Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of American Melodies,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), 10:41-45


[page 41:]


[Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, December 1839; Southern Literary Messenger, April, 1849, revised.]

THERE are few cases in which mere popularity should be considered a proper test of merit; but the case of song-writing is, I think, one of the few. In speaking of song-writing, I mean, of course, the composition of brief poems with an eye to their adaptation for music in the vulgar sense. In this ultimate destination of the song proper, lies its essence — its genius. It is the strict reference to music — it is the dependence upon modulated expression — which gives to this branch of letters a character altogether unique, and separates it, in great measure and in a manner not sufficiently considered, from ordinary literature; rendering it independent of merely ordinary proprieties; allowing it, and in fact demanding for it, a wide latitude of Law; absolutely insisting upon a certain wild license and indefinitiveness — an indefinitiveness recognized by every musician who is not a mere fiddler, as an important point in the philosophy of his science — as the soul, indeed, of the sensations derivable from its practice — sensations which bewilder while they enthrall — and which would not so enthrall if they did not so bewilder.

The sentiments deducible from the conception of sweet sound simply are out of the reach of analysis — although referable, possibly, in their last result, to that merely mathematical recognition of equality which seems to be the root of all Beauty. Our impressions of harmony [page 42:] and melody in conjunction are more readily analyzed; but one thing is certain — that the sentimental pleasure derivable from music, is nearly in the ratio of its indefinitiveness. Give to music any undue decision — imbue it with any very determinate tone — and you deprive it, at once, of its ethereal, its ideal, and, I sincerely believe, of its intrinsic and essential character. You dispel its dream-like luxury: — you dissolve the atmosphere of the mystic in which its whole nature is bound up: — you exhaust it of its breath of faëry. It then becomes a tangible and easily appreciable thing — a conception of the earth, earthy. It will not, to be sure, lose all its power to please, but all that I consider the distinctiveness of that power. And to the over-cultivated talent, or to the unimaginative apprehension, this deprivation of its most delicate nare will be, not unfrequently, a recommendation. A determinateness of expression is sought — and sometimes by composers who should know better — is sought as a beauty, rather than rejected as a blemish. Thus we have, even from high authorities, attempts at absolute imitation in musical sounds. Who can forget, or cease to regret, the many errors of this kind into which some great minds have fallen, simply through over-estimating the triumphs of skill. Who can help lamenting the Battle of Prague? What man of taste is not ready to laugh, or to weep, over their “guns, drums, trumpets, blunderbusses and thunder?” “Vocal music,” says L’Abbate Gravina, “ought to imitate the natural language of the human feelings and passions, rather than the warblings of Canary birds, which our singers, now-a-days, affect so vastly to mimic with their quaverings and boasted cadences.” This is true only so far as the “rather” is concerned. If any music must [page 43:] imitate anything, it were, undoubtedly, better that the imitation should be limited as Gravina suggests.

That indefinitiveness which is, at least, one of the essentials of true music, must, of course, be kept in view by the song-writer; while, by the critic, it should always be considered in his estimate of the song. It is, in the author, a consciousness — sometimes merely an instinctive appreciation, of this necessity for the indefinite, which imparts to all songs, richly [[rightly]] conceived, that free, affluent, and hearty manner, little scrupulous about niceties of phrase, which cannot be better expressed than by the hackneyed French word abandonnement, and which is so strikingly exemplified in both the serious and joyous ballads and carols of our old English progenitors. Wherever verse has been found most strictly married to music, this feature prevails. It is thus the essence of all antique song. It is the soul of Homer. It is the spirit of Anacreon. It is even the genius of Æschylus. Coming down to our own times, it is the vital principle in De Béranger. Wanting this quality, no song-writer was ever truly popular, and, for the reasons assigned, no song-writer need ever expect to be so.

These views properly understood, it will be seen how baseless are the ordinary objections to songs proper, on the score of “conceit” (to use Johnson's word), or of hyperbole, or on various other grounds tenable enough in respect to poetry not designed for music. The “conceit,” for example, which some envious rivals of Morris have so much objected to —

Her heart and morning broke together

In the storm — [page 44:]

this “conceit” is merely in keeping with the essential spirit of the song proper. To all reasonable persons it will be sufficient to say that the fervid, hearty, free-spoken songs of Cowley and of Donne — more especially of Cunningham, of Harrington, and of Carew — abound in precisely similar things; and that they are to be met with, plentifully, in the polished pages of Moore and of Béranger, who introduce them with thought and retain them after mature deliberation.

Morris is, very decidedly, our best writer of songs — and, in saying this, I mean to assign him a high rank as poet. For my own part, I would much rather have written the best song of a nation than its noblest epic. One or two of Hoffman's songs have merit — but they are sad echoes of Moore, and even if this were not so (every body knows that it is so) they are totally deficient in the real song-essence. “Woodman, Spare that Tree” and “By the Lake where droops the Willow” are compositions of which any poet, living or dead, might justly be proud. By these, if by nothing else, Morris is immortal. It is quite impossible to put down such things by sneers. The affectation of contemning them is of no avail — unless to render manifest the envy of those who affect the contempt. As mere poems, there are several of Morris's compositions equal, if not superior, to either of those just mentioned, but as songs I much doubt whether these latter have ever been surpassed. In quiet grace and unaffected tenderness, I know no American poem which excels the following: —

Where Hudson's wave o’er silvery sands

Winds through the hills afar,

Old Crow-nest like a monarch stands,

Crowned with a single star. [page 45:]

And there, amid the billowy swells

Of rock-ribbed, cloud-capped earth,

My fair and gentle Ida dwells,

A nymph of mountain birth.

The snow-flake that the cliff receives —

The diamonds of the showers —

Spring's tender blossoms, buds and leaves —

The sisterhood of flowers —

Morn's early beam — eve's balmy breeze —

Her purity define: —

But Ida's dearer far than these

To this fond breast of mine.

My heart is on the hills; the shades

Of night are on my brow.

Ye pleasant haunts and silent glades

My soul is with you now.

I bless the star-crowned Highlands where

My Ida's footsteps roam: —

Oh, for a falcon's wing to bear —

To bear me to my home.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 41:]

1.  This review was reprinted with slight alterations in the So. Lit. Mess. April 1849, under the title “National Melodies of America. By George P. Morris, Esq.” [[— ED.]]



Harrison's text follows the later printing noted above, from a “Marginalia” installment in the Southern Literary Messenger for April, 1849.


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