Text: Margaret Alterton, “Chapter 02,” Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (1925), pp. 46-67 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 46:]


An examination of the Southern Literary Messenger, both before the time of Poe’s editorship and during that period, leads one to entertain the probability of his having consciously studied law methods to increase his critical ability and to give him in his own writing the power of convincing others. The evidence favoring this supposition is contained in a mass of material which apparently shows Poe asking advice of lawyers in literary matters; perusing law books with more than the casual reviewer’s care; and, in his critical comments, using a lawyer’s phraseology.

Early in his career Poe seems to have found men in the legal profession a congenial and instructive company. It is known that to Mr. William Gwynn, a member of the Baltimore bar, Poe sent his MS. of “Al Aaraaf.” William Gwynn was editor of a Baltimore paper, but it may have been the lawyer’s opinion as well as the editor’s that gave Poe so little encouragement for the light poetical vein of the early poem.(1) To Judge Beverly Tucker, to whom reference has already been made in a preceding chapter, Poe came to owe, as will later be shown, instruction in a method of literary criticism, and in principles of metrical theory. To John P. Kennedy, another Baltimore lawyer, Poe is known to have made a consistent and continual appeal for aid. Kennedy, it was, who first introduced him to the Southern Literary Messenger;(2) who charged himself with the first printing of the “Tales of the Folio Club”;(3) who, on receipt of Poe’s despairing letter, encouraged him to persevere in his literary work. Indeed, correspondence between Poe and Kennedy points to considerable intimacy between the two, in which Poe counts greatly on Kennedy ‘s advice, and frequently on his financial support. It may have been Kennedy therefore that drew Poe’s attention to Judge William Wirt(4) as a likely literary [page 47:] and legal figure well able to instruct an aspiring literary student. Certain evidence turns one toward this idea.

Kennedy, Poe’s friend and counsellor, professed to understand the secrets of Wirt ‘s preeminent success in his profession. Requested by the Baltimore bar, Kennedy delivered on the death of Wirt an address in which he dwelt on the qualities of the great lawyer ‘s mind that made him a writer of distinction. He analyzed, too, the mental characteristics that gave him his power of impassioned eloquence. Wirt’s influence may be said to pass over into the pages of the Messenger, for this Baltimore address was published in the first number of the magazine. In addition to this address was printed also a letter from Judge Wirt, purporting to be a reply to a law student who had asked, it seems, for help in methods of writing. According to the letter, the student was in residence at a university, although the name of the university was not given; and withheld, also, according to the remarks prefacing the letter, were the reasons relating to its insertion. And the jurist may even have spoken to Poe in particular. Indeed, it is interesting to think of Poe studying this letter; it is, moreover, a matter that holds the attention to speculate on the probability of his having been the law student who had sought instruction from Wirt. I shall now present, in part, Judge Wirt ‘s letter.(5)

“You will find a rich mine of instruction in the splendid language of Burke. His diction is frequently magnificent; sometimes too gorgeous, I think, for a chaste and correct taste; but he will show you all the wealth of your language. . . . If you have access to Franklin’s works, read them carefully, particularly his third volume, and you will know what I mean by the habits of observing and thinking. We cannot all be Franklins, it is true; but, by imitating his mental habits and unwearied industry, we may reach an eminence we should never otherwise attain . . . learn the simple, nervous language which is appropriate to that kind of thinking. Read the legal and political arguments of Chief Justice Marshall, and those of Alexander Hamilton, which are coming out. Read them, study them; and observe with what an omnipotent sweep of thought they range over the whole field of every subject [page 48:] they take in hand — and that with a scythe so ample, and so keen, that not a straw is left standing behind them. . . . Resolve to be the first lawyer of your age. . . . Master the science of pleading — master Coke upon Littleton — and Coke’s and Plowden’s Reports, — master Fearne on Contingent Remainders and Executory Devises, ‘till you can sport and play familiarly with its most subtle distinctions. Lay your foundations deep, and broad, and strong, and you will find the superstructure comparatively light work. . . . You must be a master in every branch of the science that belongs to your profession — the law of nature and of nations . . . the outline of all which you will see in Black-stone’s Commentaries. Thus covered with the panoply of professional learning, a master of the pleadings, practice and cases, and at the same time a great constitutional and philosophic lawyer, you must keep way, also, with the march of general science. . . . You must study the debates in Congress, and observe what have been the actual effects upon the country of the various measures that have been most strenuously contested in their origin. . . . You ask for instructions adapted to improvement in eloquence. This is a subject for a treatise, not for a letter. Cicero, however, has summed up the whole art in a few words! It is — ‘aptedistincteornate dicere’ — to speak to the purpose — to speak clearly and distinctly — to speak gracefully. . . . In relation to this, subject, I would strenuously advise you to two things: Compose much, and often, and carefully, with reference to this same rule of apte, distincte, ornate; . . . With regard to the style of eloquence that you shall adopt, that must depend very much on your own taste and genius. You are not disposed, I presume, to be a humble imitator of any man? If you are, you may bid farewell to the hope of eminence in this walk. None are mere imitators to whom nature has given original powers. . . . In what style of eloquence you are best fitted to excel, you, yourself, if destined to excellence, are the best judge. I can only tell you that the florid and Asiatic style is not the taste of the age. The strong, and even the rugged and abrupt, are far more successful. Bold propositions, boldly and briefly expressed — pithy sentences — nervous common sense — strong phrases . . . well compacted periods sudden and strong masses of light — an apt adage in English or Latin — a keen sarcasm — a merciless personality — a mortal thrust — these are the beauties and deformities that now make a speaker the most interesting. . . . The florid and Asiatic was never a good style either for a European or an American taste. We require that a man should speak to the purpose and come to the point — that he should instruct and convince. To do this, his mind must move with great strength and power: reason should be manifestly his master faculty — argument should predominate throughout; . . .” [page 49:]

My reasons for thinking that Poe had studied the letter quoted above or that he may even have consulted Judge Wirt are: —

