Text: Edgar Allan Poe (???), Critical Notices, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1839, vol V, no. 5


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Text: Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1839,

[page 282:]

REVIEW OF NEW BOOKS

Shakspeare and His Friends; or, “The Golden Age” of Merry England. Three volumes. Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia.

Messieurs Lea and Blanchard have done a public service in reprinting this work, which will commend itself to all classes of readers, and should be procured forthwith by every person who has a copy of Shakspeare, (that is to say, by the world at large,) as a most valuable running commentary upon the writings of the immortal bard, as well as those of his contemporaries. Most of the illustrious spirits of the “golden age” figure in the pages with a remarkably well sustained life-likeliness; the principal, if not the sole design of the author, indeed, being the crowding into a connected narrative as many as possible of these worthies — with a view of depicting them by aid of the best lights of historical research. This difficult task is well performed — and the book requires no higher praise. “We make objection, however, to the author’s imbuing his own style — the words in which he personally speaks — with the antique spirit of the people and period discussed.

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The Canons of Good Breeding; or, The Handbook of the Man of Fashion. By the Author of the “Laws of Etiquette.” Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia.

This little book is a curiosity in its way. Indeed, there is something so very singular about it that we have been led to read it through deliberately and thoughtfully, with the view of solving the mystery which envelops it. It is by the author of the “Laws of Etiquette,” who is also the author of “Advice to a Young Gentleman,” a volume which we commended with some warmth in a former number of the Magazine.

In regard to the “Canons of Good Breeding,” the critical reader, who takes it up, will, of course, be inclined to throw it aside with contempt, upon perceiving its title. This will be his first impulse. If he proceed so far, however, as to skim over the Preface, his eye will be arrested by a certain air of literature-ism (we must be permitted to coin an odd word for an odd occasion) which pervades and invigorates the pages. Regarding with surprise this discrepancy between preface and title — between the apparent polish of the one, and the horribly ad captandum character of the other — he will be induced to finish the perusal of the book, and, we answer for it, will be thoroughly mystified before he gets well to the end. He will now find an exceeding difficulty, nearly amounting to impossibility, in making up his mind in regard to the merit or demerit of the work. If, however, he be somewhat in a hurry, there can be little doubt that he will terminate his examination with a hearty, perhaps even an enthusiastic, approval.

The truth is that the volume abounds in good things. We rnay safely say that, in a compass so small, we never before met with an equal radiancy of fine wit, so well commingled with scholar-like observation and profound thought — thought sometimes luminously and logically, and always elegantly, expressed. The first difficulty arising in the mind of the critic is that these good things are suspiciously super-abundant. He will now pass on to the observation of some inaccuracies of adaptation. He will then call to mind certain niaiseries of sentiment altogether at warfare with the prevailing tone of the book — and, finally, he will perceive, although with somewhat greater difficulty, the evidence of a radical alteration and bepatching of the language — the traces of an excessive limae labor. He will thus take otTence at the disingenuousness which has entrapped him into momentary applause; and, while he cannot deny that the work, such as the world sees it, has merit, he will still pronounce it, without hesitation, the excessively-elaborated production of some partially-educated man, possessed with a rabid ambition for the reputation of a wit and savant, and who, somewhat unscrupulous in the mode of attaining such reputation, has consented to clip, cut, and most assiduously intersperse throughout his book, by wholesale, the wit, the wisdom, and the erudition, of Horace Walpole, of Bolingbroke, of Chesterfield, of Bacon, of Burton, and of Burdon, — even of Bulwer and of D’Israeli, — with occasional draughts (perhaps at second-hand) from the rich coffers of Seneca, or Machiavelli — of Montaigne, of Rochefoucault, of the author of “La Maniere de bien penser,” or of Bielfeld, the German who wrote in French “Les Premiers Traits de L’Erudition [page 283:] Universelle.” We may be pardoned also for an allusion — which is enougjh — to such wealthy storehouses as the “Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuses,” the Literary Memoirs of Sallengré, the “Melanges Literaires,” of Suard and André, and the “Pieces Interressantes et peu Connues” of La Place.

