Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. John H. Ingram), “The Poets and Poetry of America,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, vol. IV, 1875, pp. 310-317


[page 310, continued:]


THAT we are not a poetical people has been asserted so often and so roundly, both at home and abroad, that the slander, through mere dint of repetition, has come to be received as truth. Yet nothing can be farther removed from it. The mistake is but a portion, or corollary, of the old dogma, that the calculating faculties are at war with the ideal; while, in fact, it may be demonstrated that the two divisions of mental power are never to be found in perfection, apart. The highest order of the imaginative intellect is always preëminently mathematical; and the converse.

The idiosyncrasy of our political position has stimulated into early action whatever practical talent we possessed. Even in our national infancy we evinced a degree of utilitarian ability which put to shame the mature skill of our [page 311:] forefathers. While yet in leading-strings we proved ourselves adepts in all the arts and sciences which promote the comfort of the animal man. But the arena of exertion, and of consequent distinction, into which our first and most obvious wants impelled us, has been regarded as the field of our deliberate choice. Our necessities have been mistaken for our propensities. Having been forced to make rail-roads, it has been deemed impossible that we should make verse. Because it suited us to construct an engine in the first instance, it has been denied that we could compose an epic in the second. Because we were not all Homers in the beginning, it has been somewhat too rashly taken for granted that we shall be all Jeremy Benthams to the end.

But this is the purest insanity. The principles of the poetic sentiment lie deep within the immortal nature of man, and have little necessary reference to the worldly circumstances which surround him. The poet in Arcady is, in Kamschatka, the poet still. The self-same Saxon current animates the British and the American heart; nor can any social, or political, or moral, or physical conditions do more than momentarily repress the impulses which glow in our own bosoms as fervently as in those of our progenitors.

Those who have taken most careful note of our literature for the last ten or twelve years, will be most willing to admit that we are a poetical people; and in no respect is the fact more plainly evinced than in the eagerness with which books professing to compile or select from the productions of our native bards, are received and appreciated by the public. Such books meet with success, at least with sale, at periods when the general market for literary wares is in a state of stagnation; and even the ill taste displayed in some of them has not sufficed to condemn.

The “Specimens of American Poetry,” by Kettell; the “Common-place Book of American Poetry,” by Cheever; a Selection by General Morris; another by Mr. Bryant; the “Poets of America,” by Mr. Keese — all these have been widely disseminated and well received. In some measure, to be sure, we must regard their success as an affair of [page 312:] personalities. Each individual, honoured with a niche in the compiler’s memory, is naturally anxious to possess a copy of the book so honouring him; and this anxiety will extend, in some cases, to ten or twenty of the immediate friends of the complimented; while, on the other hand, purchasers will arise, in no small number, from among a very different class — a class animated by very different feelings. I mean the omitted — the large body of those who, supposing themselves entitled to mention, have yet been unmentioned. These buy the unfortunate book as a matter of course, for the purpose of abusing it with a clear conscience and at leisure. But holding these reductions in view, we are still warranted in believing that he demand for works of the kind in question, is to be attributed, mainly, to the general interest of the subject discussed. The public have been desirous of obtaining a more distinct view of our poetical literature than the scattered effusions of our bards and the random criticisms of our periodicals, could afford. But, hitherto, nothing has been accomplished in the way of supplying the desideratum. The “specimens” of Kettell were specimens of nothing but the ignorance and ill taste of the compiler. A large proportion of what he gave to the world as American poetry, to the exclusion of much that was really so, was the doggerel composition of individuals unheard of and undreamed of, except by Mr. Kettell himself. Mr. Cheever’s book did not belie its title, and was excessively “Common-place.” The selection by General Morris was in so far good, that it accomplished its object to the full extent. This object looked to nothing more than single, brief extracts from the writings of every one in the country who had established even the slightest reputation as a poet. The extracts, so far as our truer poets were concerned, were tastefully made; but the proverbial kind feeling of the General seduced him into the admission of an inordinate quantity of the purest twattle. It was gravely declared that we had more than two hundred poets in the land. The compilation of Mr. Bryant, from whom much was expected, proved a source of mortification to his friends, and of astonishment and disappointment to [page 313:] all; merely showing that a poet is, necessarily, neither a critical nor an impartial judge of poetry. Mr. Keese succeeded much better. He brought to his task, if not the most rigorous impartiality, at least a fine taste, a sound judgment, and a more thorough acquaintance with our poetical literature than had distinguished either of his predecessors.

