Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Imitation — Plagiarism,” from the Broadway Journal, March 8, 1845, vol. 1, no. 10, pp. 147-150.



In replying to the letter signed “Outis,” which appears in last Saturday's “Weekly Mirror”, I find it advisable, for reasons which will be obvious as I proceed, to dismiss for the present the editorial “we.”

For the “Evening Mirror” of January 14, before my editorial connection with the “Broadway Journal,” I furnished a brief criticism on Professor Longfellow's “Waif.”

In the course of my observations, I collated a poem called “The Death-Bed,” and written by Hood, with one by Mr. Aldrich, entitled “A Death-Bed.” The criticism ended thus:

We conclude our notes on the “Waif,” with the observation that, although full of beauties, it is infected with a moral taint — or is this a mere freak of our own fancy? We shall be pleased if it be so; — but there does appear, in this little volume, a very careful avoidance of all American poets who may be supposed especially to interfere with the claims of Mr. Longfellow. These men Mr. Longfellow can continuously imitate (is that the word?) and yet never even incidentally commend.

Much discussion ensued. A friend of Mr. Longfellow's penned a defence which had at least the merit of being thoroughly impartial; for it defended Mr. L., not only from the one-tenth of very moderate disapproval in which I had indulged, but from the nine-tenths of my enthusiastic admiration into the bargain. The fact is, if I was not convinced that in ninety-nine hundredths of all that I had written about Mr. Longfellow I was decidedly in the wrong, at least it was no fault of Mr. Longfellow's very luminous friend.

This well-intended defence was published in the “Mirror” with a few words of preface by Mr. Willis, and of postscript by myself.

Still dissatisfied, Mr. L., through a second friend, addressed to Mr. Willis an expostulatory letter, of which the Mirror printed only the following portion: —

It has been asked, perhaps, why Lowell was neglected in this collection? Might it not as well be asked why Bryant, Dana and Halleck were neglected? The answer is obvious to any one who candidly considers the character of the collection. It professed to be, according to the Pröem, from the humbler poets; and it was intended to embrace pieces that were anonymous, or which were not easily accessible to the general reader — the waifs and estrays of literature. To put anything of Lowell's, for example, into a collection of waifs would be a particular liberty with pieces which are all collected and christened.

Not yet content, or misunderstanding the tenor of some of the wittily-put comments which accompanied the quotation, the aggrieved poet, through one of the two friends as before, or perhaps through a third, finally prevailed on the good nature of Mr. Willis to publish an explicit declaration of his disagreement with “all the disparagement of Longfellow” which had appeared in the criticism in question.

Now when we consider that many of the points of censure made by me in this critique were absolutely as plain as the nose upon Mr. Longfellow's face — that it was impossible to gainsay them — that we defied him and his coadjutors to say a syllable in reply to them — and that they held their tongues and not a syllable said — when we consider all this, I say, then the satire of the “all” in Mr. Willis’ manifesto becomes apparent at once. Mr. Longfellow did not see it; and I presume his friends did not see it. I did. In my mind's eye it expanded itself thus; — “My dear Sir, or Sirs, what will you have? You are an insatiable set of cormorants, it is true; but if you will only let me know what you desire, I will satisfy you, if I die for it. Be quick! — merely say what it is you wish me to admit, and (for the sake of getting rid of you) I will admit it upon the spot. Come! I will grant at once that Mr. Longfellow is Jupiter Tonans, and that his three friends are the Graces, or the Furies, whichever you please. As for a fault to be found with either of you, that is impossible, and I say so. I disagree with all — with every syllable of the disparagement that ever has been whispered against you up to this date, and (not to stand upon trifles) with all that ever shall be whispered against you henceforward, forever and forever. May I hope at length that these assurances will be sufficient?”

But if Mr. Willis really hoped anything of the kind he was mistaken.

In the meantime Mr. Briggs in this paper — in the “Broadway Journal” — did me the honor of taking me to task for what he supposed to be my insinuations against Mr. Aldrich.

My reply (in the “Mirror”) prefaced by a few words from Mr. Willis, ran as follows:

Much interest has been given in our literary circles of late to the topic of plagiarism.

About a month ago a very eminent critic connected with this paper, took occasion to point out a parallelism between certain lines of Thomas Hood, and certain others which appeared in the collection of American poetry edited by Mr. Griswold. Transcribing the passages, he ventured the assertion that “somebody is a thief.” (He goes on below to speak for himself.)

