Text: Edgar Allan Poe (???), Critical Notices, Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, August 1839, vol V, no. 2


Text: Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, August 1839,

[page 112:]



[[The first three reviews are not attributed to Poe]]


The Jubilee of the Constitution. A Discourse delivered at the Request of the New York Historical Society, in the City of New York, on Tuesday, the 30th of April, 1839; being the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States on Thursday, the 30th of April, 1789. By John Quincy Adams. Samuel Colman, New York.

This pamphlet should be read by all parties, and then carefully laid aside, as a work abounding in valuable minute points of historical information, many of which are not to be met with elsewhere. We have here a vigorous sketch of the difficulties which preceded, and of the inefficiency which embarrassed, the confederation originally adopted by the States, and a faithful detail of the causes, arising from the imperfection of the first league, which led to the adoption of our present constitution. What Mr. Adams has thus done could not be so well done, perhaps, by any man living. The circumstances by which he has been surrounded from his boyhood — his intimate connexion, private and public, with the leading men of the Revolution — his long continued political career — his industrious habits of observation — his personal identification for nearly half a century with the interests of his subject — all had conspired to assure us that this subject would be skilfully handled, and the discourse itself assures us that, essentially, it is. We say essentially — for, considered in a less important light, as a matter of mere literature — the whole will be regarded by every one of true taste as a failure. This turgid hyper-rhetorical style becomes neither the subject nor the man. Mr. Colman has printed the pamphlet most beautifully — as he does every thing of the kind — and no American desirous of accurate acquaintance with the political affairs of his country, will need to be told that it is absolutely incumbent upon him to procure a copy, and to preserve it.


The Gentleman of the Old School. By the author of “The Huguenot,” “The Robber,” etc. Two Volumes. Harper and Brothers, New York.

We have been told, by one who should know, that Mr. James’ habits of composition are peculiar — for example, that, while walking to and fro hurriedly, he dictates, in an excited manner, to an amanuensis; and that it is impossible for the latter, although a practised penman, and chosen principally on account of his rapidity of hand, to keep pace with the improvisation of the novelist. We hear, moreover, from a different source, that the MSS. thus furiously indited are committed to the press, and issued, without farther intervention on the part of the author. The exceeding polish of his general style, and, especially, the nice adaptation to each other of the individual portions of his works, would, at first sight, seem to throw discredit upon these and similar statements; but the litterateur who writes much will be able readily to perceive how the unchecked fervor of such methods of composition may do more for niceness of finish, than even a diligent elaboration in cool moments. He will not be able to see, however, (provided he possess any powers of analysis,) how such methods can be consistent with weight, depth, true vigor, and, least of all, with originality — that apparently most intemperate of literary merits, but the one which, most of all, demands a quiet self-examination, and a deliberate adjustment of thought. Accordingly, in these points we find Mr. James deficient — here speaking, of course, comparatively. He is not as profound nor as original, as he is flowing and polished; but in all good qualities he far surpasses the mass of the novelists of the day.

We do not think the “Gentleman of the Old School” the best, or even the fourth or fifth best, of his fictions. We would therefore caution him (but then he will never hear us) to pause in his [page 115:] system of amanuensing, and betake himself, in a deliberate spirit, to the ordinary proprieties of the lamp and the arm-chair. Lady Mallory is inconsistent. We should be wrong in quarrelling with any human being (much less with the representation of any human being) for inconsistency alone but then she is impossibly inconsistent. Her qualities would neutralize each other; her feelings and principles are positively incompatible. Her attempts to interfere with the lovers, Ralph and Edith are, in the bitterness of their malignancy, altogether at war with that species of goodness which is the morale of her whole nature and existence. We dislike, too, especially, the clap-trap system affected throughout the book. We despise all such things as rings and miniatures; and, above all, abominate little boxes with mighty secrets hidden therein. The entire merit of the novel is nevertheless great — but lies among deeper considerations than we could venture to touch upon in any cursory and random critique.


Sketches of London, By the author of “Random Recollections of the Lords and Commons,” “The Great Metropolis,” etc. etc. Two Volumes. Carey and Hart, Philadelphia.

All the works of Mr. Grant are readable; but, in general, they have about them an air of bookmaking — an internal evidence, not to be mistaken, of having been written under the inspiration of Mammon, instead of a muse. There is always a woful effort at stretching out the matter — at making as much as possible of nothing at all. For this end, the gentleman indulges in an amplitude of narration, intermingled with an infinity of comment, which is amusing — to say no more. His style is about the flattest imaginable. The tone of his moral or philosophical observation — a point upon which he evidently prides himself — is positively grotesque in its utter platitude. Only imagine long chapters of such paternal advice as this! We should like to see the little queen reading it.