First, he testifies to a familiarity with Judge Wirt’s writings.(6) He likewise points to the fact that he has corresponded with Judge Wirt. April, 1846, he writes to Duyckinck, “that some time ago, Wiley and Putnam advertised for autographs of distinguished Amer. statesmen. Is it so? I have well-preserved letters from John Randolph, Chief Justice Marshall . . . Wirt . . . and some others — and I would exchange them for books.”(7) Granting Poe’s well-known interest in autographs,(8) I think he may yet have had some other purpose that prompted him to write to so great a number of statesmen than that merely of collecting specimens of hand-writing. Is it reasonable to think that, since he addressed so many lawyers, he may have been seeking to know from the letters he would receive in reply, the style of lawyer’s writing? Second, selections appear from time to time through the pages of the Messenger, during the period when Poe was purveyor(9) for the magazine and when he was editor, that follow the course of study prescribed by Judge Wirt. Poe having influence in shaping the contents of the Messenger, the choice of contributions would, in all probability, follow in a degree, at least, his interest. Many of these pieces, moreover, are, as we shall see, known to be from Poe’s pen. Therefore, the text of the magazine dealing so conspicuously with Burke, Franklin, Chief Justice Marshall, and Blackstone, the chief names suggested in the letter — may possibly indicate on Poe’s part that he was heeding the advice of the jurist. To ascertain how nearly Poe may be identified with this law-student, let us follow him in his legal interests.

Poe shows a marked interest in Chief Justice Marshall. He writes to White, who was at that time editor of the Southern Literary Messenger while Poe was purveyor: “I will do my best to please you in relation to Marshall’s Washington if you will send it on. By what time would you wish the M. S. of the Review?”(10) [page 50:] Mr. White, however, must have had little interest in Chief Justice Marshall as a subject for a contribution to the Messenger, for in a second letter Poe expresses his regret at White’s refusal to publish the article, and writes again to Mr. White: —

“It gives me the greatest pain to hear that my Review will not appear in no. 11. I cannot imagine what circumstances you allude to as preventing you from publishing. The death of the Chief Justice, so far from rendering the Review useless, was the very thing to attract public notice to the Article. I really wish you would consider this matter more maturely and if possible insert it in No. 11.”(11)

There is no evidence, however, that this review was ever printed, and the next time Poe speaks of Chief Justice Marshall is in welcoming, in a short critical piece,(12) an address on the famous jurist delivered by Mr. Binney at Philadelphia, and a discourse by Judge Story at Boston, both addresses occasioned by the death of the Chief Justice.”We have read them both,” Poe says, “with an interest created by long admiration and love for the subject, but rendered more intense by the manner, in which the subject is displayed.” He likewise chooses Marshall’s words, extracted from a work under review, Francis Glass’s “Washingtonii Vita,” as a specimen of “Mr. G.’s Latinity.” It is, he says, “Judge Marshall’s announcement in Congress of the death of Washington.”(13)

Again, Poe’s interest in the Chief Justice was evidently so keen that it found expression in an original article on the jurist.(14) A long critique on Chief Justice Marshall’s life and genius appears in the Messenger two months after the short notice that Poe wrote welcoming the addresses of Judge Story and Mr. Binney, and from the closing words of Poe’s short notice, which I shall now quote, it seems only reasonable to conclude that Poe wrote the long critical article. Poe says in the short notice of December, 1835: —

“It is not our purpose now to review these two eulogies. A more extended notice of them, and of their great subject, we defer for our next number; in which we shall, perhaps, give also a few light personal reminiscences of Judge Marshall.”(15) [page 51:]

Several points seem of special significance in this long review on Marshall, which I feel from the above evidence fairly safe in thinking came from Poe’s pen. Poe, it may be noted, in summing up Marshall’s remarkable power of eloquence, his ability to produce conviction by logical sequence in the argument, presents in the main the opinions of Judge Wirt. Although on this point he quotes, too, from John Randolph, to whom he also testifies as a correspondent to the effect that Marshall’s argument was “unshaken, and unanswerable,” and “as strong as the fortress of Gibraltar,” and, at the same time, gives copious extracts from the discourses he is reviewing; yet the long paragraphs he culls from “The British Spy,” speak of deep interest in Marshall from Wirt’s point of view. Poe praises Wirt’s delineation of his great subject. It has “elegance and truth,” he says, and “no extended account of Judge Marshall could hardly be deemed complete” without it. Of some significance, too, may be the fact that Poe, in choosing these selections from Wirt, chooses passages on eloquence similar to those contained in Wirt’s letter to the law student. Indeed, Poe, in the following, seems to have mastered the contents of the letter.

“ ‘The . . . of the United States,’ says Mr. Wirt, in The British Spy, ‘is, in his person, tall, meager, emaciated . . . . This extraordinary man, without the aid of fancy, without the advantage of person, voice, attitude, gesture, or any of the ornaments of an orator, deserves to be considered as one of the most eloquent men in the world; if eloquence may be said to consist in the power of seizing the attention with irresistible force, and never permitting it to elude the grasp, until the hearer has received the conviction which the speaker intends. . . . How then, you will ask, how is it possible, that such a man can hold the attention of an audience enchained, through a speech of even ordinary length? I will tell you.

“He possesses one original, and almost supernatural faculty: the faculty of developing a subject by a single glance of his mind, and detecting at once, the very point on which every controversy depends. . . . I am persuaded, that his eyes do not fly over a landscape and take in its various objects with more promptitude and facility, than his mind embraces and analyzes the most complex subject.

“. . . his premises once admitted, the demonstration, however distant, follows as certainly, as cogently, as inevitably, as any demonstration in Euclid.

