Friday, January 27, 2017

The Critical Characteristics of Edgar Allan Poe 1851

The Critical Characteristics of Edgar Allan Poe, article in Graham's Magazine Feb 1851

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Poe was, as we have observed, a critic as well as a poet; and, we must write it, an irritable, inconsistent, at times unjust, often personal, always, when criticising unfavorably, sarcastic, bitter, and unsparing critic. His criticisms, many of them, were too pointed, too bitter, too cruelly galling to the assailed to be endured with equanimity or without sharp resentment. His literary rank, and high repute for taste, artistic skill, and general judgment concerning letters, were too eminent to allow him or his attacks to be treated with scorn, or passed over in silence. They have been cruelly and unmanfully avenged.

They show the worst phase of Poe's literary character, and we would that we could in justice pass them by unconsidered-—but bad as they indeed are, they are not in any degree so bad as they have been made to seem, and do not to our eyes indicate a bad heart, a malicious desire to give pain, or to avenge fancied injuries, an envious jealousy of the repute of others, or an arrogant self-confidence, that rendered him, as it has been alleged, careless of the rights of others.

A poetical artist himself of the highest order, a rhythmist and versifier skilled almost beyond example, an analyzer and mental anatomist of wondrous power, he was as intolerant of false rhyme, false rhythm, ill-regulated metre, as the utmost fanatic for music of a false note or discord; as intolerant, as he was certain to detect and merciless to punish. Doubtless they did jar on his sensitive poetic nerves, and excited a storm of indignation which he could allay only by exposing what seemed to him an imposture and a sham.

It does not, however, appear to us that in most or many instances, personal jealousy, or personal resentments could have had much to do. Many of those whom he most scientifically and pitilessly mangles are persons so infinitely below all comparison with him in genius, art, skill or learning, that jealousy is a thing not to be thought of. Jealousy never could have intervened between Edgar Allan Poe and Dr. "Flaccus" Ward, or William Ellery Channing, William W. Lord, or Henry B. Hirst, as felt by the former toward the latter; yet it is these whom he has pursued with something closely resembling personal animosity and vindictiveness, though except in one instance, that of Mr. Hirst, we have reason to believe that he had no personal acquaintance with, and consequently no liking or disliking for any one of the three above mentioned.

Of his pertinacious and long-sustained enmity to one whom we esteem and he, to judge from some of his chance passages, seems to have himself esteemed, the first of American poets, the most original no less than the purest, noblest, and serenest —Mr. Longfellow—we must speak differently. In this case, jealousy was possible, for both stood so near to the summit of the tree that there was even room for rivalry, and probably there was some jealousy in the case. But utterly unjust as we consider his outcry against Mr. Longfellow for plagiary, which he repeated absolutely usque ad nauseam, we must admit that we believe he had convinced himself of the truth of the charge, and we believe he never convinced anybody else.

But it must be observed that the detection of possible or probable plagiaries was a prominent and peculiar point in his singular idiosyncrasy. It was an occupation peculiarly suited to his captious, scrutinizing, analytic mind, to his doubting and suspicious temper, to his peculiar notions concerning evidence, investigation, ratiocination, to his wide and discursive reading, to his fine poetic memory, and to his peculiar habits of finding proofs in trifles light as air, and of seeking for them in the most improbable places and manners.

He was perpetually discovering plagiarisms of persons wholly indifferent to him, not only on himself—-though this was so completely a monomania on his part that he would in no sort have astonished or dismayed us had he sat down gravely to prove that Shakespeare, or Milton, or Pindar had plagiarized some one or more of his works-—but on others, whose writings in many instances it is a thousand to one the accused had never seen, and fifty to one that he had never heard of. But he had a blood-hound's nose for a fancied plagiarism, and when he once found, or suspected one, he never left the track till he had run it into the ground, going even to the length of finding convincing proofs of the plagiarism in the very circumstances which, we hesitate not to say, would have wrought on any one else the contrary conviction. As for instance, in the case of Motherwell's ballad of Bonnie George Campbell, translated into German by Wolff, and translated into English by Professor Longfellow, for this very magazine.

