Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. E. C. Stedman and G. E. Woodberry), “Lowell’s A Fable for Critics,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Stone and Kimball, vol. VI, 1895, pp. 240-249


[page 240:]


WHAT have we Americans accomplished in the way of Satire? the “Vision of Rubeta,” by Laughton Osborn, is probably our best composition of the kind: but, in saying this, we intend no excessive commendation. Trumbull’s clumsy and imitative work is scarcely worth mention — and then we have Halleck’s “Croakers,” local and ephemeral — but what is there besides? Park Benjamin has written a clever address, with the title “Infatuation,” and Holmes has an occasional scrap, piquant enough in its way — but we can think of nothing more that can be fairly called “satire.” Some matters we have produced, to be sure, which were excellent in the way of burlesque — (the Poems of William Ellery Channing, for example) — without meaning a syllable that was not utterly solemn and serious. Odes, ballads, songs, sonnets, epics and epigrams, possessed of this unintentional excellence, we should have no difficulty in designating by the dozen; but in the particular of direct and obvious satire, it cannot be denied that we are unaccountably deficient.

It has been suggested that this deficiency arises from the want of a suitable field for satirical display. In England, it is said, satire abounds, because the people there find a proper target in the aristocracy, [page 241:] whom they (the people) regard as a distinct race with whom they have little in common; relishing even the most virulent abuse of the upper classes with a gusto undiminished by any feeling that they (the people) have any concern in it. In Russia, or Austria, on the other hand, it is urged, satire is unknown; because there is danger in touching the aristocracy, and self-satire would be odious to the mass. In America, also, the people who write are, it is maintained, the people who read: — thus in satirizing the people we satirize only ourselves, and are never in condition to sympathize with the satire.

All this is more verisimilar than true. It is forgotten that no individual considers himself as one of the mass. Each person, in his own estimate, is the pivot on which all the rest of the world spins round. We may abuse the people by wholesale, and yet with a clear conscience, so far as regards any compunction for offending any one from among the multitude of which that “people” is composed. Every one of the crowd will cry “Encore! — give it to them, the vagabonds! — it serves them right.” It seems to us that, in America, we have refused to encourage satire — not because what we have had touches us too nearly — but because it has been too pointless to touch us at all. Its namby-pambyism has arisen, in part, from the general want, among our men of letters, of that minute polish — of that skill in details — which, in combination with natural sarcastic power, satire, more than any other form of literature, so imperatively demands. In part, also, we may attribute our failure to the colonial sin of imitation. We content ourselves, at this point, not less supinely than at all others, with doing what not only has been done before, but [page 242:] what, however well done, has yet been done ad nauseam. We should not be able to endure infinite repetitions of even absolute excellence; but what is “McFingal” more than a faint echo from “Hudibras”? — and what is the “Vision of Rubeta” more than a vast gilded swill-trough overflowing with Dunciad and water? Although we are not all Archilochuses, however — although we have few pretensions to the ηχεηντες ιομβοι although, in short, we are no satirists ourselves — there can be no question that we answer sufficiently well as subjects for satire.

the “Vision” is bold enough — if we leave out of sight its anonymous issue — and bitter enough, and witty enough, if we forget its pitiable punning on names — and long enough (Heaven knows) and well constructed and decently versified; but it fails in the principal element of all satire — sarcasm — because the intention to be sarcastic (as in the “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,” and in all the more classical satires) is permitted to render itself manifest. The malevolence appears. The author is never very severe, because he is at no time particularly cool. We laugh not so much at his victims as at himself, for letting them put him in such a passion. And where a deeper sentiment than mirth is excited — where it is pity or contempt that we are made to feel — the feeling is too often reflected, in its object, from the satirized to the satirist — with whom we sympathize in the discomfort of his animosity. Mr. Osborn has not many superiors in downright invective; but this is the awkward left arm of the satiric Muse. That satire alone is worth talking about which at least appears to be the genial, good-humored outpouring of irrepressible merriment. [page 243:]

The “Fable for the Critics,” just issued, has not the name of its author on the title-page; and but for some slight fore-knowledge of the literary opinions, likes, dislikes, whims, prejudices and crotchets of Mr. James Russell Lowell, we should have had much difficulty in attributing so very loose a brochure to him. The “Fable” is essentially “loose” — ill-conceived and feebly executed, as well in detail as in general. Some good hints and some sparkling witticisms do not serve to compensate us for its rambling plot (if plot it can be called) and for the want of artistic finish so particularly noticeable throughout the work — especially in its versification. In Mr. Lowell’s prose efforts we have before observed a certain disjointedness, but never, until now, in his verse — and we confess some surprise at his putting forth so unpolished a performance. The author of the “Legend of Brittany” (which is decidedly the noblest poem, of the same length, written by an American) could not do a better thing than to take the advice of those who mean him well, in spite of his fanaticism, and leave prose, with satiric verse, to those who are better able to manage them; while he contents himself with that class of poetry for which, and for which alone, he seems to have an especial vocation — the poetry of sentiment. This, to be sure, is not the very loftiest order of verse; for it is far inferior to either that of the imagination or that of the passions — but it is the loftiest region in which Mr. Lowell can get his breath without difficulty.