“All his eloquence consists in the apparently deep self-conviction, and emphatic earnestness of his manner; the correspondent simplicity and energy of the style; the close and logical connection of [page 52:] his thoughts; and the easy gradations by which he opens his lights on the attentive minds of his hearers. The audiences are never permitted to pause for a moment. There is no stopping to weave garlands of flowers, to hang in festoons, around a favorite argument. On the contrary, every sentence is progressive; every idea sheds new light on the subject; the listener is kept perpetually in that sweetly pleasurable vibration, with which the mind of man always receives new truths; the dawn advances with easy but unremitting pace; the subject opens gradually on the view; until, rising, in high relief, in all its native colors and proportions, the argument is consummated, by the conviction of the delighted hearer.’ ”

Of further significance may be the fact that Poe considers Wirt and Marshall types of the same kind of genius. In the mentality of both he sees a consistent working of reason with imagination. Both illustrate, he says, the “entire compatibility of such a love for elegant literature with severe logic and closeness of thought.” Thus it is with Marshall in mind, that he points to Wirt as an example of this duality of interest. And he launches forth in his article on the Chief Justice in a characterization of William Wirt. He has been told, he says, by one who knew Wirt well, of the lawyer’s great aptitude for work; of his habit of sitting for six or seven hours at a time, intent on penetrating the meaning of some one law question. Poe is of the opinion that it was Wirt’s imagination that guided him in ravelling the mysteries of knotty legal problems. He was “far more profoundly versed in the dry, intricate lore of his profession, and by far more capable of thrid-ding its nicest subtleties, than thousands, whose whole minds have been occupied with its ‘mystic, dark, discordant’ tomes.” To Poe, such a man as Wirt was his highest conception of Marshall. We may, at least, concede that Wirt was to Poe a compelling figure.

Poe’s very evident interest in Franklin’s method of writing may be more or less significant in establishing him as the student who had asked of Judge Wirt suggestions for literary composition. It will be remembered that Mr. Wirt had said: —

“If you have access to Franklin’s works, read them carefully, particularly his third volume, and you will know what I mean by the habits of observing and thinking. We cannot all be Franklins, it is true; but, by imitating his mental habits and unwearied industry we may reach an eminence we should never otherwise attain. . . . learn the simple, nervous language which is appropriate to that kind of thinking.(16) [page 53:]

In the first place, Poe searches for unpublished essays of Franklin and sets them forth in the Southern Literary Messenger, thinking perhaps that the rarity of these articles will make them acceptable to his readers. A friend in Philadelphia, he says, in a footnote, copied the essays for him from the original manuscript of Franklin.(17) Rare letters of Franklin, Poe also publishes; letters for which, he says, he is also indebted to his friend in Philadelphia. He acknowledges that the letters from Anthony Afterwit and Celia Single were first printed in “the Doctor’s Weekly Pennsylvania Gazette, which was commenced in 1727;” yet he is of the opinion that since they are not in the 1809 or the 1825 edition of the author’s works, that he need make “no apology for publishing them in the Messenger.” In the second place, Poe chooses such passages from certain of Franklin’s manuscripts that bear particularly on writing, and says in a footnote that his material conies from the same original manuscript that contained the letters and essays referred to above. He thus allows Franklin to speak for himself in methods of composition: —

“How shall we judge of the goodness of a writing? Or what qualities should a writing on any subject have, to be good and perfect in its kind?

“Answer 1. To be good it ought to have a tendency to benefit the reader by improving his virtue or his knowledge.

“The method should be just, that is, it should proceed regularly from things known to things unknown, distinctly and clearly, without confusion.

“The words used should be the most expressive that the language affords, provided they are the most generally understood.

“Nothing should be expressed in two words that can as well be expressed in one; i.e. no synonymes should be used or very rarely, but the whole be as short as possible, consistent with clearness.

“The words should be so placed as to be agreeable to the ear in reading.

“Summarily, — it should be smooth,
  clear, and

For the contrary qualities are displeasing.

But taking the query otherwise:

An ill man may write an ill thing well; that is, having an ill design he may use the properest style and arguments (considering who are to be his readers) to attain his ends. [page 54:]

“In this sense, that is best wrote (sic) which is best adapted for attaining the end of the writer.”(18)

Though there is not in the case of Burke, any more than in that of Chief Justice Marshall or Franklin, evidence definitely connecting Poe with Judge Wirt’s recommendation to the law student, yet indications of Poe’s more than ordinary familiarity with Burke’s writings lead one to speculate on a possible connection. It will be remembered that Judge Wirt had said: “You will find a rich mine of instruction in the splendid language of Burke. His diction is frequently magnificent; sometimes too gorgeous, I think, for a chaste and correct taste; but he will show you all the wealth of your language.”(19) Poe shows himself able to turn readily to particular passages in Burke. In August, 1836, he speaks of Judge Hopkinson’s article on the “Right of Instruction,” published that month in the Messenger, an article which refers to certain opinions of Edmund Burke; and he says he will supply one or two of the paragraphs to which he supposes Judge Hopkinson is alluding.

Accordingly, he publishes several selections from Burke’s speech of 1780, at the Guild Hall in Bristo1.(20) Again, in September, 1836, on solicitation, he shows himself able to present “another passage or two”(21) from the same speech of Burke at Bristol which will settle, he thinks, any misunderstanding of Burke’s meaning in the selections he published the month preceding. Poe appears, moreover, to exhibit his knowledge of Burke with some little pride; with what seems to be an evident desire to make it apparent that it is Poe, the editor, who is familiar with legal matters. He appends a note to the answer of the above solicitation for further light on Burke’s meaning, in which he says that, since some misapprehension has arisen, “it may be as well to state that all after this word ‘Editorial’ is strictly what it professes to be.” Somewhat significant, too, may be the fact that several months previous to these references to Burke, Poe was commissioned by Judge Beverley Tucker to ask White of the Messenger to procure for him Burke’s works [page 55:] in three volumes, and to have them lettered on the back with the word Ardmore.(22)

