Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. Killis Campbell), “The Clash of the Critics with Respect to Poe's Poems,” The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Ginn and Company, 1917, pp. liv-lxiv


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[page liv:]

VI. THE CLASH OF THE CRITICS WITH RESPECT TO POE’S POEMS

About the worth of Poe’s poems there has been a wide difference of opinion.(1) Emerson in a memorable conversation with Mr. William Dean Howells once dubbed Poe contemptuously the “jingle man.”(2) The late Henry James, in an even more famous deliverance, has described Poe’s poems as “very valueless verses,” and in the same connection has declared that “ an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”(3) Professor Barrett Wendell, in one of the earliest of his essays on American literature, pronounced Poe to be “fantastic and meretricious throughout”;(4) and Professor Henry A. Beers, in a discussion of the romanticists of the nineteenth century, has placed Poe alongside of Baudelaire among the “false gods.”(5) Mr. W. C. Brownell, one of the subtlest of our critics, asserts with emphasis that Poe’s writings, whether poems or tales, “lack the elements not only of great, but of real, literature,” and that “as literature” they are “essentially valueless.”(6)

But Professor George Saintsbury — one of the foremost of living English critics — gives it as his opinion that Poe belongs to the [page lv:] “first order of poets.”(1) One of Mr. Saintsbury’s colleagues, Professor William Minto, as if in set defiance of the anathema pronounced against Poe’s admirers by Henry James, declares that Poe appeals to the feelings “with a force that has never been surpassed.”(2) And Stoddard, also, one of Poe’s chief detractors, declares (I, p. x) that “unlike many poets, he affects all who are capable of being touched by poetry.” Mr. J. M. Robertson, distinguished alike as statesman, philosopher, and critic, maintains that Poe “ had a poetic quality of the highest kind.”(3) Mr. Edmund Gosse, with something more of reserve, declares that Poe, had his range been less restricted, “must have been with the greatest poets ”; and he speaks of the “ perennial charm “ of Poe’s verses.(4) Swinburne wrote in 1872, in summing up the American achievement in literature to date: “Once as yet, and once only, has there sounded out of it all [the literature of America] one pure note of original song — worth singing, and echoed from the singing of no other man; a note of song neither wide nor deep, but utterly true, rich, clear, and native to the singer; the short exquisite music, subtle and simple and somber and sweet, of Edgar Poe.”(5) In France, Gautier speaks of Poe as “ce singulier génie d’une individualité si rare, si tranchée, si exceptionnelle.”(6) Jules Lemaitre, in a highly extravagant “dialogue of the dead,” couples Poe’s name with the names of Shakespeare and Plato! And Baudelaire’s admiration of Poe extended almost to deification: it was one of the “everlasting rules” of his life, so he wrote shortly before his death, “to pray every morning to God, the Fountain of all strength and of all justice; to my father, to Mariette, and to Poe.”(7) In Russia, according to a recent critic, Mr. A. Yarmolinsky, [page lvi:] Poe “has come to be popularly identified ... with the American literary genius in its highest achievements.”(1) In America, Lowell pronounced Poe — even before the publication of The Raven — one of the few American geniuses.(2) And Professor C. H. Page has recorded the belief that Poe is “the only American poet ... who can justly be said, in any strict and narrow use of the word, to have had genius.”(3)

A like diversity of opinion prevails as to Poe’s place among American poets. Tennyson is said to have accounted Poe “the most original American genius,” and “not unworthy to stand beside Catullus, the most melodious of the Latins, and Heine, the most tuneful of the Germans.”(4) According to Mr. Gosse (writing in 1893): “The posy of his still fresh and fragrant poems is larger than that of any other deceased American writer.”(5) Mr. William Butler Yeats, in a letter to the celebrators of the Poe centenary at the University of Virginia, pronounces him “the greatest of American poets, and always and for all lands a great lyric poet.”(6) Both Victor Hugo, a good many years ago, and the gifted Georg Brandes, in recent years, are also said to have claimed for him the foremost place among American poets.(7) Among American literary historians, Onderdonk holds that Poe is “ unquestionably our greatest lyric poet”;(8) and Newcomer writes, in his History of American Literature:(9) “If we had not come to demand so much of poetry, there could be little hesitation in ranking Poe’s with the very greatest in any language.” Mr. John Macy, speaks of our “tardy recognition of Poe’s supremacy among American poets.”(10) Mr. Charles Leonard Moore [page lvii:] boldly declares: “For myself, I have never doubted Poe’s supremacy in American literature.”(1) French critics, too, have, as a rule, from the beginning, given Poe a place above other American poets, though they have not all been blind to his faults.(2) Most American critics have been unwilling to concede to Poe so high a rating. “His narrowness of range, and the slender body of his poetic remains,” says Stedman, “ of themselves should make writers hesitate to pronounce him our greatest [poet].”(3) Richardson, in like manner, after granting that he is the “most broadly conspicuous of American writers,” states that “to call him the greatest is impossible.”(4) So, too, Professor W. P. Trent, though he holds that Poe is in some respects the first of American poets, maintains, with Stedman, that because of the fewness of his poems he cannot be ranked with “the greater poets.”(5) And a similar view is taken by Professor Richard Burton.(6) Mr. Brownell, finally, declares that whatever greatness Poe may be allowed to possess as poet inheres in the quality of his verse; and that “its quality is, in general, hardly such as to place him very high up on the fairly populous slopes of Parnassus.”(7)

