Notes on Poe’s Little Longfellow War

When I first put together my list on Poe, I picked up the impression from multiple sources that Poe’s accusation against Longfellow was just a result of his illness/alcohol issues/mental instability, and also the fact that it’s not be widely accepted that Longfellow is a plagiarist contributed to me having the preconception that Poe must have been seeing things that weren’t there. However, Moss makes the convincing claim that, at least initially, Poe’s plagiarism accusations were quite reasonable and consistent.

The claim Poe made was, fairly harshly, that Longfellow was a good poet overall, a genius even, but that occasionally he plagiarized other authors.  If this seems like a bipolar assessment, well, it seemed so to readers and critics of Poe’s day as well and it caused Poe a great deal of backlash after this piece was published.  In the same article, Poe says that Longfellow has “the very loftiest qualities of the poetical soul.”  BUT, here’s the catch–the poem “Midnight Mass of the Dying Year” is, according to Poe, a plagiarism of Tennyson’s “The Death of the Old Year” and that “this plagiarism; which is too palpable to be mistaken…belongs to the most barbarous class of literary robbery.”

VS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, the Year is growing old,And his eye is pale and bleared!

Death, with frosty hand and cold,

Plucks the old man by the beard,

Sorely, sorely!

The leaves are falling, falling,

Solemnly and slow;

Caw! caw! the rooks are calling,

It is a sound of woe,

A sound of woe!

Through woods and mountain passes

The winds, like anthems, roll;

They are chanting solemn masses,

Singing, “Pray for this poor soul,

Pray, pray!”

And the hooded clouds, like friars,

Tell their beads in drops of rain,

And patter their doleful prayers;

But their prayers are all in vain,

All in vain!

There he stands in the foul weather,

The foolish, fond Old Year,

Crowned with wild flowers and with heather,

Like weak, despiséd Lear,

A king, a king!

Then comes the summer-like day,

Bids the old man rejoice!

His joy! his last!  Oh, the man gray

Loveth that ever-soft voice,

Gentle and low.

To the crimson woods he saith,

To the voice gentle and low

Of the soft air, like a daughter’s breath,

“Pray do not mock me so!

Do not laugh at me!”

And now the sweet day is dead;

Cold in his arms it lies;

No stain from its breath is spread

Over the glassy skies,

No mist or stain!

Then, too, the Old Year dieth,

And the forests utter a moan,

Like the voice of one who crieth

In the wilderness alone,

“Vex not his ghost!”

Then comes, with an awful roar,

Gathering and sounding on,

The storm-wind from Labrador,

The wind Euroclydon,

The storm-wind!

Howl! howl! and from the forest

Sweep the red leaves away!

Would the sins that thou abhorrest,

O Soul! could thus decay,

And be swept away!

For there shall come a mightier blast,

There shall be a darker day;

And the stars, from heaven down-cast

Like red leaves be swept away!

Kyrie, eleyson!

Christe, eleyson!

—Longfellow

Full knee-deep lies the winter snow,And the winter winds are wearily sighing:

Toll ye the church bell sad and slow,

And tread softly and speak low,

For the old year lies a-dying.

Old year you must not die;

You came to us so readily,

You lived with us so steadily,

Old year you shall not die.

He lieth still: he doth not move:

He will not see the dawn of day.

He hath no other life above.

He gave me a friend and a true truelove

And the New-year will take ’em away.

Old year you must not go;

So long you have been with us,

Such joy as you have seen with us,

Old year, you shall not go.

He froth’d his bumpers to the brim;

A jollier year we shall not see.

But tho’ his eyes are waxing dim,

And tho’ his foes speak ill of him,

He was a friend to me.

Old year, you shall not die;

We did so laugh and cry with you,

I’ve half a mind to die with you,

Old year, if you must die.

He was full of joke and jest,

But all his merry quips are o’er.

To see him die across the waste

His son and heir doth ride post-haste,

But he’ll be dead before.

Every one for his own.