The matter had been nearly forgotten, if not altogether so, when a “good-natured friend” of the American author (whose name had by us never been mentioned) considered it advisable to re-collate the passages, with the view of convincing the public (and himself) that no plagiarism is chargeable to the party of whom he thinks it chivalrous to be the “good-natured friend.”

For our own part should we ever be guilty of an indiscretion of this kind, we deprecate all aid from our “good natured friends” — but in the mean time it is rendered necessary that once again we give publicity to the collation of poems in question. Mr. Hood's lines run thus:

We watched her breathing through the night,

Her breathing soft and low,

As in her breast the wave of life

Kept heaving to and fro.

So silently we seemed to speak,

So slowly moved about,

As we had lent her half our powers

To eke her being out.

Our very hope belied our fears;

Our fears our hope belied;

We thought her dying when she slept,

And sleeping when she died.

But when the morn came dim and sad,

And chill with early showers,

Her quiet eyelids closed; — she had

Another morn than ours.

Mr. Aldrich's thus: —

Her sufferings ended with the day,

Yet lived she at its close,

And breathed the long, long night away

In statue-like repose;

But when the sun in all its state

Illumed the eastern skies,

She passed through Glory's morning gate,

And walked in paradise.

And here, to be sure, we might well leave a decision in the case to the verdict of common sense. But since the “Broadway Journal” insists upon the “no resemblance,” we are constrained to point out especially where our supposed similarity lies. In the first place, then, the subject in both pieces is death. In the second it is the death of a woman. In the third, it is the death of a woman tranquilly dying. In the fourth, it is the death of a woman who lies tranquilly throughout the night. In the fifth it is the death of a woman whose “breathing soft and low is watched through the night” in the one instance and who “breathed the long long night away in statue-like repose” in the other. In the sixth place, in both poems this woman dies just at daybreak. In the seventh place, dying just at daybreak, this woman in both cases, steps directly into Paradise. In the eighth place all these identities of circumstance are related in identical rhythms. In the ninth place these identical rhythms are arranged in identical metres; and, in the tenth place, these identical rhythms and metres are constructed into identical stanzas.

At this point the matter rested for a fortnight, when a fourth friend of Mr. Longfellow took up the cudgels for him and Mr. Aldrich conjointly, in another communication to the “Mirror.” I copy it in full.


DEAR WILLIS — Fair play is a jewel, and I hope you will let us have it. I have been much amused, by some of the efforts of your critical friend, to convict Longfellow of imitation, and Aldrich and others, of plagiarism. What is plagiarism? And what constitutes a good ground for the charge? Did no two men ever think alike without stealing one from the other? or, thinking alike, did no two men ever use the same, or similar words, to convey the thoughts, and that, without any communication with each other? To deny it would be absurd. It is a thing of every day occurrence.

Some years ago, a letter was written from some part of New England, describing one of those scenes, not very common during what is called “the January thaw,” when the snow, mingled with rain, and freezing as it falls, forms a perfect covering of ice upon every object. The storm clears away suddenly, and the moon comes up. The letter proceeds “every tree and shrub, as far as the eye can reach, of pure transparent glass — a perfect garden of moving, waving, breathing chrystals. * * * Every tree is a diamond chandelier, with a whole constellation of stars clustering to every socket,” &c. This letter was laid away where such things usually are, in a private drawer, and did not see the light for many years. But the very next autumn brought out, among the splendid annuals got up in the country, a beautiful poem from Whittier, describing the same, or rather a similar scene, in which is this line

“The trees, like chrystal chandeliers,”

was put in italics by every reviewer in the land, for the exceeding beauty of the imagery. Now the letter was written, probably about the same time with the poem, though the poem was not published till nearly a year after. — The writers were not, and never have been, acquainted with each other, and neither could possibly have seen the work of the other before writing. Now, was there any plagiarism here? Yet there are plenty of “identities.” The author of the letter, when urged some years after, to have it published, consented very reluctantly, through fear that he should be charged with theft; and, very probably, the charge has been made, though I have never seen it.

May not this often occur? What is more natural? Images are not created, but suggested. And why not the same images, when the circumstances are precisely the same, to different minds? Perhaps your critic will reply, that the case is different after one of the compositions is published. How so? Does he, or you, or anybody read everything that is published? I am a great admirer, and a general reader of poetry. But, by what accident I do not know, I had never seen the beautiful lines of Hood, till your critical friend brought them to my notice in the Mirror. It is certainly possible that Aldrich had not seen them several years ago — and more than probable that Hood had not seen Aldrich's. Yet your friend affects great sympathy for both, in view of their better compunctions of conscience, for their literary piracies.

