Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Quills in Poe's Quiver

I'm dredging this up from a year long past - just because it still amuses me. 

Everyone knows those most excellent delineations of horror and psychological madness penned into reality by Edgar A. Poe. He remains the Grand Master, the Puissant Thaumaturge. But fewer people know that Poe was one of America's most trenchant literary critics. In Poe we have the critic who did not mince words ... who did not pull his punches. A good review from Poe was surely earned through Herculean efforts by a writer laboring for a slim foothold on the slopes of Parnassus. But a critical pan .... could any author continue to blithely sail about on the literary sea after Poe had leveled a critical broadside at their plimsoll line?

The following example of Poe's caustic tongue-in-quill is from the December 1839 Burton's Gentleman's Magazine.

Harrumph, it is obvious that someone didn't pay their dues.

The Poets of America, Illustrated by one of Her Painters. Edited by John Keese . Colman, New York. 1839

"This long announced and much puffed volume has at last made its appearance. For the sake of the publisher, whose enterprising spirit deserves at least the good-will of the critic, we regret that we cannot award his beloved bantling a word of honest praise. We are compelled to pronounce this "splendid gift book", this loudly-vaunted specimen of American art and science, a common-place and profitless attempt. .... We are not sold to the will of any publisher; we never criticize a work without giving it an attentive perusal; we never obtain the gratuitous presentation of expensive publications by the promise of a puff; nor do we covertly slander a brother scribe because he is connected with another periodical. There are editors who cannot make these averments. The expression of our just opinions may give offense to various individuals, but we are not to be deterred in the execution of our critical duty.

"The editor of the Poets of America has woefully erred in the selection of some of the authors included in is list -- we know not whether he has mistaken the quality of the chosen from the lack of a kindred spirit with the sons of poetry -- from an ignorance of the attributes of of those whose name, although not enrolled on the catalogue of his acquaintance, have awakened the echoes of the bi-forked hill -- or whether he has suffered the interference of personal prejudice to warp his judgment and direct his choice.

"When we observe that some of the most celebrated poets of the day are excluded from his selection, and that various minor lights burn in the highest places, we are tempted to doubt the truth of his averment that he sought to present the finest specimens -- the true spirit of American poetry. There are names in his list 'alike to fortune and fame unknown', and the merits of their doings will not compensate the reader the offence of pushing better men from their stools. One writer, who has not yet attained the heights of mediocrity, has three pieces within eleven ages, while some of the best poets of the age, not being intimately connected with the publisher, are compelled tostand the ordeal of a single exhibition, and others are prohibited from all chance of show. "

[Poe gives us a sample ... and wretched it certainly is]

"The pictures are tolerably fanciful in conception, but their execution is paltry and ineffective; many of them are inferior to the woodcuts in Peter parley's school books. .... [the woodcuts] are inexplicable in their detail, and seem as if they had been engraved with a sharp fork on the back of a pewter plate."

E. A. Poe was one of the most incisive and important critics of his day. Most of his pronouncements on writers well stand the test of time.


1 comment:

Undine said...

Thanks. Nobody could wield a literary tomahawk like good old Edgar.