Text: Maurice Thompson, review of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (edited by E. C. Stemand and G. E. Woodberry), Independent (New York), vol. XLVIII (whole no. 2463), February 13, 1896, p. 16


­[page 16, column 1:]





THIS superb edition of Poe’s writings is a monument of American scholarship erected to the most distinct of American geniuses. Mr. Stedman avoids the superlative, and deprecates it in Poe’s work; but it is quite safe to venture our phrase, “most distinct,” in this connection. For, leaving out of the reckoning what our own critics have had to say pro and con, and accepting only the highest of foreign authorities, we find that of all American writers Poe has made the deepest and in all probability the most lasting impression upon the world’s imagination.

It is futile to find fault with the gods for permitting the irrevocable outcome, which has always been a bitter thing to New England. It is not Lowell, not Whittier, not Longfellow, nor yet Bryant, and alas! not even Emerson, whose name is burned indelibly into the record-plate at the head of our list of poets. The world may be wrong, but its decision is probably final. Poe is the solitary fixed star in our firmament.

Criticism is one thing, and very interesting; but human nature is quite another thing, and more interesting. What Poe actually accomplished in poetry has been unsatisfactory to the academic mind; to human nature it has been immensely and persistently fascinating. Today in all of our schools we find Sidney Lanier’s poetry more kindly received than Poe’s, while at first reading the “Raven,” or “Ulalume,” or the “Haunted Palace,” will strike the fresh, natural imagination with a force only equaled by that of Swinburne’s, or Villon’s finest passages, or the most subtly characteristic bits of Theocritus or Sappho. In a word, Poe is a well-head; there is no source behind him.

If we take measure by the long past, some dimensions become practically permanent, and we may safely make out the future by what in mathematics is called superposition. Twenty-five hundred years hence, what if but a few fragments of Poe’s best verse shall be extant? Imagine the haunting effect they will have upon the reader, an effect as powerful as any fragment of Sappho could produce. Is there a single passagein Longfellow, or Emerson, or Whittier, or Bryant that could be depended upon for the like? No. But this does not mean more than that Poe was an original genius, beginning in himself and ending in himself.

Scholars have exhausted research trying to discover a source behind Theocritus; they have rummaged in vain for Sappho’s ancestors in song, for Villon’s robbed victim; they may as well give up the hunt in Poe’s case at once and forever. His reed was from the Aulocrene, he was an absolute poet — Μοισãν καπυρòν στóυα — and small as his output was, and however unconvincing to the cold, judicial heads of professional critics, his effect upon the world is the best measure of his power, however little it may have to do with settling his status as a mere literary craftsman.

But Poe was a remarkable literary craftsman. So great appeared the cunning of his diction and mechanical composition that critics overlooked the greater subtlety of his inner art. Americans especially have taken some pains to be ashamed of what they call “mere tinkle” in Poe’s verse; but then it was a leader of American letters who the other day seriously announced that admiration of the great ancient poets is all pretense, a conventional fiction. True poetry is mere tinkle to the dull ear of him who cares only for physical facts and mathematical demonstrations. Poe struck at the imagination; his instrument was unique, his method strange. In the best sense of the word he was an incomparable poet. With whom shall we class him?

Standing alone and unclassifiable is not of itself an election to the highest honor; but if it is a true poet who so stands the distinction is undeniable. Sappho, Theocritus, Villon and Poe have this distinction. Each is a genus of one species, and each is the original, each is incomparable and final. There never can be another idyl of the true Theocritean type, no more can there ever be another poem in the “Raven’s” key. Men and women may strain at the lyre of Sappho and the riddle of Villon; but not a true note will they evoke. Here is the line, the thrice-drawn circle of which Coleridge dreamed in his “Kubla Khan,” isolating those supremely gifted ones who have

“fed on honey-dew,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.”

No other American poet is thus lonely and unapproachable. Many fledgelings may sing acceptably every day in the manner of Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier or Emerson; but let one attempt a strain of Poe’s weird music; we stop our ears; the thing is impossible. Once [column 2:] for all the master made the only and the exhaustive wonder out of himself.

We do not have to say that Poe was the greatest of American poets, nor that he wrote the greatest American poetry. Comparison is here especially odious because impossible. The larger truth is that Poe as a poet was not American. It would be hard to find a word in his verse indicating the slightest American trait or sympathy. In the way that Burns was a Scotchman, Villon a Frenchman and Theocritus a Syracusan, what was Poe to the United States? In this regard he is the most distinct poet of whom we have knowledge. Not even Job stands so completely to himself. His poetry is a cry from the land of Poe, which is an “ultimate dim Thule” lying somewhere “out of space, out of time.” Its appeal is supreme once to each imaginative reader; frequent perusal dissipates its subtile [[subtle]] charm.

We have already, in an earlier review, expressed our appreciation of Mr. Stedman’s introduction and Mr. Woodberry’s memoir in the first volume of this edition. We have now to speak more particularly of what Mr. Stedman’s criticism has done for the work as a whole, and of Mr. Woodberry’s admirable editing. Nothing but praise is due to such scholarship; sympathy and conscientious, patient labor as is manifest throughout; and we need only to sketch briefly what appear to us the chief features distinguishing this from all other editions of Poe’s works.

