Monday, October 26, 2009

Review of The Sinless Child by Elizabeth Oakes-Smith; or Loren Disagrees With Edgar Allan Poe

I was about fifteen when I bought my first classic on a school trip. It was a miniature volume of The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. I read three quarters of it on the bus ride home. Here was the same girl who refused to touch Sherlock Holmes' Hound of the Baskervilles, (the shortest classic that I was required to read in school). I was the kind of student who kicked and screamed through material I did not enjoy. I'd rather take a 52% on a test than suffer through reading a book that bored me to tears. It's what I call "selective intelligence," and I still suffer from it. Now I live with a Hell Hound, so I guess that is poetic justice.

The day I bought that little book, I devoured Poe's works in three hours, because I was entranced by the writing, while kids around me were mostly sleeping and listening to INXS on their Walkmans. Even a teacher passing my seat remarked in surprise at what I was reading. I was odd, and I knew it, but could not help myself.

Edgar Allan Poe was odd as well, and that is partially what interested me about him. Mainly, it was his strong literary voice, remarkable distinct and unique. I'm drawn to writers with powerful voices.

When I saw that he had written a review of the book I won on eBay a few weeks ago, (The Poetical Writings of Elizabeth Oakes-Smith), I was very excited to hear his opinion. I decided, however, that I would read the book before I read his review, because I wanted to take my own notes first, without being tainted by his opinion, and the authority of his ideas.

First, let me describe this little volume that I won. Published in 1845, it contains a very long poem called The Sinless Child, and two other sections of poetry: sonnets and miscellaneous. I want to focus on The Sinless Child before I tackle discussing the other sections, which, in my opinion deserve a separate post.

The Sinless Child by Elizabeth Oakes-Smith was first published in a magazine titled The Southern Literary Messenger. I'm almost certain that the first book printing of the poem was in 1845, in The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Oakes-Smith. The grammar and sentence structure suggestions of Poe are incorporated in the 1845 printing.

The poem's greatest strength, in my opinion is its unique style and imagery, although I need some help from Poe to identify its structure. The poem is 90 pages, divided into seven parts, with two additional pages of author's notes. The style looks very unique to me. Poe describes it as:

"a rare style...two hundred stanzas, generally eight lines, iambic tetrameter alternating with triameter- in other words, lines of 4 iambuses alternate with three lines."

The title of the poem is a bold choice for the author, (having been raised on Calvinstic doctrine). I'm sure there is meaning behind it that I am missing for lack of knowledge.

EOS has a knack for pulling the reader into the most gorgeous settings through descriptive writing. These places are a mixture of the nature we are familiar with on Earth and some other magical place within her own imagination.

"The spirits poised their purple wings

O'er blossom, brook, and dell,

And loitered in the quiet nook,

As if they loved it well.

Young Eva laid one snowy arm

Upon a violet bank,

And pillowed there her downy cheek,

While she to slumber sank." (72)

The story of this poem, as I see it, is about a young girl whose innocence and goodness is remarkable and rare. This protagonist, Eva, is so different that she is lonely and not even her own mother understands her. Eva does virtually nothing in the story, and this lack of plot action is heavily criticized by Poe. However by the poem's end, Eva, by sheer presence of character, has changed lives. She has come to an understanding with her mother and has transformed the character of a man for the better. This maiden dies young sadly, however, she leaves Earth as a saintly character.

In essence, what I see in this poem is a reflection of the sort of child Elizabeth Oakes-Smith might have been, and her opinion that in observing children one can get a glimpse of their ethereal qualities: innocence and unencumbered goodness. There are clear hints of the condition of the author's relationship with her own mother, who, like the parent in the story is widowed when Elizabeth is a very young child.

"No father's lip her brow had kissed,

Or breathed for her a prayer;

The widowed breast on which she slept,

Was full of doubt and care;

And oft was Eva's little cheek

Heaved by her mother's sigh-

And oft the widow shrunk in fear

From her sweet baby's eye." (18)

There is a point where the reader can see the widow and her daughter come to an enlightened phase in their relationship. The widow adopts a more hopeful outlook, and seems changed.

"O Eva, Eva, say no more,

For I am filled with fear;

Dim shadows move along the wall;

Dost thou not see them here?-

Dost thou not mark the gleams of light,

The shadowy forms move by?

Yes, mother, beautiful to see!

And they are always nigh."(45)

Here mother and daughter come to a meeting of the minds. Recollecting characters of old well-known 19th century stories like The Stepmother, The Miser, Old Richard, and The Defrauded Heart, Eva and the widow discuss the moral flaws of the characters. Eva's perspective changes the widow.

These stories contained within the poem convey meaning. The Miser deals with a soul that neglects its spiritual needs, such as love, kindness, generosity. Old Richard reflects moral haziness, or lack of decision. The Defrauded Heart and The Stepmother both address what happens to the soul of a child when it is "infused with sorrow and fear instead of faith and joy." (Part V)

Later in the poem, a "reckless youth" (Albert Linne) sees Eva sleeping in the forest, and he is entranced by her beauty. This scene reminds me of Sleeping Beauty, (since I was raised on Walt Disney). Again Eva does nothing but declare her love for the man, and he changes his ways because of her pure goodness.

"He felt the power of womanhood-its purity was there."(76)

Eva and Albert Linne feel a connection between their souls, a sort of marriage. Then in a classic Victorian ending, she dies.