But, after all, wherein does the real resemblance between these two compositions consist? Mr. — I had almost named him, finds nearly a dozen points of resemblance. But when he includes rhythm, metre and stanza among the dozen, he only shows a bitter resolution to make out a case, and not a disposition to do impartial justice. Surely the critic himself who is one of our finest poets, does not mean to deny that these mere externals are the common property of all bards. He does not feel it necessary to strike out a new stanza, or to invent new feet and measures, whenever he would clothe his “breathing thoughts in words that burn.”

Again, it is not improbable that, within the period of time since these two writers, Hood and Aldrich, came on the stage, ten thousand females have died, and died tranquilly, and died just at day-break, and that after passing a tranquil night, and, so dying, were supposed by their friends to have passed at once to a better world, a morning in heaven. The poets are both describing an actual, and not an imaginary occurrence. And here — including those before-mentioned, which are common property — are nine of the critic's identities, which go to make up the evidence of plagiarism. The last six, it requires no stretch of the imagination to suppose, they might each have seen and noticed separately. The most of them, one other poet at least, has noticed, many years ago, in a beautiful poem on these words of the angel to the wrestling Jacob — “Let me go, for the day breaketh.” Wonder if Hood ever saw that?

The few remaining “identities” are, to my mind, sufficiently disposed of by what I have already said. I confess I was not able, until the appearance of the critic's second paper, in which he brought them out specially, “marked, numbered, and labelled,” to perceive the resemblance on which the grave charge of literary piracy, and moral dishonesty of the meanest kind was based. In view of all the glaring improbabilities of such a case, a critic should be very slow to make such a charge. I say glaring improbabilities, for it seems to me that no circumstantial evidence could be sufficient to secure a verdict of theft in such a case. Look at it. A man, who aspires to fame, who seeks the esteem and praise of the world, and lives upon his reputation, as his vital element, attempts to win his object — how? By stealing, in open day, the finest passages, the most beautiful thoughts (no others are worth stealing) and the rarest images of another, and claiming them as his own; and that too, when he knows that every competitor for fame, and every critical tribunal in the world, as well as the real owner, will be ready to identify the borrowed plumes in a moment, and cry him down as a thief. A madman, an idiot, if he were capable of such an achievement, might do it, but no other. A rogue may steal what he can conceal in his pocket, or his chest — but one must be utterly non compos, to steal a splendid shawl, or a magnificent plume, which had been admired by thousands for its singular beauty, for the purpose of sporting it in Broadway. In nine hundred and ninety-nine cases of a thousand, such charges are absurd, and indicate rather the carping littleness of the critic, than the delinquency of his victim.

Pray did you ever think the worse of Dana because your friend, John Neal, charged him with pirating upon Paul Allen, and Bryant too, in his poem of “the dying raven?” or of yourself, because the same friend thought he had detected you in the very act of stealing from Pinckney, and Miss Francis, now Mrs. Child? Surely not. Every body knows that John Neal wishes to be supposed to have read every thing that ever was written, and never have forgotten any thing. He delights, therefore, in showing up such resemblances.

And now — for the matter of Longfellow's imitations — In what do they consist? The critic is not very specific in this charge. Of what kind are they? Are they imitations of thought? Why not call them plagiarisms then, and show them up? Or are they only verbal imitations of style? Perhaps this is one of them, in his poem on the “Sea Weed.”

——— “drifting, drifting, drifting

On the shifting

Currents of the restless main.”

resembling, in form and collocation only, a line in a beautiful and very powerful poem of Mr. EDGAR A. POE. (Write it rather EDGAR, a Poet, and then it is right to a T.) I have not the poem before me, and have forgotten its title. But he is describing a magnificent intellect in ruins, if I remember rightly — and, speaking of the eloquence of its better days, represents it as

——— “flowing, flowing, flowing

Like a river.”

Is this what the critic means? Is it such imitations as this that he alludes to? If not, I am at fault, either in my reading of Longfellow, or in my general familiarity with the American Poets. If this be the kind of imitation referred to, permit me to say, the charge is too paltry for any man, who valued his reputation either as a gentleman or a scholar, to make. Who, for example, would wish to be guilty of the littleness of detracting from the uncommon merit of that remarkable poem of this same Mr. Poe's, recently published in the Mirror, from the American Review, entitled “THE RAVEN,” by charging him with the paltriness of imitation? And yet, some snarling critic, who might envy the reputation he had not the genius to secure for himself, might refer to the frequent, very forcible, but rather quaint repetition, in the last two lines of many of the stanzas, as a palpable imitation of the manner of Coleridge, in several stanzas of the Ancient Mariner. Let me put them together.

