Text: Edmund Clarence Stedman, “Introduction to the Literary Criticism,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Stone and Kimball, vol. VI, 1895, pp. xi-xxvi


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[page xi:]

INTRODUCTION

TO

THE LITERARY CRITICISM

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The few writings of Poe upon other than literary topics, and apart from his imaginative prose and verse, have received some mention in our comment on the Tales. As arranged for the present edition, they include “Eureka,” which treatise is analyzed in the Notes to the volume containing it. In his discussion of other occult themes, whether serious or fanciful, Poe seems to follow, notwithstanding his own belief to the contrary, a material or physical method guided by poetic rather than metaphysical insight.

His work as a critic and reviewer is more extended. From the date of his marriage, when he became an editor of the “Southern Literary Messenger,” until his death, — a period of over thirteen years, — he largely depended upon journalism for a subsistence. He had editorial ability, knowing how to attract public attention and increase a subscription-list, both as a manager and a contributor. His chosen field was that of the reviewer; he looked, indeed, upon the reform and advancement of criticism in America as a special charge, having gained at the outset, as his Memoir shows, more repute by a sharp review of an over-puffed [page xii:] Knickerbocker novelist than by some of his most striking tales. In fact, Poe was a natural critic, and equally a controversialist. His temperament inclined him to the minute analysis of defects; but he could be enthusiastic, and would go to an impulsive extreme in praise of a work or author that pleased him. Usually his literary views were sound, derived from his own perception, and from sympathetic reading of Coleridge — than whom no better master; but his equipment, as we have seen, was inclusive rather than thorough, and made up of what he had absorbed by the way. He had the judicial mind, but rarely was in the judicial state of mind. It was for this reason that his judgments were so extravagant in either direction. To be sure, he dealt for the most part with small subjects, and when he had a large one, he seldom had leisure for treating it in a large and adequate way. The latter disability he felt and regretted, as we see from a remark near the close of the review of “Barnaby Rudge.”

Poe’s critical excursions are of two kinds, abstract and specific, — the latter being for the most part reviews of books and their authors, or, more precisely, notices of authors with incidental reference to their productions. A few leading essays afford an exegesis of his own conception of the spirit and technics of the art which was his “passion” and to which his criticism chiefly applied. These papers were the fruit of his later years, when his own method had so long been clear to him that at times he imagined his poetry to be not so much the result of impulse as of a purely deductive constructiveness. But going back to his youth — and youth acts intuitively — we find his poetic [page xiii:] quality always essentially the same. The tales of ratiocination show almost his only new departure in maturity; three-fourths of the poems, as finally perfected, are developed from his germinal verse. Our serious acceptance of the “Philosophy of Composition” is qualified by distrust of his sincerity when self-disclosure was involved, nor is its reasoning more apparently in earnest than that of the pseudo-scientific tales, which are confessedly plays of fancy. In the very stress laid upon his device of a climax for the end of the “Raven” he works up to the climax of the essay itself, and thereupon, with his knack for dramatic closure, comes to an effective stop. Still, with respect to the “Bells,” “Ulalume,” and notably “The Raven,” it is credible enough that Poe’s analytic forecraft, after the first notion of his poem, came deftly into service for its construction; that his a priori scheme involved something more than the skill of artists whom practice has taught to avoid false moves and to secure desired effects. The truth lies, no doubt, between two extremes, and, in connection with the professed blazon of his metrical secrets, a curious paragraph in the “Marginalia” is of interest. “It is,” he says, “the curse of a certain order of mind that it can never rest satisfied with the consciousness of its ability to do a thing. Not even is it content with doing it. It must both know and show how it was done.”

The spirit of his critical writings is that of what he felt himself to be, — an apostle of Taste. Often the desire for beauteous perfection is stronger in melancholiacs than in those with whom faith and hope are watchwords. Heine, Schopenhauer, Hartmann, with their recognition of the eternal unrest, discourse marvellously [page xiv:] upon love, music, and poetry, like noble epicures maintaining the pride of individual refinement to the moment of their dissolution. Poe’s sense of what is best was irritated by his environment; he was on the alert for offences against beauty and knowledge, and preached upon them with more earnestness than grace. Devoted to his own theories of poetry in the abstract and the concrete, he measurably repeats in the “Philosophy of Composition,” and the review of Horne’s “Orion,” the formula laid down in the “Poetic Principle,” — his most succinct essay on the theme. Some mention of this will be required for an Introduction to the Poems; but it may here be said that the argument from his point of view is aptly and attractively set forth, and as clearly as the differing and familiar statements of Wordsworth and Mill. After more than half a century, the world is not far at odds with it. Few will deny that the object of poetry, and of all art, is the elevation of the soul. A larger number than of old will assent to his dictum that “the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” (using the last word in its comprehensive sense) is the highest poetic means to this result.

