The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XIV. Poe

§ 11. Poe as Critic

It was as critic that Poe first attracted widespread attention. As editor of the Messenger and Burton’s and Graham’s his chief function was that of book-reviewer; and much of the work that he did for other periodicals was of the nature of book-reviews and gossip about books and authors. The bulk of his work in this field is journalistic in style and of ephemeral interest, much of it being the merest hack-writing; but there remains a small body of critical matter that possesses genuine worth and distinction, and that entitles Poe to an honourable place among the literary critics of America. Assuredly no other American critic of his day, save Lowell, may take rank above him. This residue of good work comprises a score of masterly book-reviews, including the memorable notices of Longfellow’s Ballads, Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, and Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge; some half-dozen essays in the theory of criticism, of which the earliest is his Letter to B——, and the most significant is his Poetic Principle; and a series of obiter dicta, collected under the title Marginalia, which have justly been held to contain much of his best work as critic.

His most distinctive gifts as critic were clearness of intellect and a faculty for analysis. Few Americans of his time had finer intellectual endowments. He also had the poet’s “faculty of ideality,” on which he laid great stress in his judgments of others. And he was the most independent and fearless of critics, disdaining not to attack either high or low. He had not read very widely; but he knew his Milton well, and probably his Shakespeare and his Pope, and he was familiar with the chief Romantic poets of the age immediately preceding his own; while as editor and magazinist he kept in close touch with contemporary literature. On the other hand, he was prone to exaggerate technical blemishes and to underestimate ethical and philosophical significance. And his taste was not always impeccable. By his contemporaries he was thought of as inexcusably harsh in his criticisms: by one of them he is dubbed the “tomahawk man,” by another the “broad-axe man”; and Lowell remarks, in his sketch of him, that he seemed “sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his inkstand.” What is more to his discredit, he stooped now and then to log-rolling both on his own account and on behalf of his friends, and his unfavourable judgments appear to have been actuated in some instances by animus and jealousy. But most of his critical judgments have been sustained by time. And despite the arrogance charged against him by Griswold and others, it is to be set down to his credit that he ungrudgingly conceded to Longfellow and Lowell the primacy among the American poets of his time and that he generously proclaimed Hawthorne to be without a peer in his peculiar field. His chief hobbies as critic were originality—and, per contra, imitation and plagiarism—“unity or totality of effect,” consistency and “keeping,” verisimilitude, “the heresy of the didactic,” provinciality, metrical imperfections of whatever sort, and verbal inaccuracies and infelicities; some of which hobbies—as plagiarism—he rode over-hard. But his influence in an age when wholesale adulation was the rule, and when art counted for but little, was naturally wholesome.

Among the best known of his critical dicta is his characterization of the short story in his notice of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1842). Probably no other passage in American literary criticism has been quoted so often as the following extract from this review:

  • A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel.
  • Scarcely less famous are some of his deliverances on the meaning and the province and aims of poetry. Poetry he defined as the “rhythmical creation of beauty,” holding with Coleridge, his chief master as critic, that its “immediate object” is “pleasure, not truth”; and that “with the intellect or with the conscience it has only collateral relations.” “Poetry and passion” he held to be “discordant.” And humour, also, he believed to be “antagonistical to that which is the soul of the muse proper.” Sadness he declared to be the most poetic of moods; and “indefinitiveness” one of the chief essentials of lyric excellence. A long poem he held, with Bryant, to be a “contradiction in terms.”