On the whole, I think The Sinless Child is a beautiful poem. I will admit that after reading I had to mull it over for a few days to make sense of it because it is complex and the writing style challenges my modern brain.

Edgar Allan Poe suggests in his review of The Sinless Child that "the conception is better than the execution." He thinks it would have been better if Eva and Albert got married. With all due respect to his unique genius, I think he misses the point. He says the theme of this poem is that

"truth and goodness of themselves impart a holy light to the mind which gives it a power far above mere intellectuality."

I agree that Elizabeth Oakes Smith is trying to convey the opinion that moral intelligence is what leads to wisdom. Keeping in mind that the author's main goal in life is to achieve wisdom, (a point she makes in Shadow Land; or The Seer), the construction of the plot makes sense. The protagonist accomplishes more in her short, uneducated, unremarkable life than many people do.

I can imagine that this next line in Edgar Poe's review of The Sinless Child may have really ticked off Elizabeth Oakes-Smith.

"She enables us to see that she has very narrowly missed one of those happy creations which now and then immortalize the poet."

I think Poe has a lot of nerve to make predictions about who would be immortalized by their work. I'm not the only one who feels this way, he angers a lot of people with his reviews. For example, he accuses Longfellow of plagiarizing Tennyson. Then, at some point in his career, he feels the need to defend his poem "The Raven" which is said to be strikingly similar to Tennyson's works. I really get a kick out of discovering the petty gossip that went on amongst early American writers.

What did Elizabeth Oakes-Smith think of Edgar Allan Poe? She was well acquainted with him. A great-grand daughter of hers shared with me a family story that he attended poetry readings at Elizabeth Oakes-Smith's home, and that she was fond of him. In Selections from the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Prince Smith, the author has a whole chapter dedicated to Poe. She does not come out directly and address Poe's review of The Sinless Child, however, she does share some feelings about his ability as a critic.

"I had been talking with Catherine Sedgewick, who was admired through a long
life for her literary achievements, and Mr. Poe joined us. Mr. Poe, I thought,
had not much praised me in a critique upon "Autographs," but this did not
disturb me so much as the injustice he had done my husband. He had
appreciated neither his genius nor his character, and this had prejudiced me
against him.

The conversation became animated, and I soon saw that a mind like Mr. Poe's
would utterly fail to understand or appreciate one capable of combining the ideas
of a statesman with the irony of the humorist, as in the "Downing
Letters." I saw that "The Raven" was really Mr. Poe; that he did not from
another mental phase produce "Lenore" or any other poem, but the
idiosyncrasy of the author's mind was continued in each, like his dream within a
dream. Then I laid aside my bit of personal pique and recognized the weird poet
such as he was.

'I'm afraid my critique upon you did not please you," he said, with his large
eyes anxiously fixed upon me; I was half-inclined to take him seriously to task,
and now wish I had done so, but I only replied:

'I have no right to complain. I suppose you wrote as you thought.'

'I meant great praise,' he replied." (122)

I think EOS is suggesting that Poe exhibits a "selective intelligence" as a critic. To put it modernly, one shouldn't ask a guy to review a chick flick. On the whole, Poe gives The Sinless Child a very favorable review, suggesting that it ranks among the best long poems in American history. It's originality "forever entitles [The Sinless Child] to the admiration and respect of every competent critic."

Maybe a better understanding of EOS as a person would have given his review of this work greater depth. Although I greatly admire Poe's ability as a writer, I am surprised by the way in which he critiques his contemporaries. To say that a work will never be remembered is harsh, and perhaps his own credibility caused some writers to be judged unfairly for all time. What modern person, after reading a partially poor review by one of the greatest American writers of all time would even bother looking at The Sinless Child? A person in the position of editor or reviewer has to consider carefully his power in judging art.

It's no wonder to me that Poe died young, mysteriously. Here's a guy who borrowed money from rich men's wives and never paid them back, leaving them to gossip angrily over his actions. Then, if you consider what he wrote about other writers as a literary critic you can see a multitude of possibilities surrounding his death.

I was so disappointed by a recent work of fiction I read called The Poe Shadow for not addressing these theories. Maybe I can write my own version of what happened to Poe someday. Right now I have to change a diaper.

-Above picture is an 1845 oil painting of E. Oakes-Smith by John Wesley Paradise from Chester Dale Collection owned by National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., (currently in storage)

The excerpts of Poe's critique of The Sinless Child come from-

"Elizabeth Oakes-Smith" The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, 1850, 3:128-137.

Read The Sinless Child online here.


rhymeswithplague said...

Hello, Loren...

I think if I had to read very much of EOS's poem I would run screaming from the room, but that's just me.

Poe can call it iambic tetrameter (4) followed by triameter (e), but I choose to call it iambic heptameter (7 iambs) with an artificial break in the line length so that the lines won't seem so long. Iambic heptameter, however the line is divided, fits my definition of "sing-songy" as in this well-known example:

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went
Her lamb was sure to go.

It followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.

...and so on.

The thing is that the rhythm gets into my head so much that I can no longer concentrate on the story being told. Again, that's just me.

Nevetheless, this was a good post and I enjoyed it.

Loren Christie said...

Hi Mr. Brague, Thank you for the insightful comment, and for reading what looks to me to be my longest post ever.

rhymeswithplague said...

You're welcome, I'm sure, and by (e) I meant (3).

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Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.


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