Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Boston and the Bostonians,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XIII: Literary Criticism - part 06 (1902), pp. 1-9


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[Broadway Journal, Nov. 22, 1845.]

As we very confidently expected, our friends in the Southern and Western country (true friends, and tried,) are taking up arms in our cause — and more especially in the cause of a national as distinguished from a sectional literature. They cannot see (it appears) any farther necessity for being ridden to death by New-England. Hear the “Charleston Patriot”:

POES POETRY. — Mr. Edgar A. Poe is one of the most remarkable, in many respects, among our men of letters. With singular endowments of imagination, he is at the same time largely possessed of many of the qualities that go to make an admirable critic; — he is methodical, lucid, forcible; — well-read, thoughtful, and capable, at all times, of rising from the mere consideration of the individual subject, to the principles, in literature and art, by which it should be governed. Add to these qualities, as a critic, that he is not a person to be overborne and silenced by a reputation; — that mere names do not control his judgment; — that he is bold, independent, and stubbornly analytical, in the formation of his opinions. He has his defects also; — he is sometimes the victim of capricious moods; — his temper is variable — his nervous organization being such, evidently, as to subject his judgments, [page 2:] sometimes, to influences that may be traced to the weather and the winds. — He takes his colour from the clouds; and his sympathies are not unfrequently chilled and rendered ungenial, by the pressure of the atmosphere — the cold and the vapors of a climate affecting his moral nature, through his physical, in greater degree than is usual among literary men, — who, by the way, are generally far more susceptible to these influences, than is the case with the multitude. Such are the causes which occasionally operate to impair the value and the consistency of his judgments as a Critic. — As a Poet, Mr. Poe’s imagination becomes remarkably conspicuous, and to surrender himself freely to his own moods, would be to make all his writings in verse, efforts of pure imagination only. He seems to dislike the merely practical, and to shrink from the concrete. His fancy takes the ascendant in his Poetry, and wings his thoughts to such superior elevations, as to render it too intensely spiritual for the ordinary reader. With a genius thus endowed and constituted, it was a blunder with Mr. Poe to accept the appointment, which called him to deliver himself in poetry before the Boston Lyceum. Highly imaginative men can scarcely succeed in such exhibitions. The sort of poetry called for on such occasions, is the very reverse of the spiritual, the fanciful or the metaphysical. To win the ears of a mixed audience, nothing more is required than moral or patriotic common places in rhyming heroics. The verses of Pope are just the things for such occasions. You must not pitch your flight higher than the penny-whistle elevation of

“Know then this truth, enough for man to know,

Virtue alone is happiness below.”

Either this, or declamatory verse, — or something patriotic, or something satirical, or something comical. At all events, you must not be mystical. You must not task the audience to study. Your song must be such as they can read running, and comprehend while munching peanuts. [page 3:] Mr. Poe is not the writer for this sort of thing. He is too original, too fanciful, too speculative, too anything in verse, for the comprehension of any but ‘audience fit though few.’ In obeying this call to Boston, Mr. Poe committed another mistake. He had been mercilessly exercising himself as a critic at the expense of some of their favorite writers. The swans of New-England, under his delineation, had been described as mere geese, and those, too, of none of the whitest. He had been exposing the short comings and the plagiarisms of Mr. Longfellow, who is supposed, along the banks of the Penobscot, to be about the comliest bird that ever dipped his bill in Pieria. Poe had dealt with the favorites of Boston unsparingly, and they hankered after their revenges. In an evil hour, then, did he consent to commit himself, in verse to their tender mercies. It is positively amusing to see how eagerly all the little witlings of the press, in the old purlieus of the Puritan, flourish the critical tomahawk about the head of their critic. In their eagerness for retribution, one of the papers before us actually congratulates itself and readers on the (asserted) failure of the poet. The good editor himself was not present, but he hammers away not the less lustily at the victim, because his objections are to be made at second hand. — Mr. Poe committed another error in consenting to address an audience in verse, who, for three mortal hours, had been compelled to sit and hear Mr. Caleb Cushing in prose. The attempt to speak after this, in poetry, and fanciful poetry, too, was sheer madness. The most patient audience in the world, must have been utterly exhausted by the previous infliction. But it is denied that Mr. Poe failed at all. He had been summoned to recite poetry. It is asserted that he did so. The Boston Courier, one of the most thoughtful of the journals of that city, gives us a very favorable opinion of the performance which has been so harshly treated. — “The Poem,” says that journal, “called ‘The Messenger Star,’ was an eloquent and classic production, based on [page 4:] the right principles, containing the essence of true poetry, mingled with a gorgeous imagination, exquisite painting, every charm of metre, and a graceful delivery. It strongly reminded us of Mr. Horne’s ‘Orion,’ and resembled it in the majesty of its design, the nobleness of its incidents, and its freedom from the trammels of productions usual on these occasions. The delicious word-painting of some of its scenes brought vividly to our recollection, Keats’ ‘Eve of St. Agnes,’ and parts of ‘Paradise Lost.’