In the matter of Poe’s special qualities, there are, as must stand to reason, certain points on which the critics are substantially agreed. There is virtual agreement, first of all, that Poe displays in his poems extraordinary originality and individuality. “The utterance of Poe,” writes Professor Wendell, “is as incontestably, as triumphantly, itself, as is the note of a song bird.”(8) “If Poe is not an original author,” says Professor Richardson, “none ever lived.”(9) “The poetry of Poe was a new creation,” [page lviii:] writes Churton Collins; and then adds: “He stands absolutely alone.”(1) According to Professor F. L. Pattee, “All that he wrote was distinctly his own, original in its melody and form, and permeated through and through with his peculiar personality.”(2) And Mr. Brownell, though he charges, with Griswold, that “Poe pillaged and plagiarized freely,” admits, nevertheless, that Poe was “extremely individual.”(3) Henry James, too, in spite of his sweeping disparagement of Poe on other grounds, speaks of his “very original genius.”(4) Newcomer hazards the opinion that Poe was perhaps the “least ‘influenced’ of all melodious poets since Spenser.”(5)

There is little difference of opinion, also, as to Poe’s superior gifts as melodist. “Without doubt,” says Stedman, “a distinctive melody is the element in Poe’s verse that first and last has told on every class of readers”;(6) and to a correspondent in later years he described him as the “paragon of melodists.”(7) “He possessed the two fundamental attributes of a poet, melody and imagination, in a supreme degree,” writes Newcomer;(8) and Mr. Gosse speaks of his “unparalleled gifts of melodious invention.”(9) An English editor, Skipsey,(10) declares: “In the specialty of melody, he excels Collins, and indeed all others except some two or three of the very greatest poets in the English tongue.” Mr. Charles Leonard Moore claims that “in magic and melody he is overmatched among modern English poets by Coleridge, Keats, and Tennyson alone, and by them only in quantity, not in quality.” [page lix:]

There is essential agreement, too, as to Poe’s excellence as artist, though it is conceded by all that he sometimes failed to conceal his art effectively. Professor Woodberry, for instance, speaks of the “exquisite construction” shown in his poems, but notes, with reference particularly to the later poems, that “if any one presses the charge of artifice home, it must be allowed just.”(1) Stedman praises without stint the craftsmanship displayed in some of the poems of Poe’s middle period, but admits that “we ... are halted often throughout his later lyrics by the persistence of their metrical devices.”(2) Collins declares “an artist more consummate never existed,” but observes in the same connection that in certain of his poems “he reveled in the display of mere mechanical craftsmanship.”(3) Griswold admits that Poe’s verses “are constructed with wonderful ingenuity, and finished with consummate art,” but complains, with characteristic severity, that there was in the construction of them “an absence of all impulse,” an “absolute control of calculation and mechanism.”(4) Mr. Brownell pronounces Poe “the solitary artist of our elder literature,” but adds that at times he shows himself to be “the artist rather than the poet and the technician rather than the artist.”(5) Mr. Lewis E. Gates, after setting forth a fantastic “inventory of Poe’s workshop,” remarks: “Masterly as is Poe’s use of this poetical outfit, subtle as are his cadences and his sequences of tone-color, it is only rarely that he makes us forget the cleverness of his manipulation and wins us into accepting his moods and imagery with that unconscious and almost hypnotic subjection to his will which the true poet secures from his readers.”(6) Mr. Robertson, in the midst of his praise of Poe, admits that both Lenore and The Raven, as well as The Bells, “have a certain [page lx:] smell of the lamp, an air of compilation, a suspicion of the inorganic.”(1) And Mr. Stebbing, after dwelling on the artistic excellence of most of the poems, remarks, apropos of the suggestion of artifice in The Raven: “With himself confirming the suspicion, it becomes at least practicable to persuade ourselves that we smell the sawdust and oil of the workshop.”(2)

