Text: Thomas Powell, “Edgar Allan Poe,” The Living Authors of America (first series), New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1850, pp. 108-134


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­[page 108:]

EDGAR ALLAN POE.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

As the grave has closed over the poet, we shall give a short biographical sketch of him.

Edgar Poe was the son of David Poe and Elizabeth Arnold. His father was the fourth son of General Poe, a name well known in the Revolutionary War. Some little interest is attached to his memory from the fact of General Lafayette, during his memorable visit to this country, making a pilgrimage to his grave.

Mr. David Poe had three children — Henry, Edgar (the poet), and Rosalie. On the death of their parents Edgar and Rosalie were adopted by a wealthy merchant of the name of Allan. Having no children, Mr. Allan unhesitatingly avowed to all his intention of making Edgar his heir.

In 1816 the subject of this memoir was taken by his adopted parents to England, and after making with them the tour of Scotland, he was left for five years to complete his education at Dr. Bransby’s, of Stoke Newington. The curious reader will find a description of this school in one of Poe’s sketches called “William Wilson.”

Returning to America he went to various academies, and ­[page 109:] finally to the University of Virginia, at Charlottesville. The dissolute manners of the institution infected him, and he was no exception to the general rule. His abilities, notwithstanding, enabled him to maintain a respectable position in the eyes of the Professors. His time here was divided between lectures, debating societies, rambles in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and in making caricatures of his tutors and the heads of the college. We are informed he had the habit of covering the walls of his sleeping-room with these rough charcoal sketches. Rousing himself from this desultory course of life, he took the first honors of the college and returned home.

To escape from the reproaches of his friends, and possibly from the consequences of his thoughtlessness, he formed the design, in conjunction with a friend, of visiting Greece, with the intention of aiding the Revolution then in progress in that classic land. His companion, Ebenezer Burling, abandoned the rash design almost as soon as projected, but the energetic nature of the poet was not so easily turned aside from his path. He proceeded, therefore, as far as St. Petersburg, where he had a narrow escape from the fangs of that brutal government, in consequence of an irregularity in his passport. The exertions of the Consul saved him from the consequences of the error, and through his friendship he returned to America.

Here he found a great change awaiting him. His benefactress, Mrs. Allan, was dead; he reached Richmond the day after her funeral. This was the origin of all his subsequent misfortunes. After an apparent reconciliation with Mr. Allan, he entered West Point Academy, resolved to devote himself to a military life. Here he entered upon his new studies and duties ­[page 110:] with characteristic energy, and an honorable career was opened to him; but the Fates willed that Mr. Allan should in his dotage marry a girl young enough to be her husband’s granddaughter. The birth of a child convinced Mr. Poe that his hopes to inherit his adopted father’s property were at an end, and he consequently left West Point, resolving to proceed to Poland, to join the struggle for liberty then making by that heroic nation against her diabolical oppressors. The fall of Warsaw ended the conflict, and our chivalric poet was again deprived of his intention.

He therefore proceeded to Baltimore, where he learned the death of Mr. Allan. As he had left him nothing, he was now thrown upon the world well nigh resourceless. It is said that this man’s widow even refused him his own books.

About this time came the turning point in Mr. Poe’s life. Nature had given him a poetical mind; accident now afforded the opportunity for its development.

The Editors of the Baltimore Visitor [[Visiter]] had offered a premium for the best prose tale, and also one for the best poem. The umpires were men of taste and ability, and, after a careful consideration of the productions, they decided that Mr. Poe was undoubtedly entitled to both prizes. As Mr. Poe was entirely unknown to them, this was a genuine tribute to his superior merit.

The poem he sent was the “Coliseum,” and six tales for their selection. Not content with awarding the premiums, they declared that the worst of the six tales referred to was better than the best of the other competitors.

Some little time after this triumph he was engaged by Mr. ­[page 111:] White to edit the “Southern Literary Messenger,” which had been established about seven months, and had attained a circulation of about four hundred subscribers.

There he remained for nearly two years, devoting the energies of his rich and ingenious mind to the interest of the Review; so much was he regarded there that when he left he had raised the circulation of the journal to above three thousand.

Very much of this success was owing to the fearlessness of his criticisms. Always in earnest, he was either on one side or the other; he had a scorn of the respectable level trash which has too long brooded like a nightmare over American Literature. Mr. Poe did not like tamely to submit to the dethronement of genius, and the instalment of a feeble, sickly grace, and an amiable mediocrity. What gods and men abhor, according to Horace, a certain class of critics and readers in America adore. America is jealous of her victories by sea and land — is proud of advantages with which she has nothing to do, such as Niagara, the Mississippi, and the other wonders of nature. An American points with pride to the magnificent steamboats which ride the waters like things of life. Foreigners sometimes smile at the honest satisfaction, even enthusiasm, which lights up the national face when a few hundred troops file down Broadway, to discordant drums and squeaking fifes. But all their natural feeling and national pride stop here. So far from the American public taking any interest in their own men of genius — in the triumphs of mind — they absolutely allow others openly to conspire, and put down every attempt to establish a National Literature.

The Americans are a shrewd and far-seeing people, but they ­[page 112:] are somewhat too material; they must not believe that a nation can long exist without men of thought, as well as men of action. The salvation of America lies in the possession of a Republican Literature. The literature of England is slowly sapping the foundation of her institutions. England does all her thinking, and if this system continues, the action of this great nation will be in accordance with the will of the old country. Like the Gulf Stream of Florida, the current of aristocratical genius is slowly drifting the ark of America to a point they little dream of, and never intend. The very bulk of this country renders the operation unseen; but, though imperceptible to the eye, it is palpable to the mind, and certain in its results.

