IT HAS been said that a good critique on a poem may be written by
one who is no poet himself. This, according to your idea and mine of
poetry, I feel to be false- the less poetical the critic, the less
just the critique, and the converse. On this account, and because
the world's good opinion as proud of your own. Another than yourself
might here observe, "Shakespeare is in possession of the world's
good opinion, and yet Shakespeare is the greatest of poets. It appears
then that as the world judges correctly, why should you be ashamed
of their favourable judgment?" The difficulty lies in the
interpretation of the word "judgment" or "opinion." The opinion is the
world's, truly, but it may be called theirs as a man would call a book
his, having bought it; he did not write the book, but it is his;
they did not originate the opinion, but it is theirs. A fool, for
example, thinks Shakespeare a great poet- yet the fool has never
read Shakespeare. But the fool's neighbor, who is a step higher on the
Andes of the mind, whose head (that is to say, his more exalted
thought) is too far above the fool to be seen or understood, but whose
feet (by which I mean his every-day actions) are sufficiently near
to be discerned, and by means of which that superiority is
ascertained, which but for them would never have been discovered- this
neighbor asserts that Shakespeare is a great poet- the fool believes
him, and it is henceforward his opinion. This neighbor's own opinion
has, in like manner, been adopted from one above him, and so,
ascendingly, to a few gifted individuals who kneel around the
summit, beholding, face to face, the master spirit who stands upon the
You are aware of the great barrier in the path of an American
writer. He is read, if at all, in preference to the combined and
established wit of the world. I say established; for it is with
literature as with law or empire- an established name is an estate
in tenure, or a throne in possession. Besides, one might suppose
that books, like their authors, improve by travel- their having
crossed the sea is, with us, so great a distinction. Our antiquaries
abandon time for distance; our very fops glance from the binding to
the bottom of the title-page, where the mystic characters which
spell London, Paris, or Genoa, are precisely so many letters of
I mentioned just now a vulgar error as regards criticism. I think
the notion that no poet can form a correct estimate of his own
writings is another. I remarked before that in proportion to the
poetical talent would be the justice of a critique upon poetry.
Therefore a bad poet would, I grant, make a false critique, and his
self-love would infallibly bias his little judgment in his favour; but
a poet, who is indeed a poet, could not, I think, fail of making a
just critique; whatever should be deducted on the score of self-love
might be replaced on account of his intimate acquaintance with the
subject; in short, we have more instances of false criticism than of
just where one's own writings are the test, simply because we have
more bad poets than good. There are, of course, many objections to
what I say: Milton is a great example of the contrary, but his opinion
with respect to the Paradise Regained is by no means fairly
ascertained. By what trivial circumstances men are often led to assert
what they do not really believe! Perhaps an inadvertent world has
descended to posterity. But, in fact, the Paradise Regained is little,
if at all inferior to the Paradise Lost and is only supposed so to
be because men do not like epics, whatever they may say to the
contrary, and reading those of Milton in their natural order, are
too much wearied with the first to derive any pleasure from the
I dare say Milton preferred Comos to either- if so- justly....
As I am speaking of poetry, it will not be amiss to touch slightly
upon the most singular heresy in its modern history- the heresy of
what is called, very foolishly, the Lake School. Some years ago I
might have been induced, by an occasion like the present, to attempt a
formal refutation of their doctrine; at present it would be a work
of supererogation. The wise must bow to the wisdom of such men as
Coleridge and Southey, but being wise, have laughed at poetical
theories so prosaically exemplified.
Aristotle, with singular assurance, has declared poetry the most
philosophical of all writings- but it required a Wordsworth to
pronounce it the most metaphysical. He seems to think that the end
of poetry is, or should be, instruction; yet it is a truism that the
end of our existence is happiness; if so, the end of every separate
part of our existence, everything connected with our existence, should
be happiness. Therefore the end of instruction should be happiness;
and happiness is another name for pleasure,- therefore the end of
instruction should be pleasure; yet we see the above-mentioned opinion
implies precisely the reverse.
To proceed: ceteris paribus, he who pleases is of more importance to
his fellow-men than he who instructs, since utility is happiness,
and pleasure is the end already obtained while instruction is merely
the means of obtaining.
I see no reason, then, why our metaphysical poets should plume
themselves so much on the utility of their works, unless indeed they
refer to instruction with eternity in view; in which case, sincere
respect for their piety would not allow me to express my contempt
for their judgement; contempt which it would be difficult to
conceal, since their writings are professedly to be understood by
the few, and it is the many who stand in need of salvation. In such
case I should no doubt be tempted to think of the devil in
"Melmoth," who labours indefatigably, through three octavo volumes, to
accomplish the destruction of one or two souls, while any common devil
would have demolished one or two thousand.
Against the subtleties which would make poetry a study- not a
passion- it becomes the metaphysician to reason- but the poet to
protest. Yet Wordsworth and Coleridge are men in years; the one imbued
in contemplating from his childhood, the other a giant in intellect
and learning. The diffidence, then, with which I venture to dispute
their authority would be overwhelming did I not feel, from the
bottom of my heart, that learning has little to do with the
imagination- intellect with the passions- or age with poetry.
by Edgar Allan Poe
Trifles, like straws, upon the surface flow;
He who would search for pearls must dive below,
are lines which have done much mischief. As regards the greater
truths, men oftener err by seeking them at the bottom than at the top;
Truth lies in the huge abysses where wisdom is sought- not in the
palpable palaces where she is found. The ancients were not always
right in hiding the goddess in a well; witness the light which Bacon
has thrown upon philosophy; witness the principles of our divine
faith- that moral mechanism by which the simplicity of a child may
overbalance the wisdom of a man.