Now, Professor Longfellow's version contains one deviation from the original, which, had his version not been a translation, would have been a deviation from true antithesis or parallelism, an alteration from the better to the worse, which so able a scholar, and so skilful a versifier could not have committed accidentally, and which, had he been stealing so barefacedly and literally, he would not have resorted to purposely for concealment of his theft. The cause of the change is evident, at a glance, by one who looks to the German, and is otherwise utterly inexplicable. The ballad of Motherwell commences thus—

Hie upon Hielands
And low upon Tay.

The German, translating literally, either ignorantly, or by the error of his printer, wrote Tag for Tay, signifying in English Day, and Professor Longfellow, in translating it, failed to detect the blunder, and wrote

High in the Highlands
And deep in the day,

there being no possible parallelism to be drawn, or antithesis to be made, between high and low, or high and deep, the one relating to a point of place, the other to a point of time.

This fact struck us so forcibly, on first reading the beautiful lines in question, without having previously read Motherwell, or heard of the alleged plagiarism, that we observed and commented on the singular incompleteness and want of truth in the apposition, so unlike the usual accuracy and finish which are Longfellow's great characteristics.

Yet not only did this never strike Poe, in his determination to detest and expose a plagiarism, an end possessing as great a charm to him as ever did the discovery of a long-hidden murder to Mr. Bucket the detective; but he even found in another circumstance, the omission of a very forcible and important Scottish word, to the manifest injury of the sense, doubtless omitted by the German owing to his inability to translate or comprehend it, which is, in truth, strong circumstantial evidence in favor of the double translation, evidence in favor of the reality of this plagiarism. Though such a plagiarism, had it been one, could have been ascribed to nothing short of actual insanity in the plagiarist, discovery being inevitable, and early and ignominious exposure imminent.

The attacks, therefore, on Mr. Longfellow, we do not so much regard as the consequences of animosity or jealousy, as of the peculiar character of Poe's genius and disposition, such as his mania for prying into mysteries, and hunting out or manufacturing evidences and resemblances, no difficult art for one of his rare capacity for analysis and ratiocination, such as his power of inventing facts to establish theories, and converting conclusions deduced from preexisting circumstances into the originating causes of the very circumstances.

In the same point of view we regard his accusation against Mr. Aldrich, of plagiarism on a ballad of Hood's, where we defy any one, with less than Poe's acuteness and patient subtlety of analysis, to detect even a remote parallelism, although he contrives almost to establish a direct plagiarism.

Again, we consider it a strong argument against the attribution of his sarcastic and cynical criticisms to personal jealousy or pique, and a preconceived determination to pull down reputations, that, with exception of Mr. Longfellow, all those whom he has most cause to regard with envy, as possessing equal or higher reputations, are those whom he criticises most favorably and most fairly; while many of those on whom he uncorks the phials of his indignation, with a fury wholly disproportioned to the value of the offenders or the weight of the offences, arc often persons of so small consideration as to make one marvel at the amount of good vituperation wasted.

It is singular, but not the less true, that with his keen perception, great power of analysis, exquisite taste and strong discrimination, he is not, even when most disposed to be candid and impartial, an able or trustworthy critic. He seems to have lacked the power of comparison, and even of deliberate judgment, apart even from his monomania concerning plagiarism, and he unquestionably erred in endeavoring to weigh all talent in his own balance, and to measure all intellectual stature by his own standard. His judgment, too, we imagine, was greatly affected by casual circumstances, temper it may be, changes of health, alterations of spirits, ills external, or cares internal, which seem to have acted on his mind and reasoning faculties, as a change of wind from west to eastward jars and jangles the physical constitution of others. This rendered him inconsistent, led him to laud an author to the skies on one day and in one page, and to tread him into the very dust on another—-see, for example, his opinions of Bulwer Lytton, as recorded on page 503, and again on page 562 of his Marginalia, which are in direct contradiction the one to the other; and twenty other absolutely opposite opinions of different persons, in different places, as Longfellow, Tennyson, Hirst, and many others, whom in one place he loads with praise, and in another absolutely buries under obloquy.

