Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Poe the Critic

We can only speculate on how Poe wanted to be remembered. Considering his massive literary output, he could have hoped for any number of legacies. During most of his career, however, he was first and foremost a critic, and it was in his criticism that he first built a national reputation. Known especially for his particularly harsh reviews and even harsher dissection of bad sentences, James Russell Lowell once remarked that Poe occasionally mistook his vial of prussic acid for ink.

Today, few readers are familiar with Poe's criticism beyond the generalizations I've just made. To fill in that gap, I'm copying in full one of Poe's criticisms, originally printed 167 years ago in the January issue of Graham's Magazine in 1842. Poe provides his usual ambiguous commentary, his specific indictment of poor word usage (phonetics, in this case), hypocrisy (see if you can spot it), and a brief mention of his favorite topic: imitation.

Pocahontas, and Other Poems. By Mrs. L. H. Sigourney. Harper and Brothers: New York.
Some years ago we had occasion to speak of "Zinzendorf, and Other Poems," by Mrs. Sigourney, and at that period we found, or fancied that we found many points, in her general manner, which called for critical animadversion. At no period, however, have we been so rash as to dispute her claim to high rank among the poets of the land. In the volume now published by the Messieurs Harper, we are proud to discover not one of those more important blemishes which were a stain upon her earlier style. We had accused her of imitation of Mrs. Hemans - but this imitation is no longer apparent.

The author of "Pocahontas" (an unusually fine poem of which we may take occasion to speak full hereafter) has also abandoned a very foolish mannerism with which she was erewhile infected - the mannerism of heading her pieces with paragraphs, or quotations, by way of text, from which the poem itself ensued as a sermon. This was an exceedingly inartistical practice, and one now well discarded.

The lesser pieces in the volume before us have, for the most part, already met our eye as fugitive effusions. In general, they deserve all commendation.

"Pocahontas" is a far finer poem than a late one on the same subject by Mrs. Sheba Smith. Mrs. Sigourney, however, has the wrong accentuation of Powhatan. In the second stanza of the poem, too, "harassed" is in false quantity. We speak of these trifles merely en passant.

Hereafter we may speak in full.

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