Friday, February 27, 2009

Longfellow damns censorious Poe

America's most beloved poet for the majority of the 19th century was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was born this day, February 27, back in 1807. The relationship between Longfellow and Poe — if it can be called that — has become somewhat infamous. Poe made many strong statements against Longfellow (to put it lightly), and people today consider his "war" on Longfellow an example of Poe's declining mental health, a sign of his raging jealousy of successful poets, or of his endless enmity towards all things Boston.

Those superficial interpretations are great examples of how we oversimplify parts of Poe's life.

Poe and Longfellow never met face-to-face, though they certainly corresponded. As an editor, Poe contacted him to urge him to submit to Graham's Magazine (he did, but moreso under Poe's successor Rufus Griswold). Longfellow was one of the most popular poets of the day and, shortly after Poe's death, did what Poe was never able to do: sustain himself financially solely as a poet — no small feat!

Poe's criticism began as early as 1840, after Longfellow had published his collection Voices of the Night (unlike many poets of his generation, Longfellow generally released books of brand new poetry, rather than releasing piecemeal in magazines then collecting the so-called "fugitive" poems later; he had this option because he had a full-time job as a Harvard professor and didn't need constant money from his writing like Poe did). Poe noted that one particular poem in the collection was very similar to one by Lord Tennyson. He wrote (anonymously) of it as the "most barbarous class of literary robbery; that class in which, while the words of the wronged author are avoided, his most intangible, and therefore least defensible and least reclaimable property is purloined." The so-called "Longfellow War" continued with several accusations of plagiarism throughout the 1840s, especially in the Broadway Journal while Poe was its editor. It became such a heated feud that others, including James Russell Lowell and Margaret Fuller, jumped in and took sides (the former took Longfellow's, the latter took Poe's). The oddest to join in was the pseudonymous "Outis" (translates to "nobody") — which generally is agreed to be Poe himself as an attempt at keeping the spotlight a bit longer. But, even the friendly, non-confrontational Nathaniel Parker Willis noted that Longfellow was too free from criticism and that the controversy would "do him good to rouse him."

Critics or readers who think the Longfellow War is about plagiarism are overstating things. When Poe used the term "plagiarism," it didn't mean what it does today. In fact, it was the opposite of "originality." Like that quote above makes clear, it's not a word-for-word theft, but a theft of poetic ideas.

Poe was strung up as a bad guy in all of this, and critics and scholars today refer to it as Poe's attempt to destroy his own reputation — his "imp of the perverse," if you will. Others say it shows Poe was merely jealous of success, or he was inspired by his hatred of New England and the Boston elite literary circle. Even in Poe circles, there is no consensus and it still brings up debate. Longfellow, on the other hand, universally comes out squeaky clean, and didn't actually engage in the feud personally. After Poe's death, Longfellow noted that all was forgiven and called him "richly endowed with genius." He added, famously: "The harshness of his criticisms, I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong."

Longfellow never publicly responded, but he did make an obscure response, which I have yet to see noted by Poe scholars. In his journal in 1845, Longfellow wrote a line in verse: "In Hexameter sings serenely a Harvard professor / In Pentameter him damns censorious Poe." Amidst these accusations of imitation, Longfellow carefully noted that this impromptu couplet was an imitation of another poem, thereby admitting his guilt as a plagiarist.

And it's quite true: Longfellow often lifted ideas from other poems. He was incredibly well-read and often paid homage to his influences. He wasn't ground-breaking as a poet; he did not significantly experiment with poetic structure or invent anything new. Instead, he went back to classic poems — especially European poems — and copied their meter. Remember, of course, that this was a time (the 1840s in particular) where we as Americans were really trying to define and create an American literature — Emerson asked for it, as did Lowell and Fuller. But, instead of trying to be distinctly American, Longfellow said he was trying to be "universal" (read: "European"). Poe, on the other hand, was part of this newly-developing world of American literature that, as Emerson said, aimed to be "free" from the "courtly muses of Europe."

So, was Poe right?

If anyone is interested, I will be speaking much more in-depth on "A War of the Words: Poe's Battle With Longfellow" on Thursday, April 9 at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts (the former home of Margaret Fuller!). The lecture is free and open to the public. Later, in October, I'll be making a similar presentation at the Poe Bicentennial Conference in Philadelphia.

In the meantime, I cheerily wish Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a happy 202nd birthday.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

In a certain kind of modern poetry, we are used to having to recognize a web of references to earlier poems. And in neo-classical poetry (18th century English, say), poets were often explicitly imitative - that was often the point.

The way you describe it here, you make Poe's Romanticism clear. Originality at all costs! I had not quite thought of things this way, although Baudelaire's strong response to Poe is obviously realted.

The first time I read one of Poe's accusations of plagiarism, I was shocked. I thought Poe sounded like a fool. As I read more, what you are saying became clear - this was not our current definition of the word, and Poe's usage was part of a serious vision of what poetry should be.

J. L. Bell said...

Even at the level of ideas, Tennyson and Longfellow don’t seem to have shared much in those poems but the pathetic fallacy and a general nineteenth-century lugubriousness. By rights, Poe should have criticized a great many more of his contemporaries for that sort of “plagiarism.”

Anonymous said...

interesting and I never knew about the Longfellow - Poe wars. Great Blog. I wish I were in your area. I would love to see your presentation. And, thanks for commenting on my Longfellow Tribute.

Rob Velella said...

J.L., first don't be distracted by the one specific example I gave; he pointed out many similarities, not just the Tennyson one. And, not to worry: Poe definitely criticized many, many other poets from the time period for the same sort of plagiarism. My reading of it is that Longfellow got the most heated accusations (even if it's hard to see Poe's POV) because Longfellow was the symbol of New England poets and of the "safe" aimed-for-the-popular-audience poetry.

Anonymous said...

I would love to get transcripts from your presentation on the "Longfellow Wars". Is that a possibility as I live on the opposite side of the country.


Rob Velella said...

I'd be happy to send you my notes, incoherent though they may be (considering it was written for presentation). Send me an email at