sensation” in England.(4) Willis pronounced it, on its first publication, “the most effective single example of ‘fugitive poetry’ ever published” in America. Briggs, who was presently to turn against Poe, described it in the Broadway Journal of February 8, 1845, as “a piece of verse which the best of our poets would hardly wish to disown.” A contributor to the New York Tribune of February 3, 1845, — possibly Horace Greeley, — declared that it would have “enriched Blackwood.” [page 42:] And the writer of a brief sketch of Poe in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier of July 25, 1846, remarked that “no American poem, for many years, has attracted, on both sides of the water, so much attention from the literary, critical, and general reader.”

But “The Raven,” despite its extraordinary reception, was powerless to establish for Poe an enduring hold on the poetry-reading public of his time; for when it reappeared in the fall of 1845 as the title-piece in a collective edition of Poe’s poetical works, the reviews were prevailingly unsympathetic. There was no notice of the volume in Graham’s, or in the Whig Review, or in the North American Review, and the notices in the Mirror (November 29, 1845) and the Democratic Review (December, 1845, and March, 1847) were brief. Margaret Fuller wrote in the New York Tribune (November 26, 1845) that “The Raven” was a “rare and finished specimen,” but was apparently intended “chiefly to show the writer’s artistic skill.” Reviews in the Knickerbocker (January, 1846) (1) and the London Literary Gazette (March 14, 1846) were wholly adverse, Lewis Gaylord Clark in the Knickerbocker savagely remarking of the poems in their entirety that he saw “no reason why they might not have been written at the age of ten.”

During the remaining years of his life — 1846 to 1849 — Poe’s reputation as poet underwent little change. “Ulalume,” like “The Raven,” went begging at first for a publisher;(2) an improved draft of [page 43:] “The Bells” was held in the editorial drawers of Sartain’s for nine months before publication; and most of Poe’s other poems belonging to this period were sold to an obscure Boston weekly, the Flag of Our Union, with which the poet confessed to Willis he was ashamed to have any connection.(1) There was favorable mention of the poems in P. P. Cooke’s continuation of Lowell’s sketch in 1848;(2) Lowell himself, in the same year, though he had lost faith in Poe as a man, generously pronounced him, in that most famous of all contemporary judgments, to be “three fifths . . . genius ”; Willis stood ready to puff any new poem as it appeared; and Griswold on publishing revised editions of his Poets and Poetry of America admitted a larger and larger number of his poems, until a total of fourteen was reached in the year of Poe’s death. But the public, in so far as it was interested in Poe at this time, was mainly concerned with his prose writings and with certain regrettable lapses in his personal conduct that marked this period of his career.

During the decade immediately following the poet’s death there were numberless articles in the American press dealing with his life and work, and there were articles also in a dozen of the English magazines. These differed widely in their appraisal of his work as poet, but they contained little wholehearted commendation. “All his poetry . . . was mere [page 44:] machine work,” wrote Briggs in Holden’s Dollar Magazine.(1) Ripley, in the New York Tribune,(2) declared that the “prevailing characteristic” of his poems “was an extreme artificiality.” Griswold, while praising the construction of his poems, objected that they evinced “little genuine feeling” and displayed “an absence of all impulse.”(3) “He perpetually reminds us of something we have read before,” observed the writer of an extended notice in the Edinburgh Review(4) in discussing his poems. And Chivers, in 1853, ruthlessly charged Poe with having pilfered from his strangely unequal jingles materials used in “The Raven” and other lyrics.(5) Daniel, the Richmond editor and diplomat, wrote in the Southern Literary Messenger of March, 1850(6): “Among all his poems, there are only two or three which are not execrably bad.” “Few of his poems . . . will live with his land and language,” declared Savage in the Democratic Review for February, 1851.(7) Stoddard wrote, in the National Magazine of April, 1853:(8) “Save the ‘Raven,’ and one or two similar poems, the sooner the mass of [his poetry] dies the better for his reputation.”

Among the scattering notices commendatory of Poe as poet may be mentioned an article in Chambers’s [page 45:] Edinburgh Journal (February 26, 1853), in which it is asserted that Poe was “unquestionably the most original imaginative writer America has yet produced,” and that “there is not a line in all his poetry which suggests the idea of imitation”; a notice by Willis in the Home Journal (October 27, 1849), in which he declared that “The Bells,” together with “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” and “The Haunted Palace,” afforded “unquestionably titles to an enduring reputation”;(1) a chapter by Powell in his Living Authors of America (p. 121), in which the opinion was expressed that “in a few years” Poe would be “considered one of America’s best poets”; and an essay by Leigh Hunt in the North British Review (August, 1852),(2) in which he gave it as his opinion that Poe was one of the four “most notable [poets] as yet produced by America.”

