Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Philothea: A Romance,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), 9:146-155


[page 146:]


[Southern Literary Messenger, September, 1836.]

MRS. CHILD is well known as the author of “Hobomok,” “The American Frugal Housewife,” and the “Mother's Book.” She is also the editor of a “Juvenile Miscellany.” The work before us is of a character very distinct from that of any of these publications, and places the fair writer in a new and most favorable light. Philothea is of that class of works of which the Telemachus of Fénelon, and the Anarchlarsis of Barthélémi, are the most favorable specimens. Overwhelmed in a long-continued inundation of second-hand airs and ignorance, done up in green muslin, we turn to these pure and quiet pages with that species of gasping satisfaction with which a drowning man clutches the shore.

The plot of Philothea is simple. The scene is principally in ancient Athens, during the administration of Pericles; and some of the chief personages of his time are brought, with himself, upon the stage. Among these are Aspasia, Alcibiades, Hippocrates, Anaxagoras of Clazomenœ, Plato, Hermippus the comic writer, Phidias the Sculptor, Artaxerxes of Persia, and Xerxes his son. Philothea, the heroine of the tale, and the grand daughter of Anaxagoras, is of a majestic beauty, of great purity and elevation of mind. Her [page 147:] friend, Eudora, of a more delicate loveliness, and more flexile disposition, is the adopted daughter of Phidias, who bought her, when an infant, of a goat-herd in Phelle — herself and nurse having been stolen from the Ionian coast by Greek pirates, the nurse sold into slavery, and the child delivered to the care of the goat-herd. The ladies, of course, have lovers. Eudora is betrothed to Philaemon. This Athenian, the son of the wealthy Cherilaus, but whose mother was born in Corinth, has incurred the dislike of Aspasia, the wife of Pericles. She procures the revival of an ancient law subjecting to a heavy fine all citizens who married foreigners, and declaring all persons, whose parents were not both Athenians, incapable of voting in the public assemblies, or of inheriting the estates of their fathers. Philaemon, thus deprived of citizenship, prevented from holding office, and without hope of any patrimony, is obliged to postpone, indefinitely, his union with Eudora. The revival of the obnoxious law has also a disastrous effect upon the interests of Philothea. She is beloved of Paralus, the son of Pericles, and returns his affection. But in marrying she will bring upon him losses and degradation. Pericles, too, looks with an evil eye upon her poverty, and the idea of marriage is therefore finally abandoned.

Matters are thus situated, when Philothea, being appointed one of the Canephorae, (whose duty it is to embroider the sacred peplus, and to carry baskets in the procession of the Panathenaia,) is rigidly secluded by law, for six months, within the walls of the Acropolis. During this time, Eudora, deprived of the good counsel and example of her friend, becomes a frequent visitor at the house of Aspasia, by whose pernicious [page 148:] influence she is insensibly affected. It is at the return of Philothea from the Acropolis that the story commences. At the urgent solicitation of Aspasia, who is desirous of strengthening her influence in Athens by the countenance of the virtuous, Anaxagoras is induced to attend, with his grand-daughter, a symposium at the house of Pericles. Eudora accompanies them. The other guests are Hermippus, Phidias, the Persian Artaphernes, Tithonus a learned Ethiopian, Plato, Hipparete the wife of Alcibiades, and Alcibiades himself. At this symposium Eudora is dazzled by the graces of Alcibiades, and listens to his seductive flattery — forgetful of the claims of Hipparete, the wife of Alcibiades, and of Philaemon, her own lover. The poison of this illicit feeling now affects all the action of the drama. Philothea discovers the danger of her friend, but is sternly repulsed upon the proffer of good advice. Alcibiades is appointed a secret interview by Eudora, which is interrupted by Philothea — not however before it is observed by Philaemon, who, in consequence, abandons his mistress, and departs, broken-hearted, from Athens. The eyes of Eudora are now opened, too late, to the perfidy of Alcibiades, who had deceived her with the promise of marriage, and of obtaining a divorce from Hipporete. It is Hipparete who appeals to the Archons for a divorce from Alcibiades, on the score of his notorious profligacy; and, in the investigations which ensue, it appears that a snare has been laid by Aspasia and himself, to entrap Eudora, and that, with a similar end in view, he has also promised marriage to Electra, the Corinthian.

