[Andrew Lang was an English poet and scholar.]
Edgar Allan Poe.
By Andrew Lang.
SOME dead authors whom I greatly esteem have a trick of getting me into trouble. If I write about Dickens, quite a number of honest persons arise, I am informed (for I have never looked at their lucubrations) and say fierce things. Lately I received an insulting anonymous letter in which I was accused of not admiring Thackeray sufficiently! Miss Charlotte Bronte’s adorers owe me a grudge; the fanatics of Burns desire to add my body to those which, to the words of a Dumfries circular issued on a festal occasion, “will visit the Mausoleum.”
All this, in a way, is gratifying. I love a blind devoted loyalty of all things. I like Wildrake when he mumbles the hand of Charles II, in “Woodstock;” and, by the way, Thackeray unconsciously borrowed that from Scott, with all the business of the Chevalier in England. Practically it is all in “Woodstock;” read both novels if you don’t believe me; you will not regret the labor. Blind, devoted, even slavering loyalty of all things I love, and rejoice to have excited this manly passion in so many critical minds.
But, of all dead authors, the late Mr. Edgar Allan Poe gets me into most trouble. Last year the papers attributed to Mr. Austin Dobson a brief poetical panegyric on this writer. I myself read it aloud to a friend, and observed that it was not bad for Mr. Dobson. And then it was proved to be wandering misbegot of my own brain, tho I certainly did not recognize the bantling. To-day I have received a, copy of an edition of Poe’s “Raven,” and his “Pendulum and Pit,” with pictures by Mr. Horton. These pictures make one jump! At least some of them make one jump, and others provoke a smile. The portrait of Poe singularly resembles what Napoleon might have looked like if deprived for many days of his victuals. It is not, however, with the ingenious and original horrors of Mr. Horton’s crayon that I am now concerned, but with the very interesting
[column 2:]preface by Mr. Vincent O’Sullivan. I saw my own name in it, with dire forebodings. It is recorded that I once wrote that Poe was “a gentleman among canaille,” and that Mr. Woodberry “once objected” to this remark. The ground of Mr. Woodberry’s objection, it appears, was that Emerson and Thoreau, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Lowell, Alcott, and Miss Margaret Fuller were contemporaries of Poe, and were not canaille. But who ever thought that they, or Prescott, or Bancroft, or Holmes, or Bryant, or, in brief, any of the great writers of the period, were other than what gentlemen and ladies ought to be? I never heard that Poe was in their society, and, indeed, Mr. O’Sullivan does not think that they “chewed any desire to make Poe’s acquaintance, to have his company” Probably they did not, and no marvel. When I said canaille I used a foolish expression, but I intended it to refer to the hangers-on of journalism at the period. These may have been high-minded men, and I spoke at random. I “burn my faggot,” I withdraw a term which I never could have dreamed that mortal man would suppose to be aimed at Mr. Hawthorne, my friend Mr. Lowell, or any of their distinguished company. Perhaps I went too far in calling Poe “a gentleman,” but, if he was not, he had at least the education of a gentleman, and, I suppose, the ancestry of a gentleman, in the heraldic sense of the word. The manners of a gentleman, I believe, were also his in his lucid hours. As to his especial degree of error in the matter of alcoholic stimulants I know nothing, tho every one knows that he, like greater men, did err in this direction. Mr. O’Sullivan knows people who knew Poe, and they said that “he was a drunkard and an unsafe man.” But that has really nothing to do with his literary merits, tho it may explain some demerits. These merits, at their best, I fear I must continue to rate very highly. If Poe appeared to-day with his old gifts, he would be abundantly praised, advertised [page 3133:]and interviewed. He would make a good deal of money, as much as a second-rate barrister or physician. Paragraphs about him, his wife, his house, his tastes, his collars, his boots, would everywhere be published. Magazines and booksellers would compete for his work, and, perhaps, he would blossom into respectability. “It is to the honor of America,” says Mr. O’Sullivan, “that he was able to live by such writing as his at all.” But we know that merely not to starve was the hight [[height]] of his worldly success, and that the wolf had often pushed his muzzle within the door. Not that I blame America, a whole continent, for this circumstance. Literature was not then a paying trade: Authors’ Agents were unknown. Poe was a hack of newspapers and magazines. Mr. O’Sullivan compares him to Hazlitt, but I venture to conceive, first, that Hazlitt was better paid than Poe; next, that Hazlitt never wrote anything which at all approached Poe’s best works in popularity. “The Raven” (so far from being Poe’s best poem) made for him a barren fame. His best tales are the most excellent of treasure’ and detective stories; for many years men have been richly remunerated for merely following Poe’s lead as well as they can. Dupin is infinitely superior to Sherlock Holmes; the Gold Bug is (as far as the cipher and treasure business goes) infinitely the most excellent story of its genre. But Poe starved on these successes. He was desperately needy; a man of projects; and he was embittered, was driven wild. To-day he would have no such excuses for a desperate life. “It is easy to be good on £4,000 a year,” Dollars many must have accrued to publishers of Poe’s works in America, France and England, but these dollars were not for Poe. Had they flowed into his pockets, I do not feel certain but that he would have been a plump, prosperous and temperate citizen.
