Text: Edgar Allan Poe (???) (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Zanoni,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XI: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 115-123


[page 115, continued:]


[Graham’s Magazine, June, 1842.]

A FEW years ago, in the first volume of “The Monthly Chronicle,” a tale, or rather the fragment of one, appeared, professedly from the pen of Bulwer. But the story defied critical as well as common sense to understand it. It opened abruptly and closed abruptly . It had, properly speaking, neither beginning [page 116:] nor end. It was incomprehensible. By general consent, “Zicci” was regarded as a freak of the author — its only merit was the novelty of having no merit at all. After being the jest of the reviewers for years, this story has been completed, and now lies before us, under the altered name of “Zanoni.”

The idea of the novel is borrowed from the dreams of the old Rosicrucians, and of the predecessors of that sect as far back as the Chaldeans. These visionaries imagined that man, by a rigid practice of virtue and the sublimation of every earthly feeling, could attain to a perfect comprehension of the most hidden secrets of nature — could hold communion with, and exercise control over, the unseen powers of the air — and could even preserve human life to an indefinite extent, by acquiring the means by which it might be perpetually renovated. The story opens at Naples, towards the close of the last century. The hero is a noble Chaldean, who, having attained to the knowledge of the last secret of his sect while yet in the prime of youthful manhood, wears now the same aspect as when he gazed on the stars from his home in Assyria, before the temple had been built on Mount Zion — before the Greeks had fought at Marathon — before the builders of the pyramids had died. To an imaginative mind, such a character possesses peculiar charms. He comes before us with all the solemnity of the past, making vivid to us the great deeds of buried ages. He has seen the army of Alexander on the Indus. He was in Egypt when Antony’s fleet set sail for Actium. He remembers when Demosthenes thundered for the crown, when Cæsar fell in the Senate House, when Rome was sacked by Attila. For three thousand years he has gazed on mankind with a face as unchanging as [page 117:] that of the weird Sphinx of the desert. For ninety generations, he has survived war, and pestilence, and the slow decay of the system, — a being mysterious in his subtle power, wonderful in his awful and majestic beauty. This exemption from death he has won by the subjugation of every feeling and passion to the mastery of a PURE INTELLECT. But still retaining his youth, he retains the capacity to love; and though, for such a lapse of ages, he has withstood temptation, he is destined at last to yield to it. He meets with and loves a beautiful Italian girl. He thus endangers his earthly immortality; for the moment he yields to earthly passion, however pure, his intellect becomes clouded, and he loses the prophetic faculty as well as others of his high attributes. Conscious of this, and knowing that he will bring peril and sorrow around the path of Viola by linking her fate with his, he struggles long against his passion, and even after yielding to it, endeavors to avert from her head the dangers which, as consequences of his conduct, thicken around her. In this Titanic conflict betwixt the intellect and the heart — in the alternation of the aspirations of the one and the agonizing throes of the other, lies the burden — as the old writers would call it — of the novel.

The idea, as thus stated, is simply grand. It has a unity that overpowers us. Had the author contented himself with merely developing this idea, omitting everything which had no necessary bearing on the dénouement, he would have produced an almost faultless story. But he has, in a great measure, failed in carrying out his conception, He has weakened the effect by diverging from the burden of the story. As the novel has been circulated in various cheap forms throughout the country, we shall take it for granted [page 118:] that our readers have perused the book. This will save us the necessity of recapitulating the plot as the basis of our remarks.