But no one can read the contemporary judgments on Poe without being convinced that he had not, at the time of his death, established himself in the minds of his countrymen as a poet of extraordinary worth;(3) [page 46:] and it is equally plain that he had not attained any considerable vogue in foreign lands.(1) [page 47:]

III

As a writer of tales Poe fared a good deal better with his contemporaries than he did as a poet. The first of his tales to be published, so far as we know, were five stories submitted in competition for a prize offered by the Philadelphia Saturday Courier in 1831.(1) These were published anonymously, in the Courier for 1832, and apparently attracted little if any attention, the prize being awarded (as an ironical fate would have it) to Delia Bacon. He was more successful, however, in his competition for a prize offered in 1833 by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter, winning this prize and receiving at the same time the public commendation of the judges, — John. Pendleton Kennedy being one of their number, — who in making their official report(2) pronounced his tales to be “eminently distinguished by a wild, vigorous, and poetical imagination, a rich style, a fertile invention, and varied and curious learning,” and to be “very creditable to the rising literature of our country.” A year before this the editor of the Visiter (in its issue of August 4, 1832) had remarked of a manuscript volume of his tales submitted to him by Poe that “for originality, richness of imagery and purity of the style, few American authors in our opinion have produced anything [page 48:] superior.” And after his assumption of an editorial position with the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835, notices of his stories came thick and fast. In these notices which were industriously collected by the proprietor of the Messenger, and published in appendixes to certain issues of the magazine(1) — there was liberal praise of his early work as a writer of stories. Praise was also forthcoming through the medium of personal letters. Kennedy wrote, in introducing Poe to White, that the “young fellow” was “highly imaginative” (though “a little given to the terrific”).(2) Paulding wrote in 1836: “Mr. Poe [is] decidedly the best of all our young writers; I don’t know but I might add all our old ones, with one or two exceptions.”(3) And Beverly Tucker expressed the opinion as early as November, 1835, that Poe had “been already praised as much as was good for him.”(4) Dispraise, such as there was, rested on the ground of his extravagance, the excess of the “unnatural and the horrible,” of “German enchantment and supernatural imagery.”

On the other hand, American publishers, both at this time and later, were chary of bringing out any collection of Poe’s tales, H. C. Carey (on behalf of Carey and Lea) explaining in a letter to Kennedy of November 26, 1834, that the demand for such “little things” was slight and the “produce” from them [page 49:] “small.”(1) Nevertheless, the Harpers were prevailed upon in 1838 to publish his longer story, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and the next year Carey and Lea brought out a two-volume collection of his stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.

Pym was but indifferently received, L. G. Clark, in the Knickerbocker for August, 1838,(2) complaining that the style was “loose and slip-shod” and that the plot was “too liberally stuffed with ‘horrid circumstance of blood and battle’”; while Burton, in his Gentleman’s Magazine for September, 1838,(3) expressed regret at finding Poe’s name “in connection with such a mass of ignorance and effrontery,” and declared contemptuously that “a more impudent attempt at humbugging the public [had] never been exercised.”

But the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, although the volumes had at first very small sale (less than 750 copies being disposed of during the first three years after publication),(4) appears to have been warmly received by the New York and Philadelphia papers.(5) Among the notices that appeared at this [page 50:] time was a highly complimentary review, by L. F. Tasistro, in the New York Mirror, which, inasmuch as it is one of the soundest contemporary judgments on Poe, may be quoted at some length.

Had Mr. Poe written nothing else but “Morella,” “William Wilson,” “The House of Usher,” and the “MS. Found in a Bottle,” he would deserve a high place among imaginative writers, for there is fine poetic feeling, much brightness of fancy, an excellent taste, a ready eye for the picturesque, much quickness of observation, and great truth of sentiment and character in all of these works. But there is scarcely one of the tales published in the two volumes before us, in which we do not find the development of great intellectual capacity, with a power for vivid description, an opulence of imagination, a fecundity of invention, and a command over the elegances of diction which have seldom been displayed, even by writers who have acquired the greatest distinction in the republic of letters.(1)

The poet’s heart was made glad, also, about this time by two complimentary letters from Washington Irving, to whom he had sent copies of some of his stories, Irving assuring him that the “graphic effect” of “The Fall of the House of Usher” was “powerful,” and that “William Wilson” possessed a “singular and mysterious interest” that was “well sustained throughout.”(2) [page 51:]

Further impetus was given to the growth of Poe’s fame as a romancer by his success in 1843 in winning, with his extraordinarily fine tale, “The Gold-Bug,” a prize of a hundred dollars offered by the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. Of this tale Poe made the claim a year later that over 300,000 copies had been put in circulation.(1)

