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[Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, from Southern Literary Messenger, September 1835, pp. 776-780.]


[page 776:]

CRITICAL NOTICES.

    Mephistopheles in England, or the Confessions of a Prime Minister, 2 vols. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard. In a long poetical dedication this book is inscribed "to the immortal spirit of the illustrious Goethe" -- and the design, title, and machinery are borrowed from the Faust of that writer. The author, whoever he may be, is a man of talent, of fine poetical taste, and much general erudition. But nothing less than the vitiated state of public feeling in England could have induced him to lavish those great powers upon a work of this nature. It abounds with the coarsest and most malignant satire, at the same time evincing less of the power than of the will for causticity -- and being frequently most feeble when it attempts to be the most severe. In this point it resembles the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. The most glaring defect, however, in the structure of the book is its utter want of keeping. It appears, moreover, to have no just object or end -- unless indeed we choose to consider that its object which is the object of the hero proper himself -- "the hell-doomed son of Sin and Death Mephistopheles" -- to cherish and foster the malice, the heart-burnings, and all evil propensities of our nature. The work must, therefore, as a whole be condemned, notwithstanding tile rare qualities which have been brought to its composition. To prove that these qualities exist in a very high degree in the writer [page 777:] of Mephistopheles, it would only be necessary to spread before our readers the scene of the Incantation in the Hartz. It is replete with imagination of the most etherial kind -- is written with a glow and melody of language altogether inimitable -- and bears upon every sentence the impress of genius. It will be found a seasonable relief from the mingled coxcombry, pedantry, and gall which make up the body of the book. But we will confine ourselves at present to an extract of a far different nature, as affording a better exemplification of what we have previously said.

    "Between the acts the curtain rose for a divertisement, in which the incomparable Taglioni made her appearance. She was greeted with the loudest demonstrations of popularity front her numerous patrons, which she acknowledged by several graceful courtesies. 'Behold! said Mephistopheles, directing my attention to the evolutions of the dancer, the progress of civilization. If all this were not so graceful it would be indecent, and that such an exhibition has a moral tendency is more than doubtful. Look at that young girl in the pit. She has seen sufficient to crimson her face, neck, and shoulders with a blush of shame, and she hides her head from a sight which has shocked her sense of decency. There is no affectation there. She is an innocent girl fresh from the country who never saw a ballet in her life. Yet all the rest, man, woman and child, gaze on delighted. Every glass is raised the more closely to watch the motions of the figurante. Look! -- she makes a succession of vaults, and her scanty drapery flying above her hips discloses to her enraptured admirers the beauty of her limbs. A thousand hands beat each other in approbation. Now she pirouettes, and observe the tumult of applause which follows. She stands on her left foot, on the point of her great toe nail, extending her right leg until the top of her foot is in a parallel line with the crown of her head. In this position she bends with an appearance of the greatest ease, till her body nearly touches the ground, and then gradually rises with the same infinite grace amid enthusiastic bravos and ecstatic applause. Now on her tip-toe, her right leg still extended, she moves slowly round, liberally extending to all her patrons within sight the most favorable opportunity of scrutinizing the graces of her figure, while the whose house testify their infinite gratification at the sight by every species of applause. Again she comes from the back of the stage, turning round and round with the speed of a tetotum but with an indescribable and fascinating grace that seems to turn the head of every young man in the theatre. During the storm of approbation which ensues she stands near the footlights, smiling, courtseying, and looking as modest as an angel. Then comes Perrot, who is as much the idol of the ladies as Taglioni is the goddess of the gentlemen. He leaps about as if his feet were made of India rubber, and spins around as if he intended to bore a hole with his toe in the floor of the stage. Then a little pantomime love business takes place between the danseur and the danseuse, and they twirl away, and glide along, and hold eloquent discourse with their pliant limbs; and the affair ends by the gentleman clasping the lady round the waist, while he, bending his body in the most graceful attitude, so that his head shall come under her left arm, looks up in apparent ecstacy into her smiling face as the lady raised high above him on the extreme point of her left foot, extends her right hand at right angles with her body, and looks down admiringly upon her companion. Thus grouped the curtain drops, and every one cries bravo! thumps the floor with his stick, or beats his palms together till such a din is raised as is absolutely deafening.'

