Text: Sidney P. Moss, “Poe’s ‘Two Long Interviews’ with Dickens,” Poe Studies, June 1978, Vol. XI, No. 1, 11:10-12


[page 10, column 2, continued:]

Poe’s “Two Long Interviews”
with Dickens

Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

It is well known that Poe had an interview with Dickens sometime between 5 and 9 March 1842 when the novelist put up at the United States Hotel in Philadelphia, an interview congenial enough, apparently, to lead to another (1). While something is known of the arrangements Poe made to secure the interviews, less is known of his purpose, and still less of what took place during them.

Poe probably hoped to impress the novelist with his worth and versatility as a critic, poet, and writer of tales with the aim of establishing, through Dickens’ influence, an English reputation. As Poe long ago said, if Americans “were induced to read at all the productions of our native writers, it was only after repeated assurances from England that such productions were not altogether contemptible” (2).

To secure the interview, Poe sent Dickens some “books,” probably the two volumes of his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, which Boz candidly confessed to have merely “glanced” at. Poe also sent some “papers,” [page 11:] which Dickens, his vanity touched, said he looked at “more particularly.” On their account, he added in extending his invitation, “I have the greater pleasure in expressing my desire to see you . . .” (3). One of these papers in all probability was Poe’s review of the first four chapters of the serialized Barnaby Rudge; another certainly his review of the entire novel, which had been published in December 1841. Dickens, indeed, alluded to the second review in his invitation (4). Dickens’ visit to the United States having been announced months in advance, Poe may have timed the second review to appear concurrently, though coincidence remains a possibility. Whatever the case, having published the review, Poe had no intention of letting it escape Dickens’ notice, especially as it might tempt him to secure a London publisher for Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Tempted Dickens was, it would seem, for some months afterward he told Poe that he had sought to satisfy his request made “by word of mouth” and later by letter. “I have mentioned it to publishers with whom I have influence,” he added, “but they have, one and all, declined the venture” (5).

Thus far in the interviews Poe had exhibited himself as a tale-writer and critic; but he wanted to impress Dickens with the fact that he was a poet too, who had, moreover, earned the distinction of being anthologized. For this purpose he brought with him an advance copy of Rufus W. Griswold’s The Poets and Poetry of America (6). Though represented in the anthology by only three poems (“The Coliseum,” “The Haunted Palace,” and “The Sleeper”), he was nevertheless pleased to appear in the distinguished company of such poets as Halleck, Bryant, and Longfellow.

That Poe brought the anthology with him is clear from his statements in letters to James Russell Lowell. Arguing that Dickens was the author of an anonymous article on “American Poetry” in the London Foreign Quarterly Review (7), an article based largely upon Griswold’s book, he said: “I had two long interviews with Mr. D. when here. Nearly everything in the critique, I heard from him, or suggested to him, personally. The poem of Emerson I read to him.” He added that, apart from “The Conqueror Worm,” “Lenore,” and “Dreamland,” his best poems were those that appeared in Griswold (8).

The Emerson poem Poe had reference to was “To the Humble-Bee” (later changed to “The Humble-Bee”), the only Emerson poem quoted or mentioned in the Foreign Quarterly, though four others (“Each in All,” “Good-bye, Proud World.” “The Rhodora,” and “The Snow-Storm”) were included in the anthology. “To the Humble-Bee” was a fugitive, as Emerson did not publish his first book of poems until 1847. In fact, the poem had appeared only once, in an 1839 number of the Western Messenger of Religion and Literature (9), and Dickens could not have known of its existence, except through the Griswold anthology. Indeed, in all likelihood Dickens did not know at the time of the two interviews that Emerson was a poet at all.

The question arises as to Poe’s reason for reading an Emerson poem to Dickens. He had no irrepressible admiration for him as a poet. Only two months before the interviews took place, Poe had observed of Emerson in Graham’s [column 2:] Magazine, “His love of the obscure does not prevent him . . . from the composition of occasional poems in which beauty is apparent by flashes “ (10). But reason there was: Dickens’ own interest in Emerson.

Emerson, it appears, had refused to be party to the “mob-worship” of Dickens when he arrived in Boston, and Dickens, for his part, was too exhausted by engagements, planned and unplanned, to visit Emerson in Concord. Indeed, Cornelius Mathews, who had met Dickens, regretted in Arcturus (the magazine he co-edited with Evert A. Duyckinck) that “Mr. Dickens must leave the country without seeing some of his best friends” (11). Very likely, then, in one of the interviews he had with Poe, Dickens expressed curiosity about the Sage of Concord, especially because Carlyle, whom he admired very much, admired Emerson (12). Poe might naturally have flipped to his poems in the Griswold anthology and read out “To the Humble-Bee.” Dickens must have been agreeably surprised to discover that Emerson, in addition to being an essayist, was a poet too, and Poe must have also been pleased to surprise Dickens, for the desire to surprise characterizes much of his public behavior and literary work.

