Fable for Critics Poe to Lowell

A Fable for Critics [Poe to Lowell]

by James Russell Lowell

Famous writers mentioned in this section—click on the name to move to that part of the poem:

‘There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge,
Who talks like a book of iambs and pentameters,
In a way to make people of common sense damn metres, 1300
Who has written some things quite the best of their kind,
But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind,
Who—But hey-day! What’s this? Messieurs Mathews and Poe,
You mustn’t fling mud-balls at Longfellow so,
Does it make a man worse that his character’s such
As to make his friends love him (as you think) too much?
Why, there is not a bard at this moment alive
More willing than he that his fellows should thrive;
While you are abusing him thus, even now
He would help either one of you out of a slough; 1310
You may say that he’s smooth and all that till you’re hoarse,
But remember that elegance also is force;
After polishing granite as much as you will,
The heart keeps its tough old persistency still;
Deduct all you can, that still keeps you at bay;
Why, he’ll live till men weary of Collins and Gray.
I’m not over-fond of Greek metres in English,
To me rhyme’s a gain, so it be not too jinglish,
And your modern hexameter verses are no more
Like Greek ones than sleek Mr. Pope is like Homer; 1320
As the roar of the sea to the coo of a pigeon is,
So, compared to your moderns, sounds old Melesigenes;
I may be too partial, the reason, perhaps, o’t is
That I’ve heard the old blind man recite his own rhapsodies,
And my ear with that music impregnate may be,
Like the poor exiled shell with the soul of the sea,
Or as one can’t bear Strauss when his nature is cloven
To its deeps within deeps by the stroke of Beethoven;
But, set that aside, and ’tis truth that I speak,
Had Theocritus written in English, not Greek, 1330
I believe that his exquisite sense would scarce change a line
In that rare, tender, virgin-like pastoral Evangeline.
That’s not ancient nor modern, its place is apart
Where time has no sway, in the realm of pure Art,
‘Tis a shrine of retreat from Earth’s hubbub and strife
As quiet and chaste as the author’s own life.

There comes Philothea, her face all aglow,
She has just been dividing some poor creature’s woe,
And can’t tell which pleases her most, to relieve
His want, or his story to hear and believe; 1340
No doubt against many deep griefs she prevails,
For her ear is the refuge of destitute tales;
She knows well that silence is sorrow’s best food,
And that talking draws off from the heart its black blood,
So she’ll listen with patience and let you unfold
Your bundle of rags as ’twere pure cloth of gold,
Which, indeed, it all turns to as soon as she’s touched it,
And (to borrow a phrase from the nursery) muched it;
She has such a musical taste, she will go
Any distance to hear one who draws a long bow; 1350
She will swallow a wonder by mere might and main,
And thinks it Geometry’s fault if she’s fain
To consider things flat, inasmuch as they’re plain;
Facts with her are accomplished, as Frenchmen would say—
They will prove all she wishes them to either way,—
And, as fact lies on this side or that, we must try,
If we’re seeking the truth, to find where it don’t lie;
I was telling her once of a marvellous aloe
That for thousands of years had looked spindling and sallow,
And, though nursed by the fruitfullest powers of mud, 1360
Had never vouchsafed e’en so much as a bud,
Till its owner remarked (as a sailor, you know,
Often will in a calm) that it never would blow,
For he wished to exhibit the plant, and designed
That its blowing should help him in raising the wind;
At last it was told him that if he should water
Its roots with the blood of his unmarried daughter
(Who was born, as her mother, a Calvinist, said,
With William Law’s serious caul on her head),
It would blow as the obstinate breeze did when by a 1370
Like decree of her father died Iphigenia;
At first he declared he himself would be blowed
Ere his conscience with such a foul crime he would load,
But the thought, coming oft, grew less dark than before,
And he mused, as each creditor knocked at his door,
If this were but done they would dun me no more;
I told Philothea his struggles and doubts,
And how he considered the ins and the outs
Of the visions he had, and the dreadful dyspepsy,
How he went to the seër that lives at Po’keepsie, 1380
How the seër advised him to sleep on it first,
And to read his big volume in case of the worst,
And further advised he should pay him five dollars
For writing [Old English: Hum Hum] on his wristbands and collars;
Three years and ten days these dark words he had studied
When the daughter was missed, and the aloe had budded;
I told how he watched it grow large and more large,
And wondered how much for the show he should charge,—
She had listened with utter indifference to this, till
I told how it bloomed, and, discharging its pistil 1390
With an aim the Eumenides dictated, shot
The botanical filicide dead on the spot;
It had blown, but he reaped not his horrible gains,
For it blew with such force as to blow out his brains,
And the crime was blown also, because on the wad,
Which was paper, was writ “Visitation of God,”
As well as a thrilling account of the deed
Which the coroner kindly allowed me to read.