Much, however, remained to be done; and here it may be right to inquire — “What should be the aim of every compilation of the character now discussed?” The object, in general terms, may be stated, as the conveying, within moderate compass, a distinct view of our poetry and of our poets. This, in fact, is the demand of the public. A book is required, which shall not so much be the reflection of the compiler’s peculiar views and opinions upon poetry in the abstract, as of the popular judgment upon such poetical works as have come immediately within its observation. It is not the author’s business to insist upon his own theory, and, in its support, to rake up from the by-ways of the country the “inglorious Miltons” who may, possibly, there abound; neither, because ill according with this theory, is it his duty to dethrone and reject those who have long maintained supremacy in the estimation of the people. In this view, it will be seen that regard must be paid to the mere quantity of a writer’s effusions. He who has published much, is not to be omitted because, in the opinion of the compiler, he has written nothing fit for publication. On the other hand, he who has extemporized a single song, which has met the eye of no one but our bibliographer, is not to be set forth among the poetical magnates, even although the one song itself be esteemed equal to the very best of Bérangér.

Of the two classes of sins — the negative and the positive — those of omission and those of commission — obvious ones of the former class are, beyond doubt, the more unpardonable. It is better to introduce half a dozen “great unknowns,” than to give the “cut direct” to a single individual who has been fairly acknowledged as known. The public, in short, seem to demand such a compendium of our poetical [page 314:] literature as shall embrace specimens from those works alone, of our recognised poets, which, either through accident, or by dint of merit, have been most particularly the subjects of public discussion. We wish this, that we may be put in condition to decide for ourselves upon the justice or injustice of the reputation attained. In critical opinion much diversity exists; and, although there is one true and tenable critical opinion, there are still a thousand, upon all topics, which, being only the shadows, have all the outlines, and assume all the movements, of the substance of truth. Thus any critic who should exclude from the compendium all which tallied not with his individual ideas of the Muse, would be found to exclude nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of that which the public at large, embracing all varieties of opinion, has been accustomed to acknowledge as poesy.

These remarks apply only to the admission or rejection of poetical specimens. The public being put fairly in possession of the matter debated, with the provisions above mentioned, the analysis of individual claims, so far as the specimens extend, is not only not unbecoming in the compiler, but a thing to be expected and desired. To this department of his work he should bring analytical ability; a distinct impression of the nature, the principles, and the aims of poetry; a thorough contempt for all prejudice at war with principle; a poetic sense of the poetic; sagacity in the detection, and audacity in the exposure of demerit; in a word talent and faith; the lofty honour which places mere courtesy beneath its feet; the boldness to praise an enemy, and the more unusual courage to damn a friend.

It is, in fact, by the criticism of the work, that the public voice will, in the end, decide upon its merits. In proportion to the ability or incapacity here displayed, will it, sooner or later, be approved or condemned. Nevertheless, the mere compilation is a point, perhaps, of greater importance. With the meagre published aids existing previously to Mr. Griswold’s book, the labour of such an undertaking must have been great; and not less great the industry and general information in respect to our literary affairs, which have enabled him so successfully to prosecute it. [page 315:]

The work before us* is indeed so vast an improvement upon those of a similar character which have preceded it, that we do its author some wrong in classing all together. Having explained, somewhat minutely, our views of the proper mode of compilation, and of the general aims of the species of book in question, it but remains to say that these views have been very nearly fulfilled in the “Poets and Poetry of America,” while altogether unsatisfied by the earlier publications.