Mr. Poe says —

“Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore,

Let my heart be still a moment, and this mystery explore.”

And again —

“It shall clasp a sainted maiden, whom the angels name Lenore —

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels name Lenore.”

Mr. Coleridge says, (running two lines into one):

“For all averred I had killed the bird, that made the breeze to blow.

‘Ah, wretch!’ said they, ‘the bird to slay, that made the breeze to blow.’ ”

And again —

“They all averred I had killed the bird, that brought the fog and mist.

“ ’Twas right,’ said they,'such birds to slay, that bring the fog and mist’.”

I have before me an anonymous poem, which I first saw some five years ago, entitled “The Bird of the Dream.” I should like to transcribe the whole — but it is too long. The author was awaked from sleep by the song of a beautiful bird, sitting on the sill of his window — the sweet notes had mingled with his dreams, and brought to his remembrance, the sweeter voice of his lost “CLARE.” He says —

“And thou wert in my dream — a spirit thou didst seem —

The spirit of a friend long since departed;

Oh! she was fair and bright, but she left me one dark night —

She left me all alone, and broken-hearted.

* * *

My dream went on, and thou went a warbling too,

Mingling the harmonies of earth and heaven;

Till away — away — away — beyond the realms of day —

My angel CLARE to my embrace was given

* * *

“Sweet bird from realms of light, oh! come again to-night,

Come to my window — perch upon my chair —

Come give me back again that deep impassioned strain

That tells me thou hast seen and loved my CLARE.

Now I shall not charge Mr. Poe with Plagiarism — for, as I have said, such charges are perfectly absurd. Ten to one, he never saw this before. But let us look at the “identities” that may be made out between this and “THE RAVEN.” First, in each case, the poet is a broken-hearted lover. Second, that lover longs for some hereafter communion with the departed. Third, there is a bird. Fourth, the bird is at the poet's window. Fifth, the bird being at the poet's window, makes a noise. Sixth, making a noise, attracts the attention of the poet; who, Seventh, was half asleep, dosing, dreaming. Eighth, the poet invites the bird to come in. Ninth, a confabulation ensues. Tenth, the bird is supposed to be a visitor from the land of spirits. Eleventh, allusion is made to the departed. Twelfth, intimation is given that the bird knew something of the departed. Thirteenth, that he knew her worth and loveliness. Fourteenth, the bird seems willing to linger with the poet. Fifteenth, there is a repetition, in the second and fourth lines, of a part, and that the emphatic part, of the first and third. Here is a round baker's-dozen (and one to spare) of identities, to offset the dozen found between Aldrich and Hood, and that too, without a word of rhythm, metre or stanza, which should never form a part of such a comparison. Moreover, this same poem contains an example of that kind of repetition, which I have supposed the critic meant to charge upon Longfellow as one of his imitations —

“Away — away — away,” &c.

I might pursue it further. But I will not. Such criticisms only make the author of them contemptible, without soiling a plume in the cap of his victim. I have selected this poem of Mr. Poe's, for illustrating my remarks, because it is recent, and must be familiar to all the lovers of true poetry hereabouts. It is remarkable for its power, beauty, and originality, (out upon the automaton owl that has presumed to croak out a miserable parody — I commend him to the tender mercies of Haynes Bayley,)* and shows more forcibly than any which I can think of, the absurdity and shallowness of this kind of criticism.

One word more, — though acquainted with Mr. Longfellow, I have never seen Mr. Aldrich, nor do I even know in what part of the country he resides; and I have no acquaintance with Mr. Poe. I have written what I have written from no personal motives, but simply because, from my earliest reading of reviews and critical notices, I have been disgusted with this wholesale mangling of victims without rhyme or reason. I scarcely remember an instance where the resemblances detected were not exceedingly far-fetched and shadowy, and only perceptible to a mind pre-disposed to suspicion, and accustomed to splitting hairs.


What I admire in this letter is the gentlemanly grace of its manner, and the chivalry which has prompted its composition. What I do not admire is all the rest. In especial, I do not admire the desperation of the effort to make out a case. No gentleman should degrade himself, on any grounds, to the paltriness of ex-parte argument; and I shall not insult Outis at the outset, by assuming for a moment that he (Outis) is weak enough, to suppose me (Poe) silly enough, to look upon all this abominable rigmarole as anything better than a very respectable specimen of special pleading.

As a general rule in a case of this kind, I should wish to begin with the beginning, but as I have been unable, in running my eye over Outis’ remarks, to discover that they have any beginning at all, I shall be pardoned for touching them in the order which suits me best.