The editors, it is clear, have worked together in perfect accord, each doing the part most acceptable to him. Great care has been taken to perfect the text of both prose and verse, to which end every discoverable source of enlightenment has been put to the best use. The tales, the essays, the criticism and the poems have been divided and grouped with a view to presenting them so as to avoid as far as possible the appearance of a scrappy and hap-hazard arrangement. The effect is satisfying to good taste.

The first five volumes contain the tales, which are classified and set together in accordance with natural association. Volumes vi, vii and viii hold the criticisms properly grouped. Volume ix contains “Eureka” and “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” with other miscellanies. Volume x holds the poems with notes, variorum text, a history of the portraits of Poe, an excellent bibliography, and an index to all the volumes. We scarcely see how the editing could be bettered in any essential particular; and as for the work of the publishers, it is all that could be reasonably wished for, even by those who demand luxury. Ten different portraits of Poe are given, also one of his mother and one of his wife, besides which there are numerous illustrations by Albert Edward Sterner, most of them in fine sympathy with the spirit of their text.

Mr. Stedman’s introductions are three in number. The first is to the tales, the second to the criticisms, and the third to the poems. Each is a model. Mr. Woodberry’s memoir presents the facts of Poe’s sad life with merciless frankness and yet with dignity and scholarly care. We think that he has erred on the harsher side of truth; that is, he has presented the truth with its harshest construction. A poet like Poe is not to be treated with the same severity we apply to a Paul Verlaine or a Baudelaire; for Poe’s writings were as pure as purest ice. There is a difference between a man like Shelley and one like Poe. An artist’s creations are the best, the deepest test of his nature. When we do not know all of the facts of a man’s life — and how seldom we know even half of them — it is dangerous to make what facts we do know overbear the evidence of his works. But Poe’s life was low and must always remain shrouded in mystery. He was a drunkard who had his intervals of steady and manly sobriety, or a sober man who at times could not resist the thirst for intoxicants; take your choice; but as a voice in the garden of song, he was clean and crystal-clear, as an influence in letters he was mainly good. If he was didactic at all, his teaching was neither the disgusting sensualism of Byron nor the refined licentiousness of Shelley; it was a plea for beauty pure and simple. As a memoir Mr. Woodberry’s work is valuable for the conscientious pains with which its materials have been gathered, selected and arranged.

The student of American literature will find this edition the only one to give him open doors to the study of Poe’s complete works. Mr. Woodberry’s notes and variorum text are all that could be wished for. Here we are led into the literary workshop of a genius and are permitted to examine his litter of chips and shavings. We get glimpses of how he wrought; how his conceptions widened, and how his taste made its way to the best mode of expression. Some of his poems are thus shown in the rough block, so to speak, and growing under his hand to that perfection of form and to that splendor of burnishment which dazzled the world’s imagination.

Poe had little of the diplomat’s gift of saying one thing and meaning another. He said harsh things, was indeed a bit of a blackguard. At bottom, nevertheless, he was a true critic scorning to make friends by the demagog’s equivocal phrasing. You never find him looking toward London or Paris for his critical cue. He was atrociously personal and abusive at times; but he never abused an American in order to win English approbation. With all his unequal flow of temper he was rarely wrong when “at last” his judgment [column 3:] crystallized. Here is a passage from “Marginalia” worthy to be framed in gold and hung in every place where books are read; it is headed “Realism”:

“The defenders of this pitiable stuff uphold it on the ground of its truthfulness. Taking the thesis into question, this truthfulness is the one overwhelming defect. An original idea that — to laud the accuracy with which the stone is hurled that knocks us in the head. A little less accuracy might have left us more brains. And here are the critics absolutely commending the truthfulness with which only the disagreeable is conveyed.”

The italics in the above paragraph are our own. Did Poe foresee Zola, and Ibsen, and Tolstol, and Hardy, and Meredith? We are just now at the full tide of a criticism which commends only the truth that is disagreeable, only the art that depicts dishonor as the one thing worth depicting. Poe, even at his drunkest, was above the highest plane of Walt Whitman in both style and substance. He was impolite, as Mr. Stedman points out; he was sometimes inexcusably vulgar; but he was never filthy. He was never low enough to praise the accuracy with which a poet, a painter or a novelist bombarded the sanctity of marriage, or to excuse the subtlety with which a so-called realist poisoned, in the name of truth, the deepest fountains of character.

The careful student will be apt to make note of this singular masculine purity manifested in Poe’s criticisms, even at their coarsest. However lewd the man may have been, there is no pandering to lewdness in his writings. Doubtless Poe was physiologically a degenerate; but the degeneracy never reached his understanding of the function of art. His artistic vision was not broad, but it was absolute: he saw that true beauty was the end of art, and that its sole function was wholesome spiritual delectation.

In taking leave of this splendid recension, which reflects so much credit upon American scholarship as well as upon the art of publishing in America, we commend it without reserve to all who would have the best. The ten Poe portraits are of themselves a crowning feature. Mr. Stedman’s essays reach a high level of judicial value, and are couched in classical terms. Mr. Woodberry’s labors show scrupulous painstaking to speak by the record and to present only what is worth presenting. In a word, no American author has ever been so well edited and so beautifully published.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 16, column 3:]






[S:1 - IND, 1896] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - A New Edition of Poe's Works (M. Thompson, 1896)