    "' She is a charming dancer,' I observed.

    " 'Yes' -- replied he -- 'she understands the philosophy of her art better than any of her contemporaries: it is to throw around sensuality such a coloring of refinement as will divest it of its grossness. For this she is [column 2:] paid a hundred pounds a night, and is allowed two benefits in the season which generally average a thousand pounds each. While you are thus liberal to a dancer, some of the worthiest of your ministers of religion receive about fifty pounds per annum for wearing out their lives for the good of your souls; and many of your most exalted men of genius are left to starve. Such is the consistency of human nature.'"

 
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    The District School, or National Education, by J. Orville Taylor. Third Edition. Philadelphia: Carey Lea & Blanchard. This work has met with universal approbation, and is worthy of it. The book was first published only a short time ago, and the third impression will speedily be exhausted, as parents have a direct personal concern in the matter, and in the important truths, duties, and responsibilities, herein pointed out. Mr. Taylor is entitled to the gratitude of his countrymen for that beneficial impulse which his work has been, and will be the means of giving to the great cause of General Education. "If a parent," says Mr. Taylor, "does not educate his child-the world will." We sincerely hope so. As the District School now appears it has been entirely re-written, and such alterations and additions made as the experience of the author suggested. We heartily wish it all the success it so eminently deserves.

 
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    The New England Magazine for September is unusually rich. Among its numerous and very excellent articles we would particularly notice a paper called "My Journal" -- and more especially Scraps of Philosophy and Criticism from a recent work of Victor Hugo's. One of these Scraps on Style, we are sure we shall be pardoned for extracting.

    "If the name here inscribed were a name of note --if the voice which speaks here were a voice of power -- we would entreat the young and brilliant talents on which depends the future lot of a literature for three ages so magnificent to reflect how important is their mission, and to preserve in their manner of writing the most worthy and severe habitudes. The Future -- let them think well of it -- belongs only to the masters of style. Without referring to the admirable works of antiquity, and confining ourselves to our National Literature, try to take from the thought of our great writers the expression which is peculiar to it. Take from Moliere his lively, ardent, frank, and amusing verse, so well made, so well turned, so well finished -- take from Lafontaine the simple and honest perfection of detail -- take from the phrase of Corneille the vigorous muscle, the strong cords, the beautiful forms of exaggerated vigor, which would have made of the old poet half Roman, half Spanish, the Michael Angelo of our tragedy if the elements of genius had mingled as much fancy as thought -- take from Racine that touch in his style which resembles Raphael, a touch chaste, harmonious, and repressed like that of Raphael, although of an inferior power -- quite as pure but less grand, as perfect though less sublimetake from Fenelon, the man of his age who had the best sentiment of antiquity, that prose as melodious and severe as the verse of Racine of which it is the sister -- take from Bossuet the magnificent bearing of his periods --take from Boileau his grave and sober manner at times so admirably colored -- take from Pascal that original and mathematical style with so much appropriateness in the choice of words, and so much logic in every metaphor -- take from Voltaire that clear, solid, and indestructible prose, that crystal prose of Candide, and the Philosophical Dictionary -- take from all these great writers that simple attraction -- style: and of Voltaire, of Pascal, of Boileau, of Bossuet, of Fenelon, of [page 778:] Racine, of Corneille, of Lafontaine, of Moliere -- of all these masters what will remain? It is style which insures duration to the work, and fame to the poet. Beauty of expression embellishes beauty of thought, and preserves it -- It is at the same time an ornament and an armor. Style to the idea is like enamel to the tooth."

