Friday, April 11, 2008

Poe on William Ellery Channing, Jr. - Yes - this is it - no doubt

At the beginning of the week, I quoted a piece of Poe's blast at William Ellery Channing, Jr. Channing has five poems in the Library of America's American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 1. It will be a long time before this book is re-edited. And since he is also extensively quoted by Poe, he actually appears in two Library of America volumes. Immortality is his!*

Based on these five poems, Channing seems, to me, competent and dull. He has a poem called "Walden" that Thoreauviasts will find interesting for its subject.

Let's look at Poe's review in some detail. Here's a sample of Poe's criticism that's not just a slash:

'Instead of "more infinite," he writes "infiniter," with an accent on the "nit," as thus, at page 100:

Hope's child, I summon infiniter powers.

And here we might as well ask Mr. Channing, in passing, what idea he attaches to infinity, and whether he really thinks that he is at liberty to subject the adjective "infinite" to degrees of comparison. Some of these days we shall hear, no doubt, of "eternal, eternaler, and eternalest."' (pp. 465-6)

The italics in "infiniter" are Poe's, showing how the line has to be read. This is basic, but serious, criticism. The line does not scan without mangling pronunciation, and a bizarre nonsense word is introduced for the sake of an extra syllable. Here's a similar jab:

'Our author is quite enamored of the word "sumptuous," and talks about "sumptuous trees" and "sumptuous girls," with no other object, we think, than to employ the epithet at all hazards and upon all occasions. He seems unconscious that it means nothing more than expensive, or costly; and we are not quite sure that either trees or girls are, in America, either the one or the other.' (p. 466)

In this case, Poe can't resist going for the joke, and I don't blame him.

Poe has an idea that poetry ought to mean something. Here he tries to apply this principle to Channing:

'At page 102, he has the following:

Dry leaves with yellow ferns, they are
Fit wreath of Autumn, while a star
Still, bright, and pure, our frosty air
Shivers in twinkling points
Of thin celestial hair
And thus one side of Heaven anoints.

This we think we can explain. Let us see. Dry leaves, mixed with yellow ferns, are a wreath fit for autumn at the time when our frosty air shivers a still, bright, and pure star with twinkling points of thin celestial hair, and with this hair, or hair plaster, anoints one side of the sky. Yes—this is it—no doubt.
' (pp. 467-8)

My favorite line in the review:

'The eight lines are entitled a "Song," and we should like very much to hear Mr. Channing sing it.' (p. 468)

Poe's book reviews will be of value to anyone who grumps that only the frauds and fools get the attention, while the worthies are ignored. Yes and no, and it was always so.

* And look, there are four poems by poor William Gilmore Simms, the novelist who did not quite make the cut. I have no idea how John Hollander picked these poems. Does he like them? Are they representative of something?


  1. Certainly an ambiguous sort of fame, to be known because someone more famous blasted you! Which is worse -- to be forgotten or to be remembered for being made fun of?

  2. In fairness, it can happen to critics, too. Eduard Hanslick is now most famous for being "wrong" about Wagner.

    But yes, I agree. I wince at the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad first lines. Bulwer-Lytton's own supposedly terrible writing ("It was a dark and stormy night")doesn't seem so bad to me, just typical of its time, and he can hardly be blamed for Snoopy's misuse of his work.