“That it was malapropos to the occasion, we take the liberty to deny. What is the use of repeating the ‘mumbling farce’ of having invited a poet to deliver a poem? We (too often) find a person get up and repeat a hundred or two indifferent couplets of words, with jingling rhymes and stale witticisms, with scarcely a line of poetry in the whole, and which will admit of no superlative to describe it. If we are to have a poem, why not have the ‘true thing,’ that will be recognized as such, — for poems being written for people that can appreciate them, it would be as well to cater for their tastes as for individuals who cannot distinguish between the true and the false.”

The good sense of this extract should do much towards enforcing the opinion which it conveys; and it confirms our own, previously entertained and expressed, in regard to the affair in question. Mr. Poe’s error was not, perhaps, in making verses, nor making them after a fashion of his own; but in delivering them before an audience of mixed elements, and just after a discourse of three mortal hours by a prosing orator. That any of his hearers should have survived the two-fold infliction, is one of those instances of good fortune which should bring every person present to his knees in profound acknowledgement to a protecting providence.

We thank our friend of “The Patriot” and agree with him fully, of course, in all points except his disparagement [page 5:] of Mr. Cushing, who read us a very admirable discourse. “The Patriot,” it will be understood, has not yet seen our reply of week before last.

Were the question demanded of us — “What is the most exquisite of sublunary pleasures?” we should reply, without hesitation, the making a fuss, or, in the classical words of a western friend, the “kicking up a bobbery.”

Never was a “bobbery” more delightful than that which we have just succeeded in “kicking up” all around about Boston Common. We never saw the Frog-Pondians so lively in our lives. They seem absolutely to be upon the point of waking up. In about nine days the puppies may get open their eyes.

That is to say they may get open their eyes to certain facts which have long been obvious to all the world except themselves — the facts that there exist other cities than Boston — other men of letters than Professor Longfellow — other vehicles of literary information than the “Down-East Review.”

As regards our late poem. — Hear the St. Louis “Reveillé.”

“ ‘The Broadway Journal is edited and owned solely by Mr. Edgar A. Poe. If he had as much tact as talent, he would make success for half a dozen papers.’

So says an exchange paper. Poe, reliant upon his talent, has too much contempt for tact; he is wrong, but his error makes his career the more remarkable. He is full of eccentricity. Does he mean, by the following, that his late Boston Poem, was intended by him as a hoax?

“We have been quizzing the Bostonians, and one or two of the more stupid of their editors and editresses have [page 6:] taken it in high dudgeon. We will attend to them all in good time.”

To our friend Field we thus reply: We had tact enough not to be “taken in and done for” by the Bostonians. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes — (for timeo substitute contemno or turn-up-our-nose-o). We knew, very well that, among a certain clique of the Frogpondians, there existed a predetermination to abuse us under any circumstances. We knew that, write what we would, they would swear it to be worthless. We knew that were we to compose for them a “Paradise Lost,” they would pronounce it an indifferent poem. It would have been very weak in us, then, to put ourselves to the trouble of attempting to please these people. We preferred pleasing ourselves. We read before them a “juvenile” — a very “juvenile” poem — and thus the Frogpondians were had — were delivered up to the enemy bound hand and foot. Never were a set of people more completely demolished. They have blustered and flustered — but what have they done or said that has not made them more thoroughly ridiculous? — What, in the name of Momus, is it possible for them to do or to say?

