Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Undine,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), 10:30-39


[page 30, continued:]


[Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, September, 1839.]

THE republication of such a work as “Undine,” in the very teeth of our anti-romantic national character, is an experiment well adapted to excite interest, and in the crisis caused by this experiment — for a crisis it is — it becomes the duty of every lover of literature for its own sake and spiritual uses, to speak out, and speak boldly, against the untenable prejudices which have so long and so unopposedly enthralled us. It becomes, we say, his plain duty to show, with what ability he may possess, the full value and capacity of that species of writing generally, which, as a people, we are too prone to discredit. It is incumbent upon him to make head, by all admissible means in his power, against that evil genius of mere matter-of-fact, whose grovelling and degrading assumptions are so happily set forth in the pert little query of Monsieur Casimir Périer — [page 31:]A quoi un poète est-il bon?” The high claims of “Undine” and its extensive foreign reputation render it especially desirable that he should make use of a careful analysis of the work itself — not less than of the traits of its class — with a view of impressing upon the public mind at least his individual sense of its most exalted and extraordinary character. Feeling thus, we are grieved that our limits, as well as the late hour in which we take up the book, will scarcely permit us to speak of it otherwise than at random. The story runs very nearly in this manner: —

Sir Huldbrand of Ringstetten, a knight of high descent, young, rich, valorous, and handsome, becomes slightly enamoured, at a tournament, of a lady Bertalda, the adopted daughter of a German Duke. She, being entreated by the knight for one of her gloves, promises it upon condition of his exploring the recesses of a certain haunted forest. He consents, and is beset with a crowd of illusory and fantastic terrors, which, in the end, compel him to an extremity of the wood, where a long grassy peninsula of great loveliness juts out into the bosom of a vast lake. Of this peninsula, the sole inhabitants are an old fisherman and his wife, with their adopted daughter, Undine, a beautiful and fairy-like creature of eighteen, and of an extravagantly wild and perverse, yet amiable and artless temperament. The old couple had rejoiced, some years before, in a child of their own, who, playing one day by the water's edge, fell in suddenly, and at once disappeared. In the depth of their grief for her loss they were astonished and delighted, one summer's evening, with the appearance in their hut of the little Undine, who was dripping with water, and who could give no very distinct account of herself, — her language being of a singular [page 32:] nature, and her discourse turning upon such subjects as “golden castles” and “crystal [[chrystal]] domes.” She had remained with the fisherman and his wife ever since, and they had come to look upon her as their own.

By these good people Sir Huldbrand is hospitably entertained. In the meantime, a brook, swollen by rains, renders the peninsula an island, and thoroughly cuts off his retreat. In the strict intercourse which ensues the young man and maiden become lovers, and are finally wedded by a priest, who is opportunely cast away upon the coast. After the marriage, a new character seems to pervade Undine; and she at length explains to her husband (who is alarmed at some hints [[which]] she lets fall) the true history of her nature, and of her advent upon the island.

She is one of the race of water-spirits — a race who differ, personally, from mankind, only in a greater beauty, and in the circumstance of possessing no soul. The words of Undine, here divulging her secret to Huldbrand, will speak as briefly as we could do, and far more eloquently: “Both we and the beings I have mentioned as inhabiting the other elements vanish into air at death and go out of existence, spirit and body, so that no vestige of us remains; and when you hereafter awake to a purer state of being, we shall remain where sand and sparks and wind and waves remain. We, of course, have no souls. The element moves us, and, again, is obedient to our will while we live, though it scatters us like dust when we die; and as we have nothing to trouble us, we are as merry as nightingales, little gold-fishes, and other pretty children of nature. But all beings aspire to rise in the scale of existence higher than they are. It was therefore the wish of my father, who is a powerful water-prince in the Mediterranean [page 33:] Sea, that his only daughter should become possessed of a soul, although she should have to endure many of the sufferings of those who share that gift. Now the race to which I belong have no other means of obtaining a soul than by forming, with an individual of your own, the most intimate union of love.”

