Criticism, by Edgar Allan Poe

The Quacks of Helicon

A Satire. By L. A. Wilmer

A SATIRE, professedly such, at the present day, and especially by an American writer, is a welcome novelty indeed. We have really done very little in the line upon this side of the Atlantic — nothing certainly of importance — Trumbull’s clumsy poem and Halleck’s “Croakers” to the contrary notwithstanding. Some things we have produced, to be sure, which were excellent in the way of burlesque, without intending a syllable that was not utterly solemn and serious. Odes, ballads, songs, sonnets, epics, and epigrams, possessed of this unintentional excellence, we could have no difficulty in designating by the dozen; but in the matter of directly meant and genuine satire, it cannot be denied that we are sadly deficient. Although, as a literary people, however, we are not exactly Archilochuses — although we have no pretensions to the echeenpes iamboi — although in short, we are no satirists ourselves, there can be no question that we answer sufficiently well as subjects for satire.

We repeat that we are glad to see this book of Mr. Wilmer’s; first, because it is something new under the sun; secondly, because, in many respects, it is well executed; and thirdly, because, in the universal corruption and rigmarole, amid which we gasp for breath, it is really a pleasant thing to get even one accidental whiff of the unadulterated air of truth.

“The Quacks of Helicon,” as a poem and otherwise, has many defects, and these we shall have no scruple in pointing out — although Mr. Wilmer is a personal friend of our own, and we are happy and proud to say so — but it has also many remarkable merits — merits which it will be quite useless for those aggrieved by the satire — quite useless for any clique, or set of cliques, to attempt to frown down, or to affect not to see, or to feel, or to understand.

Its prevalent blemishes are referable chiefly to the leading sin of imitation. Had the work been composed professedly in paraphrase of the whole manner of the sarcastic epistles of the times of Dryden and Pope, we should have pronounced it the most ingenious and truthful thing of the kind upon record. So close is the copy that it extends to the most trivial points — for example, to the old forms of punctuation. The turns of phraseology, the tricks of rhythm, the arrangement of the paragraphs, the general conduct of the satire — everything — all — are Dryden’s . We cannot deny, it is true, that the satiric model of the days in question is insusceptible of improvement, and that the modern author who deviates therefrom must necessarily sacrifice something of merit at the shrine of originality. Neither can we shut our eyes to the fact that the imitation in the present case has conveyed, in full spirit, the high qualities, as well as in rigid letter, the minor elegancies and general peculiarities of the author of “Absalom and Achitophel.” We have here the bold, vigorous, and sonorous verse, the biting sarcasm, the pungent epigrammatism, the unscrupulous directness, as of old. Yet it will not do to forget that Mr. Wilmer has been shown how to accomplish these things. He is thus only entitled to the praise of a close observer, and of a thoughtful and skilful copyist. The images are, to be sure, his own. They are neither Popes, nor Dryden’s, nor Rochester’s, nor Churchill’s — but they are moulded in the identical mould used by these satirists.

This servility of imitation has seduced our author into errors, which his better sense should have avoided. He sometimes mistakes intentions; at other times, he copies faults, confounding them with beauties. In the opening of the poem, for example, we find the lines —

Against usurpers, Olney, I declare

A righteous, just and patriotic war.

The rhymes war and declare are here adopted from Pope, who employs them frequently; but it should have been remembered that the modern relative pronunciation of the two words differs materially from the relative pronunciation of the era of the “Dunciad.”

We are also sure that the gross obscenity, the filth — we can use no gentler name — which disgraces “The Quacks of Helicon,” cannot be the result of innate impurity in the mind of the writer. It is but a part of the slavish and indiscriminating imitation of the Swift and Rochester school. It has done the book an irreparable injury, both in a moral and pecuniary view, without affecting anything whatever on the score of sarcasm, vigour or wit. “Let what is to be said, he said plainly.” True, but let nothing vulgar be ever said or conceived.

In asserting that this satire, even in its mannerism, has imbued itself with the full spirit of the polish and of the pungency of Dryden, we have already awarded it high praise. But there remains to be mentioned the far loftier merit of speaking fearlessly the truth, at an epoch when truth is out of fashion, and under circumstances of social position which would have deterred almost any man in our community from a similar Quixotism. For the publication of “The Quacks of Helicon”— a poem which brings under review, by name, most of our prominent literati and treats them, generally, as they deserve (what treatment could be more bitter?)— for the publication of this attack, Mr. Wilmer, whose subsistence lies in his pen, has little to look for — apart from the silent respect of those at once honest and timid — but the most malignant open or covert persecution. For this reason, and because it is the truth which he has spoken, do we say to him, from the bottom of our hearts, “God speed!”