We “delivered” them the “juvenile poem” and they received it with applause. This is accounted for by the fact that the clique (contemptible in numbers as in everything else) were overruled by the rest of the assembly. These malignants did not dare to interrupt by their preconcerted hisses, the respectful and profound attention of the majority. We have been told, indeed, that as many as three or four of the personal friends of the little old lady entitled Miss Walters, did actually leave the hall during the recitation — but, upon the [page 7:] whole, this was the very best thing they could do. We have been told this, we say — we did not see them take their departure: — the fact is they belong to a class of people that we make it a point never to see.

The poem being thus well received, in spite of this ridiculous little cabal — the next thing to be done was to abuse it in the papers. Here, they imagined, they were sure of their game. But what have they accomplished? The poem, they say, is bad. We admit it. We insisted upon this fact in our prefatory remarks, and we insist upon it now, over and over again. It is bad — it is wretched — and what then? We wrote it at ten years of age — had it been worth even a pumpkin-pie undoubtedly we should not have “delivered” it to them.

To demonstrate its utter worthlessness, “The Boston Star” (a journal which, we presume, is to be considered as a fair representative of the Frogpondian genius) has copied the poem in full, with two or three columns of criticism (we suppose) by way of explaining that we should have been hanged for its perpetration. There is no doubt of it whatever — we should. “The Star,” however, (a dull luminary) has done us more honor than it intended; it has copied our third edition of the poem, revised and improved. We considered this too good for the occasion by one half, and so “delivered” the first edition with all its imperfections on its head. It is the first — the original edition — the delivered edition — which we now republish in our collection of Poems.

Repelled at these points, the Frogpondian faction hire a thing they call the “Washingtonian Reformer” (or something of that kind) to insinuate that we must [page 8:] have been “intoxicated” to have become possessed of sufficient audacity to “deliver” such a poem to the Frogpondians.

In the first place, why cannot these miserable hypocrites say “drunk” at once and be done with it? In the second place we are perfectly willing to admit that we were drunk in the face of at least eleven or twelve hundred Frogpondians who will be willing to take oath that we were not. We are willing to admit either that we were drunk, or that we set fire to the Frog-pond, or that once upon a time we cut the throat of our grandmother. The fact is we are perfectly ready to admit anything at all — but what has cutting the throat of our grandmother to do with our poem, or the Frogpondian stupidity? We shall get drunk when we please. As for the editor of the “Jeffersonian Teetotaler” (or whatever it is) we advise her to get drunk, too, as soon as possible — for when sober she is a disgrace to the sex — on account of being so awfully stupid.

N. B. The “Washingtonian Teetotaler” is edited by a little old lady in a mob-cap and spectacles — at least, we presume so, for every second paper in Boston is.

P. S. Miss Walters (the Syren!) has seen cause, we find, to recant all the ill-natured little insinuations she has been making against us (mere white lies — she need not take them so much to heart) and is now overwhelming us with apologies — things which we have never yet been able to withstand. She defends our poem on the ground of its being “juvenile,” and we think the more of her defence because she herself has been juvenile so long as to be a judge of juvenility. Well, upon the whole we must forgive her — and do. Say no more about it, you little darling! You [page 9:] are a delightful creature and your heart is in the right place — would to Heaven that we could always say the same thing of your wig!

In conclusion: — The Frogpondians may as well spare us their abuse. If we cared a fig for their wrath we should not first have insulted them to their teeth, and then subjected to their tender mercies a volume of our Poems: — that, we think, is sufficiently clear. The fact is, we despise them and defy them (the transcendental vagabonds!) and they may all go to the devil together.





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