The night is starry and cold, my friend,

And the New-year blithe and bold, my friend,

Comes up to take his own.

How hard he breathes! over the snow

I heard just now the crowing cock.

The shadows flicker to and fro:

The cricket chirps: the light burns low:

‘Tis nearly twelve o’clock.

Shake hands, before you die.

Old year, we’ll dearly rue for you:

What is it we can do for you?

Speak out before you die.

His face is growing sharp and thin.

Alack! our friend is gone,

Close up his eyes: tie up his chin:

Step from the corpse, and let him in

That standeth there alone,

And waiteth at the door.

There’s a new foot on the floor, my friend,

And a new face at the door, my friend,

A new face at the door.

—Tennyson

Now, there is no word-for-word copying here, and Poe readily admits that, saying that Longfellow’s poem belongs to “that class in which, while the words of the wronged author are avoided, his most intangible, and therefore his least defensible and least reclaimable property, is purloined.”  What is copied, according to Poe, is the personification of the year as a dying old man as being wild and fantastic in setting and manner.

Though students are taught to repeat the definition of plagiarism as the unattributed repetition of words AND ideas, no one ever takes the ideas part seriously. But for Poe, the idea is deep and rich—the idea of the poem is not merely one thing for Poe, and the words are not the truly creative part.  For Poe, how a poem works, the concept, the unity, is the driving force behind the poem, the most difficult and artistic for the poet to create.  The words, how they fit together and rhyme, is merely skill.  Poe says that Longfellow has plenty of this skill, and even the imagination to pull it off, but “nothing of unity.”

To my eye, the poems are very different–Tennyson’s has the beginning of the new year at the end, where Longfellow is all lament.  Tennyson’s has a tension of “don’t go” old year and calls him a friend, but Longfellow’s doesn’t treat him so nicely, calling him a crazy Lear and the end seems eager to sweep him away with the red leaves.  Longfellow’s style is all almost yelling sea-chanty-ish with the exclamation pointed-echoed lines, and Tennyson’s seems quiet, pleading, with it’s nice question “what is it we can do for you?” and instead of echoing violent lines like “The storm wind!” its repetitions occur with the phrase “my friend, my friend”–and the rhyme structure is not even the same.

The way Poe talks about the idea, it is as if Longfellow is actually taking something very tangible away from Tennyson, “nearly all that is valuable in the piece of Tennyson…he is robbed.”  I imagine Poe, as a very poor artist himself, was keenly aware of the value of ideas and who they are attributed to, making the difference between having a living and not.  In terms of reputation, the exact words mean less than the idea in the court of public opinion.  Someone is less likely to remember the exact words of a poem but might remember “Hey, who was it that wrote that poem about the year as a dying old man?  Oh yeah, that was Longfellow.” And it seems so unjust to Poe, for Longfellow to steal the public’s limited attention and memory.

Today, it is taken as more or less assumed that all but really specific or exceptionally unique ideas will be reused, and an author will get his/her ideas not from a genesis of thought but from inspirations such as everyday life or even other stories (how many reimaginings of Snow White have recently come out in the movies?).  Poe doesn’t accept those origins of the idea, however, as being truly poetic/artistic.  When a critic, calling himself Outis, argued that Longfellow wasn’t guilty of any wrongdoing, he described a situation where two poets both saw the same tree and described it as a “crystal chandelier.”  While one poet published his poem about the chandelier tree, the other just kept it in a drawer.  Did that mean that one of them is guilty of plagiarism?

Poe catches Outis’ criticism, that a repetition of an idea is not plagiarism, but he stretches Outis’ meaning (I think uncharitably) to criticize Outis as saying that there is no such thing as plagiarism at all.  In fact, Outis reacts to the similarity much like a modern reviewer would, that a simple similarity of conception is no grounds for a change of plagiarism unless the idea was very, very distinct.  Poe’s response is to criticize Outis’ view of what poetry is. Poe says that the chandelier description is not plagiarism because it is not poetry: “nine common-place men out of ten would have maintained it to be a chandelier-looking tree. No poet of any pretension, however, would have committed himself so far as to put such a similitude in print.”  And if everyone thought that the chandelier description was good and poetic even to emphasize it by putting it in italics, “then every printer’s devil in the land should have been flogged for not taking it out of Italics upon the spot, and putting it in the plainest Roman — which is too good for it by one half.”