the “Rationale of Verse,” on the other hand, is a curious discussion of mechanics now well enough understood, and in its main purpose — that of discomfiting the prosodists — wastes laborious pages, when a clearly thought-out sentence would have disposed of the whole matter. What really troubled him was the pedants’ failure to see and state what Coleridge demonstrated by the measure of “Christabel,” the very poem which Poe cites. He simply might have said that English verse is characteriztically accentuate instead of quantitative — the reverse being true of [page xv:] classical; that, although it is often the more melodious when the more quantitative, its quantity is incidental and derives from the gift of the poet, while stress of accent, so different from syllabic length, determines its metrical system; that in one line of a couplet there may be twice, even thrice, as many syllables as in the other, and yet, if each contains only the given number of accented syllables, they are “equal to each other.” Poe certainly felt this, but his statement misses it altogether. As was his wont, when the first glimpse of the idea came to him, he forthwith took the attitude of having always been master of it, and proceeded to argue it out for both himself and the reader — and was tedious and unsuccessful. His sudden notions of classical prosody are for the most part whimsically absurd, though suggestive as respects elisions in scansion. That this essay should have been put forth in such a serious way reveals the crudeness of the time, for it reads as if addressed to a metrical kindergarten. What is good in it he thought out as he wrote, except his strictures upon the weakness of over-dactylic English hexameters, — a defect previously mentioned in his review of Longfellow’s ballads. On this ground he has been notably followed by Arnold; but one can rarely draw a better contrast between the faulty and the masterful treatments of a literary topic than by citing the “Rationale of Verse” and the three lectures “On Translating Homer.”

In the remainder of this volume, and in the next, under the present arrangement, will be found the more extended notes upon contemporaries, and reviews prepared in Poe’s routine of every-day work. Of the former class are the comments on Bryant, Longfellow, Willis, and Lowell, and on Horne and Mrs. Browning, [page xvi:] with the paper on Fancy and Imagination as distinguished in the works of Drake and Moore, — a distinction which seems to one not bred in the rose-gardens of Cashmere as too fine to be worth the drawing. Throughout these the critic’s ideas of poetry are consistently repeated. He often points to the element of “the mystic” in works confessedly imaginative, as might be expected from the tenor of his own prose and verse. His critical bearing is scarcely that of good-breeding and conciliation; it exhibits impatience, arrogance, and disdain, and is sometimes as brutal and long-drawn as that of the Scotch reviewers whom he censures. He justly mocks at the puffery and conventionalism of the press of that day. In the paper on Bryant, whom he treated with a certain reverence and whose higher traits he comprehended, he enlarges on the difference between what is gravely said in public and the honest confession made in private talk. One of his grievances was the current upper-class log-rolling, which seemed to him most in evidence within the comfortable downeast circle then gaining repute.

His mature views of poetry and criticism diverged very little from those jauntily set forth in the youthful “Letter to Mr. —— —— ,” prefixed to the edition of 1831. The best poet, in his opinion, was always the best critic, both of other poets and himself. He antedated the opening chapter of Ruskin’s “Modern Painters,” asserting that public opinion, wrong at first, is finally made right by the ever-widening judgment of the select few. Poetry must be a passion not a study. Pleasure is its end, not instruction; the latter is only a means toward the former. He fought didacticism, tooth and nail, first and last. To [page xvii:] him its most hateful though betricked forms were the philosophical, as shown in the Lake School, and even more the transcendental — whether foreign-bred or among the Brahmans of Concord. He believed that the latter taint spoiled a good poet, like Emerson, or a great romancer, like Hawthorne, and was odious in minor votaries. The transcendentalists ignored beauty, yet essayed art; they made pictures, music, poetry, from the head; they lacked native grace — and here he makes his distinction between southern and northern race-tendencies; they were of the spirit, but of a spirit disdaining outline. Praising Horne, he rightly deprecates the jargon of the Orphic poet, or “Orphicist.” In fine, he wishes that nothing should divert poetry from its pursuit of the beautiful; even passion — and here he quotes Coleridge — is discordant with it: “Locksley Hall” is “a magnificent philippic” aided by rhythm and rhyme, — “Œnone,” on the contrary, exalts the soul, not to passion, but into a conception of pure and spiritual beauty far transcending earthly desire. Equally, in his remarks upon “Tortesa” and the “Spanish Student,” he declaims against mixing poetry and the drama. “Let a poem be a poem only; let a play be a play and nothing more;” and again, “we are not too sure, indeed, that a ‘dramatic poem’ is not a flat contradiction in terms.”

