Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Canons of Good Breeding,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), 10:45-49


[page 45, continued:]


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

THIS little book is a curiosity in its way. Indeed, there is something so very singular about it that we have been led to read it through deliberately and thoughtfully, with the view of solving the mystery which envelops it. It is by the author of the “Laws of Etiquette,” who is also the author of “Advice to a Young Gentleman,” a volume which we commended with some warmth in a former number of the Magazine. [page 46:]

In regard to the “Canons of Good Breeding,” the critical reader who takes it up will, of course, be inclined to throw it aside with contempt upon perceiving its title. This will be his first impulse. If he proceed so far, however, as to skim over the Preface, his eye will be arrested by a certain air of literature-ism (we must be permitted to coin an odd word for an odd occasion) which pervades and invigorates the pages. Regarding with surprise this discrepancy between preface and title, — between the apparent polish of the one and the horribly ad captandum character of the other, — he will be induced to finish the perusal of the book, and, we answer for it, will be thoroughly mystified before he gets well to the end. He will now find an exceeding difficulty, nearly amounting to impossibility, in making up his mind in regard to the merit or demerit of the work. If, however, he be somewhat in a hurry, there can be little doubt that he will terminate his examination with a hearty, perhaps even an enthusiastic, approval.

The truth is that the volume abounds in good things. We may safely say that, in a compass so small, we never before met with an equal radiancy of fine wit, so well commingled with scholar-like observation and profound thought — thought sometimes luminously and logically, and always elegantly, expressed. The first difficulty arising in the mind of the critic is that these good things are suspiciously super-abundant. He will now pass on to the observation of some inaccuracies of adaptation. He will then call to mind certain niaiseries of sentiment altogether at warfare with the prevailing tone of the book, and, finally, he will perceive, although with somewhat greater difficulty, the evidence of a radical alteration and bepatching of the language — the [page 47:] traces of an excessive limæ labor. He will thus take offence at the disingenuousness which has entrapped him into momentary applause; and, while he cannot deny that the work, such as the world sees it, has merit, he will still pronounce it, without hesitation, the excessively elaborated production of some partially educated man, possessed with a rabid ambition for the reputation of a wit and savant, and who, somewhat unscrupulous in the mode of attaining such reputation, has consented to clip, cut, and most assiduously intersperse throughout his book, by wholesale, the wit, the wisdom, and the erudition, of Horace Walpole, of Bolingbroke, of Chesterfield, of Bacon, of Burton, and of Burdon, — even of Bulwer and of D’Israeli, — with occasional draughts (perhaps at second-hand) from the rich coffers of Seneca, or Machiavelli of Montaigne, of Rochefoucault, of the author of “La Maniére de bien penser,” or of Bielfeld, the German who wrote in French “Les Premiers Traits de L’Erudition Universelle.” We may be pardoned also for an allusion — which is enough — to such wealthy storehouses as the “Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuses,” the Literary Memoirs of Sallengré, the “Mélanges Litéraires,” of Suard and André, and the “Pieces Intérressantes et peu Connues” of La Place.

The construction here given is the most obvious, and, indeed, the only one which can be put upon the volume now before us, and upon the other efforts of the same pen. They betray the hand of the diligent adaptator of others’ wit, rather than the really full mind of the educated and studious man of general letters. True erudition — by which term we here mean simply to imply much diversified reading — is certainly discoverable — is positively indicated — only in its ultimate [page 48:] and total results. The mere grouping together of fine things from the greatest multiplicity of the rarest works, or even the apparently natural inweaving into any composition, of the sentiments and manner of these works, is an attainment within the reach of every moderately informed, ingenious, and not indolent man, having access to any ordinary collection of good books. The only available objection to what we have urged will be based upon the polish of the style. But we have already alluded to traces of the limæ labour — and this labor has been skilfully applied. Beyond doubt, the volume has undergone a minute supervision and correction by some person whose habits and education have rendered him very thoroughly competent to the task.

We have spoken somewhat at length in regard to the authorship of “The Canons of Good Breeding,” because ingenuities of this species are by no means very common. Few men are found weak enough to perpetrate them to any extent. We have said little, however, in respect to the book itself, as it stands — and this little has been in its favor. The publication will be read with interest, and may be read, generally speaking, with profit. Some of the niaiseries to which we alluded just now are sufficiently droll, being even oddly at variance with the assumed spirit of the whole work. We are told, among other things, that the writer has employed throughout his book the words “lady” and “gentleman,” instead of the words “woman” and “man,” which “are more correct expressions, and more usual in the best circles”; that “when you lay down your hat in a room or on a bench in a public place, you should put the open part downwards, so that the leather may not be seen which has been soiled by the hair” that “you should never present yourself at a [page 49:] large evening party without having your hair dressed and curled” and that since “the inferior classes of men, as you may see if you think fit to take notice of them, only press the rim of the hat when they speak to women of their acquaintance,” you should be careful, [[“]]when you salute a lady or gentleman, to take your own entirely off, and cause it to describe a circle of at least ninety degrees.”

The effect of such fine advice can be readily conceived. It will be taken by contraries, as sure as dandies have brains. No one of that much-injured race will now venture to say “lady,” or “gentleman,” or have his hair curled, or place his hat upside-down upon a table, or do any other such unimaginable act, lest he should be suspected of having derived his manners from no better source than the “Canons of Good Breeding.” We shall have a revolution in such matters — a revolution to be remedied only by another similar volume. As for its author — should he write it — we wish him no worse fate than to be condemned to its perpetual perusal until such time as he shall succeed in describing with his hat one of his own very funny circles — one of those circles of just ninety degrees.





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