Poe's Portrait of Mowatt for Godey's Lady's Book
A year after writing about her in The Broadway Journal,
Poe edited his reviews of his various views of Mowatt's play "Fashion"
and her various performances into a portrait of her to be included with
his impressions of other outstanding members of New York's literati
that he completed for Godey's Lady Book.
Because it is perhaps one of the most comprehensive evaluations we have of her
work as a creative artist, I wish to reproduce here in full:
ANNA CORA MOWATT.
MRS. MOWATT is in some respects a
remarkable woman, and has undoubtedly wrought a deeper impression upon the
public than any one of her sex in America.
She became first known through her
recitations. To these she drew large and discriminating audiences in Boston,
New York, and elsewhere to the north and east. Her subjects were much in the
usual way of these exhibitions, including comic as well as serious pieces,
chiefly in verse. In her selections she evinced no very refined taste,
but was probably influenced by the elocutionary rather than by the literary
value of her programmes. She read well; her voice was melodious; her
youth and general appearance excited interest, but, upon the whole, she
produced no great effect, and the enterprise may be termed unsuccessful,
although the press, as is its wont, spoke in the most sonorous tones of her
It was during these recitations that
her name, prefixed to occasional tales, sketches and brief poems in the
magazines, first attracted an attention that, but for the recitations, it might
not have attracted.
Her sketches and tales may be said
to be cleverly written. They are lively, easy, conventional,
scintillating with a species of sarcastic wit, which might be termed good were
it in any respect original. In point of style — that is to say, of mere English,
they are very respectable. One of the best of her prose papers is entitled
“Ennui and its Antidote,” published in “The Columbian Magazine” for June, 1845.
The subject, however, is an exceedingly hackneyed one.
In looking carefully over her poems,
I find no one entitled to commendation as a whole; in very few of them do I
observe even noticeable passages, and I confess that I am surprised and
disappointed at this result of my inquiry; nor can I make up my mind that there
is not much latent poetical power in Mrs. Mowatt. From some lines addressed to
Isabel M——, I copy the opening stanza as the most favorable specimen which I
have seen of her verse.
Forever vanished from thy cheek
Is life’s unfolding rose —
Forever quenched the flashing smile
That conscious beauty knows!
Thine orbs are lustrous with a light
Which ne’er illumes the eye
Till heaven is bursting on the sight
And earth is fleeting by.”
In this there is much force, and the
idea in the concluding quatrain is so well put as to have the air of
originality. Indeed, I am not sure that the thought of the last two lines is
not original; — at all events it is exceedingly natural and impressive.
I say “natural,” because, in any imagined ascent from the orb we
inhabit, when heaven should “burst on the sight” — in other words, when the
attraction of the planet should be superseded by that of another sphere, then
instantly would the “earth” have the appearance of “fleeting by.” The
versification, also, is much better here than is usual with the poetess. In
general she is rough, through excess of harsh consonants. The whole poem is of
higher merit than any which I can find with her name attached; but there is
little of the spirit of poesy in anything she writes. She evinces more feeling
Her first decided success was with
her comedy, “Fashion,” although much of this success itself is referable to the
interest felt in her as a beautiful woman and an authoress.
The play is not without merit. It
may be commended especially for its simplicity of plot. What the Spanish
playwrights mean by dramas of intrigue, are the worst acting dramas in
the world; the intellect of an audience can never safely be fatigued by
complexity. The necessity for verbose explanation, however, on the part of
Trueman, at the close of the play, is in this regard a serious defect. A dénouement
should in all cases be taken up with action — with nothing else. Whatever
cannot be explained by such action should be communicated at the opening of the
In the plot, however estimable for
simplicity, there is of course not a particle of originality of
invention. Had it, indeed, been designed as a burlesque upon the arrant
conventionality of stage incidents in general, it might have been received as a
palpable hit. There is not an event, a character, a jest, which is not a
well-understood thing, a matter of course, a stage-property time out of mind.
The general tone is adopted from “The School for Scandal,” to which, indeed,
the whole composition bears just such an affinity as the shell of a locust to
the locust that tenants it — as the spectrum of a Congreve rocket to the
Congreve rocket itself. In the management of her imitation,
nevertheless, Mrs. Mowatt has, I think, evinced a sense of theatrical effect or
point which may lead her, at no very distant day, to compose an exceedingly taking,
although it can never much aid her in composing a very meritorious drama.
“Fashion,” in a word, owes what it had of success to its being the work of a
lovely woman who had already excited interest, and to the very commonplaceness
or spirit of conventionality which rendered it readily comprehensible and
appreciable by the public proper. It was much indebted, too, to the carpets,
the ottomans, the chandeliers and the conservatories, which gained so decided a
popularity for that despicable mass of inanity, the “London Assurance” of
Since “Fashion,” Mrs. Mowatt has
published one or two brief novels in pamphlet form, but they have no particular
merit, although they afford glimpses (I cannot help thinking) of a genius as
yet unrevealed, except in her capacity of actress.