We see an instance of Coleridge's liability to err, in his
Biographia Literaria- professedly his literary life and opinions, but,
in fact, a treatise de omni scibili et quibusdam aliis. He goes
wrong by reason of his very profundity, and of his error we have a
natural type in the contemplation of a star. He who regards it
directly and intensely sees, it is true, the star, but it is the
star without a ray- while he who surveys it less inquisitively is
conscious of all for which the star is useful to us below- its
brilliancy and its beauty.
As to Wordsworth, I have no faith in him. That he had in youth the
feelings of a poet I believe- for there are glimpses of extreme
delicacy in his writings- (and delicacy is the poet's own kingdom- his
El Dorado)- but they have the appearance of a better day
recollected; and glimpses, at best, are little evidence of present
poetic fire- we know that a few straggling flowers spring up daily
in the crevices of the glacier.
He was to blame in wearing away his youth in contemplation with
the end of poetizing in his manhood. With the increase of his judgment
the light which should make it apparent has faded away. His judgment
consequently is too correct. This may not be understood,- but the
old Goths of Germany would have understood it, who used to debate
matters of importance to their State twice, once when drunk, and
once when sober- sober that they might not be deficient in
formality- drunk lest they should be destitute of vigour.
The long wordy discussions by which he tries to reason us into
admiration of his poetry, speak very little in his favour: they are
full of such assertions as this (I have opened one of his volumes at
random)- "Of genius the only proof is the act of doing well what is
worthy to be done, and what was never done before";- indeed? then
it follows that in doing what is unworthy to be done, or what has been
done before, no genius can be evinced; yet the picking of pockets is
an unworthy act, pockets have been picked time immemorial and
Barrington, the pickpocket, in point of genius, would have thought
hard of a comparison with William Wordsworth, the poet.
Again- in estimating the merit of certain poems, whether they be
Ossian's or M'Pherson's, can surely be of little consequence, yet,
in order to prove their worthlessness, Mr. W. has expended many
pages in the controversy. Tantaene animis? Can great minds descend
to such absurdity? But worse still: that he may bear down every
argument in favour of these poems, he triumphantly drags forward a
passage in his abomination with which he expects the reader to
sympathise. It is the beginning of the epic poem "Temora." "The blue
waves of Ullin roll in light; the green hills are covered with day,
trees shake their dusty heads in the breeze." And this- this gorgeous,
yet simple imagery, where all is alive and panting with immortality-
this, William Wordsworth, the author of "Peter Bell," has selected for
his contempt. We shall see what better he, in his own person, has to
And now she's at the pony's tail,
And now she's at the pony's head,
On that side now, and now on this;
And, almost stified with her bliss,
A few sad tears does Betty shed....
She pats the pony, where or when
She knows not... happy Betty Foy!
Oh, Johnny, never mind the doctor!
The dew was falling fast, the- stars began to blink;
I heard a voice: it said- "Drink, pretty creature, drink!"
And, looking o'er the hedge, be- fore me I espied
A snow-white mountain lamb, with a- maiden at its side.
No other sheep was near,- the lamb was all alone,
And by a slender cord was- tether'd to a stone.
Now, we have no doubt this is all true; we will believe it, indeed
we will, Mr. W. Is it sympathy for the sheep you wish to excite? I
love a sheep from the bottom of my heart.
Wordsworth is reasonable. Even Stamboul, it is said, shall have an
end, and the most unlucky blunders must come to a conclusion. Here
is an extract from his preface:-
"Those who have been accustomed to the phraseology of modern
writers, if they persist in reading this book to a conclusion
(impossible!) will, no doubt, have to struggle with feelings of
awkwardness; (ha! ha! ha!) they will look round for poetry (ha! ha!
ha! ha!), and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy
these attempts have been permitted to assume that title." Ha! ha!
ha! ha! ha!
Yet, let not Mr. W. despair; he has given immortality to a wagon,
and the bee Sophocles has transmitted to eternity a sore toe, and
dignified a tragedy with a chorus of turkeys.
Of Coleridge, I cannot speak but with reverence. His towering
intellect! his gigantic power! He is one more evidence of the fact
"que la plupart des sectes ont raison dans une bonne partie de ce
qu'elles avancent, mais non pas en ce qu'elles nient." He has
imprisoned his own conceptions by the barrier he has erected against
those of others. It is lamentable to think that such a mind should
be buried in metaphysics, and, like the Nyctanthes, waste its
perfume upon the night alone. In reading that man's poetry, I
tremble like one who stands upon a volcano, conscious from the very
darkness bursting from the crater, of the fire and the light that
are weltering below.
What is Poetry?- Poetry! that Proteus- like idea, with as many
appellations as the nine- titled Corcyra! Give me, I demanded of a
scholar some time ago, give me a definition of poetry.
"Tres-volontiers"; and he proceeded to his library, brought me a Dr.
Johnson, and overwhelmed me with a definition. Shade of the immortal
Shakespeare! I imagine to myself the scowl of your spiritual eye
upon the profanity of the scurrilous Ursa Major. Think of poetry, dear
of all that is airy and fairy-like, and then of all that is hideous
and unwieldy, think of his huge bulk, the Elephant! and then- and then
think of the Tempest- the Midsummer Night's Dream- Prospero- Oberon-
A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having,
for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having
for its object, an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being
a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting
perceptible images with definite poetry with indefinite sensations, to
which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet
sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a
pleasurable idea, is poetry- music, without the idea, is simply music;
the idea, without the music, is prose, from its very definitiveness.
What was meant by the invective against him who had no music in
doubt, perceive, for the metaphysical poets as poets, the most
sovereign contempt. That they have followers proves nothing-
No Indian prince has to his palace
More followers than a thief to the gallows.