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Text: Evert Augustus Duyckinck, “Poe's Tales,” the American Review, September 1845, 2:306-309








[page 306, top:]

POE’S TALES.*


    WE fear that Mr. Poe’s reputation as a critic, will not add to the success of his present publication. The cutting scorn with which he has commented on many authors, and the acrimony and contempt which have often accompanied his acuteness, must have provoked enmities of that kind, which are kept warm by being assiduously “nursed,” It might be too much to expect praise from those, on whose brows he has been instrumental in fixing the brand of literary damnation; but still we think that even an enemy could be found to acknowledge, that the present volume is one of the most original and peculiar ever published in the United States, and eminently worthy of an extensive circulation, and a cordial recognition. It displays the most indisputable marks of intellectual power and keenness, and an individuality of mind and disposition, of peculiar intensity and unmistakeable traits. Few books have been published of late, which contain within themselves the elements of greater popularity. This popularity it will be sure to obtain, if it be not for the operation of a stupid prejudice which refuses to read, or a personal enmity, which refuses to admire.

* Tales. By Edgar A. Poe. New York: Wiley & Putnam. 1 vol. 12mo. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 306.]]

    These tales, though different in style and matter from the generality of such compositions, lack none of the interest of romantic narrations. Indeed, their peculiarity consists in developing new sources of interest. Addressed to the intellect, or the more recondite sympathies and emotions of our nature, they fix attention by the force and refinement of reasoning employed in elucidating some mystery which sets the curiosity of the reader on an edge, or in representing, with the utmost exactness, and in sharpest outlines, the inward life of beings, under the control of perverse and morbid passions. As specimens of subtile [[subtle]] dialectics, and the anatomy of the heart, they are no less valuable and interesting, than as tales. Their effect is to surprise the mind into activity, and to make it attend, with a curious delight, to the unraveling of abstruse points of evidence, through the exercise of the most piercing and patient analysis. This power is employed, not on any subject apart from the story, but to relieve the curiosity of the reader from the tangled mesh of mystery, in which it is caught [column 2:] and confined. It likewise makes him aware of the practical value of such mental acuteness in the ascertainment of truth, where the materials for its discovery seem provokingly slight, or hopelessly confused.

    The first story in this collection — a collection, we believe, that does not include more than one-sixth of what Mr. Poe has written — is “The Gold-Bug.” Few could guess at the character of this tale from the title. It is exceedingly ingenious and interesting, and full of acute and vigorous thinking. The account of the intellectual process by which a cryptograph is decyphered strikes us as a most remarkable instance of subtile [[subtle]] observation and analysis. This is one of the author’s most characteristic tales, and well illustrates his manner and his mode of arresting and fixing the attention of the reader.

    The “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and the “Purloined Letter,” are all illustrations of forcible analysis, applied to the disentangling of complicated and confused questions, relating to supposed events in actual life. The difference between acumen and cunning, calculation and analysis, are admirably illustrated in these tales. No one can read them without obtaining some metaphysical knowledge, as well as having his curiosity stimulated and his sympathies awakened. A lawyer might study them to advantage, and obtain important hints relative to the sifting of evidence. We extract the commencement of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in order that the reader may learn, from Mr. Poe himself, his notion of the analytic power:

    “The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension [page 307:]
preternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition. 

    “The faculty of re-solution is possibly much invigorated by mathematical study, and especially by that highest branch of it which, unjustly, and merely on account of its retrograde operations, has been called, as if par excellence, analysis. Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyse. A chess-player, for example, does the one without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. I am not now writing a treatise, but simply prefacing a somewhat peculiar narrative by observations very much at random; I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play. If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat. The possible moves being not only manifold but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers. In draughts, on the contrary, where the moves are unique and have but little variation, the probabilities of inadvertence are diminished, and the mere attention being left comparatively unemployed, what advantages are obtained by either party are obtained by superior acumen. To be less abstract — Let us suppose a game of draughts where the pieces are reduced to four kings, and where, of course, no oversight is to be expected. It is obvious that here the victory can be decided (the players being at all equal) only by some recherché movement, the result of some strong exertion of the intellect. Deprived of ordinary resources, the analyst throws himself into the spirit of his opponent, identifies himself therewith, and not unfrequently sees thus, at a glance, the sole methods (sometimes indeed absurdly simple ones) by which he may seduce into error or hurry into miscalculation.