His reputation as a writer of stories was doubtless overshadowed, in a measure, in 1845 by the sensation caused by the publication of “The Raven.” To his friend F. W. Thomas he wrote in May, 1845, with reference to the comparative popularity of “The Raven” and “The Gold-Bug,” that “the bird beat the bug . . . all hollow.”(2) He succeeded, nevertheless, in finding a publisher, in the summer of 1845, for a new edition of his tales. And this, too, was well received. The volume was reviewed at length in the American Whig Review of September, 1845,(3) being there pronounced “one of the most original and peculiar ever published in the United States,” and was warmly praised also in Graham’s Magazine (September, 1845) (4) and by Thomas Dunn English in the Aristidean.(5) There were notices, also, in the foreign press — by Martin Farquhar Tupper in the London Literary Gazette of January 31, 1846; by E. D. Forgues in the Revue des deux Mondes of October 15, 1846;(6) and by an anonymous reviewer (hardly Christopher [page 52:] North) in Blackwood’s for November, 1847(1) — each of which, though guarded in its praise of the volume as a whole, freely commended Poe’s power of analysis.

Among other contemporary judgments the most important is that of Lowell, who in his article in Graham’s(2) declared, with obvious reference to the tales, that Poe possessed “a faculty of vigorous yet minute analysis and a wonderful fecundity of imagination,” together with a “highly finished, graceful and truly classical” style. Important also is an article on the tale-writers of America by Rufus W. Griswold, in the Washington National Intelligencer of August 30, 1845, in which Poe was given a place in the forefront of American tale-writers, and was held to possess “a great deal of imagination and fancy” and to be a “consummate artist.” Griswold also wrote in praise of Poe in his Prose Writers of America (1847), declaring there his belief that it was as a writer of tales that Poe had “most reputation.” Hawthorne, also, testified at this time to his belief in Poe’s genius as a tale-writer, assuring him in a letter written in 1846 that he “could never fail to recognize [the] force and originality” of his stories.(3) On the other hand, the North American Review, in noticing Simms’s novels in 1846, incidentally refers to the 1845 volume of Poe’s tales as “belonging to the forcible-feeble and the shallow-profound school,” a judgment that was copied into the Knickerbocker with [page 53:] evident relish on the part of its editor.(1) And in a notice of the Tales copied in Littell’s Living Age for November 15, 1845 (No. 79, p. 343), an anonymous English writer, while admitting that Poe “could not possibly send forth a book without some marks of his genius,” complains that “Mr. Poe’s Tales are out of place,” and queries, “Why has Mr. Poe given us so much of the scraps and the worn-out thoughts of yesterday?”

Most of the notices published after Poe’s death spoke in praise of the tales. Henry B. Hirst in the Saturday Courier of October 20, 1849, declared that Poe was “unrivalled as a tale-writer.” Savage in the Democratic Review(2) ventured the prophecy that “as a prose writer he [would] go down to posterity with the full tide of reputation.” Lewis Gaylord Clark, in spite of his inveterate enmity to Poe, admitted that he possessed exceptional “constructive faculty,” “remarkable ingenuity,” and “vivid imagination.”(3) Others emphasized his originality.(4) Baudelaire in his famous sketch of 1856 dwelt on his gifts as artist, and in common with French critics of a later period made much of his powers of analysis.(5) Stoddard in the National Magazine (March, 1853) (6) spoke of him as a [page 54:] “profound artist,” and expressed the opinion that “The Fall of the House of Usher” was “the most admirable thing of the kind in the whole range of English literature.” Powell,(1) who conceded to Poe the gift of genius,(2) expressed the belief that he would after a few years “chiefly be remembered for his tales.”(3)

IV

But it was as critic, as I have said, that Poe was best known to his contemporaries in America. By this I do not mean that his book-reviews and other critical papers were felt to exceed in importance his poems or his tales: the consensus of intelligent opinion would have given first place in the matter of actual worth [page 55:] to his tales. Nevertheless, it is clear from the contemporary references to Poe that it was as critic and book-reviewer that he was most widely known to his generation in America: the mention of his name brought to the minds of his fellow-Americans of the thirties and forties of last century the idea, first of all, of book-reviewer and editor, rather than of tale-writer or of poet.

It does not affect the validity of this assertion to add that Poe was chiefly known as a fearless and caustic critic, rather than as a just and discriminating critic. Indeed, we shall find, I think, in the boldness and the occasional severity of his critical notices the secret of much of his contemporary vogue; for then, as now, it was the controversial and the spectacular that most readily caught the public fancy. And Poe’s criticisms, though far more just than his contemporaries could have brought themselves to admit, were in no small degree controversial in nature, — or, at best, calculated to arouse controversy, — and were from the beginning more caustic, I imagine, than anything that had preceded them in American letters.

