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    XIV. To Edgar Allan Poe

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    Sir,--Your English readers, better acquainted with your poems and romances
    than with your criticisms, have long wondered at the indefatigable hatred
    which pursues your memory. You, who knew the men, will not marvel that certain
    microbes of letters, the survivors of your own generation, still harass your
    name with their malevolence, while old women twitter out their incredible and
    heeded slanders in the literary papers of New York. But their persistent
    animosity does not quite suffice to explain the dislike with which many
    American critics regard the greatest poet, perhaps the greatest literary
    genius, of their country. With a commendable patriotism, they are not apt to
    rate native merit too low; and you, I think, are the only example of an
    American prophet almost without honour in his own country.

    The recent publication of a cold, careful, and in many respects admirable
    study of your career ('Edgar Allan Poe,' by George Woodberry: Houghton,
    Mifflin and Co., Boston) reminds English readers who have forgotten it, and
    teaches those who never knew it, that you were, unfortunately, a Reviewer. How
    unhappy were the necessities, how deplorable the vein, that compelled or
    seduced a man of your eminence into the dusty and stony ways of contemporary
    criticism! About the writers of his own generation a leader of that generation
    should hold his peace, he should neither praise nor blame nor defend his
    equals; he should not strike one blow at the buzzing ephemerae of letters. The
    breath of their life is in the columns of 'Literary Gossip;' and they should
    be allowed to perish with the weekly advertisements on which they pasture.
    Reviewing, of course, there must needs be; but great minds should only
    criticise the great who have passed beyond the reach of eulogy or

    Unhappily, taste and circumstances combined to make you a censor; you vexed a
    continent, and you are still unforgiven. What 'irritation of a sensitive
    nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong,' drove you (in Mr.
    Longfellow's own words) to attack his pure and beneficent Muse we may never
    ascertain. But Mr. Longfellow forgave you easily; for pardon comes easily to
    the great. It was the smaller men, the Daweses, Griswolds, and the like, that
    knew not how to forget. 'The New Yorkers never forgave him,' says your latest
    biographer; and one scarcely marvels at the inveteracy of their malice. It was
    not individual vanity alone, but the whole literary class that you assailed.
    'As a literary people,' you wrote, 'we are one vast perambulating humbug.'
    After that declaration of war you died, and left your reputation to the
    vanities yet writhing beneath your scorn. They are writhing and writing still.
    He who knows them need not linger over the attacks and defences of your
    personal character; he will not waste time on calumnies, tale-bearing, private
    letters, and all the noisome dust which takes so long in settling above your

    For us it is enough to know that you were compelled to live by your pen, and
    that in an age when the author of 'To Helen' and' The Cask of Amontillado' was
    paid at the rate of a dollar a column. When such poverty was the mate of such
    pride as yours, a misery more deep than that of Burns, an agony longer than
    Chatterton's, were inevitable and assured. No man was less fortunate than you
    in the moment of his birth--_infelix_opportunitate_vitae_. Had you lived a
    generation later, honour, wealth, applause, success in Europe and at home,
    would all have been yours. Within thirty years so great a change has passed
    over the profession of letters in America; and it is impossible to estimate
    the rewards which would have fallen to Edgar Poe, had chance made him the
    contemporary of Mark Twain and of 'Called Back.' It may be that your
    criticisms helped to bring in the new era, and to lift letters out of the
    reach of quite unlettered scribblers. Though not a scholar, at least you had a
    respect for scholarship. You might still marvel over such words as
    'objectional' in the new biography of yourself, and might ask what is meant by
    such a sentence as 'his connection with it had inured to his own benefit by
    the frequent puffs of himself,' and so forth.

    Best known in your own day as a critic, it is as a poet and a writer of short
    tales that you must live. But to discuss your few and elaborate poems is a
    waste of time, so completely does your own brief definition of poetry, 'the
    rhythmic creation of the beautiful,' exhaust your theory, and so perfectly is
    the theory illustrated by the poems. Natural bent, and reaction against the
    example of Mr. Longfellow, combined to make you too intolerant of what you
    call the 'didactic' element in verse. Even if morality be not seven-eighths of
    our life (the exact proportion as at present estimated), there was a place
    even on the Hellenic Parnassus for gnomic bards, and theirs in the nature of
    the case must always be the largest public.