An interest centers around Blackstone in the early numbers of the Southern Literary Messenger. Judge Beverley Tucker’s law lecture delivered before the law class in the College of William and Mary is published in full in the issue of 1834.(23) Judge Tucker, it appears, had just been elected to fill the law chair of the college, and, in this, his opening lecture, he laid before the student body his plans for the course he intended to follow. Their study, he said, would be the municipal law of Virginia; their text book the American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries. During the exposition of his subject, in which he dwelt on the dignity of the profession and its exacting demands, he drew a distinction between the arrangement of subject-matter as Blackstone gave it, and the arrangement in the American edition, which, it appears, had been worked out by his father, St. George Tucker. He gave as his opinion that Blackstone’s arrangement was philosophical; that it presented to the student the relation of each part of the “body politic” to the whole body. He recommended, however, taking up the study in “an inverted order.” Individual rights should receive, he thought, the first attention. In the same way, he explained that Blackstone’s Commentaries, being, as he thought, an example of “philosophical analysis,” stressed too greatly the generalities of law with not sufficient regard for individual applications. Blackstone is further considered in a series of articles, two of which apparently intend to deal critically with the views of the English jurist. The title of the first reads, “Note to Blackstone’s Commentaries, Being the Substance of Remarks on the Subject of Domestic Slavery, delivered to the Law Class of William and Mary College, December 2d, 1834.”(24) The writer examines and exposes to his own satisfaction, at least, Blackstone’s strictures on the system of slavery. A second article, bearing the title “Remarks on a Note to Blackstone’s Commentaries,” appears in February of the same year.(25) The writer of this article states that it is “with [page 56:] some surprise” that he has read the note by the critic of Blackstone. A third article, “From the author of the ‘Note to Blackstone’s Commentaries’,” attempts to answer the stand taken in the original cause of the controversy.

Blackstone is likewise cited, in the Messenger, as a standard for excellence in writing. White, who was editor at this time, had, it seems, expressed dissatisfaction with many of the contributions sent to his paper; and, while not admitting an inability to cope with the difficulty, had yet announced no critical standards.”Taste,” he said, “is so subtle, variable, and uncertain a quality, that for an editor to establish his own, as a fixed and immutable standard — would seem invidious, if not absolutely odious.” He decided, therefore, to admit into the(26) columns of the Messenger all literary composition in which he could detect a germ of genius, or even a desire to excel. The result was that the contributions to the magazine were, many of them, of unquestionable mediocrity, and this weakness of critical spirit on the part of the editor provoked a vigorous protest from a certain correspondent publishing in the Messenger.

This contributor who signed himself X. Y., appeared in the Messenger the month following the editor’s statement of dissatisfaction(27) with suggestions designed to meet this situation. X. Y. advises Mr. White to be more selective in choosing material for insertion.”Print only for poets,” he said, “and poets will write for you.” He censures the boldness of scribblers who rush into print.”A man who has sense enough to write a good book,” he says, “very often has too much sense to publish it.” And he cites the example of Blackstone, who, a genius and a poet, yet forbore publishing his verses. Not until his death when his unpublished manuscripts were examined was it known that the great English lawyer had written poetry. And Blackstone’s the “Lawyer’s Farewell to His Muse”(28) is printed in the Messenger, we may not be wrong in thinking, by the correspondent who was offering the editor suggestions for raising the standard of writing.

Poe’s connection with this interest in Blackstone is, in some [page 57:] cases, a matter for mere speculation. He could have been and doubtless was an appreciative reader of any contribution in the Messenger dealing with Blackstone. But, since in various places, he claims a knowledge of Blackstone, the thread of his interest may show even a closer acquaintance with the English lawyer. Mr. Wirt had said, it will be remembered: —

“Master the science of pleading — master Coke upon Littleton — and Coke’s and Plowden’s Reports — master Fearne on Contingent Remainders and Executory Devises, ‘till you can sport and play familiarly with its most subtle distinctions. . . .You must be a master in every branch of the science that belongs to your profession . . . the chart and outline of all which you will see in Blackstone’s Commentaries.”

Poe testifies to what one might fancy, from his own words, a somewhat intimate knowledge of the outline for study just now referred to. In a critical notice of “Miscellanies of Literature,” he says that the work he is reviewing reminds him of Coke upon Littleton “with which whilom we were wont to be delighted.”(29) He likewise professes himself to be “especially taken” with “The Most Important Parts of Blackstone’s Commentaries Reduced to Questions and Answers.” The book is, in his estimation, of “unusual value” and he gladly recommends it to the jurist, the scholar, and the general reader. Blackstone, thus edited, he says, is, to the latter, “a convenient manual, not only of law, but of its origin, and principia; and he considers it for this reason, a better book than the “Analysis” of Judge Field.(30)

To name Poe as the correspondent X. Y. who was endeavoring with Blackstone in mind to raise the standard of writing in the Messenger, is an assumption, at least, interesting. Poe as X. Y. would have the same chance to be identified with Judge Wirt’s law student, as Poe in his interest in Chief Justice Marshall and Franklin.

In the first place, X. Y. and Poe both call themselves purveyors for the Messenger. It has already been noted that Poe, before he came to Richmond, occupied that office. In evident sympathy with X. Y., Poe also interested himself in combatting the ignorance of pretentious writers. The same year in which X. Y. was writing, he discussed with Judge Beverley Tucker the most efficient way of [page 58:] demolishing scribblers.(31) Again, the same year, Poe discussed with White the same question. From Baltimore, June 22, 1835, he wrote to White expressing regret that he (White) had reprinted the third number of the Messenger. He agrees that that number is one of the very best issued, but he apparently feels that fact to be little reason for either its republication, or for the insertion in other papers of a critical notice in its regard.”Look zealously to the future,” he advises, and let “the past take care of itself.”(32) He is willing, however, to insert such notice if White is insistent. White appears also to have employed Poe in occasionally stirring up controversial contributions in the Messenger, with the intent, no doubt, of not only increasing the subscription list of the new magazine, but of eliciting thoughtful replies. In this regard, we find Poe writing to White in May, 1835, that he sees no need of replying to an attack in the Compiler on his critique on “Confessions of a Poet,” published in the Messenger.(33) The book itself, he thought, was too silly to warrant the controversy. Poe and X. Y. both bitterly denounce the power of literary cabals to influence public opinion; X. Y. saying, “It is not fair to judge of the poetical talents of our northern neighbors by the labored dullness of a Barlow; or by the writings of a certain literary cabal, which is trying to push its members into notice by mutual puffing and quotation.”

