Edgar Allan Poe: Excerpts from Drake-Halleck Review

[Below are the first eleven paragraphs from Poe's long review of books by Joseph Rodman Drake and Fitz-Greene Halleck, two American poets. It originally appeared in the Richmond Southern Literary Messenger in April, 1836. Poe's footnotes have also been omitted.]

      Before entering upon the detailed notice which we propose of the volumes before us, we wish to speak a few words in regard to the present state of American criticism.

      It must be visible to all who meddle with literary matters, that of late years a thorough revolution has been effected in the censorship of our press. That this revolution is infinitely for the worse we believe. There was a time, it is true, when we cringed to foreign opinion--let us even say when we paid a most servile deference to British critical dicta. That an American book could, by any possibility, be worthy perusal, was an idea by no means extensively prevalent in the land; and if we were induced to read at all the productions of our native writers, it was only after repeated assurances from England that such productions were not altogether contemptible. But there was, at all events, a shadow of excuse, and a slight basis of reason for a subserviency so grotesque. Even now, perhaps, it would not be far wrong to assert that such basis of reason may still exist. Let us grant that in many of the abstract sciences--that even in Theology, in Medicine, in Law, in Oratory, in the Mechanical Arts, we have no competitors whatever, still nothing but the most egregious national vanity would assign us a place, in the matter of Polite Literature, upon a level with the older and riper climes of Europe, the earliest steps of whose children are among the groves of magnificently endowed Academies, and whose innumerable men of leisure, and of consequent learning, drink daily from those august fountains of inspiration which burst around them every where from out the tombs of their immortal dead, and from out their hoary and trophied monuments of chivalry and song. In paying then, as a nation, a respectful and not undue deference to a supremacy rarely questioned but by prejudice or ignorance, we should, of course, be doing nothing more than acting in a rational manner. The excess of our subserviency was blameable--but, as we have before said, this very excess might have found a shadow of excuse in the strict justice, if properly regulated, of the principle from which it issued. Not so, however, with our present follies. We are becoming boisterous and arrogant in the pride of a too speedily assumed literary freedom. We throw off, with the most presumptuous and unmeaning hauteur, all deference whatever to foreign opinion--we forget, in the puerile inflation of vanity, that the world is the true theatre of the biblical histrio--we get up a hue and cry about the necessity of encouraging native writers of merit--we blindly fancy that we can accomplish this by indiscriminate puffing of good, bad, and indifferent, without taking the trouble to consider that what we choose to denominate encouragement is thus, by its general application, rendered precisely the reverse. In a word, so far from being ashamed of the many disgraceful literary failures to which our own inordinate vanities and misapplied patriotism have lately given birth, and so far from deeply lamenting that these daily puerilities are of home manufacture, we adhere pertinaciously to our original blindly conceived idea, and thus often find ourselves involved in the gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American..