The construction here given is the most obvious, and indeed the only one, which can be put upon the volume now before us, and upon the other efforts of the same pen. They betray the hand of the diligent adaptator of others’ wit, rather than the really full mind of the educated and studious man of general letters. True eruditiois — by which term we here mean simply to imply much diversified reading — is certainly discoverable — is positively indicated — only in its ultimate and total results. The mere grouping together of fine things from the greatest multiplicity of the rarest works, or even the apparently natural inweaving into any composition, of the sentiments and manner of these works, is an attainment within the reach of every moderately-informed, ingenious, and not indolent man, having access to any ordinary collection of good books. The only available objection to what we have urged will be based upon the polish of the style. But we have already alluded to traces of the limae labor — and this labor has been skilfully applied. Beyond doubt, the volume has undergone a minute supervision and correction by some person whose habits and education have rendered him very thoroughly competent to the task.

We have spoken somewhat at length in regard to the authorship of “The Canons of Criticism,” because ingenuities of this species are by no means very common. Few men are found weak enough to perpetrate them to any extent. We have said little, however, in respect to the book itself, as it stands — and this little has been in its favor. The publication will be read with interest, and may he read, generally speaking, with profit. Some of the niaseries to which we alluded just now are sufficiently droll — being even oddly at variance with the assumed spirit of the whole work. We are told, among other things, that the writer has employed throughout his book the words “lady,” and “gentleman,” instead of the words “woman,” and “man,” which “are more correct expressions, and more usual in the best circles,” — that “when you lay down your hat in a room, or on a bench in a public place, you should put the open part downwards, so that the leather may not be seen which has been soiled by the hair,” — that “you should never present yourself at a large evening party without having your hair dressed and curled,” — and that since “the inferior classes of men, as you may see if you think fit to take notice of them, only press the rim of the hat when they speak to women of their acquaintance,” you should be careful “when you salute a lady or gentleman, to take your own entirely off, and cause it to describe a circle of at least ninety degrees.”

The effect of such fine advice can be readily conceived. It will be taken by contraries, as sure as dandies have brains. No one of that much-injured race will now venture to say “lady,” or “gentleman,” or have his hair curled, or place his hat upside-down upon a table, or do any other such unimaginable act, lest he should be suspected of having derived his manners from no better source than the “Canons of Good Breeding.” We shall have a revolution in such matters — a revolution to be remedied only by another similar volume. As for its author — should he write it — we wish him no worse fate than to be condemned to its perpetual perusal until such time as he shall succeed in describing with his hat one of his own very funny circles — one of those circles of just ninety degrees.

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The Damsel of Darien. By the Author of “The Yemussee,” etc. Two volumes. Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia.

The author of “The Damsel of Darien” is also the author of “Atalantis, a Story of the Sea;” “Martin Faber, the Story of a Criminal;” “Guy Rivers, a Tale of Georgia;” “The Partisan, a Tale of the Revolution;” and “Mellichampe, a Legend of the Santee.” Of these works, “Martin Faber” passed to a second edition, (and well deserved a permanent success,) “Guy Rivers,” and “The Yemassee,” each to a third. What fate “Mellichampe” met with, or what “The Partisan,” we are not so well prepared to say. In the latter work, with many excellences, were to be found very many disfiguring features, and, upon the whole, we thought it hardly worthy the literary reputation of Mr. Simms. The novel now published is, in our opinion, a much better book; evincing stricter study and care, with a far riper judgment, and a more rigidly-disciplined fancy. The path of the writer appears to be still onward — although he proceeds somewhat slowly along that path, to be sure. He is thinking of Festina lente, perhaps. We sincerely wish him all the success to which his talents entitle him, and which his persevering efforts most assuredly deserve.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa is the hero of the “Damsel of Darien;” and the narrative, which of course has no plot, is occupied with his dreams, difficulties, adventures, (and, finally, his death, through the jealous tyrany [[tyranny]] of Pedrarias,) in the pursuit of that darling object of his heart, the discovery of the Southern Sea; of which he had obtained some indefinite knowledge from the Indians of Darien, during his voyage under Rodrigo de Bastides. As these things aie all matters of history, and as Mr. Simms has adhered for the chief part to the ordinary records, it will be unnecessary to dwell upon them here. In the first volume we have the most of pure romance; in the second, more of fact. The passages which, as mere specimens of good writing, we prefer, are to be found in the [page 284:] earlier portion of the story. We might designate the nineteenth and twenty-first chapters (of the first volume) as particularly forcible and full of interest. In the former, Vasco Nunez escapes from the hand of a matador, through the instrumentality of a Carribbean chief, (Caonabo,) who figures largely in the narrative. In the latter, this chief, being captured by two Spaniards for the sake of a reward set upon his head, seduces his captors, by promises of hidden treasure, into a chasm among the mountains, and entombs them irredeemably by hurling a huge rock upon the aperture through which they entered. This is well told, and has an exciting effect. There are also many other fine episodical pieces interspersed throughout the book — which, altogether, is one of value, and cannot fail of being favorably received. Still, we should not deny that its chief merit lies in the pertinacity of its adherence to fact; and the judicious reader will not be willing to give Mr. Simms exclusive credit for that portion of his entertainment which is referable to the chronicles of the men and times discussed — for that interest, in short, which, appertaining to the subject itself, is essentially independent of the author.