‘Well, my friend took this story up just, to be sure, 1399
As one might a poor foundling that’s laid at one’s door;
She combed it and washed it and clothed it and fed it,
And as if ’twere her own child most tenderly bred it,
Laid the scene (of the legend, I mean) far away a-
-mong the green vales underneath Himalaya,
And by artist-like touches, laid on here and there,
Made the whole thing so touching, I frankly declare
I have read it all thrice, and, perhaps I am weak,
But I found every time there were tears on my cheek.

‘The pole, science tells us, the magnet controls,
But she is a magnet to emigrant Poles, 1410
And folks with a mission that nobody knows
Throng thickly about her as bees round a rose;
She can fill up the carets in such, make their scope
Converge to some focus of rational hope,
And, with sympathies fresh as the morning, their gall
Can transmute into honey,—but this is not all;
Not only for those she has solace, oh say,
Vice’s desperate nursling adrift in Broadway,
Who clingest, with all that is left of thee human,
To the last slender spar from the wreck of the woman, 1420
Hast thou not found one shore where those tired drooping feet
Could reach firm mother-earth, one full heart on whose beat
The soothed head in silence reposing could hear
The chimes of far childhood throb back on the ear?
Ah, there’s many a beam from the fountain of day
That, to reach us unclouded, must pass, on its way,
Through the soul of a woman, and hers is wide ope
To the influence of Heaven as the blue eyes of Hope;
Yes, a great heart is hers, one that dares to go in
To the prison, the slave-hut, the alleys of sin, 1430
And to bring into each, or to find there, some line
Of the never completely out-trampled divine;
If her heart at high floods swamps her brain now and then,
‘Tis but richer for that when the tide ebbs agen,
As, after old Nile has subsided, his plain
Overflows with a second broad deluge of grain;
What a wealth would it tiring to the narrow and sour
Could they be as a Child but for one little hour!

‘What! Irving? thrice welcome, warm heart and fine brain,
You bring back the happiest spirit from Spain, 1440
And the gravest sweet humor, that ever were there
Since Cervantes met death in his gentle despair;
Nay, don’t be embarrassed, nor look so beseeching,
I sha’n’t run directly against my own preaching,
And, having just laughed at their Raphaels and Dantes,
Go to setting you up beside matchless Cervantes;
But allow me to speak what I honestly feel,—
To a true poet-heart add the fun of Dick Steele,
Throw in all of Addison, minus the chill, 1449
With the whole of that partnership’s stock and good-will,
Mix well, and while stirring, hum o’er, as a spell,
The fine old English Gentleman, simmer it well,
Sweeten just to your own private liking, then strain,
That only the finest and clearest remain,
Let it stand out of doors till a soul it receives
From the warm lazy sun loitering down through green leaves,
And you’ll find a choice nature, not wholly deserving
A name either English or Yankee,—just Irving.