Much of Poe’s outgiving, then, exhibits an honest purpose, a bent toward correct taste, in an unsympathetic time. Baudelaire speaks of infantine America, but things were nearly as bad in England as here, in that day of the “annual” and the “souvenir,” the two countries keeping pace as now, — the little folk of one being scarcely a season behind the fashion of the other. Poe looked across the Atlantic, and to the [page xviii:] Continent, with an artist’s instinct, while our kinsmen’s insularity was still guarded by the British Channel. His criticism was that of a free lance, and couched with a superior air now worn chiefly by our lighter cavalry. Yet he put on record a fine appreciation of the best writers, and turned from pricking their weak points to honest and extravagant delight in their creative powers. In the case of Longfellow, he saw the poet’s tact and artistic skill, and was correct, though ill-mannered, in detecting his sympathy with models and his turn for sentiment and moralizing. He strangely failed to see that Longfellow’s originality at times was strongest where he borrowed most; that it lay in the tone of his voice, — the individual key to which he set familiar thoughts and traditions. Besides, Longfellow, without claiming it, was just as much as Poe an inbringer of beauty and taste. One may conceive that if the Marylander had lived to old age he would have realized all this, and have regretted the measure of his attacks upon the gentlest of men and minstrels.

The miscellaneous notices are the ordinary work of a newspaper reviewer — neither above nor below the standard of that day in reputable journals. Their writer’s hand is evident in the papers on Hawthorne’s Tales and Dickens’s “Barnaby Rudge.” The notices of Headley’s the “Sacred Mountains,” and (in a later volume) of Lord’s and Channing’s books of verse, are marked types of the grotesque and merciless flaying which he was well able to inflict. The review of Lord was unfair in its presentment, the new comer having been put forward by a coterie for which Poe had no liking, and having been rash enough to travesty certain passages in the latter’s own poems. There remain the series called the “Literati” — sketches [page xix:] of the literary and personal traits of New York writers grouped by him under that title — and similar notices of various “Minor Contemporaries.”

His professional life had brought him into contact with many of those whose characteriztics are handed down for us in these papers. He piqued himself upon his discernment, and had a gift for outlining the distinctive features of his subjects with a few strokes. The closing paragraphs of certain sketches are very clever in this wise. Of the same general cast are the notes on “Autography,” and some of his discriminations are more than once repeated. In looking over the “Literati,” one’s first thought is that of surprise that these seemingly ephemeral articles should have been preserved; for “personal” notes are the common gossip of a hundred newspapers, idly read, and of little worth beyond the reading. By exemplifying, however, their interest as a department of journalism, Poe was again a pioneer. In judgment of contemporaries, as far as the chief series is concerned, he evidently meant to be fair and conciliatory, — to err, if at all, on the side of good-nature, — to make friends, rather than enemies, both for himself and for the magazine to which he contributed. But the conceit of the position he assumed, as an exalter and humbler of reputations, doubtless gave him more comfort than the plaudits or the pains of his involuntary sitters. In several of the “Literati” papers, and in not a few of those subjoined, he displays his likes and dislikes conspicuously. He attacked pygmies with a waste of vigor; in fact, it was difficult for him to get through with one of his more serious essays without lowering its dignity by a side-snap, or a passing jeer, at some harmless and sensitive votary of the craft, — for instance, [page xx:] his conjunction of Homer and the poet Street, in the “Rationale of Verse.” He was not in the least alive to considerations which lead many to accept the world as they find it, and to maintain a comity with those among whom they work, move, and have their being; yet, with all his will to open the Palace of Truth, he sometimes had cause to wish himself the only spokesman there. Of those for whom he showed most respect were such men as Anthon and Francis, scholars whose age and vocation placed them above distrust. His notices of women are always kind, in one or two cases overweeningly so; that of Mrs. Mowatt, however, displays a charming comprehension. Certainly, women were his unfailing allies and propagandists, and almost the only persons with whom he became intimate by choice. A kind of chivalry, from his childhood, attached to his conception of them; and underlying this a certain prudence withal, as may be inferred from his confession that, “where the gentler sex is concerned, there seems but one course for the critic — speak, if you can commend — be silent, if not; for a woman will never be brought to admit a non-identity between herself and her book.” As for the last clause, the woman might well turn upon him with a de te fabula.