Still, we believe that he meant to record his true opinion, and did record what at the moment he believed to be true. He criticised, however, according to feeling and impulse on the spur of the moment, not according to real judgment or calm opinion, except when he was criticising according to theory and by some fanciful standard, when he of course criticized one-sidedly. The two methods did him equal injustice, and himself more injustice than even the victims of his mental scalpel; they gained him the reputation of being a false, envious, deliberately unjust and intentionally cruel critic; when he should only have been regarded as a capricious and inconstant judge, careless whether he gave pain or not, inconsiderate, irritable, a little vain, a great deal egotistical, and not a little given to writing what is called a slashing article. His "Literati" is the least creditable, and to himself the most unfortunate, of all his productions. His Marginalia, with something of the same tart and acrimonious sententiousness, have at times smartness, cleverness, discrimination and sound judgment.

Here is a happy and subtle distinction, from his Fifty Suggestions, both shrewd and true:—-"Bryant and Street are both, essentially, descriptive poets; and descriptive poetry, even in its happiest manifestations, is not of the highest order. But the distinction between Bryant and Street is very broad. While the former, in reproducing the sensible images of nature, reproduces the sentiments with which he regards them, the latter gives us the images and nothing more. He never forces us to feel what he must have felt."

The following, from the Marginalia, is clever, quaint, and to the point:

"Men of genius are far more abundant than is supposed. In fact, to appreciate thoroughly the work of what we call genius is to possess all the genius by which the work was produced. But the person appreciating may be utterly incompetent to reproduce the work or anything similar, and this solely through lack of what may be termed constructive ability-—a matter quite independent of what we agree to understand in the term genius. . . . Hence," and for other reasons cleverly stated, but too long to quote, "works of genius are few, while mere men of genius are, as I say, abundant."

But this, the last which we shall quote, is curious, as coming from a person so pertinacious in seeing plagiary where none else can discover it; a person, not without some show of color, accused of what he certainly would have called plagiarism in another, though we do not so consider it; a person, lastly, who seems to consider casual coincidence of thoughts, expressions, or even deductions from the same facts, as impossible between equal and kindred thinkers; and the more curious that, in connection with some other passages, in one of which he calls Mr. Longfellow the first and in another the most original of American authors, he at moments had truer and more just ideas of the amount of originality and plagiarism to be found in the world of letters, than he argues in his ordinary mood. "Imitators are not, necessarily, unoriginal—-except at the exact point of imitation. Mr. Longfellow, decidedly the most audacious imitator in America, is markedly original, or, in other words, imaginative, upon the whole; and many persons have, from the latter branch of the fact, been at a loss to comprehend, and therefore to believe, the former. Keen sensibility of appreciation, that is to say, of the poetic sentiment, in distinction from the poetic power, leads almost inevitably to imitation. Thus all great poets have been gross imitators. It is, however, a mere non distributio medii hence to infer that all great imitators are poets."

Truly yes! as much so as to say that all great poets are gross imitators. But let the passage go for its worth, and it is worth much. But here we have done with the criticisms, and are glad to have done with them, happier should we have been had he, and could we have done without them.

It is on his tales, and on his poems yet more decidedly, that the reputation of Mr. Poe must stand; and both, in their line and manner, are inimitable.

His tales may be divided into three heads: those of grotesque fancy, partaking the character of the hoax, such as "The Adventure of one Hans Pfaal," "The Balloon Hoax," "Von Kempelen and his Discovery," "The Descent into the Maelstrom," and one or two others of less merit; those of grotesque, mysterious horror, partaking of the same character of hoax, such as "Mesmeric Revelation," "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," and "The Premature Burial," in all of which an appearance of reality and vraisemblance so perfect as almost to compel credence to what we know to be impossible, is maintained by earnestness of style, vigor of description, minute attention to the most seemingly immaterial and trivial details, the mingling of known truths of nature with the wildest and strangest fancies, and "the application of scientific principles, so far as the whimsical nature of the subject would permit," to subjects whimsical, absurd and impossible.