The volume opens with a preface, which, with some little supererogation, is addressed “To the Reader;” inducing very naturally the query, whether the whole book is not addressed to the same individual. In this preface, which is remarkably well written and strictly to the purpose, the author thus evinces a just comprehension of the nature and objects of true poesy:

“He who looks on Lake George, or sees the sun rise on Mackinaw, or listens to the grand music of a storm, is divested, certainly, for a time, of a portion of the alloy of his nature. The elements of power in all sublime sights and heavenly harmonies, should live in the poet’s song, to which they can be transferred only by him who possesses the creative faculty. The sense of beauty, next to the miraculous divine suasion, is the means through which the human character is purified and elevated. The creation of beauty, the manifestation of the real by the ideal, “in words that more in metrical array,”is poetry.”

The italics are our own; and we quote the passage because it embodies the sole true definition of what has been a thousand times erroneously defined.

The earliest specimens of poetry presented in the body of the work, are from the writings of Philip Freneau, “one of those worthies who, both with lyre and sword, aided in the achievement of our independence.” But, in a volume professing to treat, generally, of the “Poets and Poetry of America,” some mention of those who versified before Freneau, would of course, be considered desirable. Mr. Griswold has included, therefore, most of our earlier votaries of the Muse, with many specimens of their powers, in an [page 316:] exceedingly valuable “Historical Introduction;” his design being to exhibit as well “the progress as the condition of poetry in the United States.”

The basis of the compilation is formed of short biographical and critical notices, with selections from the works of, in all, eighty-seven authors, chronologically arranged. In an appendix at the end of the volume, are included specimens from the works of sixty, whose compositions have either been too few, or in the editor’s opinion too mediocres, to entitle them to more particular notice. To each of these specimens are appended foot notes, conveying a brief biographical summary, without anything of critical disquisition.

Of the general plan and execution of the work we have already expressed the fullest approbation. We know no one in America who could, or who would, have performed the task here undertaken, at once so well in accordance with the judgment of the critical, and so much to the satisfaction of the public. The labours, the embarrassments, the great difficulties of the achievement are not easily estimated by those before the scenes.

In saying that, individually, he disagrees with many of the opinions expressed by Mr. Griswold, is merely suggesting what, in itself, would have been obvious without the suggestion. It rarely happens that any two persons thoroughly agree upon any one point. It would be mere madness to imagine that any two could coincide in every point of a case where exists a multiplicity of opinions upon a multiplicity of points. There is no one who, reading the volume before us, will not in a thousand instances, be tempted to throw it aside, because its prejudices and partialities are, in a thousand instances, altogether at war with his own. But when so tempted, he should bear in mind, that had the work been that of Aristarchus himself, the discrepancies of opinion would still have startled him and vexed him as now.

We disagree then, with Mr. Griswold in many of his critical estimates; although in general, we are proud to find his decisions our own. He has omitted from the body of his book, some one or two whom we should have been tempted to introduce. On the other hand, he has scarcely [page 317:] made us amends by introducing some one or two dozen whom we should have treated with contempt. We might complain too of a prepossession, evidently unperceived by himself, for the writers of New England. We might hint also, that in two or three cases, he has rendered himself liable to the charge of personal partiality; it is often so very difficult a thing to keep separate in the mind’s eye, our conceptions of the poetry of a friend, from our impressions of his good fellowship and our recollections of the flavor of his wine.

But having said thus much in the way of fault-finding, we have said all. The book should be regarded as the most important addition which our literature has for many years received. It fills a void which should have been long ago supplied. It is written with judgment, with dignity and candor. Steering with a dexterity not to be sufficiently admired, between the Scylla of Prejudice on the one hand, and the Charybdis of Conscience on the other, Mr. Griswold in the “Poets and Poetry of America,” has entitled himself to the thanks of his countrymen, while showing himself a man of taste, talent, and tact.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 315:]

*  The “Poets and Poetry of America;” with an Historical Introduction. By Rufus W. Griswold. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart.





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