Perhaps the following beautiful ballad, which is put into the mouth of the hero, Vasco Nunez, is the most really meritorious portion of the book: —

INDIAN SERENADE.

‘Mong Lucayo’s isles and waters,

Leaping to the evening light.

Dance the moonlight’s silver daughters.

Tresses streaming, glances gleaming,

Ever beautiful and bright.

And their wild and mellow voices.

Still to hear along the deep.

Every brooding star rejoices,

While the billow, on its pillow,

Lull’d to silence, seems to sleep.

Yet they wake a song of sorrow,

Those sweet voices of the night

Still from grief a gift they borrow,

And hearts shiver, as they quiver,

With a wild and sad delight.

‘Tis the wail for life they waken,

By Samana’s yielding shore —

With the tempest it is shaken;

The wide ocean is in motion,

And the song is heard no more.

But the gallant bark comes sailing.

At her prow the chieftain stands,

He hath heard the tender wailing; —

It delights him — it invites him

To the joys of other lands.

Bright the moonlight’s round and o’er him.

And! see, a picture lies

In the gentle waves before him —

Woman smiling, still beguiling.

With her dark and lovely eyes.

White arms toss above the waters.

Pleading murmurs fill his ears,

And the gem of ocean’s daughters,

Love assuring, still alluring.

Wins him down with tears.

On, the good ship speeds without him,

By Samana’s silver shore —

They have twined their arms about him.

Ocean’s daughters, in the waters.

Sadly singing as before. [resume full page:]

The defects of the “Damsel of Darien” are few, and seldom ladical. The leading sin is the sin of imitation — the entire absence of originality. This fault is especially seen in the manner — which, in regard to the greater portion of the narrative, could not be made by the caricaturist more utterly common-place than it is. Mr. Simms adheres to the good old-fashioned way of getting at his subjects, and of handling them when attained. Every sentence puts us in mind of something we have heard similarly said before. This imitation is also perceptible in higher particulars. It pervades even the headings of his chapters — which are all Bulwerized. It extends to his characters. If Felipe Davila is not an humble follower of the old Jew in Ivanhoe, then what is he? “And thou thinkest, worthy Micei Codro, that the fortune of the brave youth is good, albeit he doth reject the offer of Enciso? Will the stars keep faith with him that is so obstinate? It were beggary to me, worthy Micer, should the castillanos — seven hundred and fifty — “etc., etc. The tone and material of all the astrological portion of the story is awkwardly adopted from “Godolphin.” We say awkwardly; for, in that fervidly poetical tale, the predictions of the star-gazer not only work out their own fulfilment, but are in accurate keeping with the dream-like character of the whole fiction. Besides, the astrological rant of old Micer Codro, in the “Damsel of Darien,” puts us constantly in mind of the “hi presto!” twaddle of Signor Blitz.