It is plain, too, that the volume of Poe’s verse is small, and that the body of his verse of superior worth and significance is extremely small, amounting in all to scarcely more than a dozen poems and to not above fifteen hundred lines. It is equally plain that his range, whether of literary form or of subject-matter, is narrow, being confined, on the one hand, to the lyric, and, on the other, so far as his better poems are concerned, to a scant half dozen subjects. It is obvious, too, that most of his earlier poems and several of the later ones are either fragmentary or uneven, or both. And it is manifest that there is nothing of humor in Poe’s verses.

On these three or four points there is pretty general agreement. But for the rest there is, again, the widest conflict of opinion. According to some of the critics, the poems of Poe are wanting both in substance and in depth. His verses are “empty of thought,” says Mr. John Burroughs.(3) Mr. Brownell urges a similar objection.(4) And Henry James, in a revised edition of his essay on Baudelaire, in which he had originally spoken of Poe’s verses as “valueless,” substitutes for this phrase the almost equally astonishing epithet “superficial.”(5) But there have always been those who have stood ready to defend Poe on this count. Professor W. B. Cairns holds that “ it is not true ... that thought is absent” from Poe’s verses, but that each of the poems, with the exception of The Bells, “has a definite and sufficient content.”(6) Mr. Charles Leonard Moore [page lxi:] declares that it is Poe’s “superior weight of meaning which ... enables him to overrun the boundaries of his own country and speech.”(1) And Mr. Robertson, in commenting on Mr. James’s charge of superficiality, exclaims: “When was verse so aspersed before ?”(2)

By some of the critics, again, it has been objected that the matter of Poe’s verse is too far removed from the things of ordinary life, that the poet dwelt too much in an ideal world; and by still others that his poems are without moral significance. “Poe wanted as a man,” says Andrew Lang, “what his poetry also lacks; he wanted humanity.”(3) “Life as we know it he scarcely touches at all,” says Newcomer.(4) Duyckinck, a friend of Poe at one time, declared: “He lived entirely apart from the solidities and realities of life: was an abstraction; thought, wrote, and dealt solely in abstractions.”(5) Of his alleged lack of wholesomeness and morality, Professor Brander Matthews writes: “There is no moral purpose, either explicit or implicit, to be discovered in his poetry,” and, again: “His poems ... lack not only moral purpose, but also spiritual meaning”;(6) while Churton Collins declares that “of morality, or of anything pertaining to morality, he has nothing,”(7) and adds that his verses “never kindled a generous emotion or a noble thought.”(8) Professor Richardson, on the other hand, protests that “ it is an error to call Poe soul-less, non-ethical, pagan, a man of morbid taste, unrelated to the great problems of source, life, and destiny.”(9) And Mr. Robertson says, with reference to the complaint that “Poe’s poetry conveys no moral teachings or descriptions of life [page lxii:] and scenery,” that this “objection need only be conceived to be dismissed.”’ An anonymous contributor to the British Quarterly Review,(2) who writes with evident discrimination in most particulars, takes the extreme position that Poe’s “ethical import is so unmistakably a part of his art, that ... we must assert it is everywhere burdened by the ethos.”

The critics have differed, too, as to the quality of Poe’s imagination and as to the sincerity and spontaneity of his emotion. Professor Wendell, as already noted, pronounces poems and tales alike to be melodramatic.(3) Walt Whitman assigns to Poe an ultimate place “among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling, but with no heat.”(4) Griswold objected that Poe’s poems “evince little genuine feeling”;(5) and Lowell, in his famous characterization of the poet in his Fable for Critics, complained, — with evident allusion to the poems, — that “the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind.” Stoddard asserts that “there is nothing in Poe’s poetry which indicates that it was written from the heart,” that “ there is a simulation of emotion in it, but the emotion is ... imaginary.”(6) And of Ulalume, which has been laid hold of oftener than any of the rest of the poems to illustrate this alleged defect, he says: “I can perceive no trace of grief in it, no intellectual sincerity, but a diseased determination to create the strange, the remote, and the terrible, and to exhaust ingenuity in order to do so.” “No healthy mind,” he goes on, “was ever impressed” by it.(7) But Professor Woodberry suggests that we perhaps have in Ulalume “the most spontaneous, the most unmistakably genuine utterance of Poe”;(8) and Mr. Robertson asserts of The City in the Sea: “It cannot for a moment be [page lxiii:] pretended of these verses, even by the sciolists of criticism, that they lack ‘inspiration’ and spontaneity of movement.”(1) Churton Collins, after complaining of the excess of the mechanical in some of the poems, admits that “the fascination and witchery of much of Poe’s poetry had its origin from mystic sources of genuine inspiration.”(2)

