Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Spain Revisited,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), 9:1-13


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[Southern Literary Messenger, May, 1836.]

SOME three months since we had occasion to express our high admiration of Lieutenant Slidell's American in England. The work now before us presents to the eye of the critical reader many if not all of those peculiarities which distinguished its predecessor. We find the same force and freedom. We recognize the same artist-like way of depicting persons, scenery, or manners, by a succession of minute and well-managed details. We perceive also the same terseness and originality of expression. Still we must be pardoned for saying that many of the same niaiseries are also apparent, and most especially an abundance of very bad grammar and a superabundance of gross errors in syntactical arrangement.

With the Dedicatory Letter prefixed to Spain Revisited, we have no patience whatever. It does great credit to the kind and gentlemanly feelings of Lieutenant Slidell, but it forms no inconsiderable drawback upon our previously entertained opinions of his good taste. We can at no time, and under no circumstances, see either meaning or delicacy in parading the sacred relations of personal friendship before the unscrupulous [page 2:] eyes of the public. And even when these things are well done and briefly done, we do believe them to be in the estimation of all persons of nice feeling a nuisance and an abomination. But it very rarely happens that the closest scrutiny can discover in the least offensive of these dedications any thing better than extravagance, affectation or incongruity. We are not sure that it would be impossible, in the present instance, to designate gross examples of all three. What connection has the name of Lieutenant Upshur with the present Spanish Adventures of Lieutenant Slidell? None. Then why insist upon a connection which the world cannot perceive? The Dedicatory letter, in the present instance, is either a bonâ fide epistle actually addressed before publication to Lieutenant Upshur, intended strictly as a memorial of friendship, and published because no good reasons could be found for the non-publication — or its plentiful professions are all hollowness and falsity, and it was never meant to be any thing more than a very customary public compliment.

Our first supposition is negatived by the stiff and highly constrained character of the style, totally distinct from the usual, and we will suppose the less carefully arranged composition of the author. What man in his senses ever wrote as follows, from the simple impulses of gratitude or friendship?

“In times past, a dedication, paid for by a great literary patron, furnished the author at once with the means of parading his own servility, and ascribing to his idol virtues which had no real existence. Though this custom be condemned by the better taste of the age in which we live, friendship may yet claim the privilege of eulogizing virtues which really exist; if so, I might [page 3:] here draw the portrait of a rare combination of them; I might describe a courage, a benevolence, a love of justice coupled with an honest indignation at whatever outrages it, a devotion to others and forgetfulness of self, such as are not often found blended in one character, were I not deterred by the consideration that when I should have completed my task, the eulogy, which would seem feeble to those who knew the original, might be condemned as extravagant by those who do not.”

Can there be any thing more palpably artificial than all this? The writer commences by informing his bosom friend that whereas in times past men were given up to fulsome flattery in their dedications, not scrupling to endow their patrons with virtues they never possessed, he, the Lieutenant, intends to be especially delicate and original in his own peculiar method of applying the panegyrical plaster, and to confine himself to qualities which have a real existence. Now this is the very sentiment, if sentiment it may be called, with which all the toad-eaters since the flood have introduced their dedicatory letters. What immediately follows is in the same vein, and is worthy of the ingenious Don Puffando himself. All the good qualities in the world are first enumerated — Lieutenant Upshur is then informed, by the most approved rules of circumbendibus, that he possesses them, one and each, in the highest degree, but that his friend the author of “Spain Revisited” is too much of a man of tact to tell him any thing about it.

If on the other hand it is admitted that the whole epistle is a mere matter of form, and intended simply as a public compliment to a personal friend, we feel, at once, a degree of righteous indignation at the profanation [page 4:] to so hollow a purpose, of the most sacred epithets and phrases of friendship — a degree, too, of serious doubt whether the gentleman panegyrized will receive as a compliment, or rather resent as an insult, the being taxed to his teeth, and in the face of the whole community, with nothing less than all the possible accomplishments and graces, together with the entire stock of cardinal and other virtues.