Poe and X. Y. both admit that they rarely dot an i or cross a t. X. Y. writes to Mr. White, in a bitter tone, apparently following a rebuke from the editor on the score of illegible writing: “I shall do better in the future. While you continue to publish what I send you, I shall continue to cater for you. In doing this, I shall henceforth cross the t’s and dot the i’s in my copies, although this should have been omitted in the original. ‘I am was to think’ indeed, as Burns says, what small critics would do for want of such mistakes.” Compare X. Y.’s admission with the following from Poe, written to Mr. White the same year: “I will pay special attention to what you suggested in relation to the punctuation, etc., of my future MSS.” Poe further testifies, in a paragraph on the autograph of H. T. Tuckerman, of his contempt for [page 59:] too scrupulous care in punctuation, remembering, perhaps, his unpleasant experience with Mr. White on the subject: —

“He [Tuckerman] has contributed much of late days to the Southern Literary Messenger, with which journal, perhaps, the legibility of his Ms. has been an important, if not the principal recommendation.”(34) B. B. Minor, a later editor of the Messenger, also testifies to Poe’s failure to dot his i’s and cross his t’s. He writes to Professor James Harrison, Poe’s biographer: “He never altered his final composition — he never dotted an i nor crossed a t.”(35)

Poe appears to have been an appreciative reader of Judge Tucker’s Law Lecture printed in the December number of the Messenger, for it will later be shown when considering Poe’s tendency to criticize the arrangement of subject-matter in law books and some points in legal procedure, that he made use of Judge Tucker’s contention in regard to Blackstone’s philosophical arrangement. He may have had a more active interest in the case of the controversy over the “Note to Blackstone’s Commentaries.” This interesting bit in the early history of the Messenger presents the writer of the original cause of the controversy as a novice in the field he is occupying. In his reply to his adversary, he apparently feels he cannot defend himself against the attacks of an able jurist. He is “anonymous,” he says; his antagonist is “an avowed author.” “He (the antagonist) wears defensive armor. I am naked.” Moreover, he does not wish to carry the controversy further. He says to White: “You judge rightly that I have no call to answer my censor.” In the second place, the author of the “Note to Blackstone’s Commentaries” disclaims any other purpose in writing his article than that of eliciting a response from an able writer. He is grateful, he says, to his antagonist, for helping him “to awaken the public mind.” Although he thinks that his opponent has unfairly met his argument, he warmly praises “the style and matter of his essay.” They both evince, he thinks, on the part of the writer a superior education. It is with evident satisfaction, too, that White, in an editorial remark, also commends this opponent’s article.”The author has won many a trophy on the field of logic and eloquence.”

From certain parts of the evidence already adduced, it might [page 60:] seem a fair conclusion that Poe had actively interested himself in a more or less attentive study of Blackstone’s Commentaries, and that in the person of X. Y., in the stand he took against scribblers, he had fortified himself with the example of the English lawyer. Added testimony to his study of law is found in his knowledge of law books, of law doctrines, and in his apparent understanding of intricacies in questions pertaining to law.

Poe’s review on “Robinson’s Practice,” a law book by Conway Robinson which appeared in 1836, indicates an acquaintance on his part with law books other than the one actually undergoing criticism. He speaks of the improved arrangement in the classification of the present volume over that of the former by the same author, issued three years before. On account of this improvement, he says, it is easier to find the doctrine desired on any given point. And in regard to subject-matter, he considers “Robinson’s Practice” superior to the “Revised Code of Tate’s Digest.”(36)

A knowledge of law doctrines may, without doubt, be imputed to Poe from the ease with which he discusses decisions in the cases cited in the book he is reviewing. For example, observe in the following how warmly he praises the author on his ability to resolve cases into doctrines: —

“In his abstracts of cases, the author is, in the main, particularly successful . . . . he sometimes gathers from them doctrines, which the reporter has overlooked, and which a cursory reader would, therefore, be little apt to discover. For example, in pp. 20, 21, he states these two points, as decided in the case of Blow vs. Maynard, 2 Leigh, 21: 1st, that a fraudulent donee of personalty is accountable for it and its increase, and, also for hires, and profits, accruing since the donor’s death, as executor de son tort; just as a rightful executor would be who has taken possession at the donor’s death.”

Of still more import in attributing to Poe a knowledge, of law books is the fact that occasionally he ventures to criticize the author in some parts of his work. In one instance, he says, Robinson has failed to give general principles where they would be naturally expected, and it is with a certain petulance that he calls attention to this lack.”Some quarrel,” Poe says, “we have with the judicial law, which principally fills the book. A head in the Table of Contents refers us to a page, where we expect to find a full elementary exposition of at least the leading doctrines that fall under that [page 61:] head: but we see, perhaps, only a single case, or a judge’s dictum, not at all realizing the promise of the reference, by unfolding all pertinent general principles. Thus, under the caption, ‘WHEN STATEMENT OF A TRANSACTION MUST BE TAKEN ALTOGETHER,’ instead of finding a general rule laid down on the point indicated, we find only a case briefly stated, from which we are left to deduce a rule if we can. (pp. 329-330.)” Indeed, in one case, Poe even questions the validity of the lawyer’s decision. He says the author “has gainsayed” a “well settled doctrine”; and he explains his meaning in the following way: —

