Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Article on Robert Conrad,” Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (1929), pp. 93-101 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 93:]



Acknowledged by Poe in the Columbia Spy



Robert T. Conrad — like Talfourd and other professional men who have stolen aside from their avowed duties to dally with the belles-lettres — has acquired, not only a local rather than a very general reputation, but also credit less for actual performances than for ability to perform. To the literary world at large he is known, principally, as the author of “Aylmere”; but, by an exceedingly numerous class of personal friends, he is recognized as the writer of a multitude of good things, both in prose and verse, and varying in character, if not precisely “from grave to gay,” at least from the most pointed and pungent to the most philosophical and austere. His compositions, with rare exception, have been the unconsidered trifles of the hour, intended only to serve the purpose of the moment — but in all is evinced the capacity for noble achievement; and in Philadelphia, where he is best known, and therefore best appreciated, it has always been a matter for regret that events have not thrown him more unreservedly into the arena of literary exertion.

His merely personal history has in it little to be remarked. He is still quite young — certainly not more than thirty-four. He was born and educated in Philadelphia, where also he read law in the office [page 94:] of Thomas Kittera, Esq., his maternal uncle. At twenty-one he was admitted to practice, and met, almost immediately, very eminent success. A strong bias, however, toward literature, led him to seek connection with the press. While yet a boy, he had become noted as a contributor to many literary, and especially to many political journals; — a certain terseness and vigor of thought, and a rare polish of style, had drawn upon him the attention of the many, and made his future career a subject of speculation for the few. Thus assured, he engaged temporarily in the management of several weekly papers; and, in 1832, he commenced, on his own account, the publication of the “Daily Commercial Intelli-gencer,” which was subsequently merged in the “Philadelphia Gazette.” The “Intelligencer” was devoted to the whig cause; and its leading articles may be safely referred to as the most forcible of their epoch. At the same time they enjoyed the widest popularity, and circulated in the chief journals of the party, with nearly as much regularity as in the columns of the “Intelligencer” itself. The essays here alluded to were brilliant, bold, acute, and replete with that species of information which proved most useful to the cause.

At this period, indeed, Mr. Conrad was quite absorbed in the politics of the day; and held high rank, not only as essayist and editor, but as an orator of eloquence and tact. Ill-health, however, at length forced him from the press, and he resumed his profession. Scarcely had he resumed it before he was summoned to the bench. He received the apointment [[appointment]] of Recorder of the Recorder’s Court, in the city of Philadelphia, and was then the youngest [page 95:] man who had ever reached a judicial station in Pennsylvania. Two years having elapsed, he was promoted to the bench of the Court of Criminal Sessions. This court having been abolished, and that of General Sessions established in its place, the governor, although opposed to Judge Conrad in politics, thought it due to his character and ability to tender him a commission as one of the judges. This commission he accepted, and retained until the abolition of the court by repeal of the act creating it.

As our purpose now is, principally, a literary one, we forbear to speak, at length, of Judge Conrad’s judicial abilities or standing. He sat upon the bench at a critical period; and no man who feels, and is resolute to maintain, any real elevation of character, in any species of judicial situation, will fail to encounter a torrent of noisy and frothy opposition. We believe that he was honest, and know that he was bold. Moreover, in the seven years during which he sat upon the bench, he had always with him the opinion of the bar, and no one of his decisions was ever reversed. He is now re-engaged in the practice of the law.

To the political literature in which he gained so much distinction, we have already sufficiently alluded. His purely literary labors spread over a wide field. He has written much, although cursorily, for the Magazines and Reviews. Of late, his poetical compositions have adorned the pages of this magazine; and our readers need not be told that we regard the author of the “Sonnets on the Lord’s Prayer,” of “Death the Deliverer,” and of “The Sons of the Wilderness,” as a poet of no ordinary power. These pieces are remarkable for all the [page 96:] qualities which distinguish the writer’s prose — for terseness and vigor of thought and expression — correct and novel imagery — and a certain concise epigrammatism, which puts us much in mind of the “Night Thoughts.” Their versification is especially good. Their leading trait, however, is what the Germans call “movement,” and Coleridge, in his “Biographia Litteraria,” “motion.” They are full of a rapid earnestness and energy that compel the reader to acquiesce in the sentiment urged. Their pathos is frequently exquisite. In ideality alone they seem to us deficient; or rather the man, throughout, appears to predominate over what Kant would term the “poet of pure reason.”

