“Aye, aye, but my dear Mr. Phillegrim, this same Edgar A. Poe is--is--rather a bitter fellow, and has a way of his own of using up all humbugs. He carries a Tomahawk--does Poe. A very bad Tomahawk, a very nasty Tomahawk.”
--George Lippard, “The Spermaceti Papers,” “The Citizen Soldier,” July 26, 1843
Although it is now almost automatic to laud Poe as a critic, storyteller, poet, and philosopher, it is still largely overlooked that he was a pretty funny guy, as well, with a mordant wit and a gleeful genius for sarcasm. (I am also certain that most, if not all of his “serious” writings have a satirical or hoaxing element that he probably expected would go unnoticed by his audience.) If he came back to earth today, I don’t know if he’d be much richer—he just strikes me as one of those people who's fated to never accumulate money--but he would be right at home on the Internet. Greatest. Troll. Ever.
Poe's humor is usually difficult to isolate into quotation-length snippets--one usually has to read the entire piece of writing to get the full flavor of his gift for mockery. (Which, it must be said, includes a good amount of self-mockery.) Nevertheless, to celebrate his birthday, I have made the effort to present some of my favorite Poe quips, put-downs, and assorted snark. Take it away, Edgar:
|As you may have guessed by the card, Catterina's throwing the party this year.|
“Now my objection, in this case, is not to the larceny per se. I have always told Mr Hirst that, provided he stole my poetry in a reputable manner, he might steal just as much of it as he thought proper — and, so far, he has behaved very well, in largely availing himself of the privilege. But what I do object to, is the being robbed in bad grammar. It is not that Mr. Hirst did this thing — but that he has went and done did it.”
--“Marginalia” MS. circa March 1848
“He has much warmth of feeling, and is not a person to be disliked, although very apt to irritate and annoy.”
--“Charles F. Briggs,” “The Literati of New York City,” “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” May 1846
“[H]e was not, I say, laughed at so much for his excusable deficiencies in English grammar (although an editor should certainly be able to write his own name) as that, in the hope of disguising such deficiency, he was perpetually lamenting the ‘typographical blunders’ that ‘in the most unaccountable manner’ would creep into his work…I make these remarks in no spirit of unkindness. Mr. E. is yet young…and might…readily improve himself at points where he is most defective. No one of any generosity would think the worse of him for getting private instruction.”
--“Thomas Dunn English,” “The Literati of New York City,” “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” July 1846
“Mr. Clark once did me the honor to review my poems, and—I forgive him.”
"[Clark] is noticeable for nothing in the world except for the markedness by which he is noticeable for nothing."
--“Lewis Gaylord Clark,” “The Literati of New York City,” “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” September 1846
“The word ‘Personality,’ used in the heading of the series, has of course led astray the quartette of dunderheads [Charles Briggs, Hiram Fuller, Thomas Dunn English, and Lewis Gaylord Clark] who have talked and scribbled themselves into convulsions about this matter—but no one else, I presume, has distorted the legitimate meaning of my expression into that of private scandal or personal offense. In sketching individuals, every candid reader will admit that, while my general aim has been accuracy, I have yielded to delicacy even a little too much of verisimilitude. Indeed, on this score should I not have credit for running my pen through certain sentences referring, for example, to the brandy-nose of Mr. Briggs (since Mr. Briggs is only one third described when this nose is omitted) and to the family resemblance between the whole visage of Mr. English and that of the best-looking but most unprincipled of Mr. Barnum’s baboons?”
--Poe discussing “The Literati” in “Mr. Poe’s Reply to Mr. English and Others,” “Spirit of the Times,” July 10, 1846
“The most remarkable feature in this production is the bad paper on which it is printed, and the typographical ingenuity with which matter barely enough for one volume has been spread over the pages of two…The author avers upon his word of honor that in commencing the work he loads a pistol, and places it upon the table. He farther states that, upon coming to a conclusion, it is his intention to blow out what he supposes to be his brains. Now this is excellent. But, even with so rapid a writer as the poet must undoubtedly be there would be some little difficulty in completing the book under thirty days or thereabouts. The best of powder is apt to sustain injury by lying so long ‘in the load.’ We sincerely hope the gentleman took the precaution to examine his priming before attempting the rash act. A flash in the pan — and in such a case — were a thing to be lamented. Indeed there would be no answering for the consequences. We might even have a second series of the Confessions.”
