Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Poe and his Tomahawk - His qualifications are too well known to need comment.

Mr. Poe, sharpen that tomahawk. It's time for a round of Poe's Greatest Hatchet Hits.

From a review of The Coming of the Mammoth - The Funeral of Time, and Other Poems, by Henry B. Hirst:

"We are not extravagant in saying (are we?) that the 'Coming of the Mammoth' which might as well have been called the 'Coming and the Going of the Mammoth' is the most preposterous of all the preposterous poems ever deliberately printed by a gentleman arrived at the years of discretion. Nor has it one individual point of redeeming merit. Had Mr. Hirst written only this we should have thrown his book to the pigs without comment." (596)

This is a good place to start, because there is little doubt that Poe is entirely correct. In this poem, at some distant time in the past, a herd of killer mammoths appears: "We saw them hunt the buffalo, \ And crush them with their tusks of steel." The Native Americans who survive the initial mammoth attack invoke their storm god, who kills the mammoths with lightning, all but one, who is driven across the Missisippi, then up a Rocky Mountain peak, then, with a leap, into the Pacific Ocean. This is what Poe is up against.

All right, more chopping. A whack at the Brook Farm Utopians:

"'The Harbinger - Edited by the Brook-Farm Phalanx' - is, beyond doubt, the most reputable organ of the Crazyites. We sincerely respect it - odd as this assertion may appear. It is conducted by an assemblage of well-read persons who mean no harm - and who, perhaps, can do less." (1100)

Mr. Hudson, deliverer of a "Lecture on Lear", has "an elocution that would disgrace a pig, and an odd species of gesticulation of which a baboon would have excellent reason to be ashamed." There's another pig. This isn't even funny, is it? Just an insult.

This joke, at the expense of William Ellery Channing, may be worse than not funny. This is Edgar Poe, math geek:

"To speak algebraically: - Mr. M. is execrable, but Mr. C. is x plus 1-ecrable." (818)

Poe's always merciless about prosody, but he usually does not say the poet can't count:

"In a word, judging by his rhythm, we might suppose that the poet could neither, see, hear, nor make use of his fingers. We do not know, in America, a versifier so utterly wretched and contemptible." (807)

That's from a review of the Poems of William W. Lord.

On American historian George Jones:

"His qualifications are too well known to need comment. He has a pretty wife, a capital head of hair, and fine teeth." (642)

That's actually the nicest thing Poe says in that review, but the meaner stuff is harder to excerpt. Most of the review is about the illustrations on the title page. "The title-pages are to be cut out, we hope, and deposited in the British Museum." (644)

I'm enjoying myself, but I'm not sure I'm being fair to Poe, so how about a serious piece of criticism, from the "Literati of New York" entry on N. P. Willis:

"The Scriptural pieces are quite 'correct,' as the French have it, and are much admired by a certain set of readers, who judge of a poem, not by its effects on themselves, but by the effect which they imagine it might have upon themselves were they not unhappily soulless, and by the effect which they take it for granted it does have upon others." (1128)

This one hits me a bit, I'll admit. Pretty sharp.

More tomahawk chopping here, here, and here. Where else? A favorite.

Page references to Essays and Reviews, Library of America. A most enjoyable book, in its own scattershot way.


  1. He was obviously rather secure in himself and his position to be so scathing. Of course, these do appear to be truly bad---so no great risk in such vicious attacks. But he does seem to have something against pigs--since being compared to one seems to be the lowest of the low. Why take it out on the animal world. Dad

  2. I notice you're reading Rexroth's Greek Anthology translations. You might enjoy checking out my Rexroth Archive at http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth

  3. Gotta love Poe and his reviews. Makes me sort of wish that he was reviewing today. It would certainly be a breath of fresh air in many respects.

  4. The Coming of the Mammoth- The Funeral of Time, and Other Poems. Ohh, that sounds wonderfully, utterly, so mammothly fantastic! And without me even knowing their tusks were made of steel! I must now go find a copy.

  5. What makes it even funnier is that Hirst was actually a good friend of Poe's.

    I think Poe was so scathing because he was the only one doing this sort of critical work. In order to undue the prevalent "puffing system" (which Margaret Fuller called "the mutual admiration society"), he had to come down hard to make his point. It's sort of out of context reading it today, but it was very innovative.

  6. Poe was friends with Hirst? Then this was a habit - his review of his friend Wilmer's poems is, if anything, more brutal.

    Like Rob says, it's the puffery that was really Poe's target. He might have succeeded too well, since by the end of the 1840s there was a lot of pretty nasty reviewing and score-settling. But the puffery, that stuff was useless. Not that, as Stefanie suggests, we are entirely free of it now.

    Brian, it's perverse, isn't it? I had the same twinge - wait, that mammoth thing sounds so crazy that maybe I should read it.

    Mr. Knabb, welcome to Wuthering Expectations. I only started looking at Rexroth's translations this summer, when I went to Japan. He has been very helpful, as has the Bureau of Public Secrets. For example.