What else took place at the interviews the available evidence does not permit of conjecture. But if Dickens, as Poe alleged, was really the author of the Foreign Quarterly article on “American Poetry,” or, as Lowell said, had “given . . . hints” to John Forster in the writing of it (13), he seems to have been little impressed with Poe as a poet. He put him among a large group of American imitators, one, he said, “who approaches the spirit of his original [Tennyson] more closely than any of them”; and he quoted passages from the Poe poems to exhibit specimens of “metrical imitation.” The only allowance he made was that the “passages have a spirituality in them, usually denied to imitators; who rarely possess the property recently discovered in the mocking-birds — a solitary note of their own” (14). The charge of imitation shook Poe’s confidence badly, the more so because of his own reputation as an exposer of imitators and plagiarists, and he devoted much energy to exculpating himself from in Among other things, he asked Lowell. who had engaged to write a critical-biographical sketch of him for Graham’s, to say in his defense “what is the fact; that the passages quoted as imitations were written & published, in Boston before the issue of even Tennyson’s first volume” (15). In addition, he thus footnoted the section of “Poems Written in Youth” in his Raven volume (1845): “Private reasons — some of which have reference to the sin of plagiarism, and others to the date of Tennyson’s first poems — have induced me. after some hesitation, to republish these, the crude compositions of my earliest boyhood, . . . the date of which is too remote to be judiciously acknowledged.” The fact of the matter was that, as the New World of 14 May 1842 reported only a month after the Griswold anthology appeared, “Tennyson is unknown here [in America], except by a few pretty poetical conceits, which have found their way into the newspapers. . .” (16). If Poe could have believed, as Lowell, Bryant (17), and some others did, that John Forster had written the criticism of him rather than Dickens, perhaps the charge of imitation might not have troubled him so greatly, but he could not. In his Broadway Journal of 13 December [page 12:] 1845, he spoke of “an article written by Mr. Charles Dickens in the London Foreign Quarterly Review. Mr. Dickens in paying us some valued, though injudicious compliments, concluded by observing, that ‘we had all Tennyson’s spirituality, and might be considered as the best of his imitators’ — words to that effect.” To his credit, however, Poe never ceased to admire Dickens nor, for that matter, Tennyson. As the author of “The Personal and Literary Relationships of Dickens and Poe” has noted, “In 1844, Poe took every opportunity to praise the artistry of Dickens . . .” (18). And as the author of Tennyson in America remarked, “No one, either in England or America, surpassed . . . Poe in superlative praise of Tennyson in the years just after 1842” (19).



(1) The only evidence for the second interview comes from Poe in a letter to James Russell Lowell dated 2 July 1844: “I had two long interviews with Mr. D. when here.” Letters, I, 258. The fullest account to date of the Dickens-Poe relation is by Gerald G. Grubb, ‘The Personal and Literary Relationships of Dickens and Poe,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 5 (1950), 1-22, 101-120, 209-221.

(2) Southern Literary Messenger, 2 (April 1836), 326. Tocqueville likewise observed that before Americans “can make up their minds upon the merit of their authors, they generally wait till his fame has been ratified in England . . . .” Democracy in America (New York: 1843), II, 58.

(3) To Poe, 6 March 1842, Pilgrim Ed. of The Letters of Charles Dickens (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), III, 106-107. Dickens seems to have burned Poe’s letter along with other private ones. On 1 March 1865 Dickens said: “Daily seeing improper uses made of confidential letters in the addressing of them to a public audience that have no business with them, I made not long ago a great fire in my field at Gad’s Hill, and burnt every [such] letter I possessed.” Nonesuch Ed. of The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Walter Dexter (London: 1938), III, 416.

(4) Poe’s first review of Rudge appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post (1 May 1841). It is reprinted in The Dickensian, 9 (July 1913), 174-178. His second review of Rudge appeared in Graham’s Magazine, 20 (February 1842), 124-129. The editors of the Pilgrim Ed. of Dickens’ letters (111, 107, n. 2) believe that “Poe had also sent his review of Old Curiosity Shop,” Graham’s, 18 ( May 1841), 248- 251.