‘There goes,—but stet nominis umbra,—his name
You’ll be glad enough, some day or other, to claim, 1460
And will all crowd about him and swear that you knew him
If some English critic should chance to review him.
The old porcos ante ne projiciatis
MARGARITAS, for him you have verified gratis;
What matters his name? Why, it may be Sylvester,
Judd, Junior, or Junius, Ulysses, or Nestor,
For aught I know or care; ’tis enough that I look
On the author of “Margaret,” the first Yankee book
With the soul of Down East in ’t, and things farther East,
As far as the threshold of morning, at least, 1470
Where awaits the fair dawn of the simple and true,
Of the day that comes slowly to make all things new.
’T has a smack of pine woods, of bare field and bleak hill,
Such as only the breed of the Mayflower could till;
The Puritan’s shown in it, tough to the core,
Such as prayed, smiting Agag on red Marston Moor:
With an unwilling humor, half choked by the drouth
In brown hollows about the inhospitable mouth;
With a soul full of poetry, though it has qualms
About finding a happiness out of the Psalms; 1480
Full of tenderness, too, though it shrinks in the dark,
Hamadryad-like, under the coarse, shaggy bark;
That sees visions, knows wrestlings of God with the Will,
And has its own Sinais and thunderings still.’

Here, ‘Forgive me, Apollo,’ I cried, ‘while I pour
My heart out to my birthplace: O loved more and more
Dear Baystate, from whose rocky bosom thy sons
Should suck milk, strong-will-giving, brave, such as runs
In the veins of old Greylock—who is it that dares 1489
Call thee pedler, a soul wrapped in bank-books and shares?
It is false! She’s a Poet! I see, as I write,
Along the far railroad the steam-snake glide white,
The cataract-throb of her mill-hearts, I hear,
The swift strokes of trip-hammers weary my ear,
Sledges ring upon anvils, through logs the saw screams,
Blocks swing to their place, beetles drive home the beams:—
It is songs such as these that she croons to the din
Of her fast-flying shuttles, year out and year in,
While from earth’s farthest corner there comes not a breeze
But wafts her the buzz of her gold-gleaning bees: 1500
What though those horn hands have as yet found small time
For painting and sculpture and music and rhyme?
These will come in due order; the need that pressed sorest
Was to vanquish the seasons, the ocean, the forest,
To bridle and harness the rivers, the steam,
Making those whirl her mill-wheels, this tug in her team,
To vassalize old tyrant Winter, and make
Him delve surlily for her on river and lake;—
When this New World was parted, she strove not to shirk
Her lot in the heirdom, the tough, silent Work, 1510
The hero-share ever from Herakles down
To Odin, the Earth’s iron sceptre and crown:
Yes, thou dear, noble Mother! if ever men’s praise
Could be claimed for creating heroical lays,
Thou hast won it; if ever the laurel divine
Crowned the Maker and Builder, that glory is thine!
Thy songs are right epic, they tell how this rude
Rock-rib of our earth here was tamed and subdued;
Thou hast written them plain on the face of the planet
In brave, deathless letters of iron and granite; 1520
Thou hast printed them deep for all time; they are set
From the same runic type-fount and alphabet
With thy stout Berkshire hills and the arms of thy Bay,—
They are staves from the burly old Mayflower lay.
If the drones of the Old World, in querulous ease,
Ask thy Art and thy Letters, point proudly to these,
Or, if they deny these are Letters and Art,
Toil on with the same old invincible heart;
Thou art rearing the pedestal broad-based and grand
Whereon the fair shapes of the Artist shall stand, 1530
And creating, through labors undaunted and long,
The theme for all Sculpture and Painting and Song!

‘But my good mother Baystate wants no praise of mine,
She learned from her mother a precept divine
About something that butters no parsnips, her forte
In another direction lies, work is her sport
(Though she’ll curtsey and set her cap straight, that she will,
If you talk about Plymouth and red Bunker’s hill).
Dear, notable goodwife! by this time of night,
Her hearth is swept neatly, her fire burning bright, 1540
And she sits in a chair (of home plan and make) rocking,
Musing much, all the while, as she darns on a stocking,
Whether turkeys will come pretty high next Thanksgiving,
Whether flour’ll be so dear, for, as sure as she’s living,
She will use rye-and-injun then, whether the pig
By this time ain’t got pretty tolerable big,
And whether to sell it outright will be best,
Or to smoke hams and shoulders and salt down the rest,—
At this minute, she’d swop all my verses, ah, cruel!
For the last patent stove that is saving of fuel; 1550
So I’ll just let Apollo go on, for his phiz
Shows I’ve kept him awaiting too long as it is.’

