Mr. Poe throws down the gauntlet in his preface, by what he says of “the paltry compensations or more paltry commendations of mankind.” Some champion might be expected to start up from the “somewhat sizeable” class embraced, or more properly speaking, boxed on the ear, by this defiance, who might try whether the sting of Criticism was as indifferent to this knight of the pen as he professes its honey to be.
Were there such a champion, gifted with acumen to dissect, and a swift glancing wit to enliven the operation, he could find no more legitimate subject, no fairer game than Mr. Poe, who has wielded the weapons of criticism, without relenting, whether with the dagger he rent and tore the garment in which some favored Joseph had pranked himself, secure of honor in the sight of all men, or whether with uplifted tomahawk he rushed upon the newborn children of some hapless genius, who had fancied and persuaded his friends to fancy that they were beautiful and worthy a long and honored life. A large band of these offended dignitaries and aggrieved parents must be on the watch for a volume of “Poems by Edgar A. Poe,” ready to cut, rend and slash in turn, and hoping to see his own Raven left alone to prey upon the slaughter of which it is the herald.
Such joust and tournament we look to see, and, indeed, have some stake in the matter so far as we have friends whose wrongs cry aloud for the avenger. Natheless we could not take part in the melée, except to join the crowd of lookers-on in the cry—Heaven speed the right!
Early we read that fable of Apollo who rewarded the critic, who had painfully winnowed the wheat, with the chaff for his pains. We joined the gentle Affirmative School, and have confidence that if we indulge ourselves chiefly with the appreciation of the good qualities, Time will take care of the faults.—For Time holds a strainer like that used in the diamond mines;—have but patience and the water and gravel will all pass through and only the precious stones be left. Yet we are not blind to the uses of severe criticism, and of just censure, expecially in a time and place so degraded by venal and indiscriminate praise as the present. That unholy alliance, that shameless sham, whose motto is
And I’ll caw thee.”
That system of mutual adulation and organized puff which was carried to such perfection in the time and may be seen drawn to the life in the correspondence of Miss Hannah More, is fully represented in our day and generation. We see that it meets a counter-agency, from the league of Truthtellers, few, but each of them mighty as Fingal or any other hero of the sort. Let such tell the whole truth, as well as nothing but the truth, but let their sternness be in the spirit of Love. Let them seek to understand the purpose and scope of an author, his capacity as well as his fulfilments, and how his faults are made to grow by the same sunshine that acts upon his virtues, for this is the case with talents no less than with character. The rich field requires frequent and careful weeding; frequent, lest the weeds exhaust the soil; careful, lest the flowers and grain be pulled up along with the weeds.
Well! but to return to Mr. Poe; we are not unwilling that cavil should do her worst on his book, because both by act and word he has challenged it, but as this is no office for us, we shall merely indicate, in our usual slight way, what, naturally and unsought, has struck ourselves in the reading of these verses.
It has often been our case to share the mistake of Gil Blas, with regard to the Archbishop. We have taken people at their word, and while rejoicing that women could bear neglect without feeling mean pique, and that authors, rising above self-love, could show candor about their works and magnanimously meet both justice and injustice, we have been rudely awakened from our dream, and found that Chanticleer, who crowed so bravely, showed himself at last but a dunghill fowl. Yet Heaven grant we never become too worldly-wise thus to trust a generous word, and we surely are not so yet, for we believe Mr. Poe to be sincere when he says:
“In defence of my own taste, it is incumbent upon me to say that I think nothing in this volume of much value to the public or very creditable to myself. Events not to be controlled have prevented me from making, at any time, any serious effort in what, under happier circumstances, would have been the field of my choice.”
We believe Mr. Poe to be sincere in this declaration; if he is, we respect him; if otherwise, we do not. Such things should never be said unless in hearty earnest. If in earnest, they are honorable pledges; if not, a pitiful fence and foil of vanity. Earnest or not, the words are thus far true: the productions in this volume indicate a power to do something far better. With the exception of The Raven, which seems intended chiefly to show the writer’s artistic skill, and is in its way a rare and finished specimen, they are all fragments—fyttes upon the lyre, almost all of which leave us something to desire or demand. This is not the case, however, with these lines:
THOU wast all that to me, love,
For which my soul did pine—
A green isle in the sea, love,
A fountain and a shrine,
All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers,
And all the flowers were mine.
