Text: John Neal, “Edgar A. Poe,” Daily Advertiser (Portland, Maine), April 26, 1850, cols. 2-4


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For the Advertiser.

EDGAR A. POE.

Better late than never, says the proverb. May be so but, perhaps, a safer reading in most cases, would be, better late than ever. Early opinions are seldom good for much, and easily forgotten — Later opinions, being of course better considered, riper, and juster, are sometimes worth remembering.

So much has been said of late, over the man, Edgar A. Poe, which ought never to have been said at all, and which never would have been said, but for his early and terrible death; and so many questions have been asked, and so many old speculations hazarded, through the newspapers, and otherwise, by people, who are anxious to know the whole truth about him, now that their knowledge can be of no use to the poor fellow, and very little to themselves, that I, for one, though I never saw his face in my life, and only know him on paper, find it no easy matter to keep still.

To the question, “what do you think of him?” I answer thus. I believe Edgar A. Poe to have been greatly misunderstood, and greatly misrepresented, for many years before he vanished from our midst — I do not say died, for such people never die; and by men too, who were big enough to know better, like the elephant that was cudgelled in a menagerie for kicking up a dust, and half blinding his companions in the cages about him. And now that he is beyond their reach — or perhaps it were better to say, that they are beyond his reach — I believe him to be cruelly belied.

My notion of the poor fellow has been, from the first, that he was always taken advantage of by others, and therefore, he got soured, resentful and suspicious. I do not mean by this, that everybody cheated him, for he was, to my knowledge, handsomely paid for some of his writings: but that he was not discouraged in the very outset of two or three very foolish enterprises, by his friend Graham and others, who knew that he would never be a popular Magazine-writer, although, as a man of genius, every man of genius he touched, would thrill with acknowledgement.

I believe, that after he had to do with the Southern Literary Messenger, and failed in two or three literary adventures, one after another, which, as a matter of business, ought never to have been thought of seriously, for a single day, nor ever entered upon, but with a large capital, and a party who would like to spend a few thousands just for the fun o’ the thing, his whole outward character changed.

I hold that he was a creature of wonderful power; concentrated, keen, finished and brilliant: rather Horne Tooke-ish in his literary slope; but with ten times the imagination of Tooke, even while drawing the polished steel bow, with the poisoned arrow, mentioned by Hazlitt, and so characteristic of the ‘little person’, that Junius took such delight in following up and pinching, while he made faces through the window, at all the passers by.

That Edgar A. Poe understood poetry — felt poetry — and sometimes wrote poetry of amazing beauty and strength, nobody will deny; or nobody, whose opinions will ever be cared for. But his very best doings in that way, are not those which have got him a name with the people.

That he saw farther, and looked more steadily and more inquisitively into the elements of darkness — into the shadowy, the shifting and the mysterious — than did most of the shining brotherhood about him; and that, by a process, which amounted to a sort of self-combustion -a troubled ever changing, inward light -a fiery and passionate foreshadowing - he often saw “the hand you cannot see,” and “princely visions rare, go stepping through the air” I believe — notwithstanding the testimony of Mr R.W. Griswold, to the same effect.

I believe too, that he was by nature, of a just and generous temper, thwarted, baffled, and self-harnessed by his own willfulness to the most unbecoming drudgery; and that he went about for whole years, with his hood wings rumpled, soiled and quenched, where they were wholly unheeded, like sumptuous banners trailed along the crowded thoroughfares of life, in a March drizzle.

I believe too that he was a very honest fellow, and very sincere, though incapable of doing justice to anybody he might happen to dislike no matter why; or to anybody he thought over-cuddled by the monthlies, or over-slobbered by the weeklies; while his reverend biographer would seem to be incapable of doing justice to anybody else.

That his natural temper changed before death, and that he saw the world at last, with other eyes than he was born with; and that, instead of the unearthly brightness that broke forth, in flashes, every time he lifted the wings of his boyhood, like a seraph, he delighted for the last few years of a weary life, in “raying darkness,” upon the people about him, is clear enough.

