Edgar Allan Poe.

Works (Volume 7) online

. (page 1 of 18)
Online LibraryEdgar Allan PoeWorks (Volume 7) → online text (page 1 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

































THE first point to be observed in the consider
ation of "Charles O Malley" is the great
popularity of the work. We believe that
in this respect it has surpassed even the inimitable
compositions of Mr. Dickens. At all events it
has met with a most extensive sale; and, although
the graver journals have avoided its discussion, the
ephemeral press has been nearly if not quite unani
mous in its praise. To be sure the commendation,
although unqualified, cannot be said to have
abounded in specification, or to have been, in any
regard, of a satisfactory character to one seeking pre
cise ideas on the topic of the book s particular merit.
It appears to us, in fact, that the cabalistical words
"fun," "rollicking" and "devil-may-care," if indeed
words they be, have been made to stand in good
stead of all critical comment in the case of the work
now under review. We first saw these dexterous
expressions in a fly-leaf of "Opinions of the Press"
appended to the renowned "Harry Lorrequer" by
his publisher in Dublin. Thence transmitted,
with complacent echo, from critic to critic, through
daily, weekly and monthly journals without num
ber, they have come at length to form a pendant
and a portion of our author s celebrity have come to
be regarded as sufficient response to the few ignora
muses, who, obstinate as ignorant, and fool-hardy as
obstinate, venture to propound a question or two

* Charles O Malley, the Irish Dragoon. By Harry Lorrequer.
With Forty Illustrations by Phiz. Complete in one volume.
Carey & Hart Philadelphia.



about the true claims of "Harry Lorrequer" or the
justice of the pretensions of "Charles O Malley. "
We shall not insult our readers by supposing any
one of them unaware of the fact, that a book may be
even exceedingly popular without any legitimate lit
erary merit. This fact can be proven by numer
ous examples which, now and here, it will be un
necessary and perhaps indecorous to mention. The
dogma, then, is absurdly false, that the popularity
of a work is primd facie evidence of its excellence
in some respects; that is to say, the dogma is false
if we confine the meaning of excellence (as here of
course it must be confined) to excellence in a literary
sense. The truth is, that the popularity of a book
is primd facie evidence of just the converse of the
proposition it is evidence of the book s demerit,
inasmuch as it shows a "stooping to conquer"
inasmuch as it shows that the author has dealt largely,
if not altogether, in matters which are susceptible
of appreciation by the mass of mankind by unedu
cated thought by uncultivated taste, by unrefined
and unguided passion. So long as the world retains
its present point of civilization, so long will it be al
most an axiom that no extensively popular book, in
the right application of the term, can be a work of high
merit, as regards those particulars of the work which
are popular. A book may be readily sold, may be
universally read, for the sake of some half or two-
thirds of its matter, which half or two-thirds may be
susceptible of popular appreciation, while the one-
half or one-third remaining may be the delight of
the highest intellect and genius, and absolute
caviare to the rabble. And just as

Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci,
so will the writer of fiction, who looks most saga-


ciously to his own interest, combine all votes by inter
mingling with his loftier efforts such amotrt of less
ethereal matter as will give general currency to his
composition. And here we shall be pardoned for
quoting some observations of the English artist,
H. Howard. Speaking of imitation, he says:

The pleasure that results from it, even when employed
upon the most ordinary materials, will always render that
property of our art the most attractive with the majority,
because it may be enjoyed with the least mental exertion.
All men are in some degree judges of it. The cobbler in his
own line may criticise Apelles; and popular opinions are
Or r er to be wholly disregarded cvicerning that which is
addressed to the public who, a certain extent, are
generally right ; although as the ^iguage of the refined can
never be intelligible to the uneducated, so the higher styles
of art can never be acceptable to the multitude. In propor
tion as a work rises in the scale of intellect, it must necessarily
become limited in the number of its admirers. For this
reason the judicious artist, even in his loftiest efforts, will
endeavor to introduce some of those qualities which are
interesting to all, as a passport for those of a more intel
lectual character.