Pericles seeks to please the populace by diminishing the power of the Areopagus. He causes a decree to be passed, that those who denied the existence of the [page 149:] Gods, or introduced new opinions about celestial things, should be tried by the people. This, however, proves injurious to some of his own personal friends. Hermippus lays before the Thesmothetæ Archons an accusation of blasphemy against Anaxagoras, Phidias, and Aspasia; and the case is tried before the fourth assembly of the people. Anaxagoras is charged with not having offered victims to the Gods, and with having blasphemed the divine Phoebus, by saying the sun was only a huge ball of fire, — and is condemned to die. Phlidias is accused of blasphemy, in having carved the likeness of himself and Pericles on the shield of heaven-born Pallas, of having said that he approved the worship of the Gods merely becatise he wished to have his own works adored, and of decoying to his own house the maids and matrons of Athens, under the pretence of seeing sculpture, but in fact, to administer to the profligacy of Pericles. He is also adjudged to death. Aspasia is accused of saying that the sacred baskets of Demeter contained nothing of so much importance as the beautiful maidens who carried them; and that the temple of Poseidon was enriched with no offerings from those who had been wrecked, notwithstanding their supplications — thereby implying irreverent doubts of the power of Ocean's God. Her sentence is exile. Pericles, however, succeeds in getting the execution of the decrees suspended until the oracle of Amphiaraus can be consulted. Antiphon, a celebrated diviner, is appointed to consult it. He is absent for many days, and in the meantime Pericles has an opportunity of tampering with the people, as he has already done with Antiphon. The response of the oracle opportunely declares that the sentences be reconsidered. It is done — Phidias and Anaxagoras are merely banished, while [page 150:] Aspasia is acquitted. These trials form perhaps the most interesting portion of the book.

Chapter XI introduces us to Anaxagoras, the contented resident of a small village near Lampsacus in Ionia. He is old, feeble, and in poverty. Philothea watches by his side, and supports him with the labor of her hands. Plato visits the sage of Clazomenæ in his retreat, and brings news of the still-beloved Athens. The pestilence is raging — the Piræus is heaped with unburied dead. Hipparete has fallen a victim. Pericles was one of the first sufferers, but has recovered through the skill of Hippocrates. Phidias who, after his sentence of exile, departed with Eudora to Elis, and grew in honor among the Eleans — is dead. Eudora still remains at his house, Elis having bestowed upon her the yearly revenues of a farm, in consideration of the affectionate care bestowed upon her illustrious benefactor. Philaemon is in Persia instructing the sons of the wealthy Satrap Megabyzus. Alcibiades is living in unbridled license at Athens. But the visiter has not yet spoken of Paralus, the lover of Philothea. “Daughter of Alcimenes,” he at length says, (we copy here half a page of the volume, as a specimen of the grace of the narrative) —

  · · · · · · · ·  


The most special object of Plato's visit to Anaxagoras is the bearing of a message from Pericles. Hippocrates has expressed a hope that the presence of Philothea may restore, in some measure, the health and understanding of Paralus, and the once ambitious father has sent to beg the maiden's consent to a union with his now deeply afflicted son.

  · · · · · · · ·  


Philothea assents joyfully to the union, although [page 151:] Chrysippus, the wealthy prince of Clazomenœ, has made her an offer of his hand. Anaxagoras dies. His grand-daughter, accompanied by Plato, and some female acquaintances, takes her departure for Athens, and arrives safely in the harbor of Phalerum. No important change has occurred in Paralus, who still shows a total unconsciousness of past events. The lovers are, however, united. Many long passages about this portion of the narrative are of a lofty and original beauty. The dreamy, distraught, yet unembittered existence of the husband, revelling in the visions of the Platonic philosophy — the anxiety of the father and his friends — the ardent, the pure and chivalric love, with the uncompromising devotion and soothing attentions of the wife — are pictures whose merit will not fail to be appreciated by all whose good opinion is of value.

Hippocrates has been informed that Tithonus, the Ethiopian, possesses the power of leading the soul from the body, “by means of a soul-directing wand,” and the idea arises that the process may produce a salutary effect upon Paralus. Tithonus will be present at the Olympian Games, and thither the patient is conveyed, under charge of Pericles, Plato and his wife. On the route, at Corinth, a letter from Philaemon, addressed to Anaxagoras, is handed by Artaphernes, the Persian, to Philothea. At the close of the epistle, the writer expresses a wish to be informed of Eudora's fate, and an earnest hope that she is not beyond the reach of Philothea's influence. The travellers finally stop at a small town in the neighborhood of Olympia, and at the residence of Proclus and his wife Melissa, “worthy simple-hearted people with whom Phidias had died, and under whose protection he had placed his adopted daughter.” [page 152:] The meeting between this maiden and Philothea is full of interest. The giddy heart of Eudora is chastened by sorrow. Phidias had desired her marriage with his nephew Pandaenus — but her first love is not yet forgotten. A letter is secretly written by Philothea to Philaemon, acquainting him with the change in the character of Eudora, and with her unabated affection for himself. “Sometimes,” she writes, “a stream is polluted in the fountain, and its waters are tainted through all its wanderings; and sometimes the traveller throws into a pure rivulet some unclean thing, which floats awhile and is then rejected from its bosom. Eudora is the pure rivulet. A foreign strain floated on the surface, but never mingled with its waters.”