But to the books themselves. There are two volumes entitled “The Works of Edgar A. Poe,” and they certainly give one a very just idea of his character as a writer. The biographical notices are just and wise, and excellent, so far as they go, with one single exception, that of the Rev. R. W. Griswold; a book-wright and compiler by the cart-load, to whom the dying poet bequeathed his papers, and his character, to be hashed over, and served up, little by little, with a sauce piquante, resembling the turbid water, in which very poor eggs have been boiled to death.

But for the following passages, printed in italics, to be found in a newspaper sketch by this gentleman-the literary executor -I had well nigh said executioner-of Edgar A. Poe, before he had stiffened in his winding sheet, I should have supposed him, though honest enough perhaps, when he had no temptation to be otherwise, and rather willing to tell the truth, if he knew how, and it was likely to pay, yet wholly unfitted for the solemn duty he had undertaken so rashly; because, in my judgment, wholly incapable of understanding or appreciating Poe-dead or alive-and by no means of a temper to forget that he had ever been out-generalled or out-blazed, or not listened to by such a man as Poe, and therefore not likely to do him justice after death, when he would have no longer anything to fear from the poet’s ‘glittering eye’, and searching words.

The passages referred to, however, being not only poetry — but exalted poetry — poetry of astonishing and original strength, passionate and characteristic — I am led to suppose one of two things, namely — that the Rev. gentleman is a poet, himself, that he did understand Poe, and that therefore he has no excuse for so misrepresenting him; or that, as in all that he has ever been suspected of writing hitherto, there is absolutely nothing to be compared with the passages italicised, either in thought or language, it is quite clear that he has begged, borrowed, or stolen them, from somebody else; and most likely from Poe, as they are fragments of the man himself. They are instinct with his vitality. They burn with his brightness, and with no other; vehement, cloudy, flashing and fitful. Perhaps too they were appropriated without any just idea of their value, or weight-warmth or massiveness, and the Rev. biographer did it all ignorantly, like the man who was met running away from a fire with a grindstone on his back, and being stopped and questioned, swore he didn’t know he had it.

Perhaps too — for I am anxious to find a passable explanation of the gentleman’s very strange behavior-perhaps, he had become disqualified for the duties he had the presumption to undertake, and wanted the manliness to refuse, by a too long, and much too intimate a companionship with Poe-for it cannot be denied that in some cases familiarity does breed contempt-followed by a misunderstanding, which blighted all his ancient sympathies, and withered all his better hopes. Under a show of impartiality, he is a judge, who leans against the prisoner at the bar. Edgar A. Poe is the arraigned poet, offering no plea, no excuse, no palliation for the “deeds done in the body” — but standing mute, stiff and motionless, at the bar-his glorious eyes quenched forever, and his fine countenance overspread with the paleness of death; and the Rev. R.W. Griswold, a Radamanthus, who is not to be bilked of his fee, a thimble-full of newspaper notoriety. Laboring to be very perpendicular, ostentatiously upright, lest peradventure he might be suspected of a friendly inclination toward the memory of a man who had trusted him on his death-bed; with no measure about him-above or below — to compare himself with, or to steady himself by, he leans backward, with a simper and a strut, such as you may see every day of your [column 3:] life in little, pompous, fidgetty men, trying to stand high in the world, in spite of their Creator.