And these remarks upon painting remarks which
are mere truisms in themselves embody nearly the
whole rationale of the topic now under discussion.
It may be added, however, that the skill with which
the author addresses the lower taste of the populace,
is often a source of pleasure, because of admiration,
to a taste higher and more refined, and may be made
a point of comment and of commendation by the

In our review of "Barnaby Rudge, " we were pre
vented, through want of space, from showing how
Mr. Dickens had so well succeeded in uniting all
suffrages. What we have just said, however, will
suffice upon this point. While he has appealed, in


innumerable regards, to the most exalted intellect,
he has r janwhile invariably touched a certain string
whose vibrations are omni-prevalent. We allude
to his powers of imitation that species of imita
tion to which Mr. Howard has reference the faith
ful depicting of what is called still-life, and particu
larly of character in humble condition. It is his close
observation and imitation of nature here which have
rendered him popular, while his higher qualities with
the ingenuity evinced in addressing the general taste,
have secured him the good word of the informed and

But this is an important point upon which T ve
desire to be distinctly understood. We wish here
to record our positive dissent (be that dissent worth
what it may) from a very usual opinion the opin
ion that Mr. Dickens has done justice to his own
genius that any man ever failed to do grievous
wrong to his own genius in appealing to the popu
lar judgment at all. As a matter of pecuniary policy
alone, is any such appeal defensible. But we speak,
of course, in relation to fame in regard to that

-spur which the true spirit doth raise

To scorn delight and live laborious days.

That a perfume should be found by any "true
spirit" in the incense of mere popular applause, is,
to our own apprehension at least, a thing incon
ceivable, inappreciable, a paradox which gives
the lie unto itself a mystery more profound than
the well of Democritus. Mr. Dickens has no more
business with the rabble than a seraph with a chap-
eau de bras. What s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba ?
What is he to Jacques Bonhomme* or Jacques
Bonhomme to him ? The higher genius is a rare gift

* Nickname for the populace in the middle ages.


divine. QVoXXwv ev travrt paeiverai, OS fu iSij, fjxyat ovrot

not to all men Apollo shows himself; he is alone
great who beholds him.* And his greatness has its
office God-assigned. But that office is not a low
communion with low, or even with ordinary intellect.
The holy the electric spark of genius is the medium
of intercourse between the noble and more noble
mind. For lesser purposes there are humbler agents.
There are puppets enough, able enough, willing
enough, to perform in literature the little things to
which we have had reference. For one Fouqu
there are fifty Molieres. For one Angelo there are
five hundred Jan Steens. For one Dickens there are
five million Smollets, Fieldings, Mar vatts, Arthurs,
Cocktons, Bogtons and Frogtons.

It is, in brief, the duty of all whom circumstances
have led into criticism it is, at least, a duty from
which we individually shall never shrink to uphold
the true dignity of genius, to combat its degrada
tion, to plead for the exercise of its powers m those
bright fields which are its legitimate and peculiar
province, and which for it alone lie gloriously out

But to return to "Charles O Malley," and its
popularity. We have endeavored to show that
this latter must not be considered in any degree
as the measure of its merit, but should rather be
understood as indicating a deficiency in this respect,
when we bear in mind, as we should do, the highest
aims of intellect in fiction. A slight examination
of the work, (for in truth it is worth no more,) will
sustain us in what we have said. The plot is exceed
ingly meagre. Charles O Malley, the hero, is a young
orphan Irishman, living in Galway count] , Ireland,
in the house of his uncle Godfrey, to whose sadly

* Callimachus Hymn t*> Apollo.