--Review of Laughton Osborn’s “Confessions of a Poet,” “Southern Literary Messenger,” April 1835
“Again, it cannot be gainsaid that the greater number of those who hold high places in our poetical literature are absolute nincompoops.”
--Review of Lambert A. Wilmer’s “The Quacks of Helicon,” “Graham’s Magazine,” August 1841
“His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all.”
--Review of William Ellery Channing, “Graham’s Magazine,” August 1843
“We were saying—were we not?—that Mr. Headley is by no means to be sneered at as a quack. This might be justifiable, indeed, were he only a quack in a small way—a quack doing business by retail. But the wholesale dealer is entitled to respect. Besides, the Reverend author of ‘Napoleon and his Marshals’ was a quack to some purpose. He knows what he is about. We like perfection wherever we see it. We readily forgive a man for being a fool if he only be a perfect fool—and this is a particular in which we cannot put our hands upon our hearts and say that Mr. Headley is deficient. He acts upon the principle that if a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing well:--and the thing that he ‘does’ especially well is the public.”
--Review of Joel T. Headley’s “The Sacred Mountains,” “Southern Literary Messenger,” October 1850
“Well! -- here we have it! This is the book -- the book par excellence -- the book bepuffed, beplastered, and be-Mirrored: the book 'attributed to' Mr. Blank, and 'said to be from the pen' of Mr. Asterisk: the book which has been 'about to appear' -- 'in press' -- 'in progress' -- 'in preparation' -- and 'forthcoming:' the book 'graphic' in anticipation -- 'talented' a priori -- and God knows what in prospectu…
...For a page or two we are entertained with a prospect of a conspiracy, and have great hopes that the principal characters in the plot will so far oblige us as to cut one another's throats…
...Thus ends the Tale of the Present Times, and thus ends the most inestimable piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or so villainously insulted.”
--Review of Theodore S. Fay’s “Norman Leslie,” Southern Literary Messenger, December 1835
“The Swiss Heiress should be read by all who have nothing better to do.”
“Hereupon Mr. Theodore Montelieu calls Mr. Frederic Mortimer a liar, a big liar, or something to that effect, and challenges him to a fight, with a view of either blowing out his already small modicum of brains, or having the exceedingly few blown out, which he himself (Mr. Theodore Montelieu) possesses. Mr. Mortimer, however, being a hero declines fighting, and contents himself, for the present, with looking mysterious…everybody concerned in the business is not precisely what he is, and is precisely what he is not. After this horrible development, if we recollect, all the dramatis personae faint outright, one after the other.”
--Review of Susan Morgan’s “The Swiss Heiress,” Southern Literary Messenger, October 1836
“There are various other tones of equal celebrity, but I shall mention only two more — the tone transcendental and the tone heterogeneous. In the former the merit consists in seeing into the nature of affairs a very great deal farther than anybody else. This second sight is very efficient when properly managed. A little reading of the ‘Dial’ will carry you a great way. Eschew, in this case, big words; get them as small as possible, and write them upside down. Look over Channing’s poems and quote what he says about a ‘fat little man with a delusive show of Can.’ Put in something about the Supernal Oneness. Don’t say a syllable about the Infernal Twoness. Above all, study innuendo. Hint every thing — assert nothing. If you feel inclined to say ‘bread and butter’ do not by any means say it outright. You may say anything and every thing approaching to ‘bread and butter.’ You may hint at buckwheat cake, or you may even go so far as to insinuate oat-meal porridge, but if bread and butter be your real meaning, be cautious, my dear Miss Psyche, not on any account to say ‘bread and butter!’ ”
--“How to Write a Blackwood Article”
[Note: In 1845, the Rev. Arthur Coxe’s “Saul: A Mystery” was published. As it failed to endear itself to the critics, an anonymous partisan sent the following to the “Hartford Columbian”:]
“An entertaining history,
Entitled ‘Saul, A Mystery,’
Has recently been published by the Reverend Arthur Coxe.