 
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    The Western Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences, edited by Daniel Drake, M. D. Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine in Cincinnati College, and formerly Professor of the same in Transylvania University, and the Jefferson Medical College, Doctors C. R. Cooper and S. Reed, assistant Editors and Proprietors. Vol. IX, No. 33. We have received this Journal with the greatest plea sure, and avail ourselves of the present opportunity to express our opinion concerning it. It is an invaluable addition to our Medical and Scientific Literature, and at the same time one of the very cheapest publications in the country, each number containing 168 pages of closely printed matter, and the subscription price being only $3 per annum. The work is issued on the first day of July, October, January, and April, and has lately been incorporated with the Western Medical Gazette. We sincerely wish the publication every possible success -- for it is well worthy of it. Its typographical and mechanical execution altogether are highly creditable to Cincinnati, and the able and well known collaborators, a list of whose names is upon the opening page of each number, and whose editorial offices are engaged in the service of the Journal, will not fail to impart a sterling character and value to the Medical, as well as purely Literary portions of the work. We take the liberty of extracting from page 79, of the present number, (that for July) an interesting account of a cure of partial spontaneous combustion, occurring in the person of Professor H. of the University of Nashville. The portion extracted is contained in a Review of An Essay on Spontaneous Combustion, read before the Medical Society in the State of Tennessee, at their annual meeting in May 1835. 1 y James Overton, M. D.

    "Prof. H., of the University of Nashville, is a gentleman 35 years old, of middle size, light hair, hazle [[hazel]] eyes, and sanguinolymphatic temperament; he has been extremely temperate as to alcoholic stimulation of every kind; led a sedentary and studious life; and been subject to a great variety of dyspeptic affections. On the 5th of January, 1835, he left his recitation room at 11 o'clock, A.M., and walked briskly, with his surtout buttoned round him, to his residence, three quarters of a mile. The thermometer was at 8o, and the barometer at 29.248 -- the sky clear and calm. On reaching home he engaged in meteorological observations, and in 30 minutes, while in the open air about to record the direction of the winds --

    "' He felt a pain as if produced by the pulling of a hair, on the left leg, and which amounted in degree to a strong sensation. Upon applying his hand to the spot pained, the sensation suddenly increased, till it amounted in intensity to a feeling resembling the continued sting of a wasp or hornet. He then began to slap the part by repeated strokes with the open hand, during which time the pain continued to increase in intensity, so that he was forced to cry out from the severity of his suffering. Directing his eyes at this moment to the suffering part, he distinctly saw a light flame of the extent, at its base, of a ten cent piece of coin, and having a complexion which nearest resembles that of pure quicksilver. Of the accuracy in this latter feature in the appearance of the flame, Mr. H. is very confident, notwithstanding the unfavorable circumstances amidst [column 2:] which the observation must have been made. As soon as he perceived the flame, he applied over it both his hands open, united at their edges, and closely impacted upon and around the burning surface. These means were employed by Mr. H. for the purpose of extinguish ing the flame by the exclusion of the contact of the atmosphere, which he knew was necessary to the continuance of every combustion. The result was in conformity with the design, for the flame immediately went out. As soon as the flame was extinguished, the pain began to abate in intensity, but still continued, and gave the sensation usually the effect of a slight application of heat or fire to the body, which induced him to seize his pantaloons with one of his hands and to pinch them up into a conical form over the injured part of the leg, thereby to remove them from any contact with the skin below. This operation was continued for a minute or two, with a design of extinguishing any combustion which might be present in the substance of his apparel, but which was not visible at the time. At the beginning of the accident, the sensation of injury was con fined to a spot of small diameter, and in its progress the pain was still restricted to this spot, increasing in intensity and depth to a considerable extent, but without much if any enlargement of the surface which it occupied at the beginning. A warmth was felt to a considerable distance around the spot primarily affected, but the sensation did not by any means amount in degree to the feeling of pain. This latter sensation was almost, if not entirely confined to the narrow limits which bounded the seat of the first attack, and this sensation was no otherwise modified during the progress of the accident, than by its increasing intensity and deeper penetration into the muscles of the limb, which at its greatest degree seemed to sink an inch or more into the substance of the leg.

    " 'Believing the combustion to have been extinguish ed by the means just noticed, and the pain having greatly subsided, leaving only the feeling usually the effect of a slight burn, he untied and pulled up his pantaloons and drawers, for the purpose of ascertaining the condition of the part which had been the seat of his suffering. He found a surface on the outer and upper part of the left leg, reaching from the femoral end of the fibula in an oblique direction, towards the upper portion of the grastrochnemi muscles, about three-fourths of an inch in width, and three inches in length, denuded of the scarfskin, and this membrane gathered into a roll at the lower edge of the abraded surface. The injury resembled very exactly in appearance an abrasion of the skin of like extent and depth, often the effect of slight mechanical violence, except that the surface of it was extremely dry, and had a complexion more livid than that of wounds of a similar extent produced by the action of mechanical causes.' pp. 25-26.

