Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Poe as Critic: The Drake-Halleck Review

I've spent the last few weeks reading a variety of works by Edgar Allan Poe (and Coleridge, for that matter), preparing for a paper that I am co-authoring with Sean Moreland on the connections between Schelling, Coleridge, and Poe. Sean is in Seattle, whittling the material down to a twenty minute presentation, to be given on Sunday morning at the MLA conference (see here). If you're in the area, I'd recommend checking it out. At least I've learned a few things from this unlikely line of research.

I've also learned that Poe could be a devastating critic. It's one thing to engage in polemics--something I'm sure we're all familiar with. But Poe takes literary criticism to another level, given that he's unafraid to use his talents to mischievous effect. As in laugh out loud funny, although if I build it up too much you will not laugh, and thus not embarrass yourself by punctuating the silence of a library or the murmur of a café.

In the Drake-Halleck review (in fact, go read it rather than what follows here), Poe attacks the tendency of American critics to inflate the literary value of American authors, noting that we "find ourselves involved in the gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American." There are, Poe argues, cases in which American literature measures up to other national literatures (he's thinking particularly of  the British), but overestimating sub-par work by authors such as Joseph Rodman Drake and Fitz Greene Halleck undermines "the health and prosperity of out literature."

In what follows, Poe argues that Drake's poetry only requires a "moderate endowment of the faculty of Comparision"--the fancy-- rather than a facility with imagination and ideality. After summarizing the plot of the poem the Culprit Fay, he writes (all that follows is from Poe):
It will be there seen that what is so frequently termed the imaginative power of this story, lies especially- we should have rather said is thought to lie- in the passages we have quoted, or in others of a precisely similar nature. These passages embody, principally, mere specifications of qualities, of habiliments, of punishments, of occupations, of circumstances, &c., which the poet has believed in unison with the size, firstly, and secondly with the nature of his Fairies. To all which may be added specifications of other animal existences (such as the toad, the beetle, the lance-fly, the fire-fly and the like) supposed also to be in accordance. An example will best illustrate our meaning upon this point-
He put his acorn helmet on;
It was plumed of the silk of the thistle down:
The corslet plate that guarded his breast
Was once the wild bee's golden vest;
His cloak of a thousand mingled dyes,
Was formed of the wings of butterflies;
His shield was the shell of a lady-bug queen,
Studs of gold on a ground of green;
And the quivering lance which he brandished bright
Was the sting of a wasp he had slain in fight.
We shall now be understood. Were any of the admirers of the Culprit Fay asked their opinion of these lines, they would most probably speak in high terms of the imagination they display. Yet let the most stolid and the most confessedly unpoetical of these admirers only try the experiment, and he will find, possibly to his extreme surprise, that he himself will have no difficulty whatever in substituting for the equipments of the Fairy, as assigned by the poet, other equipments equally comfortable, no doubt, and equally in unison with the preconceived size, character, and other qualities of the equipped. Why we could accoutre him as well ourselves- let us see.
His blue-bell helmet, we have heard
Was plumed with the down of the hummingbird,
The corslet on his bosom bold
Was once the locust's coat of gold,
His cloak, of a thousand mingled hues,
Was the velvet violet, wet with dews,
His target was, the crescent shell
Of the small sea Sidrophel,
And a glittering beam from a maiden's eye
Was the lance which he proudly wav'd on high.
The truth is, that the only requisite for writing verses of this nature, ad libitum is a tolerable acquaintance with the qualities of the objects to be detailed, and a very moderate endowment of the faculty of Comparison- which is the chief constituent of Fancy or the powers of combination. A thousand such lines may be composed without exercising in the least degree the Poetic Sentiment, which is Ideality, Imagination, or the creative ability. And, as we have before said, the greater portion of the Culprit Fay is occupied with these, or similiar things, and upon such, depends very nearly, if not altogether, its reputation.

1 comment:

Undine said...

Some of Poe's critical essays are among the funniest things I've ever read. (Admittedly, I like my humor a bit cruel.) His famous take-down of the novel "Norman Leslie" was even livelier.