As in the case of his tales, it was during his connection with the Southern Literary Messenger (1835-1837) that he first came into prominence as a critic. Where or when he had served his apprenticeship as a book-reviewer, we shall probably never know. There is no tangible evidence that he had published anything in the way of criticism before 1835, save the “Letter to B——” in the Poems of 1831. But by [page 56:] the end of his first year with the Messenger he had won for that magazine a place among the leading American critical journals and had brought about an increase in its list of subscribers but little short of miraculous.(1) His tales contributed in good part, no doubt, to this result, but it was his book-reviews and his scorching editorials that were mainly responsible; and it was these, even more than the tales, that attracted the newspaper critics of the time.(2)

His reputation as critic seems to have undergone some arrest in its development during his connection with Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1839-1840, owing, as he would have had us believe, to the “milk-and-water” policy of its proprietor. But he won fresh laurels for himself while editor of Graham’s Magazine (1841-1842), writing now some of the ablest of his critiques and earning for himself the almost uniform commendation of the Philadelphia press. Graham, in announcing his accession to his editorial staff, spoke of him as “a stern, just, and impartial critic” who held “a pen second to none in the country”;(3) Lowell wrote in praise of his critical work as early as 1842;(4) and Dr. J. Evans Snodgrass, a Baltimore [page 57:] editor of ability, declared in 1843 that his book-reviews were “unequalled in this country.”(1)

As critic Poe also came prominently before the public in 1845 and 1846. During most of 1845 he was either assistant editor or editor of the Broadway Journal, and in that capacity wrote, each week, critiques of the more important books appearing at that time. In the spring and summer of 1846 he published in Godey’s Lady’s Book his Literati. Of his reviews in the Broadway Journal some were very able; but in a number of his papers published there, notably the articles attacking Longfellow, and likewise in the Literati, he stooped to personalities of various sorts and displayed a spitefulness that cost him the esteem of some of his staunchest admirers and earned for him the disapproval of most of the influential men of the time. Indeed, the unhappy reputation that he made by these papers he found it impossible to live down during the few remaining years allotted to him

After 1846 he wrote nothing of importance as critic save “The Poetic Principle,” itself a revision in part of work earlier done.

In the notices of Poe published during his lifetime the trait in his criticisms that was most dwelt on was his severity. Before the end of the first year on the Messenger he had been taken to task by one of the Richmond newspapers for his “regular cutting and slashing”;(2) and he had been attacked earlier in the [page 58:] year by the New York Mirror,(1) in a satirical squib in which he figured as “Bulldog, the critick.” Burton reproached him in 1839 for the sharpness of his critical notices in the Gentleman’s Magazine.(2) Dr. Snodgrass described him in 1842 as “provokingly hypercritical at times”;(3) and in a notice of the Broadway Journal in April, 1845, he remarked that it “would be more significant to call this the Broad-axe Journal.”(4) George D. Prentice violently attacked the poet in 1843 in consequence of his contemptuous references to Carlyle.(5) And Clark, who had been “used up” in the Literati, kept up a continual fire at him for a year or more after these papers began to appear. In the Knickerbocker of May, 1846, he speaks of Poe as “‘The Literary Snob’ continually obtruding himself upon public notice; to-day, in the gutter, to-morrow in some milliner’s magazine; but in all places, and at all times magnificently snobbish and dirty.”(6)

Lowell suggested in his sketch in Graham’s(7) that Poe sometimes mistook “his phial of prussic acid for his ink-stand”; and he rebuked him in his Fable for Critics for throwing mudballs at Longfellow. The Brook Farm Harbinger in 1845(8) lamented the fact that Poe had taken to a sort of “blackguard warfare.” [page 59:] A contributor to the Talisman and Odd Fellow’s Magazine in September, 1846,(1) dubbed him “the tomahawk man” and “the Comanche of literature”; and the Philadelphia editor, Du Solle, remarked in 1847, “If Mr. P. had not been gifted with considerable gall, he would have been devoured long ago by the host of enemies his genius has created.”(2) In Holden’s Dollar Magazine for January, 1849 (then edited by C. F. Briggs), Poe is ridiculed in the following doggerel lines:(3)

With tomahawk upraised for deadly blow,

Behold our literary Mohawk, Poe!

Sworn tyrant he o’er all who sin in verse —

His own the standard, damns he all that’s worse;

And surely not for this shall he be blamed —

For worse than his deserves that it be damned!

 

Who can so well detect the plagiary’s flaw?

“Set thief to catch thief” is an ancient saw:

Who can so scourge a fool to shreds and slivers?

Promoted slaves oft make the best slave drivers!