The efforts of Tithonus are inadequate to the effectual relief of Paralus. We quote in full the account of the Ethiopian's attempt. Mrs. Child is here, however, partially indebted to a statement by Clearchus, of an operation somewhat similar to that of Tithonus, performed either by the aid, or in the presence of Aristotle. It will be seen that even the chimeras of animal magnetism were, in some measure, known to the ancients. The relation of Clearchus mentions a diviner with a spirit-drawing wand, and a youth whose soul was thereby taken from the body, leaving it inanimate. The soul being replaced by the aid of the magician, the youth enters into a wild account of the events which befell him during the trance. The passage in “Philothea” runs thus.

  · · · · · · · ·  


The mind of Paralus derives but a temporary benefit from the skill of Tithonus, and even the attendance of the patient upon the Olympian games (a suggestion of Pericles) fails of the desired effect. A partial revival [page 153:] is indeed thus brought about — but death rapidly ensues. The friends of the deceased return to Athens, accompanied by the adopted daughter of Phlidias. Philothea dies. Not many days after the funeral ceremonies, Eudora suddenly disappears. Alcibiades is suspected (justly) of having entrapped her to his summer residence in Salamis. The pages which follow this event detail the rescue of the maiden by the ingenuity of two faithful slaves, Mibra and Geta — the discovery of her father in Artaphernes the Persian, whom she accompanies to the court of Artaxerxes — her joyful meeting there, and marriage with Philaemon, after refusing the proffered hand of Xerxes himself.

In regard to the species of novel of which “Philothea” is no ignoble specimen, not any powers on the part of any author can render it, at the present day, popular. Nor is the voice of the people in this respect, to be adduced as an evidence of corrupted taste. We have little of purely human sympathy in the distantly antique; and this little is greatly weakened by the constant necessity of effort in conceiving appropriateness in manners, costume, habits, and modes of thought, so widely at variance with those around us. It should be borne in mind that the “Pompeii” of Bulwer cannot be considered as altogether belonging to this species, and fails in popularity only in proportion as it does so belong to it. This justly admired work owes what it possesses of attraction for the mass, to the stupendousness of its leading event — an event so far from weakened in interest by age, rendered only more thrillingly exciting by the obscurity which years have thrown over its details — to the skill with which the mind of the reader is prepared for this event — to the vigor with which it is depicted — and to the commingling with this [page 154:] event human passions wildly affected thereby — passions the sternest of our nature, and common to all character and time. By means so effectual we are hurried over, and observe not, unless with a critical eye, those radical defects or difficulties (coincident with the choice of epoch) of which we have spoken above. The fine perception of Bulwer endured these difficulties as inseparable from the groundwork of his narrative — did not mistake them for facilities. The plot of “Philothea,” like that of the Telemachus, and of the Anarcharsis, should be regarded, on the other hand, as the mere vehicle for bringing forth the antique “manners, costume, habits, and modes of thought,” which we have just mentioned as at variance with a popular interest to-day. Regarding it in this, its only proper light, we shall be justified in declaring the book an honor to our country, and a signal triumph for our country-women.

Philothea might be introduced advantageously into our female academies. Its purity of thought and lofty morality are unexceptionable. It would prove an effectual aid in the study of Greek antiquity, with whose spirit it is wonderfully imbued. We say wonderfully — for when we know that the fair authoress disclaims all knowledge of the ancient languages, we are inclined to consider her performance as even wonderful. There are some points, to be sure, at which a scholar might cavil — some perversions of the character of Pericles — of the philosophy of Anaxagoras — the trial of Aspasia and her friends for blasphemy, should have been held before the Areopagus, and not the people — and we can well believe that an erudite acquaintance of ours would storm at more than one discrepancy in the arrangement of the symposium at the house of Aspasia. [page 155:] But the many egregious blunders of Barthélémy are still fresh in our remembrance, and the difficulty of avoiding errors in similar writings, even by the professed scholar, cannot readily be conceived by the merely general reader.

On the other hand, these discrepancies are exceedingly few in Philothea, while there is much evidence on every page of a long acquaintance with the genius of the times, places, and people depicted. As a mere tale, too, the work has merit of no common order — and its purity of language should especially recommend it to the attention of teachers.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 146:]

1.  Poe repeated this review, almost verbatim, in the Broadway Journal, May 31, 1845. — ED.





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