Ah, dream too bright to last!
Ah, starry Hope! that didst arise
But to be overcast!
A voice from out the Future cries,
“On! on!”—but o’er the Past
(Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies
Mute, motionless, aghast!
For, alas! alas! with me
The light of Life is o’er!
No more—no more—no more—
(Such language holds the solemn sea
To the sands upon the shore)
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,
Or the stricken eagle soar!
And all my days are trances,
And all my nightly dreams
And where thy dark eye glances,
And where thy footstep gleams—
In what ethereal dances,
By what eternal streams.
The poems breathe a passionate sadness, relieved sometimes by touches very lovely and tender:
That crowd around my earthly path
(Drear path, alas! where grows
Not even one lonely rose.)” * * *
* * * * * *
“For her, the fair and debonair, that now so lowly lies,
The life upon her yellow hair, but not within her eyes—
The life still there, upon her hair—the death upon her eyes.”
This kind of beauty is especially conspicuous, then rising into dignity, in the poem called “The Haunted Palace.”
The imagination of this writer rarely expresses itself in pronounced forms, but rather in a sweep of images, thronging and distant like a procession of moonlight clouds on the horizon, but like them characteristic and haamonious one with another, according to their office.
The descriptive power is greatest when it takes a shape not unlike an incantation, as in the first part of “The Sleeper,” where
An opiate vapor, dewy, dim,
Exhales from out a golden rim,
And, softly dripping, drop by drop,
Upon the quiet mountain top,
Steals drowsily and musically
Into the Universal valley.”
Why universal?—“resolve me that, Master Moth.”
And farther on, “The lily lolls upon the wave.”
This word lolls, often made use of in these Poems, presents a vulgar image to our thought; we know not how it is to that of others.
The lines which follow about the open window are highly poetical. So is the “Bridal Ballad” in its power of suggesting a whole tribe and train of thoughts and pictures by few and simple touches.
The Poems written in youth, written, indeed, we understand, in childhood, before the author was ten years old, are a great psychological curiosity. Is it the delirium of a prematurely excited brain that causes such a rapture of words? What is to be gathered from seeing the future so fully anticipated in the germ? The passions are not unfrequently felt in their full shock, if not in their intensity, at eight or nine years old, but here they are reflected upon,
With the last ecstacy of satiate life.”
The scenes from Politian are done with clear, sharp strokes; the power is rather metaphysical than dramatic. We must repeat what we have heretofore said, that we could wish to see Mr. Poe engaged in a metaphysical romance. He needs a sustained flight and a fair range to show what his powers really are. Let us have from him the analysis of the Passions, with their appropriate Fates; let us have his speculations clarified; let him instersperse dialogue or poem, as the occasion prompts, and give us something really good and strong, firmly wrought, and fairly blazoned. Such would be better employment than detecting literary larcenies, not worth pointing out if they exist. Such employment is quite unworthy of one who dares vie with the Angel.
IN Heaven a spirit doth dwell
“Whose heart-strings are a lute;”
None sing so wildly well
As the Angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell)
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.
In her highest noon
The enamored Moon
Blushes with love,
While, to listen, the red Levin
(With the rapid Pleiads, even,
Which were seven,)
Pauses in Heaven.
And they say (the starry choir
And the other listening things)
That Israfel’s fire
Is owing to that lyre
By which he sits and sings—
The trembling living wire
Of those unusual strings.
But the skies that Angel trod,
Where deep thoughts are a duty—
Where Love’s a grown-up god—
Where the Houri glances are
Imbued with all the beauty
Which we worship in a star.
Therefore, thou art not wrong,
Israfeli, who despises
An unimpassioned song;
To thee the laurels belong,
Best bard, because the wisest!
Merrily live, and long!
The ecstasies above
With they burning measures suit—
Thy grief, thy joy, thy hate, thy love,
With the fervor of thy lute—
Well may the stars be mute!
Yea, Heaven is thine; but this
Is a world of sweets and sours,
Our flowers are merely—flowers,
And the shadow of thy perfect bliss
Is the sunshine of ours.
If I could dwell
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
From my lyre within the sky.
*And the Angel Israfel, whose heart-strings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures. —Koran.
“The Raven and Other Poems . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 26 November 1845, p. 1.