Iambic Poe! of tyro bards the terror —

Ego is he — the world his pocket-mirror! [page 60:]

The articles published shortly after Poe’s death also made much of his defects as critic. The trait now most stressed was not his causticity, I think, but his disposition to allow his prejudices and personal likes and dislikes to color his critical judgments. Among the first to make this complaint against him was his early friend, John Neal.(1) Griswold declared in his “Memoir” that “his unsupported assertions and opinions were so apt to be influenced by friendship or enmity, by the desire to please or the fear to offend . . . that they should be received in all cases with distrust of their fairness,”(2) an opinion which was echoed by Clark in the Knickerbocker for October, 1850.(3) Even Graham admitted that Poe’s “outcry” against Longfellow was prejudiced and unjust.(4) A contributor to the North American Review(5) expressed the opinion that Poe was intensely prejudiced “against all literature emanating from New England.” Evert A. Duyckinck, in 1850, publicly lodged the charge of venality against Poe, declaring that he “was, in the very centre of his soul, a literary attorney, and pleaded according to his fee.”(6) Mrs. Gove-Nichols, also, in her novel, Mary Lyndon,(7) while apologizing for the poet’s weaknesses, admitted [page 61:] that he “sometimes sold favorable opinions, that were not opinions, but shams”; and Clark, in the Knickerbocker,(1) characterized him sneeringly as a “jaded hack who runs a broken pace for common hire.” Others complained of the over-minuteness of his criticisms and, in particular of his fondness for “verbal fault-finding.”(2)

Among those who wrote in praise of his work as a critic were Lowell, Horace Greeley, and Richard Henry Stoddard. Lowell in his sketch of Poe in 1845 declared that he was “at once the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works . . . in America.”(3) Greeley, after hearing his lecture on the American poets in February, 1845, praised him, in the columns of the Tribune, dwelling upon his candor and his acuteness, and pronouncing him a “critic of genius and established reputation.”(4) Stoddard declared in 1853, “No other modern, save Tennyson, [was] so versed in the philosophy of criticism.”(5) Willis praised him enthusiastically in the Mirror in 1845 and again in the Home Journal at the time of his death.(6) [page 62:]

V

It appears, then, that the tradition that Poe was neglected by his contemporaries is both true and false. That no one in his time believed him the genius that he is now generally reckoned to be is fairly evident. It is plain, too, that he was not esteemed in his lifetime at his true worth as a poet, although there was one transcendent year — that of the publication of “The Raven” (1845) — during which he was widely praised. But it is also clear that he early came to be favorably known as editor and critic; it is probable, indeed, that his gifts as critic were more widely recognized during his lifetime than they are to-day. And as a writer of tales, although he was slower in gaining recognition in America, it seems clear that he achieved fairly widespread recognition at home before he was thirty-five. That he did not win a larger following among his contemporaries is traceable to various causes, not the least among which was his own personal conduct, — in particular, his weakness for drink, — which many Americans found it impossible to ignore when they came to pass judgment on his accomplishments as a writer. Abroad his reputation began to develop with the publication in 1850 of Griswold’s first three volumes of his writings, and his vogue was heightened by the impression which early became current in Europe that he had been unfairly dealt with by his own people.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 34:]

1.  Reprinted, with revisions and additions, from the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, XXXVI, 142-166 (April, 1921).

2.  The Book of the Poe Centenary, ed. Kent and Patton, University of Virginia, 1909, p. 201.

3.  See the essay with which he prefaced his first series of Histoires Extraordinaires par Edgar Poe, Paris, 1856.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 35:]

1.  For echoes of this tradition see John R. Thompson in the Southern Literary Messenger, XV, 694 (November, 1849); J. M. Daniel, ibid., XVI, 184 (March, 1850); J. H. Hewitt, Shadows on the Wall, Baltimore, 1877, p. 41; C. L. Moore, in the Dial, xxvi, 40 (January 16, 1899); and the New York Times, August 11, 1918, p. 348 (an editorial in which the statement is made that Poe “fought a hopeless struggle against contemporary coldness and inappreciation”).

2.  Poe’s Works, ed. Richardson, I, xviii.

3.  Longfellow and Other Essays, New York [1910], p. 218. See also Macy, The Spirit of American Literature, New York, 1913, p. 127, and Woodberry in the Century Magazine, XLVIII, 866 (October, 1894).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 36:]