While pronouncing a judgment upon the dead body of his old associate, who had left the world in a hurry, and under a mistake, which the Reverend gentleman took the earliest opportunity of correcting — by telegraph — at a penny a time, for a newspaper, and in such a way, as to leave it doubtful whether, in his opinion, Edgar A. Poe had ever had any business at all here, and whether on the whole, it were not better for himself, and for the world, that he had never been born — with that millstone round his neck, which had just fallen off — he seems to take it for granted that all this parade of sympathy will not be seen through — that, when he lifts the handkerchief to his eyes, and snuffles about poor Poe, and his melancholy want of principle — the ancient grudge still burning underneath this show, will be forgotten — and that he, at least, will have credit for whatsoever Poe had not. Peradventure he may find it so; for most assuredly, the reverse of the proposition is true. Whatsoever Edgar A. Poe had — that Mr. R. W. Griswold had not.

Among the passages, or fragments above referred to, as part and parcel of the dead poet, and altogether above the dreary level of his Executor, are the following. They are printed in italics, the rest, with one or two exceptions bear no stamp of individuality, whereby their parentage may be guessed at.

“His conversation was at times almost supra-mortal, in its eloquence. His voice was modulated with astonishing skill, and his large and variably expressive eyes looked repose, or shot fiery tumult into theirs who listened, while his own face glowed, or was changeless in pallor, as his imagination quickened his blood, or drew it back frozen to his heart. His imagery was from the worlds which no mortal can see, but with the vision of genius. Suddenly starting from a proposition exactly and sharply defined in terms of utmost simplicity and clearness, he rejected the forms of customary logic, and by a crystaline process of accretion’-that’s Griswold all overbuilt up his ocular demonstrations-(ditto, ditto-ditto!)-in forms of gloomiest and ghastliest grandeur, or in those of the most airy and delicious beauty.’ *** ‘He walks the streets in madness of melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayer *** He would brave the wildest storms, and all night, with drenched garments, and arms beating the winds and rains, would speak as if to spirits.’ *** ‘The astonishing natural advantages of this poor boy-his beauty, his readiness, the daring spirit that breathed round him like a fiery atmosphere”&c.&c.

The thoughts I have underscored are Poe’s-and so is the very language-every word of it, in most cases. I cannot be mistaken. As well might you try to palm off a patch from Boswell’s every day trowsers — I don’t like to say breeches — for a bit of this ponderous armor cast away by the giant he used to straddle about with, for a show, as to persuade any mortal man acquainted with the writings of Edgar A. Poe, and Rufus W. Griswold, that the passages above cited were his, or that they were not Poe’s. It is the sunshine of Poe playing through the green turf-with a basket of chips emptied over it.

Nor, if the truth could be known, should I be greatly astonished to find them scattered through some rejected article of Poe’s, written for Graham, while Mr R. W. Griswold had to do with the editorship: or that they had been carefully pinched out, and put aside, from some hurried letter to the Reverend gentleman himself, while the author and he were on the best possible terms, together.

But why waste words on such a subject. Mr George R. Graham who, it is clear enough, knew the Rev. R. W. Griswold, as well as Edgar A. Poe — has done both justice; and a paper which appeared on a fly-sheet of his last monthly, where it was altogether out of place, for it should have been foremost, has got a reputation for himself as a writer, which, a long life spent in the drudgery of a chiffonier, or compiler, would only serve to diminish. He has approved himself a man-by entering upon the defence of a buried friend, with a wise and careful discrimination. He has approved himself a thinker, whose good opinion will be worth having, by the unstudied sincerity and warmth of his language.

Lowell’s outline sketch, though written for Graham years ago, and well worth enlarging, is faithful clear and satisfactory; rather crowded perhaps, and a little too high finished for strength, but capital nevertheless, and worth dilating into fifty pages; and so too are the generous and well timed though very brief, testimonials furnished by Willis. Would they had both written more, for they had both talked with him face to face, and I had not. Such men honor themselves by honoring a brother like Edgar A. Poe; and to confirmation of what both say about his kindly and yielding temper — his willingness to be told his faults, his gentle aptitude — his thankfulness — notwithstanding his haughty self-respect, and trembling sensitiveness — and his impatient anxiety to show a right appreciation of plain dealing, and straight-forward honest reproof, coming from the right quarter, you will permit me to offer the following evidence. I do this to show the man’s heart; for with his head, I have nothing to do here. That, anybody could see into, and most people through, for it was cold and clear and transparent as crystal; even while the heart, poor fellow! was forever in blast, sending off fire and smoke and frankincense and myrrh and gentle music, and thunder and lightning, no mortal knew where to look for the laboratory itself or the furnace — or what to understand by its revelations. Let the incident I mention be put on record, that our people, who are beginning to take a large, if not a deep interest in the literary reputation of the dead — I wish I could say as much for the living — may be prepared for the next, whose memory, after he has gone down to the chambers of death, may be found rotting by the wayside, under the special guardianship of some literary Executor.