Our primary objection to this “Fable for the Critics” has reference to a point which we have already touched in a general way. the “malevolence appears.” We laugh not so much at the author’s [page 244:] victims as at himself for letting them put him in such a passion. The very title of the book shows the want of a due sense in respect to the satiric essence, sarcasm. This “fable” — this severe lesson — is meant “for the Critics.” “Ah!” we say to ourselves at once — “we see how it is. Mr. L. is a poor-devil poet, and some critic has been reviewing him, and making him feel very uncomfortable; whereupon, bearing in mind that Lord Byron, when similarly assailed, avenged his wrongs in a satire which he called ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ he (Mr. Lowell) imitative as usual, has been endeavoring to get redress in a parallel manner — by a satire with a parallel title — ‘A Fable for the Critics.’ “

All this the reader says to himself; and all this tells against Mr. L. in two ways — first, by suggesting unlucky comparisons between Byron and Lowell, and, secondly, by reminding us of the various criticisms, in which we have been amused (rather ill-naturedly) at seeing Mr. Lowell “used up.”

The title starts us on this train of thought, and the satire sustains us in it. Every reader versed in our literary gossip, is at once put dessous des cartes as to the particular provocation which engendered the “Fable.” Miss Margaret Fuller, some time ago, in a silly and conceited piece of Transcendentalism, which she called an “Essay on American Literature,” or something of that kind, had the consummate pleasantry, after selecting from the list of American poets, Cornelius Mathews and William Ellery Channing, for especial commendation, to speak of Longfellow as a booby, and of Lowell as so wretched a poetaster “as to be disgusting even to his best friends.” All this Miss Fuller said, if not in our precise words, still in [page 245:] words quite as much to the purpose. Why she said it, Heaven only knows — unless it was because she was Margaret Fuller, and wished to be taken for nobody else. Messrs. Longfellow and Lowell, so pointedly picked out for abuse as the worst of our poets, are, upon the whole, perhaps, our best — although Bryant, and one or two others are scarcely inferior. As for the two favorites, selected just as pointedly for laudation, by Miss F. — it is really difficult to think of them, in connection with poetry, without laughing. Mr. Mathews once wrote some sonnets “On Man,” and Mr. Channing some lines on “A Tin Can,” or something of that kind — and if the former gentleman be not the very worst poet that ever existed on the face of the earth, it is only because he is not quite so bad as the latter. To speak algebraically: — Mr. M. is ex ecrable, but Mr. C. is x plus 1-ecrable.

Mr. Lowell has obviously aimed his “Fable” at Miss Fuller’s head, in the first instance, with an eye to its ricochêt-ing so as to knock down Mr. Mathews in the second. Miss F. is first introduced as Miss F——, rhyming to “cooler,” and afterwards as “Miranda;” while poor Mr. M. is brought in upon all occasions, head and shoulders; and now and then a sharp thing, although never very original, is said of them or at them; but all the true satiric effect wrought, is that produced by the satirist against himself. The reader is all the time smiling to think that so unsurpassable a — (what shall we call her? — we wish to be civil), a transcendentalist as Miss Fuller, should, by such a criticism, have had the power to put a respectable poet in such a passion.

As for the plot or conduct of this Fable, the less [page 246:] we say of it the better. It is so weak — so flimsy — so ill put together — as to be not worth the trouble of understanding: — something, as usual, about Apollo and Daphne. Is there no originality on the face of the earth? Mr. Lowell’s total want of it is shown at all points — very especially in his preface of rhyming verse written without distinction by lines or initial capitals, (a hackneyed matter, originating, we believe, with Frazer’s Magazine:) — very especially also, in his long continuations of some particular rhyme — a fashion introduced, if we remember aright, by Leigh Hunt, more than twenty-five years ago, in his “Feast of the Poets” — which, by the way, has been Mr. L’s model in many respects.

Although ill-temper has evidently engendered this “Fable,” it is by no means a satire throughout. Much of it is devoted to panegyric — but our readers would be quite puzzled to know the grounds of the author’s laudations, in many cases, unless made acquainted with a fact which we think it as well they should be informed of at once. Mr. Lowell is one of the most rabid of the Abolition fanatics; and no Southerner who does not wish to be insulted, and at the same time revolted by a bigotry the most obstinately blind and deaf, should ever touch a volume by this author.(1) His fanaticism about slavery is a mere local outbreak of the same innate wrong-headedness which, if he owned slaves, would manifest itself [page 247:] in atrocious ill-treatment of them, with murder of any abolitionist who should endeavor to set them free. A fanatic of Mr. L’s species, is simply a fanatic for the sake of fanaticism, and must be a fanatic in whatever circumstances you place him.