By others, finally, it has been held that Poe relied too much at times on musical effects in verse, that, like Lanier, he attempted in language “feats that only the gamut can make possible.” This view has been put forward by Stoddard(3) and by Professor W. C. Bronson(4) and Mr. Robertson,(5) among others; and Ulalume, again, in particular, has been instanced as giving exemplification of this fault. But Theodore Watts-Dunton, in his essay on “Poetry,” in the Encyclopædia Britannica, singles out this very poem to illustrate the skillful and legitimate employment of musical devices for poetic ends, and has no word of dispraise for Poe in this connection.(6)

This conflict of opinion, it may be added, is peculiar to no one period of the history of Poe criticism. During the poet’s lifetime, [page lxiv:] certain of the critics, as Willis at the North and P. P. Cooke in the South, stood ever ready to sing his praises, while the New England school (with the exception of Lowell and a few others) were, on most points, arrayed against him. Since his death the pendulum has swung, slowly but steadily, towards a more favorable estimate; though there are still those who, with Mr. Brownell, can find little to commend in Poe beyond his artistry. Abroad, the estimate that has prevailed, especially in France, has been more favorable than that which has generally obtained in America.

If an explanation be sought of this extraordinary diversity of opinion, it will be found mainly in the world-old difference among critics as to the province and aims of poetry, the traditional clash between those who insist on the inculcation of moral ideas as the chief business of poetry and those who adhere to the doctrine of art for art’s sake.(1) But it will be found in part in the fact that not a few of the critics — especially of the earlier critics — have allowed themselves to be influenced in their judgments by what they knew — or believed themselves to know — about the irregularities of Poe’s life and character;(2) and in part, also, by the fact that a number of the critics have based their judgments of Poe, as most laymen do to-day, on only a few of the poems, the better-known Raven and Bells and Annabel Lee, ignoring such poems as Israfel, The City in the Sea, and The Sleeper, certainly as richly poetic as anything that Poe wrote.


[[Footnotes]]

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

1 The most important critical articles dealing with Poe as a poet are the chapter devoted to Poe by E. C. Stedman in his volume, The Poets of America, pp. 225-272; the essay by the same author prefixed to the tenth volume of the Stedman-Woodberry edition of Poe’s works, pp. xiii-xxxv; the essay by Professor C. F. Richardson entitled “Edgar Allan Poe, World-Author,” in his edition of the works of Poe, I, pp. ix-liii; the chapter devoted to Poe by Mr. J. M. Robertson in his New Essays towards a Critical Method, pp. 55-130; and an article by Mr. W. C. Brownell, “The Distinction of Poe’s Genius,” first published in Scribner’s Magazine, January, 1909, and later in his volume, American Prose Writers, pp. 205-267. Important critical matter is also contained in the biographies of Poe, especially in those of Woodberry and Ingram.

2 Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, p. 63.

3 French Poets and Novelists (London, 1878), p. 76.

4 Stelligeri and Other Essays concerning America, p. 138.

5 A History of English Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century, p. 300.

6 American Prose Masters, p. 231.

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

1 See the Book of the Poe Centenary, ed. Kent and Patton, p. 203.

2 Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edition, article on Poe.

3 New Essays towards a Critical Method, p. 81.

4 Questions at Issue, p. 89.

5 Under the Microscope, p. 53.

6 “Notice” of Baudelaire prefixed to the latter’s Fleurs du Mal, p. 48.

7 Esmé Stuart, “Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Poe: A Literary Affinity,” Nineteenth Century, July, 1893, p. 78.

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

1 The New York Bookman, September, 1916 (XLIV, p. 44).

2 See Lowell’s article on Poe in Graham’s Magazine, February, 1845.

3 The Chief American Poets, p. 663.

4 See the article of Professor Brander Matthews, on “Poe’s Cosmopolitan Fame,” in the Century Magazine, December, 1910 (LIX, p. 271).