What hope of victory would the armies and navies of this young republic have had, if, when they were arming for the fight, the bystanders had discouraged them; or when sailing to the encounter, the jibes or indifference of their fellow-citizens had been expressed? Certain defeat and disgrace, as sure as heaven! And how can America expect her young authors to vindicate her national glory when she treats them with indifference and neglect. Nay, even worse, she openly discourages them in their attempt, and tacitly confesses that it is hopeless to compete with the writers of England or France. These remarks apply to every branch of American literature; let the people consider this matter, and remedy it before they find the republican form governed by a foreign and aristocratical mind. If luxury enervated the Roman Body, so will a foreign pabulum destroy the American Mind.

It is a curious fact that the worst enemies of the national mind have been a few of her own sons. These are authors who till ­[page 112:] lately have entirely enjoyed the monopoly of the English market; now they will be obliged to join the body of native authors, and hurry to the rescue. So long as they could trespass on the mistaken courtesy of the British publishers, and get four thousand guineas for this Life of Columbus, and two hundred guineas for that Typee, there was no occasion for any interference; in fact, they were materially benefited by this crying injustice to the great body of authors. Now their own rights are in jeopardy, and they must join the ranks of International Copyright.

We cannot help here remarking that if we were an American author, we should compel certain writers to account for their past apathy and their present activity; as, however, we wish to close these remarks with good-humor, we shall quote a little anecdote which has gone the round of society in England. It also evidences that Janus-faced figure which every fact and fiction possesses for the human thought.

Owing to some accident there are two portraits of an author in Mr. Murray’s private office, in Albemarle street. A friend inquiring of him one day the cause of this superabundant reverence for the great writer, received for reply: “Really, I cannot account for it on any other ground than the fact that I have lost twice as much by that author as by any other.”

Although somewhat irrelevant the mention of Mr. Murray’s name reminds us of a joke played off by Byron upon that prince of publishers. Mr. Leigh Hunt was our informant.

The “moody Childe” had given to Murray as a birthday present a Bible magnificently bound, and which he enriched ­[page 114:] by a very flattering inscription. This was laid by the grateful publisher on his drawing-room table, and somewhat ostentatiously displayed to all comers. One evening, as a large company were gathered around the table, one of the guests happened to open the Testament, and saw some writing in the margin. Calling to Murray, he said: “Why, Byron has written something here!” Narrower inspection proved that the profane wit had erased the word “robber” in the text and substituted that of “publisher,” so that the passage read thus: “ Now, Barabbas was a publisher!” The legend goes on to state that the book disappeared that very night from the drawing-room table.

After this digression we must return to our poet’s fortunes.

Mr. Poe abandoned the “Southern Literary Messenger “ to assist Professors Anthon, Henry, and Hawks in the conducting of the “New York Quarterly Review.” Here he came down pretty freely with his critical axe, and made many enemies. At the end of a year he went to Philadelphia, and amused himself by writing for the “Gentleman’s Magazine,” since merged into Graham’s. His criticisms here, as usual, occasioned much discussion.

Mr. Poe’s first volume of poems was a modest pamphlet, called “Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, by a Virginian [[Bostonian]].” It was published at Boston, in his fifteenth year. The following lines were written two years previous; they exhibit great promise for a boy of thirteen.

“TO HELEN.

“Helen, thy beauty is to me,

Like those Nicean barks of yore, ­[page 115:]

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore,

To his own native shore.

 

“On desperate seas long wont to roam,

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy naiad airs have brought me home,

To the glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome.

 

“Lo! in yon brilliant window niche,

How statue-like I see thee stand,

The agate lamp within. thy hand,

Ah! Psyche, from the regions which

Are Holy Land.”

There is a confused and misty classic reminiscence about these lines which shows the poetical mind in its first dreamy efforts to realize.

A second edition of this volume was published in Baltimore in 1827; and a third, we are informed, during the author’s cadetship at West Point.

We are much struck with a poem entitled “Ligrea.” It is intended as a personification of music. It is too long to quote entire; we must, however, find space for a few stanzas. For a boy of fourteen it is certainly a singular production, and evidences a psychological development painfully precocious, and indicative of future sorrow.

There is a peculiarity of rhythm in all Mr. Poe’s verses ­[page 116:] which is attractive, although occasionally exhibiting too much of their mechanical nature.

This is the “Spirit’s Invocation.”

“Spirit, that dwellest where

In the deep sky

The terrible and fair

In beauty vie.

Beyond the line of blue,

The boundary of the star,

That turneth at the view

Of thy barrier and thy bar.

* * *

Bright beings that ponder

With half-closing eyes,

On the stars which grave wonder

Hath drawn from the skies.

* * *

Up! shake from your wings

All hindering things,

The dew of the night

Will weigh down your flight,

And true-love caresses —

Oh! leave them apart,

They are light on the tresses,

But lead on the heart.

* * *

The sound of the rain,

That leaps down to the flower,

And dances again

In the rhythm of the shower. ­[page 117:]

The murmur that springs

From the growing of grass,

Are the music of things,

But are modelled — alas!”

* * *

It is evident to all that the melody of the young poet was here, and only required study and opportunity to come out in glorious and enduring shapes.

In the ensuing extract we have a singular phase of the youthful mind — dreamy, confused; yet in this misty vision we see a world of order forming. It is evidently inspired by some of Keats.

“Ours is a world of words: Quiet we call

Silence, which is the veriest word of all

Here nature speaks, and evil ideal things

Flap shadowy hands for visionary wings.

A dome, by linked light from heaven let down,

Sat gently on these columns as a crown,

And rays from God shot down that meteor chain,

And hallowed all the beauty twice again,

Save when between the empyrean and that ring

Some eager spirit flapped his dusky wing.

Within the centre of this hall to breathe