Mr. Simms is now and then guilty of a grossness of thought and expression which indicates any thing but refinement of mind. We spoke of this matter at some length in a review, elsewhere, of the “Partisan,” and we speak of it now because we would particularly call the author’s attention to the subject. By grossness of expression we do not mean indelicacy — but the expression of images which repel and disgust. At page 59, vol. I., for example, the novelist dwells too unequivocally upon the horrid barbarities inflicted upon the Indians by Jorge Garabito. At page 195, we read — “The sabueso has no keener scent for his victim, and loves not better to snuff up the thick blood with his [page 285:] nostrils.” And at page 219, what can be in worse taste than such a phrase as — “I will advance to the short banyan that stands within the path, and my dagger shall pick his teeth, ere he gets round it.” The most curious instance, however, of our author’s penchant for such things as these, occurs at page 98 of the same volume, where, amid a passage of great beauty, he pauses to quote from the Siege of Corinth, the well known image about “peeling the fig when the fruit is fresh” — an image whose disgusting application where it originally stands has been often made the subject of severe and very justifiable censure.

The style of our novelist has improved of late — but is still most faulty. The Dedication to Mr. Paulding needs no comment from us. Every one who either writes or reads at all will pronounce it a disgraceful piece of composition. Never was any thing so laboriously bad. The whole work, indeed, abounds with awkward or positively ungrammatical phrases — but we shall be satisfied with pointing out merely one or two.

Page 17, vol. I. — “He was noted for his vigor and address in jousts and tilting matches, was unsurpassed in feats of horsemanship, and — an accomplishment not less attractive among his admirers — a most capital musician.” Here a musician and a compliment are placed in apposition.

At page 123, we read thus — “This was spoken by Ojeda while at some little distance from, and |while the crowd stood, a solid mass, between him and his rival.” Here the sentence is to be tortured into grammar only by placing in a parenthesis the Words “and while the crowd stood a solid mass between him and.” But how easily might it have been written that “Ojeda said this while the crowd stood, a solid mass, between himself and his rival, whose position was at some little distance from his own.”

Again, at page 59, vol. I. — “Women, who are very foolish, are apt to be very cruel.” In this equivocal sentence, Mr. S., no doubt, intended to assert that very foolish women are apt to be very cruel. His words as they stand, however, convey a really serious charge of stupidity against the gentle sex at large. These faulty constructions, occurring at every page, not only offend the eye of the critic, and lessen the authority of the writer, but have an exceedingly large influence in marring the beauty of sentiment, by rendering abortive all vigor of thought.

In another point of view Mr. S. has committed certain blunders, or fallen into certain inadvertences, which it might be as well to remedy in a second edition. The whole account of the hurricane is, we think, monstrously at war with all the dicta of common sense, as well as all the known principles of Natural Philosophy. The writer discourses of the storm as he would of a wild beast; and the reader cannot get over the idea that Mr. S. actually supposes it to be something which possesses an existence independent of that atmosphere, of which it is merely a quality er condition.

At page 161, of the same volume, we find these words — “And how natural, in an age so fanciful, to believe that the stars and starry groups beheld in the new world for the first time by the native of the old, were especially assigned for its government and protection!” Now if by the old world be meant the East, and by the new world the West, we are quite at a loss to know what are the stars seen in the one, which cannot be equally seen in the other.

Some singular instances of bad taste (instances of a different character from those above noted) are also observable in the “Damsel of Darien,” bat we cannot now attempt to indicate them in detail. There is a ludicrous example, however, which it will not do to pass by, and which occurs at page 105 of the first volume. “It was a pile of the oyster,” says Mr. S., “which yielded the precious pearls of the South, and the artist had judiciously painted some with their lips parted, and showing within the large precious fruit in the attainment of which Spanish cupidity had already proved itself capable of every peril as well as of every crime. The intention of the artist was of much more merit than his execution. At once true and poetical no comment could have been more severe upon the national character than that conveyed in this slight design.” Now we can have no doubt in the world that the artist was a clever fellow in his way — but it is really difficult to conceive what kind of poetical beauty that can be, which Mr. Simms is so happy as to discover in the countenance of a gaping oyster.