The pretence that the “Marginalia” are what their prelude and title imply is made transparent by their formal, premeditated style, so different from that of Hawthorne’s Note-Books or that of Thoreau’s posthumous apothegms and reflections. They afforded the magazinist an easy way of making copy, in those closing years when he felt unequal to a sustained pull. As originally printed, they were largely made up of passages lifted from the earlier essays and [page xxi:] reviews; indeed, a manuscript roll of what seems to be the last number of their series, and to have been unpublished because of the suspension of a magazine, now belongs to the present writer, and consists almost entirely of matter which Poe had already used. Some of his fresher paragraphs are strained and pointless, but others are well worth saving in connection with his work at large. Even in their posing, they show phases of the poet’s temperament, just as the sentences written in a “Mental Photograph” album are all the more revelatory for their writer’s attempt to get to cover.

The defects of all this literary criticism are those incident to matter which chiefly belonged to hasty and often inconsistent journalism, and which seems not to have been composed with much thought of ultimate preservation. As a journalist, Poe gave rein to his own feelings and hobbies the more unconstrainedly, because what he wrote was merely for the day. He used the superlative almost habitually, and even italicised it. “By these,” he says, “if by nothing else, Moore is immortal.” A poem by Mrs. Lewis is “inexpressibly beautiful.” Halleck is “gloriously imaginative,” and to something of his there is “no parallel in all American poetry.” For what Poe could say in the opposite extreme, there is no lack of instances. A graver fault (illustrated in the Notes to Vol. IV.) was in some degree a part of the general looseness of his time, — the lack of that conscientiousness which, even in hack-writing, ought to render one honest in quotation, making him abhor even the venial alteration of a phrase that it may accord more readily with the flow of his own style.

With all their faults these writings did not so much [page xxii:] lower the tone of criticism as exercise what seems, on the whole, a helpful iconoclasm; they aided, like the writings of Miss Fuller, in whose notice of Longfellow our critic recognized a kindred hand, somewhat to break up unserviceable traditions, by means of their pervading insouciance and their treatment on the same plane of both great and small. When he took on a sense of responsibility, he was distinguished from the run of editors by having something to say: usually something technical, in respect to which his instinct was keenly artistic. When his insight has to do with the essence of the thing — with what it is Art’s function to express — we are fain to accredit him with the higher critical power, and to believe that it was mainly the circumstance of time and topic which so often precluded him from exercising it.

His discriminations with respect to writers of importance have for the most part been confirmed. Sometimes they were affected by gratitude, as in the cases of Kennedy and Willis, the peculiar status of the latter affording Poe a chance to express his conviction that the mere man of letters could not then hold his own in America, but needed the aid of some factitious social position. But he might as well have said this of Bulwer and Disraeli in England. He was not far out in his estimates of Cooper and Bryant; he saw that Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Lowell were to be among the foremost builders of our imaginative literature, and his rally to the defence of young Bayard Taylor was quick and fine. He ranked Lowell high among our poets, on the score of his imagination, but found his ear for rhythm imperfect. Whittier seemed to him distinctly unimaginative, and as a Southerner and artist he was opposed to the poet-reformer’s [page xxiii:] themes; but he recognized his “vivida vis” his expressional fervor. Poe was among the first to do homage, in an outburst of genuine delight, to the rising genius of Tennyson. His remarks on independence and nationality in our literature, on international copyright, on art vs. imitation, are serious and acute. Lastly, he has left us a little gallery of off-hand portraitures, often felicitously done. Nothing, for instance, in the standard “Life” of Margaret Fuller, written by three of her distinguished friends, depicts her better than the few lines in which Poe has set her verily before us.