His prejudices on the topic of slavery break out everywhere in his present book. Mr. L. has not the common honesty to speak well, even in a literary sense, of any man who is not a ranting abolitionist. With the exception of Mr. Poe, (who has written some commendatory criticisms on his poems), no Southerner is mentioned at all in this “Fable.” It is a fashion among Mr. Lowell’s set to affect a belief that there is no such thing as Southern Literature. Northerners — people who have really nothing to speak of as men of letters, — are cited by the dozen, and lauded by this candid critic without stint, while Legaré, Simms, Longstreet, and others of equal note are passed by in contemptuous silence. Mr. L. cannot carry his frail honesty of opinion even so far South as New York. All whom he praises are Bostonians. Other writers are barbarians, and satirized accordingly — if mentioned at all.

To show the general manner of the Fable, we quote a portion of what he says about Mr. Poe: —

“Here comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge —

Three-fifths of him genius, and two-fifths sheer fudge;

Who talks like a book of iambs and pentameters,

In a way to make all men of common sense damn metres

Who has written some things far the best of their kind;

But somehow the heart seems squeezed out by the mind.”

We may observe here that profound ignorance on any particular topic is always sure to manifest itself by some allusion to “common sense” as an all-sufficient [page 248:] instructor. So far from Mr. P’s talking “like a book” on the topic at issue, his chief purpose has been to demonstrate that there exists no book on the subject worth talking about; and “common sense,” after all, has been the basis on which he relied, in contradistinction from the un common nonsense of Mr. L. and the small pedants.

And now let us see how far the unusual “common sense” of our satirist has availed him in the structure of his verse. First, by way of showing what his intention was, we quote three accidentally accurate lines:

But a boy | he could ne | ver be right | ly defined.

As I said | he was ne | ver precise | ly unkind.

But as Ci | cero says | he won’t say | this or that.

Here it is clearly seen that Mr. L. intends a line of four anapæsts. (An anapæst is a foot composed of two short syllables followed by a long.) With this observation, we will now simply copy a few of the lines which constitute the body of the poem; asking any of our readers to read them if they can; that is to say, we place the question, without argument, on the broad basis of the very commonest “common sense.”

“They’re all from one source, monthly, weekly, diurnal.”

“Disperse all one’s good and condense all one’s poor traits.”

the “one’s two-thirds Norseman, the other half Greek.”

“He has imitators in scores who omit.”

“Should suck milk, strong will-giving brave, such as runs.”

“Along the far rail-road the steam-snake glide white.”

“From the same runic type-fount and alphabet.”

“Earth has six truest patriots, four discoverers of ether.”

“Every cockboat that swims clears its fierce (pop) gundeck at him.”

“ Is some of it pr —— no, ’tis not even prose.” [page 249:]

“O’er his principles when something else turns up trumps.”

“But a few silly (syllo I mean) gisms that squat ’em.”

Nos, we don’t want extra freezing in winter.”

“Plough, dig, sail, forge, build, carve, paint, make all things new.”

But enough: — we have given a fair specimen of the general versification. It might have been better — but we are quite sure that it could not have been worse. So much for “common sense,” in Mr. Lowell’s understanding of the term. Mr. L. should not have meddled with the anapæstic rhythm: it is exceedingly awkward in the hands of one who knows nothing about it and who will persist in fancying that he can write it by ear. Very especially, he should have avoided this rhythm in satire, which, more than any other branch of Letters, is dependent upon seeming trifles for its effect. Two-thirds of the force of the “Dunciad” may be referred to its exquisite finish; and had the “Fable for the Critics” been, (what it is not,) the quintessence of the satiric spirit itself, it would nevertheless, in so slovenly a form, have failed. As it is, no failure was ever more complete or more pitiable. By the publication of a book at once so ambitious and so feeble — so malevolent in design and so harmless in execution — a work so roughly and clumsily yet so weakly constructed — so very different, in body and spirit, from anything that he has written before — Mr. Lowell has committed an irrevocable faux pas and lowered himself at least fifty per cent in the literary public opinion.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 246:]

1  This “Fable for the Critics” — this literary satire — this benevolent jeu d’esprit is disgraced by such passages as the following: —

“Forty fathers of Freedom, of whom twenty bred

Their sons for the rice swamps at so much a head,

And their daughters for — faugh!”






[S:0 - SW, 1895] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Lowell's A Fable for Critics (Stedman and Woodberry, 1895)