1.  The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, ed. R. W. Griswold, New York, 1850, 1856.

2.  Among the American periodicals that I have examined are the Southern Literary Messenger, the Richmond Enquirer (1826-1828, 1835-1837), the Richmond Whig (1835-1837, 1848-1849), the Richmond Examiner (1849), the Baltimore Minerva and Emerald (1829-1830), the Baltimore Republican (1831-1835), the Baltimore American (1832-1837), the Baltimore Patriot (1832-1837), the Baltimore Weekly Gazette (1832-1834), the Baltimore Young Men’s Paper (1835), the Baltimore American Museum, the Baltimore Saturday Visiter (1832-1834, 1841-1846), Atkinson’s Philadelphia Casket (1827-1840), the Saturday Evening Post (1829-1833, 1839-1840, 1850), the Philadelphia Saturday Courier (1831-1852), Godey’s Lady’s Book, the American Monthly Review, the North American Magazine, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, Graham’s Magazine, Alexander’s Weekly Messenger (1837-1838), the Philadelphia United States Gazette (1839-1844), the Dollar Newspaper, the Dollar Magazine (1840-1841), the Philadelphia Spirit of the Times (1845-1847), Peterson’s National Magazine (1845-1847, 1853), the New York Mirror, the New York Review, the American Whig Review, the Democratic Review, the Columbian Magazine, the New World, Post’s Union Magazine, Sartain’s Union Magazine, the Home Journal (1846-1860), the Literary World (1847-1853), the Nineteenth Century (1848-1849), Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion, the Broadway Journal, Holden’s Dollar Magazine (1849), the New York Tribune (1845-1846, 1849-1850), the Knickerbocker (1827-1855), the Brother Jonathan (1842-1843), the North American Review (1827-1860), the Dial, the Pioneer, the New England Magazine, the New Englander, the Waverley Magazine (1853), the Boston Notion (1843), the Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette (1827-1829), the Pittsburgh Literary Examiner (1839), the Western Quarterly Review (1849), and the Washington National Intelligencer (1845-1847).

3.  Studies of Poe’s vogue and influence in France have been made by Professor G. D. Morris in his Fenimore Cooper et Edgar Poe, Paris, 1912, pp. 67-208, and by Professor C. P. Cambiaire in his The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe in France, New York, 1927.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 37:]

1.  Tamerlane and Other Poems, Boston, 1827; Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, Baltimore, 1829.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 38:]

1.  The United States Review and Literary Gazette, II, 379 (August, 1927); the North American Review, XXV, 471 (October, 1927).

2.  III, 405. Published at Boston in 1829.

3.  The Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette, in, 295-298.

4.  Ibid., p. 168.

5.  I, 586-587. The volume of 1829 is said to have been reviewed by J. H. Hewitt in the Baltimore Minerva and Emerald (see Hewitt’s Shadows on the Wall, p. 41), but I have been unable to find this notice in any issue of the Emerald for 1830.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 39:]

1.  V, 289-290.

2.  The New York Mirror, VIII, 349-350.

3.  See the Edinburgh Review, LXI, 12-21 (April, 1835); the Southern Literary Messenger, IV, 85 (February, 1838); and the review of Cheever’s book in the North American Review, XXXIII, 297-324 (October, 1831).

4  See the Messenger for April, 1835 (I, 460), December, 1835 (II, 1), September, 1839 (V, 708), January, 1840 (VI, 126), September, 1840 (VI, 707-710), April, 1841 (VII, 310-313), July, 1841 (VII, 592).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 40:]

1.  For Kennedy’s references to Poe, see Woodberry, Life of Poe, I, 109-110,141-142,148-149.

2.  The Foreign Quarterly Review, XXXII, 321-322 (January, 1844).

3.  XXVII, 49-53.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 41:]

1.  On which date it was reprinted in the Evening Mirror.

2.  Woodberry, Life of Poe, II, 27.

3.  XXVII, 51,52.

4.  Poe’s Works, XVII, 229.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 42:]

1.  XXVII, 69.

2.  See Stoddard, Poe’s Works, New York [1884], I, 150.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 43:]

1.  Poe’s Works, XVII, 351.

2.  The Southern Literary Messenger, XIV, 34-38 (January, 1848).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 44:]