Outis need not have put himself to the trouble of informing his readers that he has “some acquaintance with Mr. Longfellow.”

It was needless also to mention that he did not know me. I thank him for his many flatteries — but of their inconsistency I complain. To speak of me in one breath as a poet, and in the next to insinuate charges of “carping littleness,” is simply to put forth a flat paradox.

When a plagiarism is committed and detected, the word “littleness” and other similar words are immediately brought into play. To the words themselves I have no objection whatever; but their application might occasionally be improved.

Is it altogether impossible that a critic be instigated to the exposure of a plagiarism, or still better, of plagiarism generally wherever he meets it, by a strictly honorable and even charitable motive? Let us see. A theft of this kind is committed — for the present we will admit the possibility that a theft of this character can be committed. The chances of course are, that an established author steals from an unknown one, rather than the converse; for in proportion to the circulation of the original, is the risk of the plagiarism's detection. The person about to commit the theft, hopes for impunity altogether on the ground of the reconditeness of the source from which he thieves. But this obvious consideration is rarely borne in mind. We read a certain passage in a certain book. We meet a passage nearly similar, in another book. The first book is not at hand, and we cannot compare dates. We decide by what we fancy the probabilities of the case. The one author is a distinguished man — our sympathies are always in favor of distinction. “It is not likely,” we say in our hearts “that so distinguished a personage as A. would be guilty of plagiarism from this B. of whom nobody in the world has ever heard.” We give judgment, therefore, at once against B. of whom nobody in the world has ever heard; and it is for the very reason that nobody in the world has ever heard of him, that, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, the judgment so precipitously given is erroneous. Now then the plagiarist has not merely committed a wrong in itself — a wrong whose incomparable meanness would deserve exposure on absolute grounds — but he, the guilty, the successful, the eminent, has fastened the degradation of his crime — the retribution which should have overtaken it in his own person — upon the guiltless, the toiling, the unfriended struggler up the mountainous path of Fame. Is not sympathy for the plagiarist, then, about as sagacious and about as generous as would be sympathy for the murderer whose exultant escape from the noose of the hangman should be the cause of an innocent man's being hung? And because I, for one, should wish to throttle the guilty with the view of letting the innocent go, could it be considered proper on the part of any “acquaintance of Mr. Longfellow's” who came to witness the execution — could it be thought, I say either chivalrous or decorous on the part of this “acquaintance” to get up against me a charge of “carping littleness,” while we stood amicably together at the foot of the gallows?

In all this I have taken it for granted that such a sin as plagiarism exists. We are informed by Outis, however, that it does not. “I shall not charge Mr. Poe with plagiarism,” he says, “for, as I have said, such charges are perfectly absurd.” An assertion of this kind is certainly funny (I am aware of no other epithet which precisely applies to it); and I have much curiosity to know if Outis is prepared to swear to its truth — holding right aloft his hand, of course, and kissing the back of D’Israeli's “Curiosities,” or the “Melanges,” of Suard and Andre. But if the assertion is funny (and it is) it is by no means an original thing. It is precisely, in fact, what all the plagiarists and all the “acquaintances” of the plagiarists since the flood, have maintained with a very praiseworthy resolution.

The attempt to prove, however, by reasoning a priori, that plagiarism cannot exist, is too good an idea on the part of Outis not to be a plagiarism in itself. Are we mistaken? — or have we seen the following words before in Joseph Miller, where that ingenious gentleman is bent upon demonstrating that a leg of mutton is and ought to be a turnip?

“A man who aspires to fame, etc. attempts to win his object — how? By stealing, in open day, the finest passages, the most beautiful thoughts (no others are worth stealing) and claiming them as his own; and that too when he knows that every competitor, etc., will be ready to cry him down as a thief.”

Is it possible? — is it conceivable that Outis does not here see the begging of the whole question. Why, of course, if the theft had to be committed “in open day” it would not be committed; and if the thief “knew” that every one would cry him down, he would be too excessive a fool to make even a decent thief if he indulged his thieving propensities in any respect. But he thieves at night — in the dark — and not in the open day (if he suspects it), and he does not know that he will be detected at all. Of the class of wilful plagiarists nine out of ten are authors of established reputation, who plunder recondite, neglected, or forgotten books.

I pause for the present, through want of space, but will resume the subject at some length in the next “Journal,” and hope to convince our friend Outis that he has made a series of very singular mistakes.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 249, col. 2:]

* ”I would be a Parody, written by a ninny,

Not worth a penny, and sold for a guinea,” &c.





[S:0 - BJ, 1845] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Literary (Text-02)