(5) 27 November 1842, Pilgrim Ed., 111, 384-385. Dickens’ additional statement in this letter leads one to believe that the work in question was Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, since he speaks of a “collection of detached pieces”: “The only consolation I can give you is that I do not believe any collection of detached pieces by an unknown writer, even though he were an Englishman, would be at all likely to find a publisher in this metropolis just now.” The Poe letter requesting Dickens to place the book with a London publisher is lost, as Dickens himself reported: “By some strange accident . . . I have never been able to find . . . the letter you wrote to me [when I was] at New York [waiting to leave America]” (p. 384).

(6) According to Joy Bayless, Rufus Wilmot Griswold: Poe’s Literary Executor (Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt Univ. Press, 1943), p. 44, the anthology was published on 18 April 1842, some weeks before the interviews. But as Poe had shown “much interest in the forthcoming book after his interview with Griswold in the spring of 1841” (p. 43), it seems clear that he had acquired an advance copy. [column 2:]

(7) 32 (January 1844), 291-324. For a discussion of the authorship of the article, the article itself, and its impact upon Poe’s literary conduct, see Sidney P. Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu ( Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 19G3), pp. 157-189 passim.

(8) Letters, I, 258.

(9) In publishing the two poems Emerson had submitted, ‘To the Humble-Bee” and “Each in All” ( later changed to “Each and All”), James Freeman Clarke, the editor of the Western Messenger and Emerson’s friend, remarked: “These are almost the first poetical specimens of his writing which have appeared in print,” 6 (February 1839), 229; the two poems appear on pp. 239-241. The Dial had earlier published some poems by Emerson.

(10) “Autography,” 20 (January 1842), 48.

(11) 3 (March 1842), 310.

(12) As the Emerson-Carlyle letters show, the Sages of Chelsea and Concord, having first met in Craigenputtock, began corresponding in 1834 and continued for thirty-nine years. Among other things they helped to publish each other’s books in their respective countries. When William Charles Macready, the famed English actor and close friend of Dickens, required letters of introduction in preparation for his second theatrical tour of America, Carlyle provided but one, explaining that, Emerson aside, his American friends, “belong, alas, alas, to the species Bore . . . .” Mrs. Carlyle also said that, apart from Emerson, ‘Who is there else worth knowing in America?” The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle, ed. Joseph Slater (New York and London: Columbia Univ. Press, 1964), p. 345, n. 2. The Foreign Quarterly article on “American Poetry” states that Emerson “is the author of a volume of profound Essays, recently republished in England, under the editorship of Mr. Carlyle, who discovered in him a spiritual faculty congenial to his own.”

(13) Quoted by W. M. Griswold, ed., Passages from the Correspondence and Other Papers of Rufus W. Griswold (Cambridge, Mass.: W. M. Griswold, 1898), p. 151.

(14) Foreign Quarterly Review, pp. 321-322. Forster, to judge from a review he wrote for the London Examiner some six months later (No. 1900, 29 June 1844, 403), seems to have had no objection to imitation. “When we say that he [Coventry Patmore] imitates ALERED TENNYSON, we say it in no disrespect to him . . . . Imitation is for the most part the beginning of all poetry. Nowhere, perhaps, is it so observable as at the outset of original masters of the art. Mr. Tennyson has not yet shaken off his KEATS and his SHELLEY.

(15) Letter dated 28 May 1844, Letters, I, 253. Lowell acceded to Poe’s request, though he made no attempt to identify the author of the critique. In his article, ‘Our Contributors: Edgar Allan Poe,” Graham’s, 27 (February 1845), 53, he wrote: “A writer in the London Foreign Quarterly Review, who did some faint justice to Mr. Poe’s poetical abilities, speaks of his resemblance to Tennyson. The resemblance, if there be any, is only in so sensitive an car to melody as leads him sometimes into quaintness, and the germ of which may be traced in his earliest poems, published several years before the first of Tennyson’s appeared.” That Poe wrote earlier than Tennyson may or may not be true: Poe often claimed to have been precocious. But that he published before Tennyson is an error: both their first volumes appeared in 1827.

(16) John Olin Eidson in Tennyson in America His Reputation and Influence from 1827 to 1858 (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1943), p. 3, also noted that “Few Americans had an opportunity to read Tennyson before the first American edition of his poems in 1842.” Although Eidson detected Tennyson’s influence on other American poets, he saw none on Poe.

(17) New York Evening Post (3 February 1844).

(18) Grubb, p. 120.

(19) Eidson, p. 42.


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