I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white — whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words — and this even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness — of immovable resolution — of stern contempt of human torture. I saw that the decrees of what to me was Fate were still issuing from those lips. I saw them writhe with a deadly locution. I saw them fashion the syllables of my name; and I shuddered because no sound succeeded. — Edgar Allan Poe, "The Pit and the Pendulum," 246

Mark this truth, all ye gentlemen of England, who would make laws as the Romans made fasces — a bundle of rods with an axe in the middle; mark it, and remember! Long may it live, allied with hope in ourselves, but with gratitude in our children, — long after the book which it now "adorns."and "points."has gone to its dusty slumber, — long, long after the feverish hand which now writes it down can defend or enforce it no more: "THE VERY WORST USE TO WHICH YOU CAN PUT A MAN IS TO HANG HIM! — Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford, 404


Edgar Allan Poe, the first critical theorist of the short-story and its most prolific practitioner in nineteenth-century America, had a complex literary relationship with Edward Bulwer Lytton that several critics have studied. Burton R. Pollin, for example, sought to trace the influence Bulwer-Lytton exerted on many of Poe's tales. In addition, Allan Conrad Christensen claims that Bulwer-Lytton was the most powerful influence on Poe's early prose. Moreover, we know that Poe, who reviewed many of Bulwer-Lytton's novels, declared himself a fervent admirer of the English writer. By 1830, when Poe was expelled from the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, Bulwer-Lytton was already a highly acclaimed writer about to publish Paul Clifford, the novel that inaugurated his cycle of Newgate novels. In contrast to contemporary crime fiction, Bulwer-Lytton's novel made the hero a criminal — a feature that appears in many of Poe's subsequent short-stories such as "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," "The Imp of the Perverse," and "The Cask of Amontillado." The following discussion has three main objectives:

Poe's Knowledge of Bulwer-Lytton's Novels

Despite Pollin's, Allan Conrad Christensen's, and George H. Spies' demonstration of connections between Poe and Bulwer-Lytton, few scholars have paid sufficient attention to this relationship. Pollin analysed the influence Bulwer-Lytton's Rienzi exerted upon many of Poe's tales, and he also referred to several themes shared by Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and Bulwer-Lytton's minor shorter piece "Monos and Daimonos." In any case, we know that Poe had read not only some of Bulwer-Lytton's novels but also some of his minor writings. Firstly, we have Poe's review of Bulwer-Lytton's Rienzi published in the Southern Literary Messenger in February 1836, in which Poe states

We have long learned to reverence the fine intellect of Bulwer. We take up any production of his pen with a positive certainty that, in reading it, the wildest passions of our nature, the most profound of our thoughts, the brightest visions of our fancy, and the most ennobling and lofty of our aspirations will, in due turn, be enkindled within us. We feel sure of rising from the perusal a wiser if not a better man. In no instance are we deceived. [198]

Even when criticizing the British author's work, Poe still has praise for it. For example, when Poe reviewed Bulwer-Lytton's gothic novel Night and Morning in Graham's Magazine in April 1841, he stated: "We cannot agree with that critical opinion which considers it the best novel of its author. It is only not his worst. It is not as good as Eugene Aram, nor as Rienzi — and is not at all comparable with Ernest Maltravers" (197). Nonetheless, Poe continues: "Upon the whole it is a good book. It merits beyond doubt overbalance its defects, and if we have not dwelt upon the former with as much unction as upon the latter, it is because the Bulwerian beauties are precisely of that secondary character which never fails of the fullest public appreciation" (197). Similarly, in his "Review of The Critical and Miscellaneous Writings of Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton" (1841), Poe reaches a balanced estimate:

Mr. Bulwer is never lucid, and seldom profound. His intellect [is] rather well balanced than lofty — rather comprehensive than penetrative. His taste is exquisite. His style, in its involution and obscurity, partakes of the involution of his thoughts. Apart from his mere intellect, however, — or rather as a portion of that intellect — we recognize in his every written word the keenest appreciation of the right, the beautiful and the true. Thus he is a man worthy of all reverence, and we do not hesitate to say that we look upon the charges of immoral tendency which have been so pertinaciously adduced against his fictions, as absurdly little and untenable, in the mass.

Moreover, scholars have attributed other reviews of Bulwer-Lytton's works to Poe. In "Bulwer-Lytton's Influence on Poe's Works and Ideas," Pollin considers Poe the author of the review of Zanoni in Graham's Magazine (to Poe June 1842). T. O. Mabbott tentatively ascribed to Poe a notice of The Student published in the July 1835 American and Daily Advertiser, and Clarence S. Brigham attributes to him an especially harsh review in the May 1840 Alexander's Weekly Messenger entitled "Bulwer Used Up." Poe also referred to Bulwer-Lytton in his letters, such as the one addressed to T. H. White, showing his reaction to Bulwer-Lytton's ghost story "The Haunted and the Haunters" in these terms: "the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque; the fearful coloured into the horrible; the witty exaggerated into the burlesque; the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical [É] You may say this is bad taste. I have my doubts about it" (qtd. in Mulvey-Roberts, 86).

