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[63]

It was as critic that Poe first attracted widespread attention. As editor of the Messenger and Burton's and Graham's his chief function was that of book-reviewer; and much of the work that he did for other periodicals was of the nature of book-reviews and gossip about books and authors. The bulk of his work in this field is journalistic in style and of ephemeral interest, much of it being the merest hack-writing; but there remains a small body of critical matter that possesses genuine worth and distinction, and that entitles Poe to an honourable place among the literary critics of America.1 Assuredly no other American critic of his day, save Lowell, may take rank above him. This residue of good work comprises a score of masterly book-reviews, including the memorable notices of Longfellow's Ballads, Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, and Dickens's Barnaby Rudge; some half-dozen essays in the theory of criticism, of which the earliest is his Letter to B—— and the most significant is his Poetic principle; and a series of obiter dicta, collected under the title Marginalia, which have justly been held to contain much of his best work as critic.2

His most distinctive gifts as critic were clearness of intellect and a faculty for analysis. Few Americans of his time had finer intellectual endowments. He also had the poet's ‘faculty of ideality,’ on which he laid great stress in his judgments of others. And he was the most independent and fearless of critics, disdaining not to attack either high or low. He had not read very widely; but he knew his Milton well, and probably his Shakespeare and his Pope, and he was familiar

1Poe's critical writing was so much superior to the best of what had preceded it,’ remarks William Morton Payne (American Literary Criticism, 1904, p. 14), ‘that one might almost be pardoned for saying that this department of our literature began when, in 1835, The Southern literary Messenger engaged his services.’

2 F. C. Prescott, Selections from the Critical Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. p. XIX; J. M. Robertson, New essays towards a critical method, p. 117.

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