Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Henry B. Hirst” (Text-C), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan PoeVol III: Literati &c. (1850), 3:209-212


[page 209, continued:]



MR. HENRY B. HIRST, of Philadelphia, has, undoubtedly, some merit as a poet. His sense of beauty is keen, although indiscriminative; and his versification would be unusually effective but for the spirit of hyperism, or exaggeration, which seems to be the ruling feature of the man. He is always sure to overdo a good thing; and, in especial, he insists upon rhythmical effects until they cease to have any effect at all — or until they give to his compositions an air of mere oddity. His principal defect, however, is a want of constructive ability; — he can never put together a story intelligibly. His chief sin is imitativeness. He never writes anything which does not immediately put us in mind of something that we have seen better written before. Not to do him injustice, however, I here quote two stanzas from a little poem of his, called “The Owl.” The passages italicized are highly imaginative: [page 210:]

When twilight fades and evening falls

Alike on tree and tower,

And Silence, like a pensive maid,

Walks round each slumbering bower:

When fragrant flowerets fold their leaves,

And all is still in sleep,

The horned owl on moonlit wing

Flies from the donjon keep.

And he calls aloud — “too-whit! too-whoo!”

And the nightingale is still,

And the pattering step of the hurrying hare

Is hushed upon the hill;

And he crouches low in the dewy grass

As the lord of the night goes by,

Not with a loudly whirring wing

But like a lady's sigh.

No one, save a poet at heart, could have conceived these images; and they are embodied with much skill. In the “pattering step,” &c., we have an admirable “echo of sound to sense,” and the title, “lord of the night,” applied to the owl, does Mr. Hirst infinite credit — if the idea be original with Mr. Hirst. Upon the whole, the poems of this author are eloquent (or perhaps elocutionary) rather than poetic — but he has poetical merit, beyond a doubt — merit which his enemies need not attempt to smother by any mere ridicule thrown upon the man.

To my face, and in the presence of my friends, Mr. H. has always made a point of praising my own poetical efforts; and, for this reason, I should forgive him, perhaps, the amiable weakness of abusing them anonymously. In a late number of “The Philadelphia Saturday Courier,” he does me the honor of attributing to my pen a ballad called “Ulalume,” which has been going the rounds of the press, sometimes with my name to it; sometimes with Mr. Willis's, and sometimes with no name at all. Mr. Hirst insists upon it that I wrote it, and it is just possible that he knows more about the matter than I do myself. Speaking of a particular passage, he says:

We have spoken of the mystical appearance of Astarte as a fine touch of Art. This is borrowed, and from the first canto of Hirst's Endymion — [The reader will observe that the anonymous critic has no personal acquaintance whatever with Mr. Hirst, but takes care to call him “Hirst” simply, just as we say “Homer.”] — from Hirst's “Endymion,” published years since in “The Southern Literary Messenger”: [page 211:]

Slowly Endymion bent, the light Elysian

Flooding his figure. Kneeling on one knee,

He loosed his sandals, lea

And lake and woodland glittering on his vision —

A fairy landscape, bright and beautiful,

With Venus at her full.

Astarte is another name for Venus; and when we remember that Diana is about to descend to Endymion — that the scene which is about to follow is one of love — that Venus is the star of love — and that Hirst, by introducing it as he does, shadows out his story exactly as Mr. Poe introduces his Astarte — the plagiarism of idea becomes evident.

Now I really feel ashamed to say that, as yet, I have not perused “Endymion” — for Mr. Hirst will retort at once — “That is no fault of mine — you should have read it — I gave you a copy — and, besides, you had no business to fall asleep when I did you the honor of reading it to you.” Without a word of excuse, therefore, I will merely copy the passage in “Ulalume” which the author of “Endymion” says I purloined from the lines quoted above:

And now, as the night was senescent

And star-dials pointed to morn —

As the star-dials hinted of morn —

At the end of my path a liquescent

And nebulous lustre was born,

Out of which a miraculous crescent

Arose with a duplicate horn —

Astarte's bediamonded crescent,

Distinct with its duplicate horn.

Now, I may be permitted to regret — really to regret — that I can find no resemblance between the two passages in question; for malo cum Platone errare, &c., and to be a good imitator of Henry B. Hirst, is quite honor enough for me.

In the meantime, here is a passage from another little ballad of mine, called “Lenore,” first published in 1830:

How shall the ritual, then, be read — the requiem how be sung

By you — by yours, the evil eye — by yours, the slanderous tongue

That did to death the innocence that died, and died so young?

And here is a passage from “The Penance of Roland,” by Henry B. Hirst, published in “Graham's Magazine” for January, 1848:

Mine the tongue that wrought the evil — mine the false and slanderous tongue

That done to death the Lady Gwineth — Oh, my soul is sadly wrung!

“Demon! devil,” groaned the warrior, “devil of the evil eye!

Now my objection to all this is not that Mr. Hirst has appropriated my property — (I am fond of a nice phrase) — but that he [page 212:] has not done it so cleverly as I could wish. Many a lecture, on literary topics, have I given Mr. H.; and I confess that, in general, he has adopted my advice so implicitly that his poems, upon the whole, are little more than our conversations done into verse.

“Steal, dear Endymion,” I used to say to him — “for very well do I know you can’t help it; and the more you put in your book that is not your own, why the better your book will be: — but be cautious and steal with an air. In regard to myself — you need give yourself no trouble about me. I shall always feel honored in being of use to you; and provided you purloin my poetry in a reputable manner, you are quite welcome to just as much of it as you (who are a very weak little man) can conveniently carry away.”

So far — let me confess — Mr. Hirst has behaved remarkably well in largely availing himself of the privilege thus accorded: — but, in the case now at issue, he stands in need of some gentle rebuke. I do not object to his stealing my verses; but I do object to his stealing them in bad grammar. My quarrel with him is not, in short, that he did this thing, but that he has went and done did it.




[S:1 - WORKS, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Henry B. Hirst (Text-C)