    "His drawers, composed of silk and wool, immediately over the abraded skin, were burnt entirely through, but the scorching had not extended in the slightest degree beyond. The pantaloons, made of broadcloth, were uninjured; but over the affected spot, the extremities of the wool were tinged with a kind of dark, yellowish matter, which could be easily scraped off with a knife.

    "'Considering the injury not to be of a serious character, Mr. H. bestowed upon its treatment no particular care or attention, but pursued his usual avocations within doors and in the open air, which was very cold, until the evening of the succeeding day. At this time the wound became inflamed and painful, and was dressed with a salve, into the composition of which the rosin of turpentine entered in considerable proportion. This treatment was continued for four or five days, during which time the wound presented the usual aspect of a burn from ordinary causes, except in its greater depth and more tardy progress towards cicatrization, which did not take place till after thirty-two days from the date of the infliction of the injury. The part of the ulcer which healed last was the point of inception and [page 779:] intensity of the pain at the time of attack, and which point was evidently the seat of deeper injury than any other portion of the wounded surface. About the fifth day after the accident, a physician was requested to take charge of the treatment, and the remedies employed were such chiefly, as are usual in the treatment of burns from other causes, except that twice a week the surface of the ulcer was sprinkled over with calomel, and a dressing of simple cerate applied above it. In the space between the wound and the groin there was a considerable soreness of the integuments to the touch, which continued during the greatest violence of the effects of the accident, and then gradually subsided. The cicatrix is at this time, March 24th, entire; but the surface is unusually scabrous, and has a much more livid aspect than that of similar scars left after the infliction of burns from common causes. The dermis seemed to have been less perfectly regenerated than is usual from burns produced by ordinary means, and the circulation through the part is manifestly impeded, apparently in consequence of atony of its vessels, to an extent far beyond any thing of a similar nature to be observed after common burns.'" pp. 27-28.

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    The Classical Family Library. Numbers XV, XVI, and XVII. Euripides translated by the Reverend R. Potter, Prebendary of Norwich. Harper & Brothers, New York. These three volumes embrace the whole of Euripides -- AEschylus and Sophocles having already been published in the Library. A hasty glance at the work will not enable us to speak positively in regard to the value of these translations. The name of Potter, however, is one of high authority, and we have no reason to suspect that he has not executed his task as well as any man living could have done it. But that these, or that any poetic versions can convey to the mind of the merely general reader the most remote conception of either the manner, the spirit, or the meaning of the Greek dramatists, is what Mr. Potter does not intend us to believe, and what we certainly should not believe if he did. At all events, it must be a subject of general congratulation, that in the present day, for a sum little exceeding three dollars, any lover of the classics may possess him. self of complete versions of the three greatest among the ancient Greek writers of tragedy.

    Ardent admirers of Hellenic Literature, we have still no passion for Euripides. Truly great when compared with many of the moderns, he falls immeasurably below his immediate predecessors. "He is admirable," says a German critic, "where the object calls chiefly for emotion, and requires the display of no higher qualities; and he is still more so where pathos and moral beauty are united. Few of his pieces are without particular passages of the most overpowering beauty. It is by no means my intention to deny him the possession of the most astonishing talents: I have only stated that these talents were not united with a mind in which the austerity of moral principle, and the sanctity of religious feelings were held in the highest honor."

The life, essence, and characteristic qualities of the ancient Greek drama may be found in three things. First, in the ruling idea of Destiny or Fate. Secondly, in the Chorus. Thirdly, in Ideality. But in Euripides we behold only the decline and fall of that drama, and the three prevailing features we have mentioned are in him barely distinguishable, or to be seen only in their perversion. What, for example is, with Sophocles, and still more especially with AEschylus, the obscure and [column 2:] terrible spirit of predestination, sometimes mellowed down towards the catastrophe of their dramas into the unseen, yet not unfelt hand of a kind Providence, or overruling God, becomes in the handling of Euripides the mere blindness of accident, or the capriciousness of chance. He thus loses innumerable opportunities -- opportunities which his great rivals have used to so good an effect -- of giving a preternatural and ideal elevation to moral fortitude in the person of his heroes, by means of opposing them in a perpetual warfare with the arbitrations and terrors of Destiny.