5 Questions at Issue, p. 8.

6 Book of the Poe Centenary, p. 207.

7 See Richardson, I, p. xvi, and The Dial, June 16, 1914.

8 A History of American Literature, p. 238.

9 P. 123.

10 Edgar Allan Poe, p. 28.

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

1 The Dial, November 16, 1909.

2 See, for instance, Hennequin, Écrivains francisés, p. 148, and G. D. Morris, Fenimore Cooper et Edgar Poe, pp. 87 f. and passim.

3 Poets of America, p. 227.

4 Works of Poe, I, p. xxii.

5 History of American Literature, p. 377.

6 Literary Leaders of America, p. 72.

7 American Prose Masters, p. 217.

8 Book of the Poe Centenary, p. 132.

9 Works of Poe, I, p. xxxvii.

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

1 Studies in Poetry and Criticism, p. 44.

2 History of American Literature, p. 178.

3 American Prose Masters, pp. 207-208.

4 French Poets and Novelists, London, 1878 (p. 76).

5 American Literature, p. 117.

6 Works of Poe, ed. Stedman and Woodberry, X, p. xvi.

7 Life and Letters of Stedman, II, p. 114.

8 American Literature, p. 124.

9 Questions at Issue, p. 89.

10 Poetical Works of Poe, prefatory notice.

11 The Dial, November 16, 1909.

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

1 Life of Poe, II, pp. 75, 170.

2 Poe’s Works, ed. Stedman and Woodberry, X, p. xxiv.

3 Studies in Poetry and Criticism, p. 43.

4 “Memoir,” p. xlviii.

5 American Prose Masters, pp. 208, 217.

6 Studies and Appreciations, p. 110.

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

1 New Essays, p. 77.

2 Chaucer to Tennyson, II, p. 205.

3 The Dial, October 16, 1893.

4 American Prose Masters, p. 231.

5 French Poets and Novelists (London, 1893), p. 60.

6 History of American Literature, p. 422.

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

1 The Dial, November 16, 1909.

2 New Essays, p. 76.

3 Poems of Poe, ed. Lang, p. xiv.

4 American Literature, p. 124.

5 Literary World, January 26, 1850 (VI, p. 81).

6 Century Magazine, December, 1910, p. 272.

7 Studies in Poetry and Criticism, p. 42.

8 Ibid., p. 45.

9 Poe’s Works, I, pp. 1 — 11.

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

1 New Essays, p. 81.

2 July, 1875 (LXII, p. 212).

3 Stelligeri, p. 138.

4 Whitman’s Complete Prose Works (Philadelphia, 1897), p. 157.

5 “Memoir,” p. xlviii.

6 Works of Poe, I, p. viii.

7 Ibid., p. 149.

8 Life of Poe, II, p. 235.

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

1 New Essays, p. 87.

2 Studies in Poetry and Criticism, p. 43.

3 Poe’s Works, I, pp. ix, 149.

4 A Short History of American Literature, p. 167.

5 New Essays, p. 87.

6 It is interesting to observe that there has also been much difference of opinion as to the relative excellence of single poems. Popular opinion inclines to give first place to The Raven. But Poe, we can be sure, was well aware of the superior excellence, at least in the matter of poetic quality, of some of his early work. To a New England correspondent he wrote in 1848 that he considered The Sleeper “in the higher qualities” of poetry better than The Raven; and to Mrs. Richmond he declared in 1849 that he believed For Annie “much the best” of all his poems. Few students of Poe have subscribed to the popular verdict in favor of The Raven. Mallarme’ preferred both Ulalume and For Annie to The Raven. Professor Page gives first place to Ulalume. Mr. Stebbing follows Poe in allotting first place to For Annie. Richardson holds that Poe never surpassed his early lyric To Helen. John Nichol and Mr. Ingram give first place to Annabel Lee. And both Stedman and Professor Woodberry declare Israfel to be the most precious of all the lyrics that Poe wrote.

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

1 With Poe believing as he did that the sole province of poetry is beauty (see the Letter to B—— and The Poetic Principle) and fitting his practice so consistently to his creed, it was inevitable that many of the critics should align themselves sharply against him, and equally inevitable that some should come strongly to his defense.

2 Some, too, as Baudelaire, may have been influenced in the opposite direction by what they believed to be the injustice done Poe by Griswold and other early biographers.

 


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:0 - KCP, 1917] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - The Clash of the Critics with Respect to Poe's Poems (ed. K. Campbell, 1917)