What Poe Disliked about Bulwer-Lytton's Writing

Poe undeniably read many of the Victorian writer's novels and on several occasions stated his esteem for Bulwer-Lytton's style. In any case, despite their different economic circumstances and nationalities, both authors explored similar lines of fiction during their productive years. Bulwer-Lytton's early Newgate fictions to an extent resemble Poe's gothic tales; his historical romances find their counterpart in Poe's taste for the classics; his late domestic novels bear some resemblance to Poe's tales like "Landor's Cottag; and Bulwer-Lytton's occult and metaphysical novels are reminiscient of some of Poe's pieces. Bulwer-Lytton wrote extensive three-decker novels while Poe preferred the short-story, or rather, the tale, as the most suitable genre to achieve his unity of effect. Throughout Poe's evaluation of Bulwer-Lytton's novels, he praised his themes and ideas but disagreed with his treatment of them. Spies lists features of Bulwer-Lytton's work that Poe regarded as remarkable weaknesses. First of all, Poe disliked the length of Bulwer-Lytton's novels, claiming that "narratives, even one-fourth as long as the one now lying upon our table [Night and Morning], are essentially inadapted to that nice and complex adjustment of incident at which he [Bulwer-Lytton] has made this desperate attempt" (3). Moreover, Poe refers to the lack of unity of place that characterises Bulwer's novels, arguing that the author [Bulwer] "floundered 'in the vain attempt to keep all his multitudinous incidents at one and the same moment before the eye'" (3). Poe also complained about his language and his complex mode of expression, which led him to admit that "beauty of simplicity is not that which can be appreciated by Mr Bulwer-Lytton" (4). Moreover, Spies also remarks that Poe despised Bulwer-Lytton's use of melodrama, arguing that the "refined and delicate sensibilities of the characters populating his esteemed romantic novels are obviously much too acute for Poe's critical taste" (4). Poe also referred to Bulwer-Lytton's excessive use of metaphor, claiming, as Spies points out, that he "could not 'express a dozen consecutive sentences in an honest manly manner'" (4). Finally, Spies also mentions Poe's reference to Bulwer-Lytton's suspected literary theft when he points out that "his novels are all echoes" (5). In any case, despite Poe's remarks about Bulwer-Lytton's weaknesses, Spies, who admits that the American author was "still greatly enamoured of Bulwer-Lytton as an author" (4), concludes:

It should be made clear that Poe did not end his days as a literary critic altogether negating the artistry of the man he had at first so highly and unreservedly praised. Although his flattering estimation of Bulwer-Lytton modified considerably on specific points after 1836 and later became what a modern reader would consider more realistic, Poe continued to feel that there were "many fine thoughts" in Bulwer-Lytton's novels and that his works should always be considered a "valuable addition to our imaginative literature." [6]

Related Material

Works Cited

Brigham, Clarence S. "Bulwer Used Up." Edgar Allan Poe's Contributions to Alexander's Weekly Messenger (1943) 82-83.

Lease, Benjamin. "Poe's England and the divided self." Anglo-American Encounters: England and the Rise of American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981. 69-95.

Mitchell, Leslie. Bulwer Lytton: The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Man of Letters. London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2003.

Mulvey-Roberts, Marie. "Edward Bulwer-Lytton." Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographical Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001) 83-89.

_____. "Fame, Notoriety and Madness: Edward Bulwer-Lytton Paying the Price of Greatness." Critical Survey 13:2 (2001) 115-134.

Poe, Edgar Allan (?) . "Notice of Bulwer's The Student." American and Daily Advertiser (Baltimore) (July 1835).

_____. "Review of Rienzi." Southern Literary Messenger (February 1836): 198-201.

_____(?). "Bulwer Used Up." Alexander's Weekly Messenger (May 1840): 2.

_____. "Review of Night and Morning." Graham's Magazine (April 1841) 197-202.

_____. "Review of The Critical and Miscellaneous Writings of Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton." Graham's Magazine (November 1841).

_____. (?). "Review of New Books." Graham's Magazine (June 1842): 354-356.

_____. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Penguin, 1985.

_____. "Review of Twice-Told Tales." Short-Story Theories. Ed. by Charles E. May. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1985. 45-59.

Pollin, Burton R. "Bulwer-Lytton and 'The Tell-Tale Heart.'" American Notes and Queries (September 1965): 7-8.

_____. "Bulwer's Rienzi as Multiple Source for Poe." Poe Studies 29.2 (December 1996): 66-68.

_____. "Bulwer-Lytton's Influence of Poe's Work, Especially for an Author's 'Preconceived Design.'" Poe Studies Association Newsletter XXVIII: 1 (Spring 2000) 1-3.

Spies, George H. "Edgar Allan Poe's Changing Critical Evaluation of the Novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton." Kyushu American Literature 17 (1976): 1-6.

Last modified 28 June 2006