    Again; the Chorus, which appears never to have been thoroughly understood by the moderns-the Chorus of Euripides is not, alas! the Chorus of his predecessors. That this singular, or at least apparently singular feature, in the Greek drama, was intended for the mere purpose of preventing the stage from being, at any moment entirely empty, has been an opinion very generally, and very unaccountably received. The Chorus was not, at any time, upon the stage. Its general station was in the orchestra, in which it also performed the solemn dances, and walked to and fro during the choral songs. And when it did not sing, its proper station was upon the thymele, an elevation somewhat like an altar, but with steps, in front of the orchestra, raised as high as the stage, and opposite to the scene -- being also in the very centre of the entire theatre, and serving as a point around which the semi-circle of the amphitheatre was described. Most critics, however, have merely laughed at the Chorus as something superfluous and absurd, urging the folly of enacting passages supposed to be performed in secret in the presence of an assembled crowd, and believing that as it originated in the infancy of the art, it was continued merely through caprice or accident. Sophocles, however, wrote a treatise on the Chorus, and assigned his reasons for persisting in the practice. Aristotle says little about it, and that little affords no clew to its actual meaning or purpose. Horace considers it "a general expression of moral participation, instruction, and admonition;" and this opinion, which is evidently just, has been adopted and commented upon, at some length, by Schlegel. Publicity among the Greeks, with their republican habits and modes of thinking, was considered absolutely essential to all actions of dignity or importance. Their dramatic poetry imbibed the sentiment, and was thus made to display a spirit of conscious independence. The Chorus served to give verisimilitude to the dramatic action, and was, in a word, the ideal spectator. It stood in lieu of the national spirit, and represented the general participation of the human race, in the events going forward upon the stage. This was its most extended, and most proper object; but it had others of a less elevate] nature, and more nearly in accordance with the spirit of our own melo-drama.

    But the Chorus of Euripides was not the true and unadulterated Chorus of the purer Greek tragedy. It is even more than probable that he did never rightly appreciate its full excellence and power, or give it any portion of his serious attention. He made no scruple of admitting the parabasis into his tragedies* -- a license which although well suited to the spirit of comedy, was entirely out of place, and must have had a ludicrous effect [page 780:] in a serious drama. In some instances also, among which we may mention the Danaidae, a female Chorus is permitted by him to make use of grammatical inflexions proper only for males.

    * The parabasis was the privilege granted the Chorus of addressing the spectators in its own person. [This footnote appears at the bottom column 2 on page 779.]

    In respect to the Ideality of the Greek drama, a few words will be sufficient. It was the Ideality of conception, and the Ideality of representation. Character and manners were never the character and manners of every day existence, but a certain, and very marked elevation above them. Dignity and grandeur enveloped each personage of the stage -- but such dignity as comported with his particular station, and such grandeur as was never at outrance with his allotted part. And this was the Ideality of conception. The cothurnus, the mask, the mass of drapery, all so constructed and arranged as to give an increase of bodily size, the scenic illusions of a nature very different, and much more extensive than our own, inasmuch as actual realities were called in to the aid of art, were on the other hand the Ideality of representation. But although in Sophocles, and more especially in AEschylus, character and expression were made subservient and secondary to this ideal and lofty elevation -- in Euripides the reverse is always found to be the case. His heroes are introduced familiarly to the spectators, and so far from raising his men to the elevation of Divinities, his Divinities are very generally lowered to the most degrading and filthy common-places of an earthly existence. But we may sum up our opinion of Euripides far better in the words of Augustus William Schlegel, than in any farther observations of our own.

    "This poet has at the same time destroyed the internal essence of tragedy, and sinned against the laws of beauty and proportion in its external structure. He generally sacrifices the whole to the effect of particular parts, and in these he is also more ambitious of foreign attractions, than of genuine poetical beauty."