The plot is grossly defective in several important particulars. Many even of the leading incidents have no bearing on the dénouement. The compact betwixt Zanoni and the EVIL EYE, at Venice, is of this character. The author’s original intention was to make the condition exacted from the husband play a prominent part at the crisis; but he subsequently changed his mind, and brought about the dénouement by other means, forgetting, however, to rewrite this scene, so as to adapt it to the altered aspect of the story. The EVIL EYE, when he comes to assert his rights, is cavalierly dismissed, in a very inartistical manner. It would have contributed far more to the unity of effect of which we have spoken, if the author had pursued his original design, and made the condition exacted from Zanoni, the sacrifice of his own life, when, at any future period, he should wish again to preserve the life of Viola. By following out his plan, Bulwer would have been saved the necessity of introducing the sanguinary scenes of the French Revolution; and the crisis would have been brought about in a far more natural manner than it is at present. The introduction of Robespierre and his associates is forced; it renders involved an otherwise simple and effective plot. We are astonished that an adept in Art, such as Bulwer professes to be, should have committed a blunder for which, if he had been a schoolboy, he should have been soundly whipped. If he intended to enlist and keep up the interest of his readers in his two chief characters, why has he distracted the attention by the introduction of the Reign of Terror, that most real of [page 119:] tragedies, whose horrors exceed anything that romance can imagine, whose thrilling story stops the pulsation of the heart for anything less terrible? The mind should have been left undistracted to contemplate the stern, Doric self-sacrifice of Zanoni! The author should not have sacrificed the unity of effect for the dying struggles of Robespierre, or any other human butcher in the blood-bespattered shambles of Paris. We can see what misled Bulwer. Not satisfied with the grandeur of his original conception of the dénouement, he sought to increase the interest by the claptrap effect of rapidly shifting the perilous incidents in which all the chief actors are involved. This is a trick he has learned behind the foot-lights, and not in the study of the great old masters.

There are numerous minor errors in the plot. Glyndon’s liaison with Floretta does not advance the story, and the only part she plays in evolving the crisis, is the betrayal of Viola at Paris. If the plot had been handled properly, there would have been no necessity for her agency here. But the desire to paint mere sensual love, in this character, induced Bulwer to patch her into the tale. He has been persuaded, from the same reason, to introduce other unimportant characters we might name. In short, his motley array of personages reminds us of Burke’s graphic picture of Chatham’s last piebald ministry, where he compares it to a piece of mosaic, ‘I here a bit of black stone and there a bit of white,” and humorously depicts the consternation of men, who had been all their lives libelling each other, on finding themselves “pigging together in the same truckle-bed.” In like manner the robber figures in the scene. So do Mervale and that worthy shrew his wife. These are all gross faults; [page 120:] for the necessity of preserving the oneness and entireness of effect, of which we have spoken so much, exists in peculiar force in a highly imaginative work like this. The introduction of supernal agents is, at all times, a dangerous experiment; and, when they are introduced, the illusion is to be kept up at every sacrifice. This can scarcely be done where the reader listens on one page to the converse of immortal powers, and on the next to the wrangling of a cross, sleepy wife with a drunken husband — when we are hurried from the lofty aspirations of Menjour and Zanoni, to the silly love-toying betwixt Glyndon and Floretta. This brings us to another error in the author — an error which lies at the very bottom of all his errors.

The subject is unfit for prose. It properly belongs to the drama. The true province of the imagination is poetry, and although this divine faculty may stoop to prose, it can never truly shine but in the celestial garments of the muse. We do not deny the impossibility of treating an ideal theme in prose — we only assert the superior advantages which poetry affords for the same object. Transitions may be tolerated in the drama which should be anathematized in prose. But, above all, poetry would favor the preservation of the illusion to which we have already referred. The tone of a story such as Zanoni is, could be better preserved in poetry. The idea of the tale is inexpressibly grand, and might have been worked out with terrible effect. The struggle in Zanoni’s mind betwixt his love for Viola and his longing for earthly immortality would have produced, if evolved by a master hand, a tragedy equal to Manfred, Faust, we had almost said Prometheus.

But we have said enough under this head. Let us look at the characters. [page 121:]

Of Zanoni we have already spoken. His character belongs to a lofty region of the ideal. The conception of Pisani, also, is highly imaginative. He comes in, at the opening of the tale, with the same effect with which a fine overture precedes an opera. He prepares the mind, by his unearthly music, for the mysteries that are to follow. His barbican, his solitary life, his dreams of wild figures and wilder music in the air, entitle him to a high rank in the ideal. What a grand thought is that which represents him at the theatre, mechanically performing his part, while all the time his soul is thinking of his beloved opera, so that often, unconsciously to himself, he bursts out into its weird and startling music!