      Deeply lamenting this unjustifiable state of public feeling, it has been our constant endeavor, since assuming the Editorial duties of this Journal, to stem, with what little abilities we possess, a current so disastrously undermining the health and prosperity of our literature. We have seen our efforts applauded by men whose applauses we value. From all quarters we have received abundant private as well as public testimonials in favor of our Critical Notices, and, until very lately, have heard from no respectable source one word impugning their integrity or candor. In looking over, however, a number of the New York Commercial Advertiser, we meet with the following paragraph .
    The last number of the Southern Literary Messenger is very readable and respectable. The contributions to the Messenger are much better than the original matter. The critical department of this work--much as it would seem to boast itself of impartiality and discernment,--is in our opinion decidedly quacky. There is in it a great assumption of acumen, which is completely unsustained. Many a work has been slashingly condemned therein, of which the critic himself could not write a page, were he to die for it. This affectation of eccentric sternness in criticism, without the power to back one's suit withal, so far from deserving praise, as some suppose, merits the strongest reprehension.--[Philadelphia Gazette
    We are entirely of opinion with the Philadelphia Gazette in relation to the Southern Literary Messenger, and take this occasion to express our total dissent from the numerous and lavish encomiums we have seen bestowed upon its critical notices. Some few of them have been judicious, fair and candid; bestowing praise and censure with judgment and impartiality; but by far the greater number of those we have read, have been flippant, unjust, untenable and uncritical. The duty of the critic is to act as judge, not as enemy, of the writer whom he reviews; a distinction of which the Zoilus of the Messenger seems not to be aware. It is possible to review a book without bestowing opprobrious epithets upon the writer: to condemn with courtesy, if not with kindness. The critic of the Messenger has been eulogized for his scorching and scarifying abilities, and he thinks it incumbent upon him to keep up his reputation in that line, by sneers, sarcasm, and downright abuse; by straining his vision with microscopic intensity in search of faults, and shutting his eyes, with all his might to beauties. Moreover, we have detected him, more than once, in blunders quite as gross as those on which it was his pleasure to descant.
      In the paragraph from the Philadelphia Gazette, (which is edited by Mr. Willis Gaylord Clark, one of the Editors of the Knickerbocker) we find nothing at which we have any desire to take exception. Mr. C. has a right to think us quacky if he pleases, and we do not remember having assumed for a moment that we could write a single line of the works we have reviewed. But there is something equivocal, to say the least, in the remarks of Col. Stone. He acknowledges that "some of our notices have been judicious, fair, and candid, bestowing praise and censure with judgment and impartiality." This being the case, how can he reconcile his total dissent from the public verdict in our favor, with the dictates of justice? We are accused too of bestowing "opprobrious epithets" upon writers whom we review, and in the paragraph so accusing us we are called nothing less than "flippant, unjust, and uncritical."

      But there is another point of which we disapprove. While in our reviews we have at all times been particularly careful not to deal in generalities, and have never, if we remember aright, advanced in any single instance an unsupported assertion, our accuser has forgotten to give us any better evidence of our flippancy, injustice, personality, and gross blundering, than the solitary dictum of Col. Stone. We call upon the Colonel for assistance in this dilemma. We wish to be shown our blunders that we may correct them--to be made aware of our flippancy, that we may avoid it hereafter--and above all to have our personalities pointed out that we may proceed forthwith with a repentant spirit, to make the amende honorable. In default of this aid from the Editor of the Commercial we shall take it for granted that we are neither blunderers, flippant, personal, nor unjust.

      Who will deny that in regard to individual poems no definitive opinions can exist, so long as to poetry in the abstract we attach no definitive idea? Yet it is a common thing to hear our critics, day after day, pronounce, with a positive air, laudatory or condemnatory sentences, en masse upon metrical works of whose merits and demerits they have, in the first place, virtually confessed an utter ignorance, in confessing ignorance of all determinate principles by which to regulate a decision. Poetry has never been defined to the satisfaction of all parties. Perhaps, in the present condition of language it never will be. Words cannot hem it in. Its intangible and purely spiri­tual nature refuses to be bound down within the widest horizon of mere sounds. But it is not, therefore, misunderstood--at least, not by all men is it misunderstood. Very far from it. If, indeed, there be any one circle of thought distinctly and pal­pably marked out from amid the jarring and tumultuous chaos of human intelligence, it is that evergreen and radiant Para­dise which the true poet knows, and knows alone, as the limited realm of his authority--as the circumscribed Eden of his dreams. But a definition is a thing of words--a conception of ideas. And thus while we readily believe that Poesy, the term, it will be troublesome, if not impossible to define--still, with its image vividly existing in the world, we apprehend no difficulty in so describing Poesy, the Sentiment, as to imbue even the most obtuse intellect with a comprehension of it sufficiently distinct for all the purposes of practical analysis.