In September 1829, the following notice appeared in the Yankee. “If E. A. P. of Baltimore — whose lines about ‘Heaven,’ though he professes to regard them as altogether superior to any thing in the whole range of American poetry, save two or three trifles referred to, are, though nonsense, rather exquisite nonsense — would but do himself justice, might make a beautiful and perhaps magnificent poem. There is a good deal to justify such a hope.

‘Dim vales — and shadowy floods,

‘And cloudy-looking woods,

‘Whose forms we can’t discover,

‘For the tears that — drip all over.

The moonlight

‘—— falls

‘Over hamlets, over halls,

‘Wherever they may be,

‘O’er the strange woods, o’er the sea,

‘O’er spirits on the wing,

‘O’er every drowsy thing,

‘And buries them up quite,

In a labyrinth of light,

‘And then how deep! — Oh deep!

Is the passion of their sleep!

He should have signed it Bah! We have no room for others.

Now this, it will be acknowledged, was not very flattering, nor very soothing. And when I add, that E. A. P. Had written me a letter, offering to dedicate a volume of these poems to me — and that I aid, no for his sake, believeing [[believing]] that he could meet with no sale if he did, and telling him so — it will be admitted perhaps that he had good reason for being out of temper with me. But how did he behave? Like a man of true genius. He saw — it could not be otherwise — he saw, that in my opinion at least, he had strangely overrated himself; and yet he was encouraged. With that sublime self-confidence which will not be intimidated, nor thwarted, nor disheartened, nor too rudely questioned, he answered, by preparing the poems for publication; and, writing me another letter, which is referred to thus, in the Yankee of Dec. 1829.

“The following passages are from the manuscript-works of a young author, about to be published in Baltimore. He is entirely a stranger to us, but with all their faults, if the remainder of “Al Aaraaf” and “Tamerlane” are as good as the body of the extracts here given — to say nothing of the more extraordinary parts, he will deserve to stand high — very high — in the estimation of the shining brotherhood. Whether he will do so, however, must depend, not so much upon his worth now in mere poetry, as upon his worth hereafter, in something [column 4:] yet loftier and more generous — we allude to stronger properties of the mind, to the magnanimous determination that enables a youth to endure the present, whatever the present may be, in the hope, or rather in the belief, the fixed, unwavering belief, that in the future he will find his reward. “I am young,” he says in a letter to one who has laid it on our table for a good purpose, “I am young — yet not twenty — am a poet — if deep worship of all beauty can make me one — and wish to be so in the more common meaning of the word. I would give the world to embody one half the ideas afloat in my imagination. (By the way, do you remember — or did your ever read the exclamation of Shelley about Shakespeare? — ‘What a number of ideas must have been afloat before such an author could arise!’) I appeal to you as a man that loves the same beauty which I adore — the beauty of the natural blue sky and the sunshiny earth — there can be no tie more strong than that of brother for brother — it is not so much that they love one another, as that they both love the same parent — their affections are always running in the same direction — the same channel — and cannot help mingling.

“I am and have been, from my childhood, an idler. It cannot therefore be said that

‘I left a calling for this idle trade, A duty broke — a father disobeyed’

for I have no father — nor mother.