‘If our friend, there, who seems a reporter, is done
With his burst of emotion, why, I will go on,’
Said Apollo; some smiled, and, indeed, I must own
There was something sarcastic, perhaps, in his tone;—

‘There’s Holmes, who is matchless among you for wit;
A Leyden-jar always full-charged, from which flit
The electrical tingles of hit after hit;
In long poems ’tis painful sometimes, and invites 1560
A thought of the way the new Telegraph writes,
Which pricks down its little sharp sentences spitefully
As if you got more than you’d title to rightfully,
And you find yourself hoping its wild father Lightning
Would flame in for a second and give you a fright’ning.
He has perfect sway of what I call a sham metre,
But many admire it, the English pentameter,
And Campbell, I think, wrote most commonly worse,
With less nerve, swing, and fire in the same kind of verse,
Nor e’er achieved aught in’t so worthy of praise 1570
As the tribute of Holmes to the grand Marseillaise.
You went crazy last year over Bulwer’s New Timon;—
Why, if B., to the day of his dying, should rhyme on,
Heaping verses on verses and tomes upon tomes,
He could ne’er reach the best point and vigor of Holmes.
His are just the fine hands, too, to weave you a lyric
Full of fancy, fun, feeling, or spiced with satiric
In a measure so kindly, you doubt if the toes
That are trodden upon are your own or your foes’.

‘There is Lowell, who’s striving Parnassus to climb 1580
With a whole bale of isms tied together with rhyme,
He might get on alone, spite of brambles and boulders,
But he can’t with that bundle he has on his shoulders,
The top of the hill he will ne’er come nigh reaching
Till he learns the distinction ‘twixt singing and preaching;
His lyre has some chords that would ring pretty well,
But he’d rather by half make a drum of the shell,
And rattle away till he’s old as Methusalem,
At the head of a march to the last new Jerusalem. 1589

‘There goes Halleck, whose Fanny’s a pseudo Don Juan,
With the wickedness out that gave salt to the true one,
He’s a wit, though, I hear, of the very first order,
And once made a pun on the words soft Recorder;
More than this, he’s a very great poet, I’m told,
And has had his works published in crimson and gold,
With something they call “Illustrations,” to wit,
Like those with which Chapman obscured Holy Writ,[4]
Which are said to illustrate, because, as I view it,
Like lucus a non, they precisely don’t do it;
Let a man who can write what himself understands 1600
Keep clear, if he can, of designing men’s hands,
Who bury the sense, if there’s any worth having,
And then very honestly call it engraving,
But, to quit badinage, which there isn’t much wit in,
Halleck’s better, I doubt not, than all he has written;
In his verse a clear glimpse you will frequently find,
If not of a great, of a fortunate mind,
Which contrives to be true to its natural loves
In a world of back-offices, ledgers, and stoves.
When his heart breaks away from the brokers and banks, 1610
And kneels in his own private shrine to give thanks,
There’s a genial manliness in him that earns
Our sincerest respect (read, for instance, his “Burns”),
And we can’t but regret (seek excuse where we may)
That so much of a man has been peddled away.