“I am sure, that were a sovereign, possessed of such amiable feelings as Victoria, and who is so exceedingly anxious to promote the cause of morals, and to increase the happiness of mankind — only aware of the deplorable and destructive consequences of horse-racing, she would at once withdraw her patronage from that pastime.”

“The Sketches of London” resemble the previous books by the same author pretty nearly. All have been read — and there can be no very great harm in reading them. They contain a good deal of minute information, the accuracy of which has been impugned, and defended, and impugned again. To contradict the assertions, in general, of Mr. Grant, requires a kind of knowledge that few men possess. There can be no doubt however that he occasionally hazards a bold remark about matters of which he is stupidly ignorant. For example — “Oxford street,” he says, “is about a mile and a half in length in a straight line, being, as already observed, longer than any street in any other city in the world.” We forget the exact length of Broadway or of Greenwich street, in New York — but our own Front street is nearly four miles in length, and we have several others nearly as long.


Popular Lectures on Geology. Treated in a very Comprehensive Manner, by H. C, Von Leonhard, Counsellor of Stale, and Professor at the University of Heildelberg, in Germany. With Illustrative Engravings. Translated by Rev. J. G. Morris, A. M., and Edited by Professor F. Hall, M. D., etc., etc, N. Hickman, Baltimore.

These Lectures are, in the proper sense of the word, popular, being at the same time elaborate, and sufficiently scientific not to appear jejune. The author, Professor Leonhard, is well known as the writer of a large and excellent “Manual of Geology and Geognosy,” and also of a “Treatise on Basaltic Formations, in their relation to Normal and Abnormal Rocks.”

The pamphlet now before us is the first of a series which will be issued in monthly numbers, of about one hundred pages each, succeeding each other as fast as they can be done into English, and prepared for the press. Many valuable notes are added by the Editor, chiefly on the subject of American Geology. The engravings, however, are badly done, and derogate very materially from the high value of the publication, which we recommend, pointedly, to the notice of our readers.


The Pocket Lacon; comprising nearly One Thousand Extracts from the Best Authors. Selected by John Taylor. Two Volumes. Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia.

The title here does not fully indicate the nature of the work. The selections are made with no reference to beauty of style, or truth of sentiment — these points, at all events, being less considered than that certain pungency (derived from antithesis, or novelty, or boldness, or paradox,) which acts upon thought with the stimulus of spice upon the palate. We do not mean, however, to find fault [page 116:] with our author upon this account; but, on the contrary, insist that he has displayed no shallow philosophy in his method and matter of extract. Books like this are not to be regarded as vehicles of truth, (who, in her majesty, disdains all insulated arguments, all fragmentary propositions, all reasonings in petto,) but merely as provocatives to her pursuit, as the means of an exercise well fitted for the strengthening of the powers to be subsequently employed in her attainment. We have before us now rather the incentive to logical thought, than its proper or admissible result. Most of the opinions advanced in this “Pocket Lacon” are questionable, many of them perversely sophistical, some trashy and unworthy of notice, some even outrageously absurd. In saying this, it will be seen that we say nothing against the merit of the book, which is great — or against the capacity of the compiler, who has perfectly fulfilled his intention, and who, moreover, in his Preface, has given undeniable evidence of sound discrimination and of a cultivated intellect.


The Triumphs of Science. A Poem. Delivered before the Whig Society of Hanover College. By William Wallace, author of the “Battle of Tippecanoe” “Dirge of Napoleon,” and other Poems. Published at the request of the Society.

This poem contains about four hundred and fifty pentameter lines. The author, in a dedication to Messieurs I. and T. Dowling, Editors of the Wabash Courier, speaks of his production “as the last of the kind which he shall ever present to the public;” but we sincerely hope that he has either already thought better of this matter, or will think better of it hereafter.

In truth, the verses of this unpretending little pamphlet evince powers of a lofty order; we need hardly add that, in comparison with three-fourths, or indeed with nine-tenths, of the hot-pressed and gilt-edged inanities of the day, they are — Hyperion to a Satyr. We do not wish — it is not our fashion — to speak hyperbolically in praise of any thing, but it is no hyperbole to say that there are many passages in “The Triumphs of Science” (so many as to constitute the mass of the poem) equal at least to any of the very best specimens of our indigenous poetry. Such versification as this, embodying imagery so just, and enkindled by imagination so vigorous, is not a matter of everyday occurrence.

Oh! who can tell the raptures of that time

When o’er man's spirit science burst sublime —

Disclosed the splendors of the spangled dome

Whose mystic torches lit Jehovah's home,

As step by step his soul in wonder trod

Nature's bright stairway up to Nature's God?

Six thousand years the Bell of Time had tolled,

And still the sea in awful mystery rolled.