The poem is dramatic,
And the wit of it is attic,
And its teachings are emphatic of the doctrines orthodox.
But Mr. Poe, the poet,
Declares he cannot go it —
That the book is very stupid, or something of that sort:
And Green, of the Empori
Um, tells a kindred story,
And swears like any tory that it is’nt worth a groat.
But maugre all the croaking
Of the Raven and the joking
Of the verdant little fellow of the used to be review,
The People, in derision
Of their impudent decision,
Have declared, without division, that the Mystery will do.”
[Poe reprinted the rhyme, adding:]
“The truth, of course, rather injures an epigram than otherwise; and nobody will think the worse of the one above, when I say that, at the date of its first appearance, I had expressed no opinion whatever of the poem to which it refers. “Give a dog a bad name,” &c. Whenever a book is abused, people take it for granted that it is I who have been abusing it.
Latterly I have read ‘Saul,’ and agree with the epigrammatist, that it ‘will do’ — whoever attempts to wade through it. It will do, also, for trunk-paper. The author is right in calling it ‘A Mystery:’ — for a most unfathomable mystery it is. When I got to the end of it I found it more mysterious than ever — and it was really a mystery how I ever did get to the end — which I half fancied that somebody had cut off, in a fit of ill-will to the critics.”
--"Marginalia," "Southern Literary Messenger," May 1849
"'Not altogether a fool,' said G., 'but then he's a poet, which I take to be only one remove from a fool.'"
--“The Purloined Letter”
"’Enough,’ he said; ‘the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough.’
‘True--true,’ I replied.”
--“The Cask of Amontillado”
“Of that species of composition which comes most appropriately under the head, Drivel, we should have no trouble in selecting as many specimens as our readers could desire.”
--Review of “Poems,” by William W. Lord, “Broadway Journal,” May 24, 1845
“This book is a public imposition.”
--Review of “Ups and Downs in the Life of a Distressed Gentleman,” by William Leete Stone, “Southern Literary Messenger,” June 1836
"We like Boston--and perhaps it is just as well not to mention that we are heartily ashamed of the fact."
--"Broadway Journal," November 1, 1845
"Insanity is a word that the Brook Farm Phalanx should never be brought to mention under any circumstances whatsoever."
--Responding to innuendos about his mental state, "Broadway Journal," December 13, 1845
"In fact, we fancy that we can trace the gradations of his wrath in the number and impressiveness of his underscoring. The SIRS!! for example, are exceedingly bitter, and in THE RAVEN, which has five black lines beneath it, each one blacker than the preceding, we can only consider ourselves as devoted to the Infernal Gods...
...We told him that we meant to do him justice--and we did it."
-Responding to a theater manager who was unwise enough to take issue with Poe's review of his play, "Broadway Journal," April 19, 1845
[Poe did not think much of the feminine fashion item known as bustles:]
“One of the evil genii who are perpetually upon the watch to inflict ill, has put it into the heads of these accomplished ladies that the thing which we describe as personal beauty, consists altogether in the protuberance of the region which lies not very far below the small of the back. Perfection of loveliness, they say, is in the direct ratio of the extent of this hump. Having been long possessed of this idea, and bolsters being cheap in that country, the days have long gone by since it was possible to distinguish a woman from a dromedary—“
--“The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade”
“I thought upon other subjects than Death. I discarded my medical books. ‘Buchan’ I burned. I read no ‘Night Thoughts’--no fustian about church-yards--no bugaboo tales--such as this.”
--"The Premature Burial"
“Mr. P[oe] has been so often complimented for his powers of sarcasm that he thinks it incumbent upon him to keep up his reputation in that line by sneers upon all occasions and downright abuse.”
--Unfinished MS., “A Reviewer Reviewed,” circa 1849. As the old saying goes, read the whole thing. You'll never see anything else quite like it.
[A footnote: A fine article on Poe's humor can be found here.]