“Under the very next head, the well-established principle, that ‘An Answer is no evidence for the defendant, as to anything it affirms, not responsive to the allegations of the Bill, but that it is evidence so far as it responds to those allegations ‘ — is whittled away to the position that it is not evidence as to any affirmative matter, touching which the Bill seeks no discovery. Now, if the Bill positively alleges one thing (whether it calls for a discovery or not), and the answer as positively alleges the reverse; such denial stands for proof, and must be rebutted by testimony; and so, we conceive, do the cases clearly evince, which are cited by our author himself; Beckwith v. Butler, . . . and even Taylor v. Moore, whence he quotes (and quotes truly) in the form of a judge’s dictum, the position in question — not to speak of 1 Call, 224, 390; the dicta of Roane and Carrington in the case of Rowton v. Rowton, 1 Hen. and Munf.; and many other authorities. The principle, in its true extent, is well illustrated by the case cited from 1 Johnson’s Reports, 580, where an Answer alleging usury, of which the Bill had said nothing, was held no evidence. The case from 2 Leigh, 29, is infelicitously adduced. The point professedly quoted from it was there adjudged: it was only maintained by one judge, who (we say it with a deference heightened by affection, as well as by respect) seems to us to have therein gainsayed the well-settled doctrine we have referred to, and therefore to have erred.”

And, at the conclusion of his article on “Robinson’s Practice,” as if to furnish unmistakable proof that he has criticized the decisions of the author aright, Poe mentions a decision that has evidently been overlooked.

He is also seen to criticize lawyers’ practice. In his story, the “Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” it is interesting to note that he appears to base his criticism on a similar point already referred to in Judge Tucker’s law lecture at the College of William and Mary. He seems to feel, as did Judge Tucker, that law considered only in its philosophical or general aspect may take little notice of the individual’s right. Thus, he says, lawyers, in “their small talk,” are [page 62:] reprehensible in depending too entirely on “recognized and booked principles.” This method, he grants, is philosophical, but it disregards the conflicting exception and thus may fail to render the individual justice. He quotes, as justification for his view, an extract signed “Landor,” which he places as a footnote to the above contention in the text of his murder story.(37) The handling of material in Coke upon Littleton he likewise criticizes. Though, as we have seen, he declares himself to be delighted with the book; nevertheless he gives it as his opinion that the work is a mass of undigested writing.

A summary of the evidence already presented may be, perhaps, not unfairly stated in the following: — Since the foregoing course of study, that dealing with Chief Justice Marshall, Franklin, Burke, and Blackstone, may, as has been seen, be traced back to the outline sketched by Judge Wirt for the law student; and since these lines of work have been found to be those in which Poe was interested, and from which he appears to have drawn certain knowledge pertaining to legal doctrines, it seems reasonable to think that Poe may have followed the course prescribed by the jurist, or that he may even have been the law student with whom Judge Wirt corresponded.

Poe may be said to have learned a method and style of criticism from the legal profession. There is evidence leading to the sup position that, on the advice of Judge Beverley Tucker, he made his critical comments judicial. In the first place, it is known that he had weighed with Judge Tucker the value of critical methods employed in foreign quarterlies.(38) Possibly the distinction between mere opinion and the critical art as founded on principles drawn from the study of masters of criticism, a distinction which, as we have seen, grew up in British periodical literature, was in Poe’s mind when he asked Judge Tucker to suggest means for combatting the ignorant writer. Whatever may be the truth of this supposition, he received in reply to his query: “I did not mean to deny the efficacy of a certain style of demolishing scribblers. I merely said it was not judicial.”(39) In the second place, Poe frequently expresses Judge Tucker’s contention, namely, that criticism should be judicial. He insists on method in critical analysis. [page 63:] “The wildest and most erratic effusion of the Muse, not utterly worthless,” he says, “will be found more or less indebted to method for whatever of value it embodies; and we shall discover, conversely, that in any analysis of even the wildest effusion, we labor without method only to labor without end.”(40) He likewise maintains that a literary critic can and should demonstrate his position.”We make use of the word ‘demonstrate’,” he says in an editorial article in the Broadway Journal, “for it has always been a point with us to sustain as far as possible, by evidence or argument, whatever propositions we put forth. But has the Gazette in the present instance, been equally careful? Do we understand it as inclined to dispute the accuracy of any statement, or the validity of any deduction embodied in the critique to which it has referred? If so, we are prepared to try the case upon its merits. If, however, it is the simple opinion of the Gazette which is thus pitted against our own, we are by far too modest to say another word upon the subject — and must submit to the stern necessity of letting the whole matter remain precisely where it is.”(41) And, again, in one instance, he says it can be demonstrated that the mind of men cannot create;(42) in another, apparently recalling the language of Judge Tucker, that the critical position he assumes in asserting that only the simplest language should be used for subjects of grandeur, is a proposition “as susceptible of demonstration as any in Euclid.”(43) The fact; too, that he was openly commended by Judge Tucker for the style of criticism he had adopted, might seem added proof that he had consciously tried to work out a lawyer-like method, and that, apparently from the jurist’s approval, had succeeded. Judge Tucker, it appears, wrote to White of the Messenger, January, 1836, in warm praise of Poe’s Review of Mrs. Sigourney, Miss Gould, and Mrs. Ellett: — (44)

“Mr. P.’s review of the writings of a trio of these ladies (Mrs. Sigourney, Miss Gould, and Mrs. Ellet, January, 1836) in your [page 64:] last number, is a specimen of criticism which for niceness of discrimination, delicacy of expression, and all that shows familiarity with the art, may well compare with any I have seen.”

We shall next consider what further lesson Poe taught himself from his study of law. In other words, we shall try to discover the principles of literary technique that Poe deduced from his legal interests.