Oh, I love it when Poe gets mean.  But in terms of figuring out his archetype of originality, I think this situation, his letters, and Moss have finally unlocked it for me.

For Poe, plagiarism:

  1. Only applies if the work in question is Art.  Reflecting the common-place, reporting on events, or even writing a textbook cannot be charged with plagiarism because it is likely and logically expressed in common-place ways—the poetic idea is not there and so it cannot be stolen.  This is why he writes that the charge of plagiarism against him for the Conchology project is absurd despite the fact that there is much more clear copying there than in any of the works he accused of plagiarism.  Textbooks are necessarily made that way, he responded, but when speaking about poetry.
  2. If it is structural, stealing the critical idea of the work of art, its genesis and value—what the work hinges on, not necessarily the details.  Outis charged Poe with plagiarism by his own definition by comparing “The Raven” to a poem called “The Bird of the Dream.”  Though Outis pointed out 18 similarities (a method that Poe used in accusing another author of plagiarism) Poe angrily rebutted 16 of the similarities, finding that the poems’ similarities were only that both involved a bird and a dead woman, and that these details alone didn’t make one poem the copy of the other—the space over which the poems have similarities is critical and Outis did not provide “The Bird of the Dream” in full.  By space, I think Poe is also indicating substance, the details on which the poems hinge, as opposed to details that happen to be repeated.  So, that Longfellow and Tennyson’s whole poems focus on the old year as a dying man is significant, but a poem that mentioned that personification in passing may not be.  Poe also takes the opportunity to say that calling him a plagiarist does not invalidate his claim that Longfellow is one.  Now, this does not EXCLUDE verbatim plagiarism, and I think from his comment that Longfellow plagiarism “while the words of the wronged author are avoided, his most intangible, and therefore his least defensible and least reclaimable property, is purloined” suggests that there is another type of plagiarism, still bad, but perhaps not AS bad as plagiarizing the root concept of the poem.  Scholars have told me straight-faced that people “did not have” the conception of plagiarism that we do today to wholesale excuse verbatim plagiarism, but, within the genre of art (and outside of art these scholars may certainly be correct), both Outis and Poe agree that verbatim plagiarism is to be condemned, but feel like they don’t have to dwell on what everyone already knows, their dispute is with the theft of ideas.
  3. Is more severe than imitation, which is still pretty bad and is a lesser degree of plagiarism, but mostly seems to involve style.  Poe uses the word “imitation” when describing the similarities of the rhyme structures of authors.
  4. Counts even whether or not it is conscious or unconscious.  According to Moss, for the longest while, Poe was perplexed why Longfellow, who obviously was a skilled poet, had to resort to plagiarism and really gave Longfellow hell for it.  However, later in his career, Poe conceded the possibility of Longfellow might have done it unconsciously (187) and he even describes how this could understandably happen, “What the poet intensely admires, becomes thus, in very fact, although only partially, a portion of his own intellect.  It has a secondary origination within his own soul—an origination altogether apart, although springing from its primary origination from without.  The poet is thus possessed by another’s thought, and cannot be said to take of it, possession.  But, in either view, he thoroughly feels it as his own” (180).  However, Poe still had high standards for art and though his conception of plagiarism as possibly being unconscious might exonerate Longfellow the man, it did not exonerate his work.  (Does this predate Jung’s cryptomnesia?   Or did the idea come to Poe from somewhere prior?)
  5. Is most likely in the case of a well-known author stealing from an obscure author.  In Poe’s opinion, Longfellow was defended because he was famous, but not only does fame have nothing to do with the crime and one’s ability to do the crime (and if the author became famous through plagiarism and was excused because “why would a famous person plagiarize?”
  6. Does not necessarily indicate that all of a poet’s other poetry is poor, just that the plagiarized poetry is: “Imitators are not necessarily, unoriginal—except at the exact points of imitation” (181).  I think Poe said this because he did appreciate and admire Longfellow’s poetry at points, but did not shy away from calling him out on plagiarism.
  7. Ambivalent on the charge of plagiarism as a moral failing.  At various points he calls it thievery, barbarism, theft, malice, censure, the quintessence of meanness…all kinds of bad stuff, but he still tries to be polite to Longfellow himself while chastising his poetry and his methods.  Maybe because of his revised view of plagiarism as possibly a result of unconscious borrowing, he says that he has made “no charge of moral delinquency against either Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Aldrich, or of Mr. Hood:–indeed, lest in the heat of argument, I may have uttered any words which may admit of being tortured into such an interpretation, I here fully disclaim them upon the spot” (179).
  8. Is harmful.  The poet is harmed because his economic livelihood is stolen, his reputation is stolen, and the original author (due to poor copyright protections and record-keeping) may be accused of plagiarizing the one who plagiarized him.  It also harms the canon of American literature because overlooking plagiarism is in effect overlooking a major flaw in the work, and by supporting the habit of editorial “puffery” to sell books, makes for the influx of bad poetry inflicted on the public “a system which, more than any other one thing in the world, had tended to the depression of “American literature” whose elevation it was designed to effect.”
  9. Should be caught.  The above gives enough reasons why Poe felt that plagiarism should be caught, but Poe got many criticisms from the authors, other editors and critics who either didn’t agree with him or who didn’t like the effects of what he was doing, publishing houses, and friends/fans of the authors he criticized.  Arguably, he would have been a much more successful critic and poet had he not kicked up such a fuss–publishing houses may have been more willing to enter into book contracts with him if he hadn’t tried to discredit and reduce the sales of their authors.  But, in spite of critics accusing him of “carping littleness” Poe saw himself as a literary champion for standing up to the literary cliques and holding works accountable for their flaws, including plagiarism, “I am but defending a set of principle which no honest man need be ashamed of defending, and for whose defense no honest man will consider an apology required” (174).

