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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Poe and Longfellow: The Feud of Two Poems

H.W.Longfellow to R.W.Griswold
autographed letter, Sept, 28, 1850
(image from Longfellow’s Serenity and Poe’s Prediction)
no copyright infringement intended

The letter in the image above is one of the documents related to an unfortunate feud between two great poets: Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Each one great in his own way, both very different each other in all respects. The feud regarded two poems: The Haunted Palace, of Poe, and The Beleaguered City of Longfellow, each of the two poets  being accused of plagiarizing the other one.

The conflict had much deeper causes. Both poets were New Englanders, but Poe was the rebellious guy incessantly attacking the Bostonian cultural establishment, as he was determined to forge for himself an identity of his own, while Longfellow was totally the embodiment of that establishment, even more, its Pontifex Maximus. The lack of any mutual empathy came naturally.

To set things straight, the two poets did not not behave the same in this dispute. Poe accused Longfellow, who never responded. It was Rufus Wilmot Griswold (a noted anthologist, editor, and literary critic) who accused Poe of plagiarizing Longfellow.

After all, who plagiarized whom? Scholars still debate it, and the matter will never be settled for sure, as it is about using the same idea, better said, treating the same motif from different perspectives. The frailty of human spirit, mercilessly beleaguered by inner demons - and to strengthen the idea, the allegory of a palace or a city haunted by the forces of the dark. Longfellow  brings here a splendid Christian optimism - we are not alone in this ghastly struggle: after night darkness the morning light comes, and the morning sound of church bell tells us about the living community of church on heaven and earth, the band of brothers. For Poe the perspective is tragic: it's done, we are after the fall, condemned to carry our demons for ever. Poe would later embed his poem within the Fall of the House of Usher.

Which one I liked most? To understand the American soul, you need to understand both. And, as you know, there is a time for everything, there is a time for hope, also a time for despair. Here are both, Poe's and Longfellow's.

image from ...feuilleton...
a journal by artist and designer John Coulthart
cataloguing interests, obsessions and passing enthusiasms
no copyright infringement intended

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace-
Radiant palace-reared its head.
In the monarch Thought's dominion-
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!

Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow,
(This-all this-was in the olden
Time long ago,)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odor went away.

Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
To a lute's well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well-befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.

And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.

But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate.
(Ah, let us mourn!-for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantastically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh-but smile no more.


illustration from Longfellow’s Poetical Works - With 83 Illustrations
by Sir John Gilbert, R.A., and Other Artists
Author’s Copyright Edition - George Routledge and Sons - 1883
no copyright infringement intended

I have read, in some old, marvellous tale,
Some legend strange and vague,
That a midnight host of spectres pale
Beleaguered the walls of Prague.

Beside the Moldau's rushing stream,
With the wan moon overhead,
There stood, as in an awful dream,
The army of the dead.

White as a sea-fog, landward bound,
The spectral camp was seen,
And, with a sorrowful, deep sound,
The river flowed between.

No other voice nor sound was there,
No drum, nor sentry's pace;
The mist-like banners clasped the air,
As clouds with clouds embrace.

But when the old cathedral bell
Proclaimed the morning prayer,
The white pavilions rose and fell
On the alarmed air.

Down the broad valley fast and far
The troubled army fled;
Up rose the glorious morning star,
The ghastly host was dead.

I have read, in the marvellous heart of man,
That strange and mystic scroll,
That an army of phantoms vast and wan
Beleaguer the human soul.

Encamped beside Life's rushing stream,
In Fancy's misty light,
Gigantic shapes and shadows gleam
Portentous through the night.

Upon its midnight battle-ground
The spectral camp is seen,
And, with a sorrowful, deep sound,
Flows the River of Life between.

No other voice nor sound is there,
In the army of the grave;
No other challenge breaks the air,
But the rushing of Life's wave.

And when the solemn and deep churchbell
Entreats the soul to pray,
The midnight phantoms feel the spell,
The shadows sweep away.

Down the broad Vale of Tears afar
The spectral camp is fled;
Faith shineth as a morning star,
Our ghastly fears are dead.

(Edgar Allan Poe)


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