In the “Marginalia” Poe also conceives of the tragedy which life would be in the case of a man of superhuman genius and knowledge, one “gifted, or rather accursed, with an intellect very far superior to that of his race.” Such a one, he avers, would be looked upon as far below the average of sane intellects, and thus would be in contempt and desolation. The poet’s entire career proclaims this note subjective. Doubtless he felt himself, in comparison with those about him, their mental and spiritual superior. If such was his assurance, it behooved him to show the magnanimity of strength confronted with feebleness, of a giant among common men. He had very little of the infinite patience. When the few wise friends, whose counsels he sometimes accepted as given by a right well earned, warned him that in his literary forays as a voluntary censor and satirist he was challenging a host of troubles, he took small heed, though gradually forced by circumstances and his own weakness to be under obligations to men whom he had attacked. Besides, he accepted praise merely as his right, and could neither profit by nor endure [page xxiv:] the slightest touch of criticism. A speck of reservation spoiled for him the fullest cup of esteem, even when tendered by the most knightly and authoritative hands. Lowell’s “A Fable for Critics,” declaring “three-fifths of him genius,” gave him an award which ought to content even an unreasonable man. As it was, the good-natured thrusts of one whose scholarship was unassailable, at his metrical and other hobbies, drew from him a somewhat coarse and vindictive review of the whole satire. After all, it was the Massachusetts group of authors whose equipment could not be gainsaid and whose abilities he had most cause to respect — but in the same spirit of impatience, and probably with a genuine persuasion that Southern talent was persistently neglected or kept under, he pitted himself against them. The critic, the judge of letters, like the judge in the tribune, must sit above prejudice, and leave polemics and innuendo to the advocate. Even as an advocate, we have seen that Poe was often merciless to inferiors, and toward his peers maintained an attitude, if not of jealousy, at least of suspicion. “A Reply to Outis,” with its contempt for the deference paid him, and his open conjecture that he was repelling an underground attack from a compeer who should be above the measures suspected, is a case in point. That at which he soonest took umbrage was a trick or fault which he detected the more readily from having himself been guilty of it. In cooler moments, however, he was perfectly aware of his own over-sensitiveness; indeed, he philosophized upon it — as when he argued that “A wrong, an injustice, done a poet who is really a poet, excites him to a degree which, to ordinary apprehension, appears disproportionate with the wrong.” [page xxv:]

In fine, then, the personal sketches and essays, which are herewith collected and arranged as “Literary Criticism,” are the relics not so much of a critic as a commentator — usually a polemist when not putting forth, as in the “Poetic Principle,” those abstract theories which were in a sense his most religious belief. Whether or not he overrated his own gifts, he certainly despised the public spirit and intelligence, or he would not have weakened his best articles by the excessive use of italics, of the superlative, and of every device that can force a reader to receive an author’s idea. Still, he was always a newspaper writer and expositor, and this, of itself, means iteration and reiteration. The gist of his higher argument might be condensed into a few pages. His own reviewers differ widely concerning the final worth of his literary comment, some of them dismissing it as valueless and as having lowered the tone of criticism. The latter portion of this indictment has just been considered. As to the rest, it may be true that, except for a few noteworthy canons, restated again and again, such a body of critical writings, if produced in some other period, would be scarcely worth preserving. But in consideration of the man and his time, — as a part of our literary history, — it has a very decided value. There could be few things farther apart, as respects learning, elevation, ease and quality of style, than the masterly essays of Lowell and these critical sketches; but Lowell is a scholar, wit, and thinker ranging at large, and Poe the bantering monitor of his own generation. Yet the time was one of real importance, covering the initiatory years of our first distinctive literary period, — a period coeval with that of the transatlantic Victorian school. Among Poe’s longer [page xxvi:] reviews are those of Bryant, Hawthorne, Longfellow, and of Mrs. Browning, Horne, and Dickens. The traits of even the minor writers of such a period have an evolutionary if not an intrinsic significance. Thus the critical writings, however fragmentary and uneven, of a persistent literary journalist, the most nervous and free-spoken of our early reviewers, are important from the scientific point of view. It is well that they have been collected, and their value will increase rather than diminish; for the beginnings of American culture will be reckoned as equal in effect to those of any civilization whatsoever, and of as much import in letters and art as in political economics. One may assert that to the student of our native literature, and to the young American writer who would realize the conditions of the “rude forefathers” of his guild, an acquaintance with the following essays and sketches is little short of indispensable.

E. C. S.

 


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:0 - SW, 1895] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - General Preface (E. C. Stedman, 1895)