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Father Butler and The Lough Deary Pilgrim. By W. H. Carleton, Author of “Traits and Stories of Irish Peasantry” “Neal Malone,” etc. To which is added National Tales. By Thomas Hood, author of “The Comic Annual,” etc. Two Volumes. T. K. and P. G. Collins, Philadelphia.

W. H. Carleton has won no little reputation by “Neal Malone,” but his “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry” are scarcely as entertaining as those of Mrs. Hall. “Father Butler” is a good story, and “The Lough Deary Pilgrim” has a very passable degree of merit.

In regard to Thomas Hood, it might be thought scarcely necessary to say a word. In that way which he has made so peculiarly his own, he is certainly “alone in his glory.”’ Most of his stories in the book now before us, however, are of a serious character; and we know of nothing serious — at least in prose — which has hitherto proceeded from his pen. He appears to have had some misgivings [page 286:] in making this novel attempt; and we really think he should not have made it at all. His first tale, “The Spanish Tragedy,” has some excellent points about it, although decidedly bad as a whole; the rest are ail miserable trash. The truth is, we scarcely know how to think, or how to speak, of what he has here given to the world. The preface would lead us to regard the pieces as original; which they positively are not. The leading ideas of every article, if not the very words which convey them, are as familiar to us as any old song. Moreover, the language, the subject, the general air and manner of the narratives are so strongly marked, that we have no hesitation in pronouncing them all either intentional, aud in that case exceedingly well-managed, imitations of Italian novellettos, or disingenuous translations from the same.

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Nan Barrell; or The Gipsey Mother. By the Author of “The Heiress,’‘ “The Merchant’s Daughter,” “The Squire,” “The Prince and The Pedlar,” etc. Two Volumes. Carey and Hart, Philadelphia.

“The Prince and The Pedlar” is better known to American readers than the other productions of its author — if we except some minor pieces published in British periodicals. “The Heiress,” we believe, was quite popular among ns — at all events it deserved popularity. “Nan Darrell” is a better book than either of these two, and may well stand a comparison with any modern novel of its class and character. It is exceedingly well written and is full of a rich imaginative interest which will make its way with certainty into the hearts of the ardent and the young. Its pathos is particularly noticeable.

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The Violet: A Christmas and, New Year’s Present. 1840. Edited by Miss Leslie. Carey and Hart, Philadelphia.

This little annual is somewhat smaller in form, and less in cost, than “The Gift,” but scarcely less excellent in its literary contents. The list of contributors will speak for itself. We have, among others. Miss Leslie, the editor; Miss Waterman; Miss Gould; Mrs. Sigoumey; Mrs. Embury; Mrs. Stowe and Miss Beecher. The embellishments are also capital. The Frontispiece — “Childhood,” engraved by Pease, from a drawing by that most exquisitely poetical artist, Fanny Corbeaux — will be sure to please every one. There is also a laughable sketch, in a slight way, from a design by Meadows, entitled the “Spoiled Child.” The best thing in the book is, nevertheless, an engraving by Lawson from a picture by Webster — the subject an ancient schoolmistress with her pupils. This illustrates a story called Dick Davis, by Miss Leslie — a good story told in her usual very excellent manner.

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The Literary Souvenir. A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1840. Edited by Wm. E. Burton, Esq. E. L. Carey and A. Hart, Philadelphia.

We seize the opportunity afforded by Mr. Burton’s absence in Baltimore, to say a word or two in behalf of this annual, which is certainly one of the very best of its race. Its outward appearance is lather substantial and elegant, than showy, but its internal merits are all great. The paper is very superb, the typography of an unusually neat character, the embellishments numerous and good. The literary contents are from the pens of Mr. Burton and Mr. C. W. Thomson exclusively the prose by the former, the poetry by the latter. Mr. Thomson’s articles sustain his reputation. Mr. Burton’s assuredly do him great credit. We should like nothing better than to speak of them one by one — but are bound to refrain. We will say, however, that the “Æronaut’s Revenge, a Tale of the Confessional,” is a well conceived and well managed story of exceeding interest, and gives evidence of very lofty capacity in its author.


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Notes:

None.


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