Text: David K. Jackson, “Prose Run Mad: An Early Criticism of Poe’s Politian,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 88-93 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 88, unnumbered:]



In the 17 June 1836 issue of the Newbern [North Carolina] Spectator, a Whig weekly newspaper, appeared a notice of the May number of the Southern Literary Messenger so severe as to provoke Poe to resort to an editorial reply in the July Messenger.(1) After reprinting the Spectator’s comments, Poe began: “We are at a loss to know who is the editor of the Spectator, but have a shrewd suspicion that he is the identical gentleman who once sent us from Newbern an unfortunate copy of verses. It seems to us that he wishes to be taken notice of, and we will, for the once, oblige him with a few words — with the positive understanding, however, that it will be inconvenient to trouble ourselves hereafter with his opinions.” John I. Pasteur and Robert G. Moore were the editors and the publishers of the Spectator in 1835 and 1836.(2) Then followed, as a reply to one of them, most likely Moore, Poe’s comments on the literary style of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, whose book Spain Revisited Poe had reviewed in the Messenger for May,(3) and his reporting the recent receipt of favorable comments on his editorial course from Mackenzie himself, Professor Charles Anthon, Mrs. Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Fitz-Greene Halleck, James Kirke Paulding, and an American writer whose identity he did not disclose.(4) In conclusion Poe wrote: “The Messenger merely expresses its particular opinions in its own particular manner. These opinions no person is bound to adopt. They are open to the comments and censures of even the most diminutive things in creation — of the very Newbern Spectators of the land. If the Editor of this little paper does not behave himself we will positively publish his verses.”

So far as Poe was concerned, his reply in the Supplement was an end to the controversy. Not so with Moore, who before had found fault with Poe and who was to continue to criticize him and to demand his resignation. One of the earliest of Moore’s criticisms appeared in the Spectator for 17 January 1836: a notice of the January 1836 Messenger, in which Poe had printed the second installment of his unsuccessful drama Politian:(5)

Southern Literary Messenger. — The January number of this popular work has been received, and it is replete with amusing, instructive and interesting matter. So much so, that we consider it one of the best numbers of the Messenger. To analyse its contents, or even give an abstract of them, would exceed the limits at our disposal, [page 89:] and we shall say, generally, that the work is unsurpassed by any original work of equal pretensions, with which we are acquainted in this country. — In our last notice of the Messenger, we expressed disapprobation of the unnecessary severity of the criticism which it contained: this number is a little more moderate, but yet not sufficiently so for a dignified and unbiassed periodical. Believing Mr. Poe to be the ostensible editor, and having had frequent opportunities of estimating his abilities, both as an author and a critick, we cannot consent to make him an umpire in matters of literary nature. We doubt his capability, and protest against the reception of his fiat. Although the columns of a weekly are not the best place for critical remarks, we will use them, as a substitute for a better, to show partially the grounds of our protest.

In the number of the Messenger before us, Mr. Poe continues his “Scenes from Politian, an unpublished drama.” The scenes formerly published caused us to doubt the author’s talents, taste and acquirements, and these, tend to confirm our first impression.




ROME. A Hall in a Palace. Alessandra & Castiglione.


Oh I’m the happiest, happiest man in Rome,

A few more days, thou knowest, my Alessandra,

Will make thee mine. Oh, I am very happy!”

If genius dictated these lines, they are the dregs of genius. The scarcity of ideas, manifested by the repetition of words, evinces this.

Aless. Methinks thou has a singular way of showing

Thy happiness! — what ails thee, cousin of mine?”

Here we have a couplet that requires no comment to convince even the dull of its being neither poetry nor sensible prose. The two italicised syllables will show the accuracy of Mr. Poe’s ear for the harmony and measure of blank verse. The superfluous syllable in “singular,” is not the only redundant one in the first line, and the Scenes abound throughout with similar irregularities. Nor are violations of rhythm, in these and numerous other instances, the only defects in the construction of the poem. It abounds in violations of the commonest rules of grammar. [page 90:]

Cass. I will drop them.

Aless. Thou must.

DiBroglie. Far from it love.

No branch, they say, of all philosophy

So deep abstruse he has not mastered it, — “

“If that we meet at all, it were as well, &c.”

We have neither space nor time to follow the learned critick further to-day, and we shall merely transcribe a short extract as a fair specimen of the whole, italicising freely the incongruities in sense and sound, and the unprecedented instances of tautology.


The suburbs. Politian alone.

This weakness grows upon me. I am faint.

And much I fear me ill — it will not do

To die ere I have lived! — Stay — stay thy hand

O Azrael, yet awhile! — Prince of the Powers

Of Darkness and the Tomb, O pity me!

O pity me! let me not perish now,

In the budding of my hopes — give me to live,

Give me to live yet! — yet a little while:

’Tis I who pray for life — I who so late

Demanded but to die! — what sayeth the Count!

Enter Baldazzar.

Bal. That knowing no cause of quarrel or of feud

Between the Earl Politian and himself.

He doth decline your cartel.

Pol. What didst thou say?

What answer was it you brought me, good Baldazzar?

With what excessive fragrance the zephyr comes

Laden from yonder bowers! — a fairer day,

Or one more worthy Italy, methinks

No mortal eyes have seen! — what said the Count?

Bal. That he, Castiglione, not being aware

Of any feud existing, or any cause

Of quarrel between your lordship and himself,

Cannot accept the challenge.