We repeat it: it is the truth which he has spoken; and who shall contradict us? He has said unscrupulously what every reasonable man among us has long known to be “as true as the Pentateuch”— that, as a literary people, we are one vast perambulating humbug. He has asserted that we are clique-ridden; and who does not smile at the obvious truism of that assertion? He maintains that chicanery is, with us, a far surer road than talent to distinction in letters. Who gainsays this? The corrupt nature of our ordinary criticism has become notorious. Its powers have been prostrated by its own arm. The intercourse between critic and publisher, as it now almost universally stands, is comprised either in the paying and pocketing of blackmail, as the price of a simple forebearance, or in a direct system of petty and contemptible bribery, properly so-called — a system even more injurious than the former to the true interests of the public, and more degrading to the buyers and sellers of good opinion, on account of the more positive character of the service here rendered for the consideration received. We laugh at the idea of any denial of our assertions upon this topic; they are infamously true. In the charge of general corruption, there are undoubtedly many noble exceptions to be made. There are, indeed, some very few editors, who, maintaining an entire independence, will receive no books from publishers at all, or who receive them with a perfect understanding, on the part of these latter, that an unbiassed critique will be given. But these cases are insufficient to have much effect on the popular mistrust; a mistrust heightened by late exposure of the machinations of coteries in New York-coteries which, at the bidding of leading booksellers, manufacture, as required from time to time, a pseudo-public opinion by wholesale, for the benefit of any little hanger-on of the party, or pettifogging protector of the firm.

We speak of these things in the bitterness of scorn. It is unnecessary to cite instances, where one is found in almost every issue of a book. It is needless to call to mind the desperate case of Fay — a case where the pertinacity of the effort to gull — where the obviousness of the attempt at forestalling a judgment — where the wofully overdone bemirrorment of that man-of-straw, together with the pitiable platitude of his production, proved a dose somewhat too potent for even the well-prepared stomach of the mob. We say it is supererogatory to dwell upon “Norman Leslie,” or other by-gone follies, when we have before our eyes hourly instances of the machinations in question. To so great an extent of methodical assurance has the system of puffery arrived, that publishers, of late, have made no scruple of keeping on hand an assortment of commendatory notices, prepared by their men of all work, and of sending these notices around to the multitudinous papers within their influence, done up within the fly leaves of the book. The grossness of these base attempts, however, has not escaped indignant rebuke from the more honourable portion of the press; and we hail these symptoms of restiveness under the yoke of unprincipled ignorance and quackery (strong only in combination) as the harbinger of a better era for the interests of real merit, and of the national literature as a whole.

It has become, indeed, the plain duty of each individual connected with our periodicals heartily to give whatever influence he possesses to the good cause of integrity and the truth. The results thus attainable will be found worthy his closest attention and best efforts. We shall thus frown down all conspiracies to foist inanity upon the public consideration at the obvious expense of every man of talent who is not a member of a clique in power. We may even arrive in time at that desirable point from which a distinct view of our men of letters may be obtained, and their respective pretensions adjusted by the standard of a rigorous and self-sustaining criticism alone. That their several positions are as yet properly settled; that the posts which a vast number of them now hold are maintained by any better tenure than that of the chicanery upon which we have commented, will be asserted by none but the ignorant, or the parties who have best right to feel an interest in the “good old condition of things.” No two matters can be more radically different than the reputation of some of our prominent litterateurs as gathered from the mouths of the people (who glean it from the paragraphs of the papers), and the same reputation as deduced from the private estimate of intelligent and educated men. We do not advance this fact as a new discovery. Its truth, on the contrary, is the subject, and has long been so, of every-day witticism and mirth.

Why not? Surely there can be few things more ridiculous than the general character and assumptions of the ordinary critical notices of new books! An editor, sometimes without the shadow of the commonest attainment — often without brains, always without time — does not scruple to give the world to understand that he is in the daily habit of critically reading and deciding upon a flood of publications, one-tenth of whose title pages he may possibly have turned over, three-fourths of whose contents would be Hebrew to his most desperate efforts at comprehension, and whose entire mass and amount, as might be mathematically demonstrated, would be sufficient to occupy, in the most cursory perusal, the attention of some ten or twenty readers for a month! What he wants in plausibility, however, he makes up in obsequiousness; what he lacks in time he supplies in temper. He is the most easily pleased man in the world. He admires everything, from the big Dictionary of Noah Webster to the last diamond edition of Tom Thumb. Indeed, his sole difficulty is in finding tongue to express his delight. Every pamphlet is a miracle — every book in boards is an epoch in letters. His phrases, therefore, get bigger and bigger every day, and, if it were not for talking Cockney, we might call him a “regular swell.”