‘But what’s that? a mass-meeting? No, there come in lots
The American Bulwers, Disraelis, and Scotts,
And in short the American everything elses,
Each charging the others with envies and jealousies;—
By the way, ’tis a fact that displays what profusions 1620
Of all kinds of greatness bless free institutions,
That while the Old World has produced barely eight
Of such poets as all men agree to call great,
And of other great characters hardly a score
(One might safely say less than that rather than more),
With you every year a whole crop is begotten,
They’re as much of a staple as corn is, or cotton;
Why, there’s scarcely a huddle of log-huts and shanties
That has not brought forth its own Miltons and Dantes; 1629
I myself know ten Byrons, one Coleridge, three Shelleys,
Two Raphaels, six Titians (I think), one Apelles,
Leonardos and Rubenses plenty as lichens,
One (but that one is plenty) American Dickens,
A whole flock of Lambs, any number of Tennysons,—
In short, if a man has the luck to have any sons,
He may feel pretty certain that one out of twain
Will be some very great person over again.
There is one inconvenience in all this, which lies
In the fact that by contrast we estimate size,[5]
And, where there are none except Titans, great stature 1640
Is only the normal proceeding of nature.
What puff the strained sails of your praise will you furl at, if
The calmest degree that you know is superlative?
At Rome, all whom Charon took into his wherry must,
As a matter of course, be well issimust and errimust,
A Greek, too, could feel, while in that famous boat he tost,
That his friends would take care he was [Greek: istost] and
[Greek: otatost],
And formerly we, as through graveyards we past,
Thought the world went from bad to worst fearfully fast;
Let us glance for a moment, ’tis well worth the pains, 1650
And note what an average graveyard contains;
There lie levellers levelled, duns done up themselves,
There are booksellers finally laid on their shelves,
Horizontally there lie upright politicians,
Dose-a-dose with their patients sleep faultless physicians,
There are slave-drivers quietly whipped under ground,
There bookbinders, done up in boards, are fast bound,
There card-players wait till the last trump be played,
There all the choice spirits get finally laid,
There the babe that’s unborn is supplied with a berth, 1660
There men without legs get their six feet of earth,
There lawyers repose, each wrapped up in his case,
There seekers of office are sure of a place,
There defendant and plaintiff get equally cast,
There shoemakers quietly stick to the last,
There brokers at length become silent as stocks,
There stage-drivers sleep without quitting their box,
And so forth and so forth and so forth and so on,
With this kind of stuff one might endlessly go on;
To come to the point, I may safely assert you 1670
Will find in each yard every cardinal virtue;[6]
Each has six truest patriots: four discoverers of ether,
Who never had thought on ‘t nor mentioned it either;
Ten poets, the greatest who ever wrote rhyme:
Two hundred and forty first men of their time:
One person whose portrait just gave the least hint
Its original had a most horrible squint:
One critic, most (what do they call it?) reflective,
Who never had used the phrase ob-or subjective:
Forty fathers of Freedom, of whom twenty bred 1680
Their sons for the rice-swamps, at so much a head,
And their daughters for—faugh! thirty mothers of Gracchi:
Non-resistants who gave many a spiritual blackeye:
Eight true friends of their kind, one of whom was a jailer:
Four captains almost as astounding as Taylor:
Two dozen of Italy’s exiles who shoot us his
Kaisership daily, stern pen-and-ink Brutuses,
Who, in Yankee back-parlors, with crucified smile,[7]
Mount serenely their country’s funereal pile:
Ninety-nine Irish heroes, ferocious rebellers 1690
‘Gainst the Saxon in cis-marine garrets and cellars,
Who shake their dread fists o’er the sea and all that,—
As long as a copper drops into the hat:
Nine hundred Teutonic republicans stark
From Vaterland’s battle just won—in the Park,
Who the happy profession of martyrdom take
Whenever it gives them a chance at a steak;
Sixty-two second Washingtons: two or three Jacksons:
And so many everythings else that it racks one’s
Poor memory too much to continue the list, 1700
Especially now they no longer exist;—
I would merely observe that you’ve taken to giving
The puffs that belong to the dead to the living,
And that somehow your trump-of-contemporary-doom’s tones
Is tuned after old dedications and tombstones.’

Here the critic came in and a thistle presented—[8]
From a frown to a smile the god’s features relented,
As he stared at his envoy, who, swelling with pride,
To the god’s asking look, nothing daunted, replied,—
‘You’re surprised, I suppose, I was absent so long, 1710
But your godship respecting the lilies was wrong;
I hunted the garden from one end to t’other,
And got no reward but vexation and bother,
Till, tossed out with weeds in a corner to wither,
This one lily I found and made haste to bring hither.’