In this capacity, if she be but true
to herself, she will assuredly win a very enviable distinction. She has done
well, wonderfully well, both in tragedy and comedy; but if she knew her own
strength she would confine herself nearly altogether to the depicting (in
letters not less than on the stage) the more gentle sentiments and the most
profound passions. Her sympathy with the latter is evidently intense. In the
utterance of the truly generous, of the really noble, of the unaffectedly
passionate, we see her bosom heave, her cheek grow pale, her limbs tremble, her
lip quiver, and nature’s own tear rush impetuously to the eye. It is this
freshness of the heart which will provide for her the greenest laurels. It is
this enthusiasm, this well of deep feeling,
which should be made to prove for her an inexhaustible source of fame. As an
actress, it is to her a mine of wealth worth all the dawdling instruction
in the world. Mrs. Mowatt, on her first appearance as Pauline, was quite as
able to give lessons in stage routine to any actor or actress in
America, as was any actor or actress to give lessons to her. Now, at
least, she should throw all “support” to the winds, trust proudly to her own
sense of art, her own rich and natural elocution, her beauty, which is unusual,
her grace, which is queenly, and be assured that these qualities, as she now
possesses them, are all sufficient to render her a great actress, when
considered simply as the means by which the end of natural acting is to be
attained, as the mere instruments by which she may effectively and unimpededly
lay bare to the audience the movements of her own passionate heart.
Indeed, the great charm of her
manner is its naturalness. She looks, speaks and moves, with a well-controlled
impulsiveness, as different as can be conceived from the customary rant and
cant, the hack conventionality of the stage. Her voice is rich and voluminous,
and although by no means powerful, is so well managed as to seem so. Her
utterance is singularly distinct, its sole blemish being an occasional
Anglicism of accent, adopted probably from her instructor, Mr. Crisp. Her
reading could scarcely be improved. Her action is distinguished by an ease and
self-possession which would do credit to a veteran. Her step is the perfection
of grace. Often have I watched her for hours with the closest scrutiny, yet
never for an instant did I observe her in an attitude of the least awkwardness
or even constraint, while many of her seemingly impulsive gestures spoke in
loud terms of the woman of genius, of the poet imbued with the profoundest
sentiment of the beautiful in motion.
Her figure is slight, even fragile.
Her face is a remarkably fine one, and of that precise character best adapted
to the stage. The forehead is, perhaps, the least prepossessing feature,
although it is by no means an unintellectual one. Hair light auburn, in rich
profusion, and always arranged with exquisite taste. The eyes are gray,
brilliant and expressive, without being full. The nose is well formed, with the
Roman curve, and indicative of energy. This quality is also shown in the
somewhat excessive. prominence of the chin.
The mouth is large, with brilliant and even teeth and flexible lips, capable of
the most instantaneous and effective variations of expression. A more radiantly
beautiful smile it is quite impossible to conceive.1
In this summary, Poe was even more
parsimonious with his praise than he tended to be in the individual
reviews that went together in its making. I think it is
important for the reader to remember, though, that Poe is ranking
Mowatt alongside established literary figures of her day in this
collection of essays. She was at that time a twenty-seven-year old
newcomer with only her plays "Fashion," "Armand," and handful of poems
to show. From the text, I think it is clear that he feels it is most
appropriate to comment on her potential at this early point in her
He makes conspicuous mention of the fact
that she was both young and a woman. In the 1840's both of these
factors would make her a remarkable specimen in literary circles --
although Poe does include eleven women among his literati. He turns on
them the same unsparing critical gaze he does the men.
Poe got into a certain amount of trouble over these biographical
sketches. An editor's note appearing in the issue in which the essay on
Anna Cora Mowatt appears reads:
“THE AUTHORS AND MR. POE.
— We have received several letters from New York, anonymous and from
requesting us to be careful what we allow Mr. Poe to
say of the New York authors, many of whom are our personal friends. We
to one and all, that we have nothing to do but
publish Mr. Poe’s opinions, not our own. Whether we agree with
Poe’s or not is another matter. We are not to be
intimidated by a threat of the loss of a friends, or turned from our
purpose by honeyed words. Our course is onward. The
May edition was exhausted before the first of May, and we have had
hundreds from Boston and New York which we could not
supply. The first number of the series, (with autographs,) is
this number, which also contains No. 2. The usual
quantity of reading matter is given in addition to the notices.
Another note written after her sketch appeared read:
Editors’ Book Table: “We hear of some complaints having been made by
those writers who have already been noticed by
Mr. Poe. Some of the ladies have suggested that the
publisher has something to do with them. This we positively deny, and we
positively assert that they are published as written
by Mr. Poe, without any alteration or suggestion from us” 2
such as the above should remind the reader that there was not universal
agreement among contemporaries who knew the parties in question with
all assertions put forth in these essays. We should keep in mind,
therefore, that just because Poe might have thought Mrs. Mowatt's plays
were being produced primarily because she was a beautiful young woman,
this was mere conjecture on his part, even though it may have been --
as the subtitle for these essays read in boldface type -- it was his
HONEST OPINION AT RANDOM RESPECTING AUTHORIAL MERITS, WITH OCCASIONAL
WORDS OF PERSONALITY.
1. Poe. “The Literati of New York City” - No. IV) — August 1846 — Godey’s
2.Godey’s Lady’s Book, p. 144, column 1.