“I am about to publish a volume of ‘Poems,’ the greater part written before I was fifteen. Speaking about ‘Heaven,’ the editor of the Yankee says, ‘He might write a beautiful, if not a magnificent poem’ — (the very first words of encouragement I ever remember to have heard.) I am very certain that as yet I have not written either — but that I can, I will take an oath — if they will give me time.

“The poems to be published are ‘Al Aaraaf’ — ‘Tamerlane’ — one about four, and the other about three hundred lines, with smaller pieces. ‘Al Aaraaf’ has some good poetry, and much extravagance, which I have not had time to throw away.

“Al Aaraaf is a tale of another world — the Star discovered by Tycho Brahe, which appeared and disappeared so suddenly — or rather it is no tale at all. I will insert an extract about the palace of its presiding Deity, in which you will see that I have supposed many of the lost sculptures of our world to have flown (in Spirit) to the star Al Aaraaf — a delicate place more suited to their divinity.

“Having allowed our youthful writer to be head in his own behalf, — what more can we do for the lovers of genuine poetry? Nothing. They who are judges will not need more; and they who are not — why waste words upon them? We shall not.”

And this, according to the Rev. R. W. Griswold, was the “naturally unamiable man” — claiming relationship to another, simply because both loved a common Father, and bowing his head patiently to exasperating ridicule — “Without faith in man or woman,” yet loving even “the natural blue sky and the sunshining earth,” and putting such entire faith in a stranger, as to be guided by him for a long while, notwithstanding the mortifications he had inflicted — “erasable — envious — impatient of contradiction — without moral susceptibility, and with little or nothing of the true point of honour.” God forgive his calumniator!

Yet more. The poems were published, with certain alterations I had suggested in favourite passages-and here is a letter he sent with a presentation copy.

“I thank you, Sir, for the kind interest you express for my worldly as well as poetical welfare — a sermon of prosing would have met with much less attention

“You will see that I have made the alterations you suggest “ventur’d out” in place of peer-ed — which is, at best, inapplicable to a statue — and other corrections of the same kind — there is much, however (in metre) to be corrected — but I did not observe it till too late —

“I wait consciously [[anxiously]] for your notice of the book — I think the best lines for sound are these in Al Aaraaf.

“There Nature speaks and even ideal things

“Flap shadowy sounds from visionary wings.

“But the best thing (in every other respect) is the small piece headed “Preface.”

“I am certain that these lines have never been surpassed. (And he was right.)

“Of late, eternal Condor years

“So shake the very air on high

“With tumult as they thunder by

“I hardly have had time for cares

“Through gazing on th’ unquiet sky

“It is well to think well of one’s self” — so sings somebody — You will do me justice however”

Most truly yours,

EDGAR A. POE.

Baltimore, Dec. 29, 1829.

And again, a long while after — I cannot fix the year, and the letter itself is dated only June 4th; but it was written from Philadelphia, and referring to “my friend Thomas,” I take it for granted that it was after he had left the Literary Messenger and thought of setting up for himself in that tranquilizing community.

PHILADELPHIA. June 4. [[June 3.]]

“My dear sir — “As you gave me the first jog in my literary career, you are in a measure bound to protect me & keep me rolling. I therefor now ask you to aid me with your influence, in whatever manner your experience shall suggest.

It strikes me that I never write you except to ask a favor” (which was very true, after he had got a-going,) “but my friend Thomas will assure you &c. &c.

I am dear sir yours truly

EDGAR A. POE

And this, look you, is the man who had no faith in his fellow-men — no faith in women — though he died broken hearted, because a wife and a mother-in-law, who had been devoted to him, were wanting the comforts, perhaps the necessaries of life, the every-day comforts of impoverished hope. But enough, the Poet is no more; yet his character is safe notwithstanding the eulogy of his Executor.

JOHN NEAL.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - PDA, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Edgar A. Poe (J. Neal, 1850)