So, if I’ve got all this right, Poe wasn’t being contradictory when he committed copyright infringement and then called out Longfellow on plagiarism.  Interestingly, were they alive at the same time (Poe predates Wilde by about 45 years) I think Poe might have accused Wilde of plagiarism, but not (first) for Dorian Grey—Wilde was accused of plagiarism in his early Poems, and kicked out of the Oxford Union because critics said that they were merely imitations.  Even the “Ballad of Reading Goal” is very reminiscent of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  It seems to me that both Poe and Wilde occupied a time of shift in the definition of plagiarism, which may have been aided in the tension of the loose rules in copyright protection, where critics could not agree whether ideas were capable of being attributed to a single author or not, and how specific or original these ideas would have to be to “belong” to an author.

It’s interesting that once stricter international copyright laws came along, Poe’s more rigid conception of the plagiarized poetic idea was largely lost (was even difficult to maintain to his peers)—it’s as if copyright, and the ability to prove in court that a work was stolen (easier to do when the copying is verbatim) had a lot to do with defining plagiarism as well, something I think we usually see as the other way around.

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2 thoughts on “Notes on Poe’s Little Longfellow War

  1. Excellent work! I have been trying to do some Internet research on this topic and this is the best page I’ve been able to find. I’d love to see more and perhaps some clarification of a few things, for instance, what was the exact nature of Poe’s copyright infringement. I also noted a mistake in number 6 that could be edited really quickly: You THE poet’s.” I am only mentioning this because I really enjoyed the page, and I can tell that you pride yourself on doing good work.

    • I had a computer issue which messed up a section of that response. The line in question in number 6 reads, “all poet’s other work,” and should read, “all THE (or OF THE poet’s other work.

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