Yet, in the attempt at getting definite information in regard to any one portion of our literature, the merely general reader, or the foreigner, will turn in vain from the lighter to the heavier journals. But it is not our intention here to dwell upon the radical, antique, and systematized rigmarole of our Quarterlies. The articles here are anonymous. Who writes? — who causes to be written? Who but an ass will put faith in tirades which may be the result of personal hostility, or in panegyrics which nine times out of ten may be laid, directly or indirectly, to the charge of the author himself? It is in the favour of these saturnine pamphlets that they contain, now and then, a good essay de omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis, which may be looked into, without decided somnolent consequences, at any period, not immediately subsequent to dinner. But it is useless to expect criticism from periodicals called “Reviews” from never reviewing. Besides, all men know, or should know, that these books are sadly given to verbiage. It is a part of their nature, a condition of their being, a point of their faith. A veteran reviewer loves the safety of generalities and is therefore rarely particular. “Words, words, words,” are the secret of his strength. He has one or two ideas of his own and is both wary and fussy in giving them out. His wit lies, with his truth, in a well, and there is always a world of trouble in getting it up. He is a sworn enemy to all things simple and direct. He gives no ear to the advice of the giant Moulineau-“Belier, mon ami commencez au commencement.” He either jumps at once into the middle of his subject, or breaks in at a back door, or sidles up to it with the gait of a crab. No other mode of approach has an air of sufficient profundity. When fairly into it, however, he becomes dazzled with the scintillations of his own wisdom, and is seldom able to see his way out. Tired of laughing at his antics, or frightened at seeing him flounder, the reader, at length, shuts him up, with the book. “What song the Syrens sang,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture”; — but it would puzzle Sir Thomas, backed by Achilles and all the Syrens in Heathendom, to say, in nine cases out of ten, what is the object of a thoroughgoing Quarterly Reviewer.

Should the opinions promulgated by our press at large be taken, in their wonderful aggregate, as an evidence of what American literature absolutely is (and it may be said that, in general, they are really so taken), we shall find ourselves the most enviable set of people upon the face of the earth. Our fine writers are legion. Our very atmosphere is redolent of genius; and we, the nation, are a huge, well-contented chameleon, grown pursy by inhaling it. We are teretes et rotundi — enwrapped in excellence. All our poets are Milton neither mute nor inglorious; all our poetesses are “American Hemanses”; nor will it do to deny that all our novelists are Great Knowns or Great Unknowns, and that everybody who writes, in every possible and impossible department, is the Admirable Crichton, or, at least, the Admirable Crichton’s ghost. We are thus in a glorious condition, and will remain so until forced to disgorge our ethereal honours. In truth there is some danger that the jealousy of the Old World will interfere. It cannot long submit to that outrageous monopoly of “all the decency and all the talent,” of which the gentlemen of the press give such undoubted assurance of our being the possessors.

But we feel angry with ourselves for the jesting tone of our observations upon this topic. The prevalence of the spirit of puffery is a subject far less for merriment than for disgust. Its truckling, yet dogmatical character — its bold, unsustained, yet self-sufficient and wholesale laudation — is becoming, more and more, an insult to the common sense of the community. Trivial as it essentially is, it has yet been made the instrument of the grossest abuse in the elevation of imbecility, to the manifest injury, to the utter ruin, of true merit. Is there any man of good feeling and of ordinary understanding — is there one single individual among all our readers — who does not feel a thrill of bitter indignation, apart from any sentiment of mirth, as he calls to mind instance after instance of the purest, of the most unadulterated quackery in letters, which has risen to a high post in the apparent popular estimation, and which still maintains it, by the sole means of a blustering arrogance, or of a busy wriggling conceit, or of the most barefaced plagiarism, or even through the simple immensity of its assumptions — assumptions not only unopposed by the press at large, but absolutely supported in proportion to the vociferous clamour with which they are made — in exact accordance with their utter baselessness and untenability? We should have no trouble in pointing out to-day some twenty or thirty so-called literary personages, who, if not idiots, as we half think them, or if not hardened to all sense of shame by a long course of disingenuousness, will now blush in the perusal of these words, through consciousness of the shadowy nature of that purchased pedestal upon which they stand-will now tremble in thinking of the feebleness of the breath which will be adequate to the blowing it from beneath their feet. With the help of a hearty good will, even we may yet tumble them down.