    “Whist has long been noted for its influence upon what is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight in it, while eschewing chess as frivolous. Beyond doubt there is nothing of a similar nature so greatly tasking the faculty of analysis. The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies capacity for success in all those more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind. [column 2:] When I say proficiency, I mean that perfection in the game which includes a comprehension of all the sources whence legitimate advantage may be derived. These are not only manifold but multiform, and lie frequently among recesses of thought altogether inaccessible to the ordinary understanding. To observe attentively is to remember distinctly; and, so far, the concentrative chess-player will do very well at whist; while the rules of Hoyle (themselves based upon the mere mechanism of the game) are sufficiently and generally comprehensible. Thus to have a retentive memory, and to proceed by the book, are points commonly regarded as the sum total of good playing. But it is in matters beyond the limits of mere rule that the skill of the analyst is evinced. He makes, in silence, a host of observations and inferences. So, perhaps, do his companions; and the difference in the extent of the information obtained, lies not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation. The necessary knowledge is that of what to observe. Our player confines himself not at all; nor, because the game is the object, does he reject deductions from things external to the game. He examines the countenance of his partner, comparing it carefully with that of each of his opponents. He considers the mode of assorting the cards in each hand; often counting trump by trump, and honor by honor, through the glances bestowed by their holders upon each. He notes every variation of face as the play progresses, gathering a fund of thought from the differences in the expression of certainty, of surprise, of triumph, or of chagrin. From the manner of gathering up a trick he judges whether the person taking it can make another in the suit. He recognises what is played through feint, by the air with which it is thrown upon the table. A casual or inadvertent word; the accidental dropping or turning of a card, with the accompanying anxiety or carelessness in regard to its concealment; the counting of the tricks, with the order of their arrangement; embarrassment, hesitation, eagerness or trepidation — all afford, to his apparently intuitive perception, indications of the true state of affairs. The first two or three rounds having been played, he is in full possession of the contents of each hand, and thenceforward puts down his cards with as absolute a precision of purpose as if the rest of the party had turned outward the faces of their own.

    “The analytical power should not be confounded with simple ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis. The constructive or combining power, by which ingenuity is usually manifested, and to which the phrenologists (I believe erroneously) have assigned a separate organ, supposing it a [page 308:] primitive faculty, has been so frequently seen in those whose intellect bordered otherwise upon idiocy, as to have attracted general observation among writers on morals. Between ingenuity and the analytic ability there exists a difference far greater, indeed, than that between the fancy and the imagination, but of a character very strictly analogous. It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.”

    The last sentence in this extract, referring to the imaginative element in analysis, is forcibly illustrated in the “Purloined Letter.” In the last tale, the whole cunning and ingenuity of the Parisian police are baffled by the seeming simplicity of their antagonist. He is a poet, and, in imagination, identifies his own intellect with that of his opponents, and consequently understands what will be the course they will pursue in ferreting out the place where the letter is concealed. They act upon the principle, that every man, who has anything to hide, will follow what would be their own practice, and therefore they search for their object in the most out-of-the-way holes and corners. The man of imagination, knowing this, puts the letter in a place, the very publicity of which blinds and leads astray his cunning opponents. This identification of the reasoner’s mind with that of his adversary, so as to discover what course of action he would in all probability pursue in given circumstances, is, of course, an exercise of imagination, just as much as the delineation of an imaginary character. No force or acuteness of mere understanding, could do the office of the imagination in such a case. The thousand instances which arise daily in actual life, where such a power of analysis as Mr. Poe describes, might be of great practical utility, are too obvious to need comment.