Spain Revisited, although we cannot think it at all equal to the American in England for picturesque and vigorous description (which we suppose to be the forte of Lieutenant Slidell) yet greatly surpasses in this respect most of the books of modern travels with which we now usually meet. A moderate interest is sustained throughout — aided no doubt by our feelings of indignation at the tyranny which would debar so accomplished a traveller as our countryman from visiting at his leisure and in full security a region so well worth visiting as Spain. It appears that Ferdinand on the 20th. August, 1832, taking it into his head that the Lieutenant's former work “A Year in Spain” (“esta indigesta produccion) está llena de falsedades y de groceras calumnias contra el Rey N. S. y su augusta familia”), thought proper to issue a royal order in which the book called un año en España was doomed to seizure wherever it might be found, and the clever author himself, under the appellation of the Signor Ridell, to a dismissal from the nearest frontier in the event of his anticipated return to the country. Notwithstanding this order, the Lieutenant, as he himself informs us, did not hesitate to undertake the journey, knowing that, subsequently to the edict in question, the whole machinery of the government had undergone a change, having passed into liberal hands. But although [page 5:] the danger of actual arrest on the above-mentioned grounds was thus rendered comparatively trivial, there were many other serious difficulties to be apprehended. In the Basque Provinces and in Navarre the civil war was at its height. The diligences, as a necessary consequence, had ceased to run; and the insurgents rendered the means of progressing through the country exceedingly precarious, by their endeavors to cut off all communications through which the government would be informed of their manœuvres. The post-horses had been seized by the Carlist cavalry to supply their deficiencies, “and only a few mules remained at some of the post-houses between Bayonne and Vitoria.”

The following sketch of an ass-market at Tordesillas seems to embody in a small compass specimens of nearly all the excellences as well as nearly all the faults of the author.

“By far the most curious part of the fair, was the ass-market, held by a gay fraternity of gipsies. There were about a dozen of these for the most part of middle stature, beautifully formed, with very regular features of an Asiatic cast, and having a copper tinge; their hands were very small, as of a race long unaccustomed to severe toil, with quantities of silver rings strung on the fingers. They had very white and regular teeth, and their black eyes were uncommonly large, round-orbed, projecting, and expressive; habitually languid and melancholy in moments of listlessness, they kindled into wonderful brightness when engaged in commending their asses, or in bartering with a purchaser. Their jet-black hair hung in long curls down their back, and they were nearly all dressed in velvet, as Andalusian majos, with quantities of buttons made from pesetas and half pesetas covering their jackets and breeches, as many as [page 6:] three or four hanging frequently from the same eyelet-hole. Some of them wore the Andalusian leggin and shoe of brown leather, others the footless stocking and sandal of Valencia; in general their dress, which had nothing in common with the country they were then in, seemed calculated to unite ease of movement and freedom from embarrassment to jauntiness of effect. All of them had a profusion of trinkets and amulets, intended to testify their devotion to that religion which, according to the popular belief, they were suspected of doubting, and one of them displayed his excessive zeal in wearing conspicuously from his neck a silver case, twice the size of a dollar, containing a picture of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Saviour in her arms.

“Four or five females accompanied this party, and came and went from the square and back, with baskets and other trifles, as if engaged at their separate branch of trade. They had beautiful oval faces, with fine eyes and teeth, and rich olive complexions. Their costume was different from any other I had seen in Spain, its greatest peculiarity consisting in a coarse outer petticoat, which was drawn over the head at pleasure instead of the mantilla, and which reminded me of the manta of Peru, concealing, as it did, the whole of the face, except only a single eye.

“I asked a dozen people where these strange beings were from, not liking to speer the question at themselves; but not one could tell me, and all seemed to treat the question as no less difficult of solution than one which might concern the origin of the wind. One person, indeed, barely hinted the possibility of their being from Zamora, where one of the faubourgs has a colony of these vermin, for so they are esteemed. He added, moreover, that a late law required that every gipsy [page 7:] in Spain should have a fixed domicil, but that they still managed, in the face of it, to gratify their hereditary taste for an unsettled and wandering life. He spoke of them as a pack of gay rogues and petty robbers, yet did not seem to hold them in any particular horror. The asses which they were selling they had probably collected in the pueblos with a view to this fair, trading from place to place as they journeyed, and not a few they had perhaps kidnapped and coaxed away, taking care, by shaving and other embellishments, to modify and render them unknown.