encumbered estates the youth is heir apparent and
presumptive. He becomes enamoured, while on a
visit to a neighbor, of Miss Lucy Dashwood, and finds
a rival in a Captain Hammersley. Some words care
lessly spoken by Lucy, inspired him with a desire
for military renown. After sojourning, therefore,
for a brief period, at Dublin University, he obtains
a commission and proceeds to the peninsula, with
the British army under Wellington. Here he
distinguishes himself; is promoted; and meets fre
quently with Miss Dashwood, whom obstinately,
and in spite of the lady s own acknowledgment of
love for himself, he supposes in love with Hammer
sley. Upon the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo he
returns home; finds his uncle, of course, just dead;
and sells his commission to disencumber the
estate. Presently Napoleon escapes from Elba,
and our hero, obtaining a staff appointment under
Picton, returns to the Peninsula, is present at Water
loo, (where Hammersley is killed) saves the life of
Lucy s lather for the second time, as he has already
twice saved that of Lucy herself; is rewarded by the
hand of the latter ; and making his way back to O Mai-
ley Castle, "lives happily all the rest of his days."
In and about this plot (if such it may be called)
there are more absurdities than we have patience to
enumerate. The author, or narrator, for example,
is supposed to be Harry Lorrequer as far as the end
of the preface, which by the way, is one of the best
portions of the book. O Malleys then tells his own
story. But the publishing office of the "Dublin
University Magazine" (in which the narrative origi
nally appeared) having been burned down, there
ensues a sad confusion of identity between O Mai-
ley and Lorrequer, so that it is difficult, for the nonce,
to say which is which. In the want of copy conse-


quent upon the disaster, James, the novelist, comes
in to the relief of Lorrequer, or perhaps of O Malley,
with one of the flattest and most irrelevant of love-
tales. Meantime, in the story proper are repetitions
without end. We ( have already said that the hero
saves the life of his mistress twice, and of her father
twice. But not content with this, he has two mis
tresses, and saves the life of both, at different periods,
in precisely the same manner that is to say, by caus
ing his horse, in each instance, to perform a Mun-
chausen side-leap at the moment when a spring for
ward would have impelled him upon his beloved.
And then we have one unending, undeviating
succession of junketings, in which "devilled kid
neys" are never by any accident found wanting.
The unction and pertinacity with which the author
discusses what he chooses to denominate "devilled
kidneys" are indeed edifying, to say no more. The
truth is, that drinking, telling anecdotes, and devour
ing "devilled kidneys" may be considered as the
sum total, as the thesis of the book. Never in the
whole course of his eventful life, does Mr. O Malley
get "two or three assembled together" without
seducing them forthwith to a table, and placing before
them a dozen of wine and a dish of devilled kidneys. "
This accomplished, the parties begin what seems to
be the business of the author s existence the nar
ration of unusually broad tales like those of the
Southdown mutton. And here, in fact, we have the
plan of that whole work of which the "United Ser
vice Gazette" has been pleased to vow it "would
rather be the author than of all the Pickwicks
and Nicklebys in the world " a sentiment which we
really blush to say has been echoed by many respect
able members of our own press. The general plot
or narrative is a mere thread upon which after-


dinner anecdotes, some good, some bad, some utterly
worthless, and not one truly original, are strung with
about as much method, and about half as much dex
terity, as we see ragged urchins employ in stringing
the kernels of nuts.

It would, indeed, be difficult to convey to one who
has not examin2d this production for himself, any
idea of the exceedingly rough, clumsy, and inartis-
tical manner in which even this bald conception
is carried out. The stories are absolutely dragged
in by the ears. So far from finding them result
naturally or plausibly from the conversation by the
interlocutors, even the blindest reader may perceive
the author s struggling and blundering effort to in
troduce them. It is rendered quite evident that they
were originally "on hand, " and that "O Malley " has
been concocted for their introduction. Among
other niaiseries we observe the silly trick of whet
ting appetite by delay. The conversation over the
"kidneys" is brought, for example, to such a pass
that one of the speakers is called upon for a story,
which he forthwith declines for any reason, or for
none. At a subsequent "broil" he is again pressed,
and again refuses, and it is not until the reader s
patience is fairly exhausted, and he has consigned
both the story and its author to Hades, that the
gentleman in question is prevailed upon to dis
course. The only conceivable result of this fanfar-
ronade is the ruin of the tale when told, through
exaggerating anticipation respecting it.