 
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    The Early Naval History of England. By Robert Southey, L. L. D. Poet Laureate. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard. The early naval history of England, and by so fine a writer as Southey undoubtedly is, either in poetry or prose, but more especially in the latter, cannot fail of exciting a lively interest among readers of every class. In the subject matter of this work we, as Americans, have moreover a particular feeling, for it has been often remarked that in no national characteristic do we bear a closer analogy to our progenitors in Great Britain than in the magnificence and glory of our many triumphs both over and upon the sea. To those who know Southey well, and we sincerely hope there are not a few of our readers who do know him intimately, through the medium of his writings at least, we shall be under no necessity of giving any assurance that the History of which we are now speaking, is a work of no common merit, and worthy of all their attention. Southey is a writer who has few equals any where, either in purity of truly English prose, or in melody of immortal verse. He is great in every department of Literature which he has attempted. And even did we feel inclined at present, with his very happily executed Naval History before us, to quarrel with some of his too zealous friends for overrating his merely poetical abilities, we could not find it in our hearts to place him second to any one -- no, not to our own noble Irving in ---- we will not use the term classical, but prefer repeating [column 2:] our former expression -- in truly English, undefiled, vigorous, and masculine prose. Yet this the North American Review has ventured to do, not having, we think, before its eyes the fear of flat and positive contradiction from all authorities whose opinions are entitled to consideration. Comparisons of this nature, moreover, rarely fail of appearing, even although they really be not, invidious; and in the present instance we are really aware of no reason, or rather of no possibility for juxta-position. There are no points of approximation between Irving and Southey, and they cannot be compared. Why not say at once, for it could be said as wisely, and as satisfactorily, that Dante's verse is superior to that of Metastasio -- that the Latin of Erasmus is better than the Latin of Buchanan -- that Bolingbroke is a finer prose writer than Horne Tooke, or coming home to our own times, that Tom Moore is to be preferred to Lord Brougham, and the style of N. P. Willis to the style of John Neal? We mean to deal, therefore, in generalities, when we disagree with Mr. Everett in what he has advanced. Irving is not a better prose writer than Southey. We know of no one who is. In saying thus much we do not fear being accused of a deficiency in patriotic feeling. No true -- we mean no sensible American will like a bad book the better for being American, and on the other hand no sensible man of any country, who pretends to even common freedom from prejudice, will esteem such a work as the Naval History of Great Britain the less for being written by a denizen of any region under the sun.

 
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    The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1836. Edited by Miss Leslie. Philadelphia: E. L. Carey and A. Hart. -- We are really sorry that we have no opportunity of noticing this beautiful little Annual at length, and article by article, in our present number: and this the more especially as the edition is even now nearly exhausted, and it will be hardly worth while to say any thing concerning the work in our next, by which time we are very sure there will not be a copy to be obtained at any price. The Gift is highly creditable to the enterprise of its publishers, and more so to the taste and talents of Miss Leslie. This we say positively -- the ill-mannered and worse-natured opinion of the Boston Courier to the contrary notwithstanding. Never had Annual a brighter galaxy of illustrious literary names in its table of contents-and in no instance has any contributor fallen below his or her general reputation. The embellishments are not all of a high order of excellence. The Orphans, for example, engraved by Thomas B. Welch from a painting by J. Wood, is hard and scratchy in manner, and altogether unworthy of the book -- while the head of the child in the Prawn Fishers, engraved by A. W. Graham from a painting by W. Collins, R. A. has every appearance of a cabbage. But the portrait of Fanny Kemble by Cheney, from Sully, is one of the finest things in the world, notwithstanding a certain wiriness above the hair. The likeness is admirable -- the attitude exquisite -- and the countenance is beaming all over with intelligence. The gem of the book, however, is the Smuggler's Repose, engraved by W. E. Tucker from a painting by J. Tennant. We repeat it, this is absolutely a gem -- such as any Souvenir in any country might be proud to possess, and sufficient of itself to stamp a high character upon the Gift.



 
[On October 20, 1835, T. W. White wrote to Lucian Minor, describing the contents of the September issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, "Critical Notices, all by Poe."]
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[S:0 - SLM, 1835]