    “The Fall of the House of Usher,” though characterized by intellectual qualities in no way dissimilar from those apparent in the tales to which we have just referred, is still one which has a more potent pictorial effect on the imagination, and touches with more subtlety the mysterious feelings of supernatural terror. In this story is a fine instance of probing a horror skillfully. It is wrought out with great elaboration, and displays much force of imagination in the representation of morbid character. Each picture, as it rose in the author’s mind, we feel to have been seen with the utmost distinctness, and its relation to [column 2:] the others carefully planned. The kind of shuddering sympathy with which we are compelled to follow the story, and the continuity of the impression which it makes on the mind, are the best evidences of the author’s design. “A Descent into the Maelström” is also conceived with great power, and developed, in its details, with almost painful exactness. The singular clearness with which the scene is held up to the imagination, and the skill with which the thoughts and emotions of the author and sufferer are transferred to the reader’s mind, evince uncommon intensity of feeling and purpose. In both of these compositions, it would be difficult to convey a fair idea of their merit by extracts, as the different parts bear the most intimate relation to each other, and depend for their true effect upon being read consecutively, — still we cannot refrain from giving the conclusion of the “Fall of the House of Usher”:

    “No sooner had these syllables passed my lips, than — as if a shield of brass had indeed, at the moment, fallen heavily upon a floor of silver — I became aware of a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation. Completely unnerved, I leaped to my feet; but the measured rocking movement of Usher was undisturbed. I rushed to the chair in which he sat. His eyes were bent fixedly before him, and throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity. But, as I placed my hand upon his shoulder, there came a strong shudder over his whole person; a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, and gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of my presence. Bending closely over him, I at length drank in the hideous import of his words.

    “ ‘Not hear it? — yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long — long — long — many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it — yet I dared not — oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am! — I dared not — I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them — many, many days ago — yet I dared not — I dared not speak! And now — to-night — Ethelred — ha! ha! — the breaking of the hermit's door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangor of the shield! — say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault!  Oh whither shall I fly ? Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste? Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do [page 309:] I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? Madman!’ — here he sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul — Madman ! I tell you that she now stands without the door!'

  “As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell — the huge antique pannels to which the speaker pointed, threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust — but then without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold — then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.

   “From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued ; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened — there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind — the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight — my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder — there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters — and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher. "

    “The Black Cat” is a story, exceedingly well told, illustrative of a theory, which the author has advanced in other writings, respecting perverseness, or the impulse to perform actions simply for the reason that they ought not to be performed. For this devilish spirit, Mr. Poe claims the honor of being “one of the primitive impulses of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of man.” The theory is ingeniously represented in the case of an imaginary character, and supported by a skillful use, or abuse, of certain facts of consciousness, revealed in morbid states of the mind. The story is not without power and interest, and is [column 2:] doubtless a fair exhibition of the inward life of the criminal whose motives and actions are narrated; but it is not much to our taste. The perverseness, to which the author refers, seems to us to be rightly classed, not among the original impulses of human nature, but among the phenomena of insanity. In its lighter manifestations in human character, we think that it would be possible to show that it is one of those secondary feelings, produced by the moral discord of the mind, and to be classed among the other frailties or sins of human nature. It is a moral disease, not a primitive impulse. The best illustration of it, perhaps, is Shelley’s “Cenci.”

    In this review we have merely indicated some characteristics of these tales which strike us as eminently original, and as entitling them to more attention than is usually given to fictitious compositions bearing the same general name, but not belonging to the same class. We have not space to enter into any discussion respecting the justness of the author’s views on some debatable questions in ethics or metaphysics, or to point out occasional offenses against good taste in his mode of opposing antagonistic opinions. In a volume like the present, bearing on every page evidence of marked individuality of thought and disposition, and interesting the reader as much by the peculiarity as the force of the mind which produced it, it would not argue critical skill, so much as critical impertinence, to subject it to tests which it was never intended to bear, and try it by laws which it openly contemns. In each of the tales the author has succeeded in the object he presented to himself. From his own point of view, it would puzzle criticism to detect blunders in thought, or mismanagement in the conduct of the story. The objections to the volume will vary according to the differences of taste among its readers. But whatever may be the opposition it may meet, from persons whose nature is essentially different from that of the author, it would be vain to deny that it evinces a quickness of apprehension, an intensity of feeling, a vigor of imagination, a power of analysis, which are rarely seen in any compositions going under the name of “tales”; and that, contemptuously tossing aside the common materials on which writers of fiction generally depend for success, the writer has shown that a story may be all the more interesting by demanding for its full development the exercise of the strongest and most refined powers of the intellect.








Notes:

Evert Augustus Duyckinck (1816-1878), who is thought to be the author of this review, published anonymously, was also the editor for Wiley & Putnam's Library of American Books series, which included Poe's 1845 Tales and later the same year The Raven and Other Poems.



[S:0 - AR, 1845]