The anecdotes thus narrated being the staple of
the book, and the awkward manner of their interlo
cution having been pointed out, it but remains to be
seen what the anecdotes are, in themselves, and what
is the merit of their narration. And here, let it not
be supposed that we have any design to deprive the


devil of his due. There are several very excellent
anecdotes in "Charles O Malley" very cleverly and
pungently told. Many of the scenes in which Mon
soon figures are rich less, however, from the scenes
themselves than from the piquant, but by no means
original character of Monsoon a drunken, maudlin,
dishonest old Major, given to communicativeness
and mock morality over his cups, and not over careful
in detailing adventures which tell against himself.
One or two of the college pictures are unquestion
ably good but might have been better. In general,
the reader is made to feel that fine subjects have
fallen into unskillful hands. By way of instancing
this assertion, and at the same time of conveying an
idea of the tone and character of the stories, we will
quote one of the shortest, and assuredly one of the

" Ah, by-the-by, how s the Major?"

" Charmingly : only a little bit in a scrape just now. Sir
Arthur Lord Wellington, I mean had him up for his
fellows being caught pillaging, and gave him a devil of a
rowing a few days ago.

Very disorderly corps yours, Major O Shaughnessy,
said the general; more men up for punishment than any
regiment in the service.

" Shaugh muttered something, but his voice was lost in
a loud cock-a-doo-doo-doo, that some bold chanticleer set
up at the moment.

" If the officers do their duty, Major O Shaughnessy, these
acts of insubordination do not occur.

" Cock-a-doo-doo-doo, was the reply. Some of the
staff found it hard not to laugh ; but the general went on

"If, therefore, the practice does not cease, I ll draft the
men into West India regiments."

" Cock-a-doo-doo-doo!

" And if any articles pillaged from the inhabitants are de
tected in the quarters, or about the persons of the troops

" Cock-a-doo-doo-cfoo/ screamed louder here than ever.

" Damn that cock where is it?


" There was a general look around on all sides, which
seemed in vain; when a tremendous repetition of the cry
resounded from O Shaughnessy s coat-pocket: thus detect
ing the valiant Major himself in the very practice of his
corps. There was no standing this : every one burst out into
a peal of laughter; and Lord Wellington himself could not
resist, but turned away muttering to himself as he went
Damned robbers every man of them, while a final war-
note from the Major s pocket closed the interview."

Now this is an anecdote at which every one will
laugh ; but its effect might have been vastly height
ened by putting a few words of grave morality and
reprobation of the conduct of his troops, into the
mouth of O Shaughnessy, upon whose character
they would have told well. The cock, in interrupt
ing the thread of his discourse, would thus have
afforded an excellent context. We have scarcely a
reader, moreover, who will fail to perceive the want
of tact shown in dwelling upon the mirth which the
anecdote occasioned. The error here is precisely
like that of a man s laughing at his own spoken jokes.
Our author is uniformly guilty of this mistake. He
has an absurd fashion, also, of informing the reader
at the conclusion of each of his anecdotes, that,
however good the anecdotes might be, he (the reader)
cannot enjoy it to the full extent in default of the
manner in which it was orally narrated. He has no
business to say anything of the kind. It is his duty
to convey the manner not less than the matter of
his narratives.

But we may say of these latter that, in general,
they have the air of being remembered rather than
invented. No man who has seen much of the rough
life of the camp will fail to recognise among them
many very old acquaintances. Some of them are
as ancient as the hills, and have been, time out of



mind, the common property of the bivouac. They
have been narrated orally all the world over. The
chief merit of the writer is, that he has been the
first to collect and to print them. It is observable,
in fact, that the second volume of the work is very
far inferior to the first. The author seems to have
exhausted his whole hoarded store in the beginning.
His conclusion is barren indeed, and but for the
historical details (for which he has no claim to merit)
would be especially prosy and dull. Now the true
invention never exhausts itself It is mere cant and
ignorance to talk of the possibility of the really
imaginative man s "writing himself out." His soul
but derives nourishment from the streams that flow
therefrom. As well prate about the aridity of the
eternal ocean ef ovwep vavres voTafu) 1 . So long as the uni
verse of thought shall furnish matter for novel com
bination, so long will the spirit of true genius be
original, be exhaustless be itself.