“I was greatly amused in observing the ingenious mode in which they kept their beasts together in the midst of such a crowd and so much confusion, or separated them for the purpose of making a sale. They were strung at the side of the parapet wall, overlooking the river, with their heads towards it and pressing against, as if anxious to push it over, but in reality out of sedulousness to avoid the frequent showers of blows which were distributed from time to time, without motive or warning, on their unoffending hinder parts, and withdraw them as far as possible from the direction whence they were inflicted.

“As they were very much crowded together, there was quite scuffling work for an ass to get in when brought back from an unsuccessful effort to trade, or when newly bought, for these fellows, in the true spirit of barter, were equally ready to buy or sell. The gipsy's staff, distributing blows on the rumps of two adjoining beasts, would throw open a slight aperture, into which the nose of the intruding ass would be made to enter, when a plentiful encouragement of blows would force him in, like a wedge into a riven tree. The mode of extracting an ass was equally ingenious, [page 8:] and, if any thing, more singular; continually pressing their heads against the wall with all their energy, it would have required immense strength, with the chance of pulling off the tail if it were not a strong one, to drag them forcibly out; a gipsy, taking the tail of the required animal in one hand, would stretch his staff forward so as to tap him on the nose, and, thus encouraged, gently draw him out.

“The ingenuity of these gipsies in getting up a bargain, trusting to be able to turn it to their own account, was marvellous. Mingling among the farmers, and engaging them in conversation on indifferent subjects, they would at length bring them back to the favorite theme of asses, and eventually persuade them to take a look at theirs. ‘Here is one,’ measuring the height of an individual with his staff, ‘which will just suit you; — what will you give for him? Come, you shall have him for half his worth, for one hundred reals — only five dollars for an ass like this,’ looking at him with the admiration of a connoisseur in the presence of the Apollo; ‘truly, an animal of much merit and the greatest promise — de mucho merito y encarecimiento — he has the shoulders and breast of an ox; let me show you the richness of his paces,’ said the gipsy, his whole figure and attitude partaking of his earnestness, and his eye dilating and glowing with excitement. He had brought the unwary and bewildered countryman, like a charmed bird, to the same point as the eloquent shopkeeper does his doubting customer when he craves permission to take down his wares, and does not wait to be denied. Vaulting to the back of the animal, he flourished his staff about its head, and rode it up and down furiously, to the terror of the by-standers’ toes, pricking it on the spine with his iron-pointed staff to [page 9:] make it frisky, and pronouncing the while, in the midst of frantic gesticulations an eloquent eulogium on its performances and character, giving it credit, among other things for sobriety, moderation, long suffering, and the most unasslike qualification of chastity. To add to the picturesque oddity of the scene, an old monk stood hard by, an interested spectator of some chaffering between a young woman and a seller of charms and trinkets stationed beneath an awning, and no accessory was wanting to render the quaint little picture complete.”

In our notice of the American in England, we found much fault with the style — that is to say, with the mere English of Lieutenant Slidell. We are not sure whether the volumes now before us were written previously or subsequently to that very excellent work — but certain it is that they are much less abundant than it, in simple errors of grammar and ambiguities of construction. We must be pardoned, however, for thinking that even now the English of our traveller is more obviously defective than is becoming in any well educated American — more especially in any well educated American who is an aspirant for the honors of authorship. To quote individual sentences in support of an assertion of this nature, might bear with it an air of injustice — since there are few of the best writers of any language in whose works single faulty passages may not readily be discovered. We will therefore take the liberty of commenting in detail upon the English of an entire page of Spain Revisited

“Carts, and wagons, caravans of mules, and files of humbler asses came pouring, by various roads, into the great vomitory by which we were entering, laden with the various commodities, the luxuries as well as the necessaries of life, brought from foreign countries or from [page 10:] remote provinces, to sustain the unnatural existence of a capital which is so remote from all its resources, and which produces scarce anything that it consumes.”