‘Did he think I had given him a book to review?
I ought to have known what the fellow would do,’
Muttered Phoebus aside, ‘for a thistle will pass
Beyond doubt for the queen of all flowers with an ass;
He has chosen in just the same way as he’d choose 1720
His specimens out of the books he reviews;
And now, as this offers an excellent text,
I’ll give ’em some brief hints on criticism next.’
So, musing a moment, he turned to the crowd,
And, clearing his voice, spoke as follows aloud:—

‘My friends, in the happier days of the muse,
We were luckily free from such things as reviews;
Then naught came between with its fog to make clearer
The heart of the poet to that of his hearer;
Then the poet brought heaven to the people, and they 1730
Felt that they, too, were poets in hearing his lay;
Then the poet was prophet, the past in his soul
Precreated the future, both parts of one whole;
Then for him there was nothing too great or too small,
For one natural deity sanctified all;
Then the bard owned no clipper and meter of moods
Save the spirit of silence that hovers and broods
O’er the seas and the mountains, the rivers and woods;
He asked not earth’s verdict, forgetting the clods,
His soul soared and sang to an audience of gods; 1740
‘Twas for them that he measured the thought and the line,
And shaped for their vision the perfect design,
With as glorious a foresight, a balance as true,
As swung out the worlds in the infinite blue;
Then a glory and greatness invested man’s heart,
The universal, which now stands estranged and apart,
In the free individual moulded, was Art;
Then the forms of the Artist seemed thrilled with desire
For something as yet unattained, fuller, higher,
As once with her lips, lifted hands, and eyes listening, 1750
And her whole upward soul in her countenance glistening,
Eurydice stood—like a beacon unfired,
Which, once touched with flame, will leap heav’nward inspired—
And waited with answering kindle to mark
The first gleam of Orpheus that pained the red Dark.
Then painting, song, sculpture did more than relieve
The need that men feel to create and believe,
And as, in all beauty, who listens with love
Hears these words oft repeated—”beyond and above,”
So these seemed to be but the visible sign 1760
Of the grasp of the soul after things more divine;
They were ladders the Artist erected to climb
O’er the narrow horizon of space and of time,
And we see there the footsteps by which men had gained
To the one rapturous glimpse of the never-attained,
As shepherds could erst sometimes trace in the sod
The last spurning print of a sky-cleaving god.

‘But now, on the poet’s dis-privacied moods
With do this and do that the pert critic intrudes;
While he thinks he’s been barely fulfilling his duty 1770
To interpret ‘twixt men and their own sense of beauty.
And has striven, while others sought honor or pelf,
To make his kind happy as he was himself,
He finds he’s been guilty of horrid offences
In all kinds of moods, numbers, genders, and tenses;
He’s been ob and _sub_jective, what Kettle calls Pot,
Precisely, at all events, what he ought not,
You have done this, says one judge; done that, says another;
You should have done this, grumbles one; that, says t’other;
Never mind what he touches, one shrieks out Taboo! 1780
And while he is wondering what he shall do,
Since each suggests opposite topics for song,
They all shout together you’re right! and you’re wrong!

‘Nature fits all her children with something to do,
He who would write and can’t write can surely review,
Can set up a small booth as critic and sell us his
Petty conceit and his pettier jealousies;
Thus a lawyer’s apprentice, just out of his teens,
Will do for the Jeffrey of six magazines;
Having read Johnson’s lives of the poets half through, 1790
There’s nothing on earth he’s not competent to;
He reviews with as much nonchalance as he whistles,—
He goes through a book and just picks out the thistles;
It matters not whether he blame or commend,
If he’s bad as a foe, he’s far worse as a friend:
Let an author but write what’s above his poor scope,
He goes to work gravely and twists up a rope,
And, inviting the world to see punishment done,
Hangs himself up to bleach in the wind and the sun;
‘Tis delightful to see, when a man comes along 1800
Who has anything in him peculiar and strong,
Every cockboat that swims clear its fierce (pop) gundeck at him,
And make as he passes its ludicrous Peck at him—’

Here Miranda came up and began, ‘As to that—’
Apollo at once seized his gloves, cane, and hat,
And, seeing the place getting rapidly cleared,
I too snatched my notes and forthwith disappeared.

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