Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Much has been said of its coarseness," or, Some notes on poets and reviews

Today's offerings from the ol' literary steam tray: a few somewhat connected notes on poets and reviews:

1 In the course of confirming the other day that Walt Whitman, for all his exuberance, was not the tipsy poetic champion of the American outdoors that I was looking for, I happened across a fascinating contemporary review of Leaves of Grass. Published anonymously in the June 8, 1867 issue of the London Review and Weekly Journal of Politics, Society, Literature, and Art, it is now available in the Whitman archive.

The passage that led the review to be delivered up as a result of my Google search for "Whitman drunk" was this one:
That there is genius in these poems is unquestionable; yet it is difficult to assign their author any place in literature, unless, indeed, one may assume the veracity of metempsychosis, and say that here is Hafiz again, only drunk now with Catawba wine instead of the Saoma, and worshipping the Mississippi river instead of the Saravati, which, having dried up in Persia, may be supposed to have also transmigrated westward.
Lots of references to clear up there: Hafiz is a classical Persian poet, the Catawba is a wine grape from the eastern United States (as well as a Native American tribe), Saoma appears to be a creek, often dry, in Vanuatu, and the Saravati is the Saraswati, a holy Hindu river. That's a fairly longwinded way for the reviewer to point out that Whitman had expanded his reach to draw on Eastern traditions, especially as the reviewer goes on to point out that Leaves of Grass
is really meant to be, and is, intensely American. It is but just, however, to say that the America it celebrates is a transcendental one, related to the world and the distant stars, and not "Uncle Sam's" fenced-in national farm.
{Side note: I love that Uncle Sam was still a new enough concept that it needed to be set off in quotes.}

Still, the reviewer deserves credit for clearly grasping the quality and originality of Whitman's vision. Though he acknowledges that Whitman "is not a poet for the family circle, nor is his book one which could be allowed into everybody's hands," he ultimately offers praise that seems to truly understand Whitman's poetic aims:
There is a wild, natural exuberance of animalism displayed by Whitman of a thoroughly original kind, an open-air abandonment, a weird and exalted receptivity embracing the good and the bad, the vice and the virtue of life, with a power and comprehensiveness as striking as it is novel. If he will but learn to tame a little, America will at last have a genuine American poet.

2 I've enjoyed reading contemporary reviews of established classics ever since a professor in college lent me a volume of contemporary reviews of Dickens's novels; remembering the clash of opinions and the virulence with which they were put forth is a help when I find myself too deep in the book review world of our own era. And speaking of drunk poets, I wonder whether any of Edgar Allan Poe's reviews of Dickens were in that volume--for, as Jill Lepore reminds us in her excellent article on Poe in last week's New Yorker, Poe wrote two reviews of Barnaby Rudge.

Strangely enough, while Lepore calls one of the reviews--in Graham's Magazine--unfavorable, The Poe Encyclopedia (1997) describes it, as well as Poe's review for Philadelphia's Saturday Evening Post, "extremely laudatory." The passages they cite, however, seem to lean more towards Lepore's position: they note that though Poe praised Dicken as a masterly "delineator of character," he faulted him for his ramshackle plots, and closed by writing,
He has done this thing well, to be sure--he would do anything well compared to the herd of his contemporaries--but he has not done it so thoroughly well as his high and just reputation would demand. We think that the whole book has been an effort to him--solely through the nature of its design.
Poe did, however, send Dickens the reviews, along with an invitation to meet, which Dickens took up--so perhaps Poe's assessment was more favorable it appears.

3 Poe, that "scarecrow figure" with his "half-lynched mind," as V. S. Pritchett described him, might be a contender for the mantle of tipsy poetic champion of American nature, except that he didn't write all that much about nature, and what he did write so often carries more than a whiff of death and decay. While "To the River ____" might fit the bill--
Fair river! in thy bright, clear flow
Of crystal, wandering water,
Thou art an emblem of the glow
Of beauty--the unhidden heart--
The playful maziness of art
In old Alberto's daughter;

But when within thy wave she looks--
Which glistens then, and trembles--
Why, then, the prettiest of brooks
Her worshipper resembles;
For in his heart, as in thy stream,
Her image deeply lies--
His heart which trembles at the beam
Of her soul-searching eyes.
--the essence of Poe seems to reside more in "The Lake--To ----":
In Spring of youth it was my lot
To haunt of the wide world a spot
The which I could not love the less –
So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
And the tall pines that towered around.

But when the night had thrown her pall
Upon that spot, as upon all,
And the mystic wind went by
Murmuring in melody
Then - ah, then, I would awake
To the terror of the lone lake.

Yet that terror was not fright,
But a tremulous delight –
A feeling not the jewelled mine
Could teach or bribe me to define –
Nor Love - although the love were thine.

Death was in that poisonous wave,
And in its gulf a fitting grave
For him who thence could solace bring
To his lone imagining –
Whose solitary soul could make
An Eden of that dim lake.
Which, you'll surely agree, offers a very different tone than the poems of Lu Yu that started me on this quest.

4 Finally, no post on Poe and reviews would be complete without the story of Poe's own high opinion of "The Raven." I've drawn on it before, so the only teaser I'll give is that in the hours after writing it he was adament that it was "the greatest poem ever written." Go read the whole account; you won't regret it.


  1. Lepore is wrong on this point (this word, "unfavorable"). The story of the two reviews is a little strange. I wrote about it a bit here.

    The first "review" was written when Poe had only just started Barnaby Rudge. Poe solves the mystery in advance.

    The second "review" is about how and why Dickens messed up the original mystery, thereby invalidating Poe's superior solution.

    Poe was known as the Tomahawk Man, and his negative reviews are blistering. I have excerpts from a number of them scattered around Wuthering Expectations.

    In general, Poe treated Dickens like a force of nature, in his own category. Poe's assumption was that everyone interested in literature would, as a matter of course, read Barnaby Rudge, because even Dickens' weakest books were so superior to the mass of junk. but that didn't mean Poe couldn't criticize it.

    I've written so much about Poe lately - another post today! - that I am possibly becoming sick of him. But then I look at that "Raven" anecdote (which I read when you first wrote about it) and my enthusiasm is refreshed.

  2. Amateur Reader,
    Thanks for the information--your post really helps clear up the confusion. Now I'm looking forward to reading through all your Poe posts!

  3. The problem with summarizing any Poe review is that he rarely is one-sided. Even his infamous battles with Longfellow have ample praise, and his famous laudatory reviews of Hawthorne are full of nit-picky negative commentary. So, in fact, Poe's review of Dickens are both laudatory and critical - as was typical.