      To look upwards from any existence, material or immaterial, to its design, is, perhaps, the most direct, and the most unerring method of attaining a just notion of the nature of the existence itself. Nor is the principle at fault when we turn our eyes from Nature even to Nature's God. We find certain faculties implanted within us, and arrive at a more plausible conception of the character and attributes of those faculties, by considering, with what finite Judgment we possess, the intention of the Deity in so implanting them within us, than by any actual investigation of their powers, or any speculative deductions from their visible and material effects. Thus, for example, we discover in all men a disposition to look with reverence upon superiority, whether real or supposititious. In some, this disposition is to be recognized with difficulty, and, in very peculiar cases, we are occasionally even led to doubt its existence altogether, until circumstances beyond the common routine bring it accidentally into development. In others again it forms a prominent and distinctive feature of character, and is tendered palpably evident in its excesses. But in all human beings it is, in a greater or less degree, finally perceptible. It has been, therefore, justly considered a primitive sentiment. Phrenologists call it Veneration. It is, indeed, the instinct given to man by God as security for his own worship. And although, preserving its nature, it becomes perverted from its principal purpose, and although, swerving from that purpose, it serves to modify the relations of human society--­the relations of father and child, of master and slave, of the ruler and the ruled--its primitive essence is nevertheless the same, and by a reference to primal causes, may at any moment be determined.

      Very nearly akin to this feeling, and liable to the same anal­ysis, is the Faculty of Ideality--which is the sentiment of Poesy. This sentiment is the sense of the beautiful, of the sub­lime, and of the mystical. Thence spring immediately admi­ration of the fair flowers, the fairer forests, the bright valleys and rivers and mountains of the Earth--and love of the gleaming stars and other burning glories of Heaven--and, mingled up inextricably with this love and this admiration of Heaven and of Earth, the unconquerable desire--to know. Poesy is the sentiment of Intellectual Happiness here, and the Hope of a higher Intellectual Happiness hereafter. Imagination is its Soul. With the passions of mankind--although it may modify them greatly--although it may exalt, or in­flame, or purify, or control them--it would require little in­genuity to prove that it has no inevitable, and indeed no necessary co-existence. We have hitherto spoken of Poetry in the abstract: we come now to speak of it in its every-day ac­ceptation--that is to say, of the practical result arising from the sentiment we have considered.

      And now it appears evident, that since Poetry, in this new sense, is the practical result, expressed in language, of this Poetic Sentiment in certain individuals, the only proper method of testing the merits of a poem is by measuring its capabilities of exciting the Poetic Sentiment in others. And to this end we have many aids--in observation, in experience, in ethical analysis, and in the dictates of common sense. Hence the Poeta nascitur, which is indisputably true if we consider the Poetic Sentiment, becomes the merest of absur­dities when we regard it in reference to the practical result. We do not hesitate to say that a man highly endowed with the powers of Causality--that is to say, a man of metaphysi­cal acumen--will, even with a very deficient share of Ideality, compose a finer poem (if we test it, as we should, by its mea­sure of exciting the Poetic Sentiment) than one who, without such metaphysical acumen, shall be gifted, in the most ex­traordinary degree, with the faculty of Ideality. For a poem is not the Poetic faculty, but the means of exciting it in mankind. Now these means the metaphysician may discover by analysis of their effects in other cases than his own, without even con­ceiving the nature of these effects--thus arriving at a result which the unaided Ideality of his competitor would be utterly unable, except by accident, to attain. It is more than possible that the man who, of all writers, living or dead, has been most successful in writing the purest of all poems--that is to say, poems which excite most purely, most exclusively, and most powerfully the imaginative faculties in men--owed his extraordinary and almost magical pre-eminence rather to metaphysical than poetical powers. We allude to the author of Christabel, of the Rime of the Auncient Mariner, and of Love--to Coleridge--whose head, if we mistake not its char­acter, gave no great phrenological tokens of Ideality, while the organs of Causality and Comparison were most singularly developed.