While his blue arms embraced a glorious zone

No eye had seen save God's great eye alone.

Passages like these abound in the poem. We need scarcely comment upon their wonderful beauty. The image in the third line italicized is of the very highest order of merit of which poetical imagery is susceptible — although, elsewhere, we have asserted, and do now still maintain, that imagery, even in its purest nature and most skilful adaptation, belongs to a secondary rank, only, of poetical excellence. But upon this topic we may take occasion to speak more fully hereafter. In regard to the line above, commencing “Six thousand years,” we repeat that it is perfect in its way, and gives evidence of an original mind imbued with a deeply imaginative sentiment. An every-day poetaster would here have affronted and overpowered us by some classical balderdash about scythes and hourglasses, (to say nothing of grey -beards and fore-locks and wings upon the feet,) and would never have dared to dream that there existed so modern and so common-place a thing in the world as the spirit-lifting and memory-stirring bell.

Still, we should be sorry to estimate the powers of Mr. Wallace by what we see here, and are inclined to regard this pamphlet rather as an indication, than as the result, of his ability. The simple idea of a task fulfilled, of a poem (especially) upon a stated subject, delivered at an appointed hour, before an expectant society, carries with it visions of embarrassment and constraint, repugnant to the best feelings of true merit, and in consonance with the feeble sleepy notions of mediocrity alone. Therefore, Mr. W. has not now written as he could and would have written under more favorable circumstances. But we acknowledge the evidence of far more than ordinary strength in his efforts — or, more strictly, in the character of his efforts — to break through the conventional trammels of this despicable species of task-writing — a species in which no man of true taste will wish to succeed — in which no man of high genius can — a species, in short, whose sine qua non of success depends upon the negative, and certainly somewhat anomalous merit, of the possession of no [page 117:] talent at all. A reasonable individual would as soon think of flying in fetters, or of going up æronauting in a leaden balloon.


Tortesa, the Usurer. A Play. By N. P. Willis. Samuel Colman, New York.

“Tortesa” is, we think, by far the best play from the pen of an American author. Its merits He among the higher and most diflicult dramatic qualities, and, although few in number, are extensive in their influence upon the whole work; pervading it, and fully redeeming it from the sin of its multitudinous minor defects. These merits are naturalness, truthfulness, and appropriateness, upon all occasions, of sentiment and language; a manly vigor and breadth in the conception of character; and a fine ideal elevation or exaggeration thioughout — a matter forgotten or avoided by those who, with true Flemish perception of truth, wish to copy her peculiarities in disarray. Mr. Willis has not lost ^ght of the important consideration that the perfection of dramatic, as well as of plastic skill, is found not in the imitation of Nature, but in the artistical adjustment and amplification of her features. We recognize a refined taste upon every page of “Tortesa.” Its points, too, are abundant, and scatter vivacity and brilliancy over the play. That the excellences of which we speak are great, cannot be more forcibly shown than by allusion to some of the innumerable faults which aie still insufficient to render these excellences obscure.

The plot is miserably inconsequential. A simple prose digest, or compendium, of the narrative, would be scarcely intelligible, so much is the whole overloaded with incidents that have no bearing upon the ultimate result. Three-fourths of the play might be blotted out without injury to the plot properly so called. This would be less objectionable, if it were not that the attention of the reader is repeatedly challenged to these irrelevant incidents, as if they were actually pertinent to the main business of the drama. We are not allowed to pass them by, in perusal, as obviously episodical. We fatigue ourselves with an attempt to identify them with the leading interests, and grow at length wearied in the fruitless effort. When we perceive Zippa plotting and counterplotting upon every page, it is impossible not to think that she is plotting to some purpose. She does nothing, however, in the end; and for any effect upon the play, might as well never have existed. An instance of this is seen in the last act, where the whole of the second scene is introduced for the purpose of informing her, by means of Tomaso, of the danger of Angelo. She rushes from the stage exclaiming that she has it in her power to save his life; and of course, in the trial scene, we naturally expect some important interference on her part. The judgment is rendered, however, without her interposition. The conclusion of the play, too, is much in the same way. The audience cannot be brought to believe that all the scheming and counterscheming here introduced is in the slightest degree essential, since the entire difficulty might have been settled by a single word from the Duke, who is favorably disposed to all parties.