This sentence, although it would not be too long, if properly managed, is too long as it stands. The ear repeatedly seeks, and expects the conclusion, and is repeatedly disappointed. It expects the close at the word “entering” — and at the word “life” — at the word “provinces” — and at the word “resources.” Each additional portion of the sentence after each of the words just designated by inverted commas, has the air of an after-thought engrafted upon the original idea. The use of the word “vomitory” in the present instance is injudicious. Strictly speaking, a road which serves as a vomitory, or means of egress, for a population, serves also as a means of ingress. A good writer, however, will consider not only whether, in all strictness, his words will admit of the meaning he attaches to them, but whether in their implied, their original, or other collateral meanings, they may not be at variance with some of his sentence. When we hear of “a vomitory by which we were entering,” not all the rigor of the most exact construction will reconcile us to the phrase — since we are accustomed to connect with the word vomitory, notions precisely the reverse of those allied to the subsequent word “entering.” Between the participle “laden” and the nouns to which it refers (carts, wagons, caravans and asses) two other nouns and one pronoun are suffered to intervene — a grammatical arrangement which when admitted in any degree, never fails to introduce more or less obscurity in every sentence where it is so admitted. Strict syntactical order would require (the pronoun “we” being followed immediately by “laden”) that — not the [page 11:] asses — but Lieutenant Slidell and his companions should be laden with the various commodities.

“And now, too, we began to see horsemen jantily dressed in slouched hat, embroidered jacket, and worked spatterdashes, reining fiery Andalusian coursers, each having the Moorish carbine hunt, at hand beside him.”

Were horsemen, in this instance, a generic term — that is, did the word allude to horsemen generally, the use of the “slouched hat” and “embroidered jacket” in the singular, would be justifiable — but it is not so in speaking of individual horsemen, where the plural is required. The participle “reining” properly refers to “spatter-dashes,” although of course intended to agree with “horsemen.” The word “each,” also meant to refer to the “horsemen,” belongs, strictly speaking, to the “coursers.” The whole, if construed by the rigid rules of grammar, would imply that the horsemen were dressed in spatter-dashes — which spatter-dashes reined the coursers — and which coursers had each a carbine.

“Perhaps these were farmers of the better order; but they had not the air of men accustomed to labor; they were rather, perhaps, Andalusian horse-dealers, or, maybe, robbers, of those who so greatly abound about the capital, who for the moment, had laid aside their professional character.”

This is an exceedingly awkward sentence. The word “maybe” is, we think, objectionable. The repetition of the relative “who” in the phrases “who so greatly abound” and “who for the moment had laid aside,” is the less to be justified, as each “who” has a different antecedent — the one referring to “those” (the robbers, generally, who abound about the capital) and the other to the suspected [page 12:]robbers” then present. But the whole is exceeding ambiguous, and leaves a doubt of the author's true meaning. For, the words “Andalusian horse-dealers, or, maybe, robbers of those who abound about the capital,” may either imply that the men in question were some of a class of robbers who abounded, &c. or that they were men who robbed (that is, robbers of) the Andalusian horse-dealers who abounded, &c. or that they were either Andalusian horse-dealers, or robbers of those who abound about the capital — i. e. of the inhabitants of the suburbs. Whether the last “who” has reference to the robbers, or to those who abound, it is impossible to learn from any thing in the sentence itself — which, taken altogether, is unworthy of the merest tyro in the rules of composition.

“At the inn of the Holy Ghost, was drawn up a highly gilded carriage, hung very low, and drawn by five gaily decorated mules, while two Andalusians sat on the large wooden platform, planted, without the intervention of springs, upon the fore-wheels, which served for a coach-box.”

This sentence is intelligible enough, but still badly constructed. There is by far too great an interval between the antecedent “platform” and its relative “which,” and upon a cursory perusal any reader would be led to suppose (what indeed the whole actually implies) that the coach-box in question consisted not of the platform, but actually of the fore-wheels of the carriage. Altogether, it may safely be asserted, that an entire page containing as many grammatical errors and inaccuracies of arrangement as the one we have just examined, will with difficulty be discovered in any English or American writer of even moderate reputation. These things, however, [page 13:] can hardly be considered as more than inadvertences, and will be avoided by Lieutenant Slidell as soon as he shall feel convinced (through his own experience or through the suggestions of his friends) how absolutely necessary to final success in any undertaking is a scrupulous attention to even the merest minutiæ of the task.





[S:1 - JAH09, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Spain Revisited)