Undine has an uncle, Kühleborn, who is the spirit of a brook, the brook which had cut off the retreat of the knight. It was this uncle who had stolen the fisherman's daughter, who had brought Undine to the island, and who had, by machination in the haunted forest, forced Huldbrand upon the peninsula. The wedding having been accomplished, the brook is dried up; and the married pair, attended by the priest, make their way to the city where the tournament had been held, and where Bertalda and her friends were much alarmed at the long absence of the knight. This lady, who had loved him and who is, in fact, the lost daughter of the fisherman (having been carried safely to a distant shore by Kühleborn, and found and adopted by a Duke), — this lady is sadly grieved at the marriage of the knight, but feels an unaccountable prepossession in favour of the bride, becomes her most intimate friend, and at length goes to live with her at the castle of Ringstetten — much in opposition to the wishes of the priest and of Kühleborn. The disasters of the drama now commence. Huldbrand insensibly forgets his love for Undine and recalls his passion for Bertalda. He is even petulant to his bride who is aware of all, but utters no reproach. She entreats him, however, to be careful not to reproach her when they are crossing a brook or in any excursion upon the water, as, in such case, her friends the water-spirits, who resent his behaviour, would have power to bear her away entirely [page 34:] and forever. In a passage down the Danube, however, with Undine and Bertalda, he forgets the caution, and upon a trifling occasion bitterly reproves his gentle bride — for whom he still feels a lingering affection. She is thus forced to leave him, and melts into the waters of the river.

Huldbrand returns with Bertalda to Castle Ringstetten. His grief, at first violent, settles down at length into a tender melancholy, and finally is merged, although not altogether, in a growing passion for the fisherman's daughter. He sends for the priest; who obeys the summons in haste, but refuses to perform the marriage ceremony. He represents that for many nights previous, Undine had appeared to him in a dream, imploring him with deep sighs, and saying — “Ah! prevent him, dear father! I am still living! Ah! save his life! Ah! save his soul!” Huldbrand, however, rejects the advice of the priest, and sends to a neighbouring monastery for a monk, who promises to do his bidding in a few days.

Meantime, the knight is borne, in a dream, as if on swans’ wings, to a certain spot in the Mediterranean Sea. Here he is held hovering over the water, which becomes perfectly transparent. He sees Undine weeping bitterly and in conversation with Kühleborn. This conversation gives Huldbrand to know that Undine still lives, and still retains her soul, although separated for ever from her husband — and that, if he should again marry, it will be her fate and her duty to cause his death, in obedience to a law of the water-spirits. Kühleborn is insisting upon this necessity. He tells Undine that the knight is about to wed — and reminds her of what she must do.

“I have not the power,” returned Undine, with a [page 35:] smile. “Do you not remember? I have sealed up the fountain securely, not only against myself, but all of the same race.” [This is a fountain in the court-yard of Castle Ringstetten, which Undine had caused to be covered up, while she lived upon earth, on account of its affording Kühleborn and other water-spirits who were ill-disposed to the knight, the means of access to the castle.]

“Still, should he leave his castle,” said Kühleborn, “or should he once allow the fountain to be uncovered, what then? for doubtless he thinks there is no great murder in such trifles?”

“For that very reason,” said Undine, still smiling amid her tears, “for that very reason he is this moment hovering in spirit over the Mediterranean Sea, and dreaming of this voice of warning which our conversation affords him. It is for this that I have been studious in disposing the whole vision.”

Notwithstanding all this, however, Huldbrand weds Bertalda. She in the gaiety of her spirit, upon the night of the wedding, causes the fountain to be uncovered, without the knowledge of the knight, who has never revealed his dream to her. She does this, partly on account of a fancied virtue in the water, and partly through an arrogant pleasure in undoing what the first wife had commanded to be done. Undine immediately ascends and accomplishes the destruction of the knight.

This is an exceedingly meagre outline of the leading events of the story; which, although brief, is crowded with incident. Beneath all, there runs a mystic or under current of meaning, of the simplest and most easily intelligible, yet of the most richly philosophical character. From internal evidence afforded by the book itself, we gather that the author has deeply suffered [page 36:] from the ills of an ill-assorted marriage — and to the bitter reflections induced by these ills, we owe the conception and peculiar execution of “Undine.”

In the contrast between the artless, thoughtless, and careless character of Undine before possessing a soul, and her serious, enwrapped, and anxious yet happy condition after possessing it — a condition which with all its multiform cares and disquietudes, she still feels to be preferable to her original fate — M. Fouqué has beautifully painted the difference between the heart unused to love, and the heart which has received its inspiration.