The old manoeuvre of the sleeping draught calls Romeo and Juliet somewhat too forcibly to mind. The idea, too, of the deception practised upon Tortesa by means of the portrait is borrowed apparently from the Winter's Tale, and is moreover absurd. No person could have been thus deceived, and the spectator cannot imagine any such deception. “The back wall of the scene,” we are told in the stage directions, “is so arranged as to form a natural ground for the picture;” but this is obviously impossible, except in regard to a single point of view — the illusion would be dispelled by the slightest movement on the part of Tortesa. There are a great many other improbabilities which entirely destroy the vraisemblance — but we have not space to point them out. The characters, generally, are deficient in prominence — in individuality. Zippa is a positive failure — we can make nothing of her. Tortesa is outrageously inconsistent. It is impossible to reconcile the utter blackguard of the first scenes, with the lofty self-sacrificing spirit who figures in the last. The conception, too, of the revulsion of feeling on the part of the usurer is a very antique conception at best. But we repeat that, in spite of these and a hundred other serious blemishes, we esteem “Tortesa” as by far the best American play. Mr. Willis, we are happy to perceive, has nearly altogether thrown aside the besetting sin of his earlier days — the sin of affectation. This was his worst enemy — vanquishing it, he has nothing to fear. Mr. Colman cannot be too highly praised for the beauty of this publication, which forms a volume of his “Dramatic Library.”


Precaution. A Novel. By the Author of the “Spy,” “Pioneer,” etc., etc. A New Edition, Revised by the Author. Two Volumes. Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia.

This, the first of Mr. Cooper's novels in point of time, is beyond all question the last in point of quality — yet it may be read with pleasure, and will and should be read by all our literary people, as a matter of simple curiosity, and in view of what the author of the “Spy” has since so happily accomplished. He tells us, in the preface to the present edition, that the book originally owed its [page 118:] existence to an accident, and was printed under circumstances which prevented his own personal supervision of the press. The consequences were many defects in plot, style, and arrangement. The publication, too, was nearly, if not totally ruined, by mere typographical errors — the fruits of a bad MS. Under these circumstances the public must acknowledge their indebtedness to Messieurs Lea and Blanchard for the present edition. We cannot forbear saying, however, that had we been Mr. Cooper — had we been Alexander instead of Diogenes — we should not have again thrust the book upon the attention of the public, but, putting it quietly behind the fire, have endeavored, with all our might and main, to forget that so great a mass of trash ever existed.


Six Weeks in Fauquier. Being the substance of a series of Familiar Letters, illustrating the Scenery, Localities, Medicinal Virtues, and General Characteristics of the White Sulphur Springs, at Warrenton, Fauquier County, Virginia. Written in 1838, to a Gentleman in New England. By a Visiter. Samuel Colman, New York.

This is a long title to a rather small affair — a thin duodecimo of sixty-seven pages. The truth is that the whole work has very much the air of a quack advertisement; and, but for those incontrovertible words, “By a Visiter,” one might suspect that the proprietors of the While Sulphur Springs had themselves turned authors for the nonce. Be this as it may, the writer should not be accused of a lack of zeal for these waters. Indeed he sometimes carries it to the verge of a blunder. — In the preface, for instance, he first abuses Sar ga on account of that facility of access which renders its company “promiscuous,” and proceeds then to expatiate in praise of the “immense crowds which have hitherto resorted to the White Sulphur.” Amid a collection of recommendatory letters, also, there occurs one from B. Watkins Leigh, in which the Senator somewhat equivocally asserts that the dropsical symptoms with which he went to Fauquier have been continually declining “ever since he got home.” There can be no doubt, however, that the springs in question have high medicinal, and higher fashionable virtues. The scenery is beautiful, the charges are moderate, the accommodations good. In fact every thing concerning them is good — with the exception of this stupid little book — which is very bad indeed — very.


The White Sulphur Papers, or Life at the Springs of Western Virginia. By Mark Pencil, Esq. Samuel Colman, New York.

A larger, a handsomer, and altogether a better volume on the same subject, although abounding, we are sorry to say, in typographical errors. This is the more to be regretted, as the mechanical execution, otherwise, is of a very superior order.

“The White Sulphur Papers” are written with sprightliness, and have much general interest. To persons contemplating a visit to the Springs such a book as this is invaluable. It affords, in an agreeable manner, all necessary information, besides being full of anecdote and chit-chat. Moreover, we can aver, upon the authority of our friends of the “Corsair,” that Mark Pencil, Esq. is not the Proprietor of the Springs, and that he is a gentlemanly personage. We presume, too, that he I no private interests to serve in the publication — which, at all events, is very readable, and very creditable to both author and publisher.


A Defence of Female Education. Read before the Columbus Lyceum, by John Southerland Lewis. Columbus, Georgia. Published by order of the Society.

This essay does Mr. Lewis some credit. The necessity for any “Defence of Female Education” is, to be sure, not very apparent — but he has handled his subject with great ability, and placed that which was before clear in a perfectly brilliant light.





[S:0 - BGM, 1839] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Critical Notices [Text-02]