Before Mr. Conrad had attained his twenty-first year, he wrote and produced upon the stage a tragedy founded upon the fate of Conradin. This we have never seen. It was, however, decidely [[decidedly]] successful, and we have been assured by those whose judgment we respect, that it deserved even more commendation than it received.

“Aylmere,” or “Jack Cade,” was written some years afterward; and, in its composition, the dramatist had to contend with the great perplexity of moulding his principal character to the mental and physical conformation of the actor for whom it was expressly designed. The actor was Mr. Forrest. We mean no depreciation of his histronic abilities — but we wish to suggest that had these abilities been even greater, the difficulty in question would have been none the less. The genius of an author — and very especially of the dramatic author — should be left totally untrammeled. Even the semblance of a restriction — even a purely imaginary restraint — is [page 97:] all-potent to damp the true ardor of the poet. It is the encasing of his wings in lead. The play-wright who constructs a really good play under such circumstances as those to which we allude, demonstrates a very unusual degree of talent indeed.

Nevertheless, “Aylmere,” is, perhaps, the best American play; and a sure evidence of its merit is found in its great and long-continued success as an acting drama. A closet-drama is an anomaly — a paradox — a mere figure of speech. There should be no such things as closet-dramas. The proof of the dramatism is the capacity for representation. In this view it will be seen that the usual outcry against “stage-effects,” as meretricious, has no foundation in reason. In these effects “Aylmere” very properly abounds, and from these it derives no immaterial portion of its vigor.

The passages of British history upon which the play is founded have been very skillfully modified to suit the purposes of the stage, and of the dramatist. The leader of the insurrection of 1450 has come down to us as “Jack Cade.” This name, however, was, beyond doubt, a nick-name, given with the view of concealment. In a cotemporary record (Ellis’ Letters) the chief of the rebellion is called “Mr. John Aylmere, physician.” He was, unquestionably, a man of ability, of accomplishments, and of discretion. Shakspeare’s account of him is unjustifiable.

The oppression of the commons, and particularly of the “villeins,” having aroused all England to resentment, the people of Kent first arose en masse. Aylmere was chosen their leader, and behaved with extraordinary prudence and moderation. He found [page 98:] himself in the vicinity of the metropolis, with an army of 80,000 men, and yet did not immediately commence hostilities, but sent in to the court a “bill of petitions, showing the injuries and oppressions which the poor commons suffered.” This bill receiving no attention, he took possession of London, and, in short, obtained a complete triumph at all points. The court entered into a covenant with the people; but no sooner had the multitude dispersed than this covenant was revoked, and a reward offered for the head of Aylmere.

Mr. Conrad has varied these facts, very judiciously, in supposing the author of the insurrection to be originally a “villein” named Jack Cade. His father has been scourged to death by order of one of the barons. This baron subsequently taunts the son with the outrage. The son strikes him to the earth — escapes to Italy, where he becomes imbued with liberal principles, and adopts the name, Ayl-mere. Finally, he returns, heads the rebellion, avenges his personal wrongs, and triumphs. After this he resumes his original name, Cade.

Upon this theme the poet has constructed a most admirable drama. The incidents are arranged with great skill, and with much apparent knowledge of stage technicalities — a very important item in play-writing. The action never flags, and therefore never the interest. The whole is exceedingly well “moti-vert.” The strength of the author, however, seems laid out upon the two characters of Aylmere and his Italian wife, Violante; and both are very effective. The fierce, bold, vengeful, yet noble nature of the hero is drawn with exceeding force and truth, and when we regard it as drawn for the peculiar acting [page 99:] of Mr. Forrest, we cannot help regarding it as altogether a masterpiece.

It had been our design to make copious extracts, in vindication of our opinion of this play; but we are reminded that the copyright is still Mr. Forrest’s, and also that, no very long while ago, we published in this magazine a selection of some of the most quotable passages. Indeed, to convey any idea of a drama by extract, is very nearly as difficult a task as that of the skolastikos in Hierocles.

Instead of attempting it, therefore, we will conclude this notice by copying from the minor and less generally known poems of Mr. Conrad two short compositions of high beauty. The one is a fine specimen of the vigor upon which we have commented — the other, of the pathos.