Certain principles of literary practice Poe appears to find in his investigation of a lawyer-like method. One of these concerned the relation which clearness bears to brevity, another, the advantages of a strictly logical structure, and a third, some little approach, though he seemed to feel it unsatisfactory, towards a rule whereby individual points are comprehended under a generalization. While it is true that, as we have seen, he had found these principles discussed with more or less frequency, in the pages of Blackwood, yet it was in law that Poe apparently found them, especially the first two, strikingly illustrated; for it was a writer’s need of logical sequence and brevity that Judge Wirt had wished to convey in these words to the law student: —

“You ask,” Judge Wirt said, “for instructions adapted to improvement in eloquence. This is a subject for a treatise, not for a letter. . . . In relation to this subject, I would strenuously advise you to two things: Compose much, and often, and carefully, with reference to this same rule [Judge Wirt had spoken before in the same letter of Cicero’s rule] of apte, distincte, ornate dicere. Bold propositions, boldly and briefly expressed — pithy sentences — nervous common sense — strong phrases — well compacted periods — sudden and strong masses of light. . . . We require that a man should speak to the purpose and come to the point — that he should instruct and convince. To do this, his mind must move with great strength and power: reason should be manifestly his master faculty — argument must predominate throughout.”

So clearly must Poe have recognized the value of the lawyer’s principles of brevity and logical sequence that, in one of his own articles when he wished to ascribe these qualities to Chief Justice Marshall, we find him quoting from Judge Wirt, words which Judge Wirt had himself applied to Chief Justice Marshall: —

“Every sentence is progressive; every idea sheds new light on the subject; . . . the dawn advances with easy but unremitting pace; the subject opens gradually on the view; until, . . . the argument is consummated, by the conviction of the delighted hearer.”

It is not surprising, therefore, that Poe began to use the same [page 65:] principles on his own independent effort, nor that in his endeavor he shows a tendency to translate into law terms the Blackwood method of producing effect by logical structure and brevity of expression. In his reviews of this period, the period of his connection with the Southern Literary Messenger, when his law interests are most noticeable, we find such criticisms as the following from his review of “Robinson’s Practice”: —

“There is not enough compression in some parts. In this volume, it is true, not a tithe of the statute law is quoted, that over-burthens the former one; but when he does cite a statute, the author still gives it to us in all the exuberance of legislative verbosity. Thus, he fills the third part of a page with the law of lapsing legacies; (p. 91) when, considering that only the substance was essential, . . . it might more clearly, and as satisfactorily, have been couched in five lines. . . . And he takes three-quarters of a page (copied from the Revised Code) to say that ‘a surety may in writing notify the creditor to sue upon the bond, a bill, or note, which binds the surety; and unless the creditor sue in reasonable time, and proceed with due diligence to recover the sum due, the surety shall be exonerated.’ (pp. 132, 133). In the name of all that is reasonable, why should not a writer disencumber his pages of the rubbish of howbeit, provided, notwithstanding, nevertheless, and aforesaid, when, by doing so he might save himself and his readers so much time and toil’?”

He likewise sees that an important step in the simplification, or as he says, the “unquacking” of a legal style may be found in the edition of “Blackstone’s Commentaries Reduced to Questions and Answers,” to which reference has already been made. Law need not, he is convinced, be so complex or its expression so shrouded in mysterious numbers as its devotees are wont to think.(45)

And the same point is made in the following review;(46) namely, that brevity produces clearness: —

“The authors of the works here reviewed have attempted to unfold, and to show the worthlessness of, those technical mysteries which have so long enveloped the science of Law. ‘The Forms of Deeds, etc.’ is from the pen of Mr. Okey. He gives several examples of English and French deeds — printing them on opposite pages. The difference in conciseness is said to be four to one in favor of the French, while in clearness they admit of no comparison. The greater brevity of the French documents is attributed to the existence of a Code. The Mechanics of Law Making’ insists [page 66:] upon the necessity of reform in the arrangement, language, classification, and contents of the British Acts of Parliament, and in the agency by which the laws are ‘prepared, made, promulgated, superintended, enforced, and amended.’ The Review is brief, but concurs heartily in the necessity alluded to.”

In the review of Bland’s Chancery Reports, Poe likewise complains of the lack of brevity. He says: — “Many of its cases are inordinately voluminous. . . . They might all, we are full sure, have been shortened by two-thirds. with great advantage to their perspicuity as well as to the reader’s time, patience and money.”(47)

But perhaps there are no better instances that show how plainly Poe was drawing on his study of law than his criticisms that distinctly transfer to literary technique a lawyer-like method. He says, in reviewing “Nick of the Woods”: —

“But Dr. Bird’s great excellence is in the ingenuity and contrivance of his story. This could not be so told as not to be interesting. State the leading facts of the case with the formality of a lawyer; let the parties be A. B. and C.; let no spoken word, no incidental circumstance be introduced to enliven the narrative or to illustrate character, and we shall still listen eagerly to hear the event, and in the end sit down in quiet satisfaction, under a result in strict conformity to poetical justice, and brought about by natural means. . . . The reader easily works the equation by extinguishing these superfluous opposing quantities, and feels that all that is essential to the story has happened just as it ought.”(48)

And again,(49) in reviewing “Conjectures and Researches Concerning Tasso” the critic demands a lawyer-like method: —

“We must . . . declare our regret that Mr. Wilde did not more clearly express his own opinion, and that he did not start by stating briefly what he wished to prove, and go on step by step to prove it. This would, we think, have rendered the book more popular with general readers, and perhaps more clear and satisfactory to all.”

Likewise from the same review: —

“The patient industry with which Mr. Wilde has collected his materials cannot be too highly commended, and is surpassed only by the clear and luminous manner in which he lays the whole evidence before the eye of the reader, and by the ingenuity with [page 67:] which he makes his deductions. Nothing, indeed, can be more lawyer-like than the conduct of the whole case; not, we would be understood to say, that there is anything technical in the style; still less that there is anything of wire-drawn argument or forced construction; but simply that the arrangement of facts is evidently the result of practice in the art of collecting and exhibiting evidence in the most direct and intelligible form, and that the method of arriving at the end is as distinctly that which could be applied only by a clear reasoning mind not unaccustomed to such pursuits.”