Viola, the impersonation of the purest love, unalloyed by any sensual feeling — Glyndon, the weak, vacillating, yet aspiring man — and Menjour, the embodiment of mere intellect, apart from any influence of the heart, good or bad, are well drawn characters — of their kind. Their fault is that they have no individuality. All Bulwer’s personages partake of this error. There is not, in his numerous novels, a single personage whom we can look back on as on a real individual. Falstaff and Nicol Jarvie are so life-like that it seems as if we had drunk canary with the one, at the Boar’s Head, and “had a crack” with the other, on the causeway of Glasgow. Bulwer’s characters have none of this personal identity — they are only embodiments of certain passions or peculiarities. His actors are like the knights of Spenser, mere stalking horses for particular vices or virtues — or, like a wigmaker’s block, the representative in turn of the heads of all his customers. Every personage in Zanoni, without, as we remember, a single exception, is thus [page 122:] ticketed for a particular vice or virtue, like passengers in a railroad car. Now, we do not object to the introduction of these personages if they are necessary to the plot; but, for heaven’s sake, Mr. Bulwer, give us something more than mere automatons! Don’t ask us in to a second Mrs. Jarley’s wax-works!

We have spoken, in terms of high praise, of the character of Zanoni. We have, however, said that the theme was more adapted for poetry than prose. Having chosen prose, the author has erred in calling his book A NOVEL. Let us be understood. Feeble as is the province of prose to do justice to so ideal a character as Zanoni, we do not base our present objection to the book on that ground. It is one of the inalienable rights of man to show his ignorance, to make a blunder, or in any other way to play the fool. This is not the question now. The work before us purports to be a novel, and nothing but a novel. It might have been named a romance, a mystery, or the Lord knows what! But it is put forth as a novel, under the imprimatur of the writer of “ART IN FICTION,” of the man who sets up to be the high priest of the synagogue! Is it such?

A novel, in the true acceptation of the name, is a picture of real life. The plot may be involved, but it must not transcend probability. The agencies introduced must belong to real life. Such were Gil Bias and Tom Jones, confessedly the two best novels extant. Whether the title was properly applied, in the inception, is not the question. Usage and common sense have affixed a definite meaning to the word. When authors cease to paint real life they cease to write novels. The tales may be very good of their kind, but they are no more novels than a sirloin is a [page 123:] mutton chop, or than Bulwer is the artist he pretends to be. Judged by this standard, Zanoni is not a novel. There are pictures of real life in it; but to paint society, as it is, was only collateral to the chief aim of the work.

We say nothing of the moral of the story; for all that is truly noble in Bulwer’s imaginary doctrines of the Rosicrucians is stolen from the pure precepts of our holy religion.

The English of the author is neither better nor worse than in his former novels. His language was always inflated, often bombastic. He personifies as desperately as ever. His allegories are as plentiful as Sancho Panza’s proverbs, or as an old maid’s ailings. The same straining after effect, the same attempts at fine writing which were such glaring defects in his former novels, are here perceptible. Through every line, the author looks out, eager, like Snug the joiner, to tell you he is there.

There are many fine thoughts, nevertheless, in these volumes; and, on the whole, the book is a valuable addition to our imaginative literature.

If we have dealt longer on the faults than on the merits of “Zanoni,” it is because the latter are more apparent to the popular eye. We have dealt out, however, even-handed justice to the book, since the province of a critic is not that of the state advocate, who argues only on one side, but rather that of the judge who sums up the case, and of the jury who are sworn “a true verdict to give according to the evidence.” With this remark, we leave “Zanoni” to its fate.



Although Harrison attributes this review to Poe, the attribution is explicitly denied in Poe’s June 4, 1842 letter to J. E. Snodgrass.


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