Text: Edward V. Sparhawk (?) (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of The Infidel, or the Fall of Mexico,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. VIII: Literary Criticism - part 01 (1902), pp. 32-37


[page 32:]


[Southern Literary Messenger, June 1835.]

THE second effort of the author of Calavar, gives us no reason for revoking the favorable opinion which we expressed of his powers as a writer of fictitious narrative, in noticing the first. On the contrary, that opinion is confirmed and strengthened by a perusal of the Infidel. It is a work of great power, and although, as was the case with Calavar, it is chiefly occupied with the delineation of scenes of slaughter and violence — with the stratagems of war — the plots of conspirators — the stirring incidents of siege and sortie — and the thrilling details of individual prowess or general onslaught — yet it abounds in passages which give a pleasing relief to the almost too frequently recurring incidents of peril and adventure. It is true that this work does not possess, to by far the same extent, those enchanting descriptions of natural scenery, which abounded in Calavar: but the cause of this is probably to be found in the fact, that the scene of action is the same in both works, and in a natural aversion of the author to repeat his own pictures. Still, as a whole, we think the Infidel fully equal to its predecessor, and in some respects superior. The principal female character is drawn with far greater vigor, than marked the heroine of Calavar, although the prominent features in the sketch of the impassioned Monjonaza, are of a masculine kind. She is indeed a most powerful and eccentric creation, and adds much to the interest of the narrative. Still we [page 33:] think it problematical whether the author is capable of success in a purely feminine picture of female character. Zelahualla, the daughter of Montezuma, a gentler being than La Monjonaza, does not give him a claim to such a distinction, as she is brought forward but seldom, and sustains no important part in the action of the drama.

The period at which the narrative of the Infidel commences, is a few months after the disastrous retreat of the Spaniards from Mexico, during the “Noche Triste,” so powerfully described in Calavar. Cortes had re-organized his forces, re-united his allies, and was preparing for the siege of Mexico, now rendered strong in its defences by the valor, enterprise and activity of the new emperor, Guatimozin. Tezcuco is the scene of the earlier events, where Cortes was engaged in completing his preparations, part of which consisted in the construction of a fleet of brigantines, to command the sea of Anahuac, and co-operate in the meditated attack upon the great city.

The hero of the story, Juan Lerma, a former protégé of Cortes, but who has fallen under his displeasure, is the pivot on which the main interest of the work is made to turn. He is imprisoned, and ultimately rescued by Guatimozin, who carries him to Mexico. The details of a treasonable plot against the Captain General, headed by Villafana, one of the most complicated of villains, is skilfully interwoven with this portion of the narrative. The mysterious Monjonaza, is also a prominent character in the scenes at Tezcuco.

The action changes in the second volume to Mexico, where the unfortunate Lerma is retained by the Emperor, who is described as possessing all the noble virtues of christianity, although his pagan faith gives the title to the book. [page 34:]

The details of the siege are given in the same powerful style as characterised the combats in Calavar. Indeed it is in descriptions of battles, that we think the author excels, and is transcendently superior to any modern writer. When his armies meet, he causes us to feel the shock, and to realize each turn of fortune by a minuteness of description, which is never confused. When his heroes engage hand to hand, we see each blow, each parry, each advantage, each vicissitude, with a thrilling distinctness. The war cry is in our ears — the flashing of steel — the muscular energy — the glowing eyes — the dilating forms of the warriors, are before us. The effect of such delineations it is difficult to describe; they arouse in us whatever of martial fire we possess, until we feel like the war horse viewing a distant combat, “who smelleth the battle afar off, the voice of the captains, and the shouting.” Another point of excellence in our author, is the manner in which he paints to us the vastness of a barbarian multitude. His descriptions of myriads, appeal to the sense with graphic effect. Although we do not generally indulge in long extracts from works like this, yet, as it is difficult otherwise to convey an idea of the spirit with which such scenes are presented by the author, we take from the second volume the description of the battle of the ambuscades, the last successful struggle made by Guatimozin to repel the besiegers, who had already hemmed in the city on the several causeways, and mostly destroyed the water suburbs. The Mexicans, as a part of their system of defence, had perforated the causeways at short intervals, with deep ditches, which were conquered by the Spaniards, one by one, after the most obstinate resistance. Cortes, with his followers, on the occasion described, had forced [page 35:] one of the dikes, and with his characteristic impetuosity, pursued the flying Mexicans into the city, attended by about twenty horsemen only, the foot being far in the rear. The enemy gave way with apparent signs of fear, which was not habitual, and Cortes had already been advised that an ambuscade was evidently contemplated; but the frenzy of battle made him deaf to prudent counsel:

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There is another scene which we had marked for extracting, but which our limits forbid inserting — a single combat on the stone of Temalacatl — in which a Spanish prisoner, doomed to the gladiatorial sacrifice, contends successfully against several antagonists. The details of this barbarous ceremony, are full of interest. The prisoner is bound by one foot to the stone of sacrifice, and if in this condition he kill six Mexicans, he is liberated, and sent home with honor; if he fail, he is doomed a sacrifice to the pagan deities. The narrative of this combat, is given with remarkable spirit and precision, and holds the reader in breathless excitement to the end.

The story closes as happily as could be expected from the nature of its incidents. The fall of Mexico, and the humiliation of its heroic emperor, excite a profound sympathy; and the death of Monjonaza, who dies broken hearted upon discovering that Juan, of whom she is passionately enamored, is her brother, throws a melancholy shade over the brightening fortunes of the hero.

Some of the minor characters are drawn with a vigorous hand. The dog Befo, is a powerful delineation of heroic fidelity, seldom equalled by his superiors of the human race. Gaspar Olea, the Barba-Roxa, or [page 36:] red haired, is a fine specimen of the bold, blunt, honest soldier; and Bernal Diaz, (the historian of the Conquest,) though little distinguished in the story, adds to its interest. The Lord of Death, is a fine picture of the lofty race of barbarians, who spurned the slavery of their foreign foe, and died in resisting it. Najara, the hunchback and the cynic, is also a well drawn character.

The Infidel will, we doubt not, enjoy a popularity equal to that of Calavar. It confirms public opinion as to the abilities of the author, who has suddenly taken a proud station in the van of American writers of romance. He possesses a fertility of imagination rarely possessed by his compeers. In many of their works, there is a paucity of events; and incidents of small intrinsic importance, are wrought up by the skill of the writer so as to give a factitious interest to a very threadbare collection of facts. Great ability may be displayed in this manner; but our author seems to find no such exertion necessary. The fertility of his imagination displays itself in the constant recurrence of dramatic situations, striking incidents and stirring adventures; so much so, that the interest of the reader, in following his characters through the mazes of perils and enterprizes, vicissitudes and escapes, which they encounter, is often painfully excited. If this be a fault, it is one which is creditable to the powers of the author, and indicates an exuberance of invention, which will bear him through a long course of literary exertions, and insure to him great favor with the votaries of romance.

There are some minor faults which might be noticed. As an instance, the author habitually uses the word “working” in describing the convulsions of the countenance, [page 37:] under the influence of strong passions: as, “his working and agonized visage” — “his face worked convulsively,” &c. Although Sir Walter Scott is authority for the use of the word in this manner, we have always considered it a decided inelegance. But such blemishes cannot seriously detract from the enduring excellence of the work.





[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of The Infidel, or the Fall of Mexico)