But I do not think that. as a human being, Poe could ever have been, or deserved to be, socially popular. He might, of course, have found less reason for his “mad pride of intellectuality” if he had lived with his peers in mind. But with them be did not live; they thought him “dangerous” and disreputable. Moreover, in Poe, as in Lockhart, there was something front which ordinary men shrank. Bath had a dark, scornful beauty, which (in
[column 2:]Poe’s case) attracted (as Mr. O’Sullivan tells us) “half-hysterical women soaked in Byronism.” People, young or old, who knew Lockhart, knew how kind and loyal he was. But the world dreaded him; much more did it dread Poe, who was not only darkly scornful, but hungry. I do not know if Mr. O’Sullivan in saying that Poe had “an intense hatred and contempt of humanity.” Swift, as we all know, made profession of these amiable and Christian sentiments. But Swift had an ardently affectionate nature, and was warmly beloved by many men, and by too many women. I fear that, except his wife and his mother-in-law, very few persons loved Edgar Allan Poe. Many unpublished domestic letters of Poe’s exist, to my knowledge. Perhaps these display the face which he turned to those whom lie loved. That which he “faced the world with” is not attractive; it was not an agreeable world of debt and dims, and Byronic ladies, and needy publishers, and suspicions editors, and dubious comrades, that Poe was obliged to face. He knew his worth, yet contempt and injured vanity drove him to write that prose Dunciad of his, those blistering criticisms of nonentities, or wildly unjust attacks (as on Longfellow) in which we bear the laughter or the scream of a soul in pain. He “did not dwell where Israfel,” as he complains. Life repelling him, lie (half by way of pose, perhaps) became -- like the even more unhappy Beddoes -- the Laureate of Death. Each man was a born lyrist, but Poe was by far the sweeter, richer, and more original. No poet has bettered his early lyric,
“Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like these Nisaean barques of yore.”
He had an entirely fresh and unborrowed strain of music, even if he did “borrow” a book on conchology, and an idea or two for his contes. We have been borrowing from him ever since. Baudelaire was, more or less, his ape as well as his translator. Mr. O’Sullivan says of Poe that “he wrote his letters to please certain women whose measure he had taken.” If that is a crime, Burns is in the same condemnation, for the fustian of his Letters to Clarinda. Probably he knew that Clarinda liked fustian, and he wanted to please her. Poe’s letters to the Byronic fair I never read, and hope never to read, but
[page 3134:]I do not pine to plunge into Burns’s correspondence with Mrs. Meiklehose, or whatever Clarinda’s name may have been.
In pride, in intellect, in opposition to a distasteful world, and in epistolary rhetoric where women were concerned, Burns and Poe were much akin. But Burns was not anti-social-eminently the reverse-he was
[column 2:]not shunned. He had not “the something,” which, as Mr. O’Sullivan says, “enwrapped Poe like an infected garment,” -- “the something that repelled.” What was it? I cannot guess, but I venture to think that if Poe had wallowed in “royalties” (as today he would wallow) we should hear less of the something, the repellent unknown quantity.
[S:0 - INDP, 1899]