Thursday, March 19, 2009

Poe reviews Longfellow

For my 50th post, I'd like to give you Poe's own words. For those who don't know what to make of third-hand accounts of Poe's criticism of Henry Longfellow: here it is, straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. The following is Poe's actual review from my personal copy of Graham's Magazine, March 1842, of Ballads and Other Poems. By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Author of "Voices of the Night," "Hyperion," etc. This has been edited somewhat for length but I have not altered the spirit of the review (including, in typical Poe fashion, the philosophical argument he uses for introduction and his "show off" discussion of language):

One would be safe in wagering that any given public idea is erroneous, for it has been yielded to the clamor of the majority; —and this strictly philosophical, although somewhat French assertion has especial bearing upon the whole race of what are termed maxims and popular proverbs; nine-tenths of which are the quintessence of folly. One of the most deplorably false of them is the antique adage, De gustibus non est disputandum — there should be no disputing about taste. Here the idea designed to be conveyed is that any one person has as just right to consider his own taste the true, as has any one other — that taste itself, in short, is an arbitrary something, amenable to no law, and measurable by no definite rules. It must be confessed, however, that the exceedingly vague and impotent treatises which are alone extand have much to answer for as regards confirming the general error. Not the least important service which, hereafter, makind will owe to Phrenology, may perhaps, be recognized in an analysis of the real principles, and a digest of the resulting laws of taste.


In the present number of our Magazine we have left ourselves barely room to say a few random words of welcome to these "Ballads," by Longfellow, and to tender him, and all such as he, the homage of our most earnest love and admiration.

The volume before us (in whose outward appearance lies the keen "taste" of genius is evinced with nearly as much precision as in its internal soul) includes, with several brief original pieces, a translation from the Swedish of Tegner. In attempting (what never should be attempted) a literal version of both the words and the metre of this poem, Professor Longfellow has failed to do justice either to his author or himself. He has striven to do what no man ever did well and what, from the nature of language itself, never can be well done. Unless, for example, we shall come to have an influx of spondees in our English tongue, it will always be impossible to construct an English hexameter. Our spondees, or, we should say, our spondaic words, are rare. In the Swedish they are nearly as abundant as in the Latin and Greek...

But within the narrow compass now left us we must not indulge in anything like critical comment. Our readers will be satisfied perhaps with a few brief extracts from the original poems of the volume — which we give for their rare excellence, without pausing now to say in what particulars this excellence exists.

[Extracts from "The Skeleton in Armor," "Endymion," and possibly others I don't recognize.]

Some of these passages cannot be fully appreciated apart from the context — but we address these who have read the book. Of the translations we have not spoken. It is but right to say, however, that "The Luck of Edenhall" is a far finer poem, in every respect, than any of the original pieces. Nor would we have our previous observations misunderstood. Much as we admire the genius of Mr. Longfellow, we are fully sensible of his many errors of affectation and imitation. His artistical skill is great, and his ideality high. But his conception of the aims of poesy is all wrong; and this we shall prove at some future day — to our own satisfaction, at least. His didactics are all out of place. He has written brilliant poems — by accident; that is to say when permitting his genius to get the better of his conventional habit of thinking — a habit deduced from German study. We do not mean to say that a didactic moral may not be well made the under-current of a poetical thesis; but that it can never be well put so obtrusively forth, as in the majority of his compositions. There is a young American who, with ideality not richer than that of Longfellow, and with less artistical knowledge, has yet composed far truer poems, merely through the greater propriety of his themes. We allude to James Russell Lowell; and in the number of this Magazine for last month, will be found a ballad entitled "Rosaline," affording an excellent exemplification of our meaning. This composition has unquestionably its defects, and the very defects which are never perceptible in Mr. Longfellow — but we sincerely think that no American poems equals it in the higher elements of song.

And there you have it — Poe's awful, terrible, mean-spirited, jealous rage in which he damns Longfellow... by calling him a genius to whom he offers earnest love and admiration. Yes, there are a few left-handed compliments in there, but he is noting that Longfellow is, after all, a good poet — who happens to be stuck in the rut of didacticism, something which Poe hates. Again, I emphasize that Poe's concern with Longfellow is based on poetic theory. What's important here, of course, is that Poe is emphasizing that all of this is just his personal opinion, which he has every right to offer, even if it is opposite popular opinion (hence the long introduction). I also love the comparison to James Russell Lowell, who may have (in part) spurred the later Longfellow War by instigating Poe.

My paper on the Poe-Longfellow War, in which I will return to contemporary responses (Lowell, Margaret Fuller, Charles Frederick Briggs, Rufus Griswold, and others) has just been accepted by the Poe Studies Association. This means I will have the honor of presenting at the Poe Bicentennial Conference in Philadelphia this fall.

Happy 50th blog post, fellow Poeists!

1 comment:

Gina said...

Congratulations on having your paper accepted!