Than "The Descent into the Maelstrom" nothing can be finer or fuller of genius; nor can the English language, we think, anywhere be found in greater force and vigor, than in the description of the whirlpool and the weather. It is impossible to read it without believing what you know to be the wildest fiction, a reality and a narrative of true events.

"Mesmeric Revelation" and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," though full of almost insane horror, making the hair bristle and the blood curdle as one reads, and the latter involving so flagrant an impossibility as that of a dead man, kept seven months in a dead-alive state by mesmeric power, speaking after death, and, when released from the mesmeric state, collapsing into instant putrefaction, though not even intended as a hoax, were actually believed, and commented on, as real or pretended truths, by grave authorities.

In the next class we have the stories of analysis or ratiocination,such as the "Gold Bug," turning on the solution of a cipher invented for the purpose of being solved; the "Murders in the Rue Morgue," turning on the discovery of the method of a murder by the evolution of evidence from a train of circumstances manufactured for the purposes of evolving such evidence; "The Mystery of Marie Roget," or an attempt to approximate a solution of the secret of a real murder, that of Mary Rogers, by the application of new principles of solution to real evidence; and "The Purloined Letter," a deduction of truth from a similar examination to fabricated evidence, similar in plan to "The Murders of the Rue Morgue." In these stories the powers of analysis and the acuteness of reasoning are such that we cannot avoid the conclusion that Poe would have actually made a criminal lawyer of intense sagacity, unwearied patience, and unequalled analytic force; as he proved himself to be, by the actual solution of many most difficult ciphers submitted to him for analysis, a decipherer of the first order.

The prose fictions of the last head are tales of pure imagination, some of unmixed horror, some of horror, mysticism, and melancholy awfully and painfully combined, some of grotesque horror, and some of grotesque mystery only, such as "The Lady Ligeia," "The Black Cat," the "House of Usher," the "Masque of the Red Death," "William Wilson," and "Metzengerstein."

The power of all these, however various, is the same, and of the same nature. Earnestness of manner, an intensity of conviction simulated on the part of the writer so as to shape or force conviction on the part of the reader, a management of the supernatural never attained or approached by any other writer, making it appear positively natural, a mysticism so regulated as to shock no sense of the rational, a horror, a gloom, a melancholy, and an awful creed or want of creed, which we fear were all but too real.

Added to these are a choice, a power, a fitness of diction, a largeness of vocabulary, an adaptation of sense to sound, and of manner to matter, which we shall seek in vain in any other American, if not English, writer; a style flowing, round, copious, grand, a perfect originality-—and what do we lack that should constitute a genius?

His verse, which is sui generis, seems at first more original than his prose, but it is not so in truth; imaginative in the highest, incomparably perfect in rhythmical melody, artistical almost to a fault, for in some portions the art has failed to conceal the art, and in others, we are irresistibly abstracted from the sense to marvel at the exquisite system of sound, and driven to forget the poem in mute admiration of the art and magic of the poet. Never was a rarer syllabler of words, never a more industrious and patient finisher, never a rarer versifier. The method of the poems is much the same as that of the graver and

more solemn stories, but they have a more delicate and graceful tone, a softer and more spiritual sentiment; they deal with melancholy and solemn awe, rather than with hideous and viewless horror; they are sad, intensely sad and hopeless, lingering, clinging to overwhelming recollections of bygone happiness, lost and despaired of, never to return, as the green leaves to the bare tree, as the glad morning to the weary watcher. As works of art, they are perfect; as works of imagination, wonderful; as revelations of a human heart, so worn and withered; a human intellect, so shattered and disjointed, that we cannot listen to its woeful utterances without shuddering at the intensity of woe which must have inspired them, without mourning to

"See that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh."

The sad and troubled soul has fallen asleep, in that calm place "where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest." May no dreams come across that sleep, save dreams of peace and hope, and may he so awake that he shall know a happier life hereafter than that he toiled through here so sadly, and to so sad an ending. Peace be with him.

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