There is a joy in worth,

A high, mysterious, soul-pervading charm;

Which, never daunted, ever bright and warm,

Mocks at the idle, shadowy ills of earth;

Amid the gloom is bright, and tranquil in the storm.

It asks, it needs no aid;

It makes the proud and lofty soul its throne:

There, in its self-created heaven, alone,

No fear to shake, no memory to upbraid,

It sits a lesser God; — life, life, is all its own!

The stoic was not wrong;

There is no evil to the virtuous brave;

Or in the battle’s rift, or on the wave,

Worshipped or scorned, alone or mid the throng,

He is himself — a man! not life’s, nor fortune’s slave.

Power and wealth and fame

Are but as weeds upon life’s troubled tide:

Give me but these, a spirit tempest-tried,

A brow unshrinking and a soul of flame,

The joy of conscious worth, its courage and its pride! [page 100:]


Soliciting Charity by Playing on His Flute

“Had not God, for some wise purpose, steeled

The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted,

And barbarism itself have pitied him.”

’T is vain! They heed thee not. Thy flute’s meek tone

Thrills thine own breast alone. As streams that glide

Over the desert rock, whose sterile frown

Melts not beneath the soft and crystal tide,

So passes thy sweet strain o’er hearts of stone.

Thine outstretched hands, thy lip’s unuttered moan,

Thine orbs upturning to the darkened sky,

(Darkened, alas! poor boy, to thee alone!)

Are all unheeded here. They pass thee by: —

Away! Those tears unmarked, fall from thy sightless eye!

Ay, get thee gone, benighted one! Away!

This is no place for thee. The buzzing mart

Of selfish trade, the glad and garish day,

Are not for strains like thine. There is no heart

To echo to their soft appeal: — depart !

Go seek the noiseless glen, where shadows reign,

Spreading a kindred gloom; and there, apart

From the cold world, breathe out thy pensive strain :

Better to trees and rocks, than heartless man, complain!

I pity thee! thy life a live-long night;

No friend to greet thee, and no voice to cheer;

No hand to guide thy darkling steps aright,

Or from thy pale face wipe th’ unbidden tear.

I pity thee! thus dark and lone and drear!

Yet haply it is well. The world from thee

Hath veiled its wintry frown, its withering sneer,

Th’ oppressor’s triumph, and the mocker’s glee:

Why, then, rejoice, poor boy — rejoice thou canst not see!

It will be understood that we cite these two brief poems chiefly to illustrate the leading traits of the mind of the poet, and by no means as the best of his compositions — many of which are of a far higher order of excellence.

In person, Judge Conrad is above the medium [page 101:] height, and well formed. His eyes and hair are light — complexion sanguine — features regular and impressive. Our portrait conveys an excellent idea of the man, but although a forcible, is by no means a flattering likeness.


Poe’s statement to Bowen in Letter II that the article on Judge Conrad was written “by a friend of yours” caused me to examine the sketch at once. The veiled acknowledgment is confirmed by the fact that this sketch is an expansion of what Poe had to say of Conrad in his second Chapter on Autography, in Graham’s, December, 1841. For some reason, several of the papers in Graham’s on Our Contributors were published anonymously. Though that on Halleck by Poe was signed, as was that on Poe himself by Lowell; yet the paper on Willis was published without Landor’s name. Poe also acknowledged to his friend Eveleth an unsigned criticism of Lowell in Graham’s for March, 1844, which is in Harrison’s edition. Besides this, it is customary to avoid having two articles signed by the same contributor in one issue of a magazine, if it is possible to do so. Hence the presence of Poe’s poem Dreamland in the June issue of Graham’s may account for his not signing the sketch of Conrad, which he acknowledged at once to Bowen. In addition to giving us another major critical article by Poe, this acknowledgement shows us that Poe at least once chose to reveal his authorship through the columns of the Spy, and lends added weight to Bowen’s attribution of the Public Ledger editorials. Poe was probably furnished with the details of Conrad’s life directly or indirectly by the judge himself. Edwin Forrest, the actor, was a giant in size and strength — Poe did not like his acting. In the notes to Letter IV, the skolastikos and his brick as characteristic of Poe, have already been referred to.





[S:0 - SPM29, 1929] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (J. Spannuth and T. O. Mabbott) (Article on Robert Conrad)