A few cursory observations. The book is filled to
overflowing with songs of very doubtful excellence,
the most of which are put into the mouth of Micky
Free, an amusing Irish servant of O Malley s, and
are given as his impromptu effusions. The subject
of the improvises is always the matter in hand at the
moment of composition. The author evidently
prides himself upon his poetical powers, about which
the less we say the better; but if anything were
wanting to assure us of his absurd ignorance and
inappreciation of Art, we should find the fullest
assurance in the mode in which these doggerel verses
are introduced.

The occasional sentiment with which the volumes
are interspersed there is an absolute necessity for

Can anybody tell us what is meant by the affecta-


tion of the word L envoy which is made the heading
of two prefaces?

That portion of the account of the battle of Water
loo which gives O Malley s experiences while a
prisoner, and in close juxta-position to Napoleon,
bears evident traces of having been translated, and
very literally too, from a French manuscript.

The English of the work is sometimes even amus
ing. We have continually, for example, eat, the
present, for ate, the perfect page 17. At page 16
we have this delightful sentence: "Captain Ham-
mersley, however, never took further notice of me,
but continued to recount, for the amusement of those
about, several excellent stories of his military career,
wnich I confess were heard with every test of delight
by all save me." At page 357 we have some sage
talk about "the entire of the army"; and at page
368 the accomplished O Malley speaks of "drawing a
last look upon his sweetheart. " These things arrest
our attention as we open the book at random. It
abounds in them, and in vulgar-isms even much
worse then they.

But why speak of vulgarisms of language? F^ere
is a disgusting vulgarism of thought which pervades
and contaminates this whole production, and from
wnich a delicate or lofty mind will shrink as from
a pestilence. Not the least repulsive manifestation
of this leprosy is to be found in the author s blind
and grovelling worship of mere rank. Of the Prince
Regent, that filthy compound of all that is bestial
that lazar-house of all moral corruption he
scruples not to speak in terms of the grossest adula
tion sneering at Edmund Burke in the same vil
lainous breath in which he extols the talents, the
graces and the virtues of George the Fourth! That
any man, to-day, can be found so degraded in heart


as to style this reprobate, "one who, in every feeling
of his nature, and in every feature of his deportment
was every inch a prince" is matter for grave
reflection and sorrowful debate. The American, at
least, who shall peruse the concluding pages of the
book now under review, and not turn in disgust
from the base sycophancy which infects them, is
unworthy of his country and his name. But the
truth is, that a gross and contracted soul renders
itself unquestionably manifest in almost every line
of the composition.

And this this is the work, in respect to which its
author, aping the airs of intellect, prates about his
"haggard cheek," his "sunken eye," his "aching
and tired head," his "nights of toil," and (good
heavens) his "days of thought!" That the thing
is popular we grant while that we cannot deny
the fact, we grieve. But the career of true taste is
onward and now moves more vigorously onward
than ever and the period, perhaps, is not hope
lessly distant, when in decrying the mere balderdash
of such matters as "Charles O Malley, " we shall do
less violence to the feelings and judgment even of
the populace, than, we much fear, has been done
in this article.



IT has been well said that "the success of cer
tain works may be traced to sympathy between
the author s mediocrity of ideas, and medio
crity of ideas on the part of the public, " In com
menting on this passage, Mrs. Gore, herself a shrewd
philosopher, observes that, whether as regards
men or books, there exists an excellence too excel
lent for general favor. To "make a hit" to capti
vate the public eye, ear, or understanding without
a certain degree of merit is impossible; but the
"hardest hit" is seldom made, indeed we may say
never made, by the highest merit. When we wrote
the word seldom we were thinking of Dickens and
the "Curiosity Shop," a work unquestionably of
" the highest merit," and which at a first glance
appears to have made the most unequivocal of "hits "
but we suddenly remembered that the compositions
called "Harry Lorrequer" and "Charles O Malley"
had borne the palm from "The Curiosity Shop" in
point of what is properly termed popularity.

There can be no question, we think, that the
philosophy of all this is to be found in the apothegm

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryEdgar Allan PoeWorks (Volume 7) → online text (page 1 of 18)