1.  IV, 765 (December, 1849).

2.  January 17, 1850.

3.  See his edition of Poe’s Works, III, xlviii.

4.  CVII, 426 (April, 1858).

5.  The Waverley Magazine, July 30, [[August 20,]] September 10, and October 1, 1853.

6.  XIV, 172.

7.  XXVIII, 171.

8.  II, 199.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 45:]

1.  See the article of T. O. Mabbott in Modern Language Notes, XXXV, 373 (June, 1920).

2.  XVIII, 395.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 45, running to the bottom of page 46:]

3.  The attitude of Poe’s fellow-craftsmen in America appears to have been much the same as that of the reading public at large. Both Lowell and Willis, as we have seen, early accepted Poe as a poet of exceptional ability. Whittier, in later years, ungrudgingly conceded to him the gift of genius (see a letter of September 21, 1875, published in Gill’s Life of Poe, p. 284). But Emerson was unable to see in Poe anything more than a facile rhymester, a “jingle man,” and was careful to omit him from his American Parnassus (1874). Bryant excluded him, as we have seen, from his Selections from the American Poets (1840), and in his Library of Poetry and Song (1871) admitted only four of his poems (“The Raven,” [page 46:] “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” and “For Annie”). Longfellow, while recognizing in him a man richly endowed both as poet and as prose writer (see the Southern Literary Messenger, XV, 696), thought of him, apparently, as a romancer first of all rather than as a poet (see a letter of his believed to have been addressed to Poe, quoted in part in Catalogue No. 27 of Robert H. Dodd, March, 1918, p. 8). Whitman, like Emerson, was disposed to think of Poe as a juggler of words and as overload of the spectacular and the gruesome, — though he came to think better of him in later years. See a statement made to Traubel (With Walt Whitman in Camden, III, 138-189) in 1888: “Do I like Poe? At the start for many years, not: but three or four years ago I got to reading him again, reading and liking, until at last — yes, now — I feel almost convinced that he is a star of considerable magnitude, if not a sun, in the literary firmament.” Simms wrote to Chivers in 1852: “He was a man of curious genius, wild and erratic, but his genius was rather curious than valuable — bizarre, rather than great or healthful” (the Century Magazine, LXV, 552); and George William Curtis wrote Mrs. Whitman in 1846: “I should much like to see anything really good of [Poe’s]” (the Atlantic Monthly, CXIV, 372).

Bryant, after Emerson, among all the American poets, appears to have had least admiration for Poe, being blinded, I suspect, by his belief that Poe was a bad man. To Miss S. S. Rice, of Baltimore, then engaged in an effort to raise funds for a memorial to Poe in that city, he wrote on November 6, 1865: “I am very unwilling to do anything which may seem disobliging, yet I cannot comply with the request in your note. . . . My difficulty arises from the personal character of Edgar A. Poe, of which I have in my time heard too much to be able to join in paying especial honor to his memory. Persons younger than myself who have heard less of the conduct to which I refer may take a different view of the matter, and, certainly, I do not intend to censure them for doing so. I think, however, that there should be some decided element of goodness in the character of those to whom a public monument directs the attention of the world” (the Baltimore Sun, January 17, 1909).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 46:]

1.  But see the article of A. Yarmolinsky in the New York Bookman, September, 1916 (xuv, 44 f.), in which we learn that translations of certain of Poe’s writings appeared in Russian periodicals “as early as the late thirties.” For Poe’s contemporary reputation in France, see G. D. Morris, Fenimore Cooper et Edgar Poe, pp. 80 ff., and C. P. Cambiaire, The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe in France, pp. 13 ff.; and for his vogue in Germany, F. Hippe, Edgar Allan Poes Lyrik n Deutschland, Minster, 1913, pp. 13 if.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 47:]

1.  See my article in the Dial for February 17, 1916.

2.  Duly published in the Visiter of October 12, 1833 (see the article of Professor J. C. French, in Modern Language Notes, XXXIII, 260 f. [May, 1918]). See, also, the slightly garbled version of this in the Southern Literary Messenger, I, 716 (August, 1835).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 48:]

1.  II, 133 ff., 341 ff., 517 ff. (January, April, July, 1836).

2.  Woodberry, Life of Poe, I, 110.

3.  The Southern Literary Messenger, II, 138 (January, 1836).

4.  Woodberry, I, 152.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 49:]

1.  The Sewanee Review, XXV, 197 (April, 1917).

2.  XII, 167.

3.  III, 211. A notice in like vein also appeared in the New York Mirror, August 11, 1838. From a letter from Harper and Brothers of February 20, 1839 (preserved among the Griswold Papers), it appears that less than a hundred copies of it were sold in America during the first year after publication, though it seems to have fared somewhat better in England.

4.  See the communication of Henry C. Lea to the New York Nation, XXXI, 408 (December 9, 1880).

5.  See the sheaf of complimentary notices collected at the back of the second volume of certain copies of the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque; and see also a letter of Poe’s of December 19, 1839 (Woodberry, I, 238).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 50:]

1.  New York Mirror, XVII, 215 (December 28,1839).

2.  See Woodberry, I, 216 f., and the notices appended to the second volume of the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Cf. also a complimentary reference by Willis in his Letters from Under a Bridge, London, 1840, p. 121.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 51:]

1.  Woodberry, II, 70. Whether Poe’s statement is to be accepted at face value is questionable.

2.  Ibid., p. 135.

3.  I, 306-309.

4.  XXVIII, 143.

5.  I, 316 ff. (October, 1845).

6.  XVI, 341-366.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 52:]

1.  LXII, 582-587.

2.  XXVII, 51, 52 (February, 1845).

3.  Poe’s Works, XVII, 233.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 53:]

1.  The North American Review, LXIII, 359 (October, 1846); the Knickerbocker, XXVIII, 452 (November, 1846).

2.  XXVIII, 171 (February, 1851).

3.  The Knickerbocker, XXXV, 163 (February, 1850).

4.  See Powell, Living Authors of America, New York, 1850, p. 132; G. W. Peck in the American Whig Review, XI, 307 (March, 1850); Gilfillan, A Third Gallery of Portraits, Edinburgh, 1854, pp. 380 ff.