Continued suggestions pointing to Poe’s legal interest appear from time to time during the course of his literary work. One of these is his use of technical law expressions. In one instance he says that “cui bono” is a legal phrase, meaning “for whose advantage,” and that the term is mistranslated in “all the crack novels.”(50) He arraigns the author of “Norman Leslie” quite after the manner of a prosecuting attorney.

“We will dismiss the ‘Editor of the Mirror’ with a few questions. When did you ever know, Mr. Fay, of any prosecuting attorney behaving so much like a bear as your prosecuting attorney in the novel of “Norman Leslie”? When did you ever hear of an American Court of Justice objecting to the testimony of a witness on the ground that the said witness had an interest in the cause at issue?”(51)

We may doubtless at this point conclude that Poe had found in a study of law certain suggestions that helped him in his work as a writer. In the main, these suggestions have been seen to center around the advantages of legal argument, for, presumably in the person of a student who had asked advice from lawyers, he considered that convincing writing must be brief, to the point, and strictly logical.

But, as further evidence shows, he later came to feel that a lawyer-like method, though effective, was not all of the writer’s art. He testifies to the need of an understanding of unity. The next chapter will attempt to present Poe’s study of unity in the drama and fine arts.



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 46:]

1.  Works, vol. 1, p. 73; 106.

2.  Letters, p. 17.

3.  Ibid., p. 19.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 46, running to the bottom of page 47:]

4.  William Wirt, American statesman, gained great distinction by his forensic abilities. He was retained under the direction of President Jefferson as assistant counsel to the Attorney-General of the United States in the prosecution [page 47:] of Aaron Burr for high treason. He held the office himself of Attorney-General during the years 1817-1828. Among his literary productions were his Letters of the British Spy. Allibone’s Dictionary of Authors.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 47:]

5.  S. L. M., vol. 1, p. 33. B. B. Minor, in his work, The Southern Literary Messenger, New York, 1905, p. 16, does not throw any light on the identity of the “Law Student.”

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

6.  S. L. M., vol. 2, p. 66. Everything, Poe says in his review of Memoir of Dr. Rice, that emanates from the pen of William Wirt will be read with deep interest. Ibid., p. 51.

7.  Letters, p. 231.

8.  S. L. M., vol. 2, p. 205. Autography.

9.  Cf. Chapter I, supra.

10.  Letters, p. 7.

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

11.  Ibid., p. 12.

12.  S. L. M., vol. 2, p. 66.

13.  Ibid., vol. 2, p. 53. Review of Life of George Washington, in Latin Prose: By Francis Glass.

14.  The review is found in S. L. M., vol. 2, p. 181. B. B. Minor thinks that Judge Beverly Tucker “was probably” the author of this article on Chief Justice Marshall. Op.cit. p. 39.

15.  S. L. M., vol. 2, p. 66.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 52:]

16.  Cf. supra.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 52:]

17.  S. L. M., vol. 2, p. 293. Mss. of Benjamin Franklin, Editor’s note.

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

18.  Ibid., vol. 2, p. 411. Other selections from Franklin appear in vol. 2, p. 445.

19.  Cf. supra.

20.  S. L. M., vol. 2, p. 573. Editorial: Right of Instruction.

21.  Ibid., vol. 2, p. 658. A correspondent, signing himself Q. V. Z., writes the editor, asking him for more passages from Burke.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 55:]

22.  Letters, p. 24.

23.  S. L. M., vol. 1, p. 145.

24.  Ibid., vol. 1, p. 227. B. B. Minor assigns this article to Judge Beverly Tucker. Op.cit., p. 22.

25.  S. L. M., vol. 1, p. 266. For third article, mentioned below, see vol. 1, p. 388.

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

26.  Ibid., vol. 1, p. 191.

27.  Ibid., vol. 1, p. 255, January, 1835.

28.  Ibid., vol. 1, p. 316. The poem appeared in the Edinburgh Review, vol. 11, p. 37, and was doubtless well known in America to magazine readers of the period.

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

29.  Graham’s Magazine, vol. 19, p. 47.

30.  Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 5, p. 329. Hereafter this magazine will be referred to as B. G. M.

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

31.  Letters, p. 23.

32.  Ibid., p. 8.

33.  Ibid., p. 5.

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

34.  Graham’s Magazine, vol. 19, p. 276.

35.  Works, vol. I, p. 221.

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

36.  S. L. M., vol. 2, p. 50. Review of Robinson’s Practice.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 62:]

37.  Works, vol. 5, p. 33. The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.

38.  Cf. Chapter I.

39.  Letters, p. 23.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 63:]

40.  Graham’s Magazine, 1842, p. 216. Review of Poetry of Rufus Dawes.

41.  Broadway Journal, vol. 2, p. 93. Editorial Miscellany. At the beginning of volume 2 of the Broadway Journal, Briggs has withdrawn from editorship, Watson was in charge of the music department, and Poe of the literary part.

42.  Cf. Chapter IV.

43.  Graham’s Magazine, 1842, p. 121. A Few Words About Brainard. Works, vol. 11, p. 22.

44.  Works, vol. 8, Intro. p. xi. Poe’s review referred to is in Works, vol. 8, p. 122.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 65:]

45.  B. G. M., vol. 5, p. 329.

46.  S. L. M., vol. 2, p. 59. Review of Mechanics of Law-Making. Critical notice of Westminster Review.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 66:]

47.  Ibid., vol. 2, p. 731. Review of Bland’s Chancery Reports.

48.  Ibid., vol. 3, p. 254. Review of Dr. Bird’s Nick of the Woods. Prof. Campbell suggests that this review may, with propriety, be ascribed to Poe. Nation, vol. 89, p. 10.

49.  Graham’s Magazine, 1843, p. 203. This review is not listed in Works.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 67:]

50.  Works, vol. 5, p. 299. Thou Art the Man.

51.  S. L. M., vol. 2, p. 54. Review of Norman Leslie.






[S:0 - OPCT, 1925] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Origins of Poe's Critical Theory (M. Alterton) (Chapter 02)