So firm, through a long endurance, has been the hold taken upon the popular mind (at least so far as we may consider the popular mind reflected in ephemeral letters) by the laudatory system which we have deprecated, that what is, in its own essence, a vice, has become endowed with the appearance, and met with the reception of a virtue. Antiquity, as usual, has lent a certain degree of speciousness even to the absurd. So continuously have we puffed, that we have, at length, come to think puffing the duty, and plain speaking the dereliction. What we began in gross error, we persist in through habit. Having adopted, in the earlier days of our literature, the untenable idea that this literature, as a whole, could be advanced by an indiscriminate approbation bestowed on its every effort — having adopted this idea, we say, without attention to the obvious fact that praise of all was bitter although negative censure to the few alone deserving, and that the only result of the system, in the fostering way, would be the fostering of folly — we now continue our vile practice through the supineness of custom, even while, in our national self-conceit, we repudiate that necessity for patronage and protection in which originated our conduct. In a word, the press throughout the country has not been ashamed to make head against the very few bold attempts at independence which have from time to time been made in the face of the reigning order of things. And if in one, or perhaps two, insulated cases, the spirit of severe truth, sustained by an unconquerable will, was not to be so put down, then, forthwith, were private chicaneries set in motion; then was had resort, on the part of those who considered themselves injured by the severity of criticism (and who were so, if the just contempt of every ingenuous man is injury), resort to arts of the most virulent indignity, to untraceable slanders, to ruthless assassination in the dark. We say these things were done while the press in general looked on, and, with a full understanding of the wrong perpetrated, spoke not against the wrong. The idea had absolutely gone abroad — had grown up little by little into toleration — that attacks, however just, upon a literary reputation, however obtained, however untenable, were well retaliated by the basest and most unfounded traduction of personal fame. But is this an age — is this a day — in which it can be necessary even to advert to such considerations as that the book of the author is the property of the public, and that the issue of the book is the throwing down of the gauntlet to the reviewer — to the reviewer whose duty is the plainest; the duty not even of approbation, or of censure, or of silence, at his own, will but at the sway of those sentiments and of those opinions which are derived from the author himself, through the medium of his written and published words? True criticism is the reflection of the thing criticized upon the spirit of the critic.

But a nos moutons — to “The Quacks of Helicon.” This satire has many faults besides those upon which we have commented. The title, for example, is not sufficiently distinctive, although otherwise good. It does not confine the subject to American quacks, while the work does. The two concluding lines enfeeble instead of strengthening the finale, which would have been exceedingly pungent without them. The individual portions of the thesis are strung together too much at random — a natural sequence is not always preserved — so that, although the lights of the picture are often forcible, the whole has what, in artistical parlance, is termed an accidental and spotty appearance. In truth, the parts of the poem have evidently been composed each by each, as separate themes, and afterwards fitted into the general satire in the best manner possible.

But a more reprehensible sin than an or than all of these is yet to be mentioned — the sin of indiscriminate censure. Even here Mr. Wilmer has erred through imitation. He has held in view the sweeping denunciations of the Dunciad, and of the later (abortive) satire of Byron. No one in his senses can deny the justice of the general charges of corruption in regard to which we have just spoken from the text of our author. But are there no exceptions? We should, indeed, blush if there were not. And is there no hope? Time will show. We cannot do everything in a day — Non se gano Zonora en un ora. Again, it cannot be gainsaid that the greater number of those who hold high places in our poetical literature are absolute nincompoops — fellows alike innocent of reason and of rhyme. But neither are we all brainless, nor is the devil himself so black as he is painted. Mr. Wilmer must read the chapter in Rabelais’s “Gargantua,” “de ce qu’est signifie par les couleurs blanc et bleu,"— for there is some difference after all. It will not do in a civilized land to run a-muck like a Malay. Mr. Morris has written good songs. Mr. Bryant is not all a fool. Mr. Willis is not quite an ass. Mr. Longfellow will steal, but, perhaps, he cannot help it (for we have heard of such things), and then it must not be denied that nil tetigit quod non ornavit.

The fact is that our author, in the rank exuberance of his zeal, seems to think as little of discrimination as the Bishop of Autun11 did of the Bible. Poetical “things in general” are the windmills at which he spurs his Rozinante. He as often tilts at what is true as at what is false; and thus his lines are like the mirrors of the temples of Smyrna, which represent the fairest images as deformed. But the talent, the fearlessness, and especially the design of this book, will suffice to preserve it from that dreadful damnation of “silent contempt,” to which editors throughout the country, if we are not much mistaken, will endeavour, one and all to consign it.

11 Talleyrand.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/poe/edgar_allan/p74e/chapter5.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:10