The jealousies which follow the marriage, arising from the conduct of Bertalda, are the natural troubles of love — but the persecutions of Kühleborn and the other water-spirits, who take umbrage at Huldbrand's treatment of his wife, are meant to picture certain difficulties from the interference of relations in conjugal matters — difficulties which the author has himself experienced. The warning of Undine to Huldbrand — “reproach me not upon the waters, or we part for ever” — is meant to embody the truth that quarrels between man and wife are seldom or never irremediable unless when taking place in the presence of third parties. The second wedding of the knight, with his gradual forgetfulness of Undine and Undine's intense grief beneath the waters, are dwelt upon so pathetically and so passionately, that there can be no doubt of the personal opinions of the author on the subject of such marriages — no doubt of his deep personal interest in the question. How thrillingly are these few and simple words made to convey his belief that the mere death of a beloved wife does not imply a final separation so complete as to justify an union with another: “The fisherman had loved Undine with exceeding tenderness, [page 37:] and it was a doubtful conclusion to his mind, that the mere disappearance of his beloved child could be properly viewed as her death!” This is where the old man is endeavouring to dissuade the knight from wedding Bertalda.

We have no hesitation in saying that this portion of the design of the romance — the portion which conveys an undercurrent of meaning — does not afford the fairest field to the romanticist — does not appertain to the higher regions of ideality. Although, in this case, the plan is essentially distinct from Allegory, yet it has too close an affinity to that most indefensible species of writing — a species whose gross demerits we cannot now pause to examine. That M. Fouqué was well aware of the disadvantage under which he laboured — that he well knew the field he traversed not to be the fairest — and that a personal object alone induced him to choose it — we cannot and shall not doubt. For the hand of the master is visible in every line of his beautiful fable. “Undine” is a model of models, in regard to the high artistical talent which it evinces. We could write volumes in a detailed commentary upon its various beauties in this respect. Its unity is absolute — its keeping unbroken. Yet every minute point of the picture fills and satisfies the eye. Everything is attended to, and nothing is out of time or out of place.

We say that some private and personal design to be fulfilled has thrown M. Fouqué upon that objectionable undercurrent of meaning which he has so elaborately managed. Yet his high genius has nearly succeeded in turning the blemish into a beauty. At all events he has succeeded, in spite of a radical defect, in producing what we advisedly consider the finest romance [page 38:] in existence. We say this with a bitter kind of half-consciousness that only a very few will fully agree with us — yet these few are our all in such matters. They will stand by us in a just opinion.

Were we to pick out points for admiration in “Undine,” we should pick out the greater portion of the story. We cannot say whether the novelty of its conception, or the loftiness of its ideality, or its intense pathos, or its rigorous simplicity, or that high artistical talent with which all are combined, is the particular to be chiefly admired. Addressing those who have read the book, we may call attention to the delicacy and grace of transition from subject to subject — a point which never fails to test the power of the writer — as, for example, at page 128, when, for the purposes of the story, it becomes necessary that the knight, with Undine and Bertalda, shall proceed down the Danube. An ordinary novelist would have here tormented both himself and his readers, in his search for a sufficient motive for the voyage. But, in connexion with a fable such as Undine, how all-sufficient seems the simple motive assigned by Fouqué! — “In this grateful union of friendship and affection winter came and passed away; and spring, with its foliage of tender green, and its heaven of softest blue, succeeded to gladden the hearts of the three inmates of the castle. The season was in harmony with their minds, and their minds imparted their own hues to the season. What wonder, then, that its storks and swallows inspired them also with a disposition to travel!

Again, we might dwell upon the exquisite management of imagination, which is so visible in the passages where the brooks are water-spirits, and the water-spirits brooks — neither distinctly either. What can be more [page 39:] ethereally ideal than the frequent indeterminate glimpses caught of Kühleborn — or than his singular and wild lapses into shower and foam? — or than the evanishing of the white wagoner and his white horses into the shrieking and devouring flood? — or than the gentle melting of the passionately-weeping bride into the chrystal waters of the Danube? What can be more divine than the character of the soulless Undine? — what more august than her transition into the soul-possessing wife? What can be more intensely beautiful than the whole book? We calmly think — yet cannot help asserting with enthusiasm — that the whole wide range of fictitious literature embraces nothing comparable in loftiness of conception, or in felicity of execution, to those final passages of the volume before us which embody the uplifting of the stone from the fount by the order of Bertalda, the sorrowful and silent re-advent of Undine, and the rapturous death of Sir Huldbrand in the embraces of his spiritual wife.





[S:1 - JAH10, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Undine)