Pol. It is most true

All this is very true. When saw you, sir,

When saw you now, Baldazzar, in the frigid

Ungenial Britain which we left so lately,

A heaven so calm as this — so utterly free

From the evil taint of clouds? — and he did say?

Bal. No more, my lord, than I have told you SIR,

Having no cause of quarrel.

Pol. Now this is true[page 91:]

All very true. Thou art my friend, Baldazzar,

And I have not forgotten it — thou’lt do me

A piece of service? wilt thou go back and say

Unto this man, that I, the Earl of Leicester,

Hold him a villain — thus much, I prithee, say

Unto the Count it is exceeding just

He should have cause for quarrel.

Bal. My lord! — my friend! — —

Pol. (aside.) ‘Tis he — he comes himself! (aloud) thou reasonest well.

I know what thou wouldst say — not send the message —

Well! — I will think of it — I will not send it.

Now prithee, leave me — hither doth come a person

With whom affairs of a most private nature

I would adjust.

Bal. I go — to-morrow we meet

Do we not? — at the Vatican.

Pol. At the Vatican. (exit Bal.)

If that we meet at all, it were as well

That I should meet him in the Vatican

In the Vatican — within the holy walls of the Vatican.

(Enter Castiglione.)

Cas. The Earl of Leicester here!

Pol. I am the Earl of Leicester, and thou seest,

Dost thou not? that I am here.

Cas. My lord, some strange,

Some singular, mistake — misunderstanding —

Hath without doubt arisen: thou has been urged

Thereby, in heat of anger, to address

Some words most unaccountable, in writing,

To me, Castiglione, the bearer being

Baldazzar, Duke of Surrey. I am aware

Of nothing which might warrant thee in this thing,

Having given thee no offence. Ha! — am I right?

‘Twas a mistake? — undoubtedly — we all

Do err at times.

Pol. Draw, villain, and prate no more!

Cas. Ha! — draw? — and villain? have at thee

Have at thee then.

Proud Earl! (draws.)

Pol. (drawing.) Thus to th’ expiratory tomb,

Untimely sepulchre, I do devote thee

In the name of Lalage!

Cas. (dropping his sword and recoiling to the extremity of the stage.)

Of Lalage!

Hold offhold off thy hand! — Avaunt I say!

Avaunt — I will not fight thee — I dare notdare not. [page 92:]

Pol. Thou will not fight with me didst say, Sir Count?

Shall I be baffled thus? — now this is well,

Exceeding well! — thou darest not fight with me?

Didst say thou darest not? Ha!

Cas. I dare not — dare not

Hold off thy hand — with that beloved name

So fresh upon thy lips I will not fight thee —

I cannot — dare not.

Pol. Now by my halidom

I do believe thee — Coward! I do believe thee!

Thou darest not!

If this be not prose run mad, we have never seen a performance that deserves to be so characterized, and, in our opinion, the author of such a rhapsody should be very, very lenient to the faults of others.


[page 92, continued:]


1.  Newbern, Craven County, once the state capital and the home of the Royal Governors of North Carolina, is now known as New Bern.

2.  Little is known about these two men. Pasteur was a “Major General of Militia and a vigorous writer” [Stephen F. Miller, Recollections of Newbern Fifty Years Ago; with an Appendix, including Letters from Judges Gaston, Donnell, Manly and Governor Swain (Raleigh, N.C., 1874), pp. 45-46]. Moore “was an Irishman who came to Newbern in 1818, and at once established a prosperous school. He was very urbane in manner and persevering in the enforcement of his rules . . . . he had a long and useful career, as a teacher of youth and the editor of a Whig journal, the ‘Newbern Spectator,’ and . . . he raised quite an interesting family” (Miller, p. 18). He retired from the editorship early in 1837. Local historians in New Bern inform me that on his arrival from Ireland Moore was first a tutor at Clear Springs, a large Craven County plantation owned by Joseph Hutton. The Newbern Academy building is now being restored.

News items about the clergyman and historian Francis Lister Hawks (1798-1866), a native of New Bern, appear in the Spectator. Poe reviewed Hawks’s Contributions to the Ecclesiastical History of the United States — Virginia in the March, 1836, Messenger. For Poe’s association with Hawks, see Dwight R. Thomas, “Poe in Philadelphia, 1838-1844: A Documentary Record” (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1978, 2: 799).

3.  Alexander Slidell (1802-1848) added his last name “Mackenzie” in 1838, after the publication of his Spain Revisited. Poe included Mackenzie in “Autography” (Letter XXXI). [page 93:]

4.  Ralph M. Aderman, ed., The Letters of James Kirke Paulding (Madison, 1962), p. 179, assigned the letter to Paulding. Poe’s description of his correspondent as “an individual second to no American author in the wide-spread popularity of his writings, and in their universal appreciation by men of letters, both in the United States and England” seems to me to apply to Irving more than Paulding, whom Poe had already quoted by name. Both Paulding and Irving were Messenger subscribers.

5.  In 1940 the late Thomas Ollive Mabbott and I were unsuccessful in seeking a file of the Newbern Spectator. We believed that we might discover a Poe letter. A microfilm of a file of this weekly is now in the William R. Perkins Library of Duke University.

Moore’s criticisms of Poe in the Spectator are recorded in Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson, The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849 (Boston, 1987), p. 189. For an account of Poe’s problems with his Southern and Northern critics, see Sidney P. Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles (Durham, N.C., 1963).






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