5.  Histoires Extraordinaires par Edgar Poe, pp. 28 ff.

6.  II, 198.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 54:]

1.  Living Authors of America, p. 134.

2.  Lowell also had pronounced Poe a genius in his article in Graham’s in 1845 (xxvii, 52), and this judgment remained unaltered in the revised form of his essay published in the Griswold edition of Poe’s works (in, xii). Others who spoke of him in similar terms were Ripley (the New York Tribune for January 17, 1850), Gilfillan (A Third Gallery of Portraits, p. 880), and John M. Daniel (the Southern Literary Messenger, XVI, 172). But it is fairly plain that no one of these, except possibly Lowell, employed the word “genius” with the meaning that we commonly attach to it at the present time. Daniel, in his slashing way, while condemning Poe as a poet, assigns him the foremost place among American writers (ibid., p. 178), — though he does not make it clear whether he bases this judgment on his tales or on his critical and philosophical writings: at one point (ibid., p. 181) he asserts that Eureka was his “greatest work.”

3.  Of adverse criticisms that were made at the time, Duyckinck and Daniel complained of the lack of reality in the tales and of Poe’s “want of sympathy with the human kind”; Peck admitted that some of the tales were “too horrible”; Stoddard maintained that his tales were “by no means healthy.” Others complained of Poe’s lack of humor. And from Clark and Griswold there went up the old cry of plagiarism, notably in the case of “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 56:]

1.  The Broadway Journal, I, 183 (March 22, 1845); Poe’s Works, XII, 85.

2.  See the lists of newspaper notices printed in the Messenger in 1836 (II, 133 ff., 341 ff., 517 ff.), and see also the opening of his article on the poems of Drake and Halleck in the Messenger for April, 1836 (Poe’s Works, VIII, 275 ff.), and his reply to his critics in the Messenger of July, 1836 (ibid., pp. 333 ff.).

3.  The Saturday Evening Post, February 20, 1841.

4.  Woodberry, I, 345.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 57:]

1.  The Baltimore Saturday Visiter, July 29, 1843.

2.  See Poe’s letter to the Richmond Compiler of September 2, 1836; reprinted in Poe’s Works, VIII, xii — xv.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 57:]

1.  The Baltimore Saturday Visiter, July 29, 1843.

2.  See Poe’s letter to the Richmond Compiler of September 2, 1836; reprinted in Poe’s Works, VIII, xii — xv.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 58:]

1.  XIII, 324-325 (April 9, 1836).

2.  Woodberry, I, 241.

3.  The Baltimore Saturday Visiter, April 2, 1842.

4.  Ibid., April 26, 1845.

5.  See the Knickerbocker, XXII, 392 (October, 1843).

6.  Ibid., XXVII, 461.

7.  XXVII, 49-50.

8.  December 6, 1845, p. 410

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 59:]

1.  I, 105.

2.  The Philadelphia Spirit of the Times, January 8, 1847.

3.  III, 22; from a poem entitled “A Mirror for Authors” and dealing, somewhat in the manner of A Fable for Critics, with the chief American poets of the time. In another stanza Poe’s fondness for analysis and his habit of re-marketing his wares are held up to ridicule.

John R. Thompson, in his lecture on Poe (written apparently at some time in 1860, but not published until 1929), also dwelt on Poe’s severity as a critic. See his lecture The Genius and Character of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. H. Whitty and James H. Rindfleisch, Richmond, 1929, p. 8.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 60:]

1.  In a letter to Mrs. Mary Gove-Nichols, November 30, 1846, now among the Griswold Papers in the Boston Public Library.

2.  Poe’s Works, ed. Griswold, III, xlix.

3.  XXXVI, 372.

4.  Graham’s Magazine, XLIV, 222 (February, 1854).

5.  October, 1856 (LXXXXIII, 442).

6.  The Literary World, September 21, 1850.

7.  P. 340.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 61:]

1.  XXVIII, 368 (October, 1846).

2.  See, for instance, Griswold in the New York Tribune, October 9, 1849.

3.  Graham’s Magazine, XXVII, 49.

4.  New York Tribune, March 1, 1845.

5.  The National Magazine, II, 198-199.

6.  The Weekly Mirror, February 15 and March 8, 1845; the Home Journal, October 20, 1849. — John M. Daniel, in the Southern Literary Messenger, XVI, 183, while condemning his poems save for “The Raven,” wrote: “As a critic we prefer what remains of Edgar Poe to anything after Hazlitt.”

 


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:0 - KCMP, 1933] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (K. Campbell) (Contemporary Opinion of Poe)