    'Music is the perfection of the soul or the idea of poetry,' so you wrote;
    'the vagueness of exaltation aroused by a sweet air (which should be
    indefinite and never too strongly suggestive), is precisely what we should aim
    at in poetry.' You aimed at that mark, and struck it again and again, notably
    in 'Helen, thy beauty is to me,' in 'The Haunted Palace,' 'The Valley of
    Unrest,' and 'The City in the Sea.' But by some Nemesis which might, perhaps,
    have been foreseen, you are, to the world, the poet of one poem--'The Raven:'
    a piece in which the music is highly artificial, and the 'exaltation' (what
    there is of it) by no means particularly 'vague.' So a portion of the public
    know little of Shelley but the 'Skylark,' and those two incongruous birds, the
    lark and the raven, bear each of them a poet's name _vivu'_per_ora_virum_.
    Your theory of poetry, if accepted, would make you (after the author of 'Kubla
    Khan') the foremost of the poets of the world; at no long distance would come
    Mr. William Morris as he was when he wrote 'Golden Wings,' 'The Blue Closet,'
    and 'The Sailing of the Sword ;' and, close up, Mr. Lear, the author of 'The
    Yongi Bongi Bo,' and the lay of the 'Jumblies.'

    On the other hand Homer would sink into the limbo to which you consigned
    Molie're. If we may judge a theory by its results, when compared with the
    deliberate verdict of the world, your aesthetic does not seem to hold water.
    The 'Odyssey' is not really inferior to 'Ulalume,' as it ought to be if your
    doctrine of poetry were correct, nor 'Le Festin de Pierre' to 'Undine.' Yet
    you deserve the praise of having been constant, in your poetic practice, to
    your poetic principles--principles commonly deserted by poets who, like
    Wordsworth, have published their aesthetic system. Your pieces are few; and
    Dr. Johnson would have called you, like Fielding, 'a barren rascal.' But how
    can a writer's verses be numerous if with him, as with you, 'poetry is not a
    pursuit but a passion. . . which cannot at will be excited with an eye to the
    paltry compensations or the more paltry commendations of mankind!' Of you it
    may be said, more truly than Shelley said it of himself, that 'to ask you for
    anything human, is like asking at a gin-shop for a leg of mutton.'

    Humanity must always be, to the majority of men, the true stuff of poetry; and
    only a minority will thank you for that rare music which (like the strains of
    the fiddler in the story) is touched on a single string, and on an instrument
    fashioned from the spoils of the grave. You chose, or you were destined
    To vary from the kindly race of men;
    and the consequences, which wasted your life, pursue your reputation. For your
    stories has been reserved a boundless popularity, and that highest success --
    the success of a perfectly sympathetic translation. By this time, of course,
    you have made the acquaintance of your translator, M. Charles Baudelaire, who
    so strenuously shared your views about Mr. Emerson and the Transcendentalists,
    and who so energetically resisted all those ideas of 'progress' which 'came
    from Hell or Boston.' On this point, however, the world continues to differ
    from you and M. Baudelaire, and perhaps there is only the choice between our
    optimism and universal suicide or universal opium-eating. But to discuss your
    ultimate ideas is perhaps a profitless digression from the topic of your prose

    An English critic (probably a Northerner at heart) has described them as
    'Hawthorne and delirium tremens.' I am not aware that extreme orderliness,
    masterly elaboration, and unchecked progress towards a predetermined effect
    are characteristics of the visions of delirium. If they be, then there is a
    deal of truth in the criticism, and a good deal of delirium tremens in your
    style. But your ingenuity, your completeness, your occasional luxuriance of
    fancy and wealth of jewel-like words, are not, perhaps, gifts which Mr.
    Hawthorne had at his command. He was a great writer--the greatest writer in
    prose fiction whom America has produced. But you and he have not much in
    common, except a certain mortuary turn of mind and a taste for gloomy
    allegories about the workings of conscience.

    I forbear to anticipate your verdict about the latest essays of American
    fiction. These by no means folow in the lines which you laid down about
    brevity and the steady working to one single effect. Probably you would not be
    very tolerant (tolerance was not your leading virtue) of Mr. Roe, now your
    countrymen's favourite novelist. He is long, he is didactic, he is eminently
    uninspired. In the works of one who is, what you were called yourself, a
    Bostonian, you would admire, at least, the acute observation, the subtlety,
    and the unfailing distinction. But, destitute of humour as you unhappily but
    undeniably were, you would miss, I fear, the charm of 'Daisy Miller.' You
    would admit the unity of effect secured in 'Washington Square,' though that
    effect is as remote as possible from the terror of 'The House of Usher' or the
    vindictive triumph of 'The Cask of Amontillado.'

    Farewell, farewell, thou sombre and solitary spirit: a genius tethered to the
    hack-work of the press, a gentleman among _canaille_, a poet among poetasters,
    dowered with a scholar's taste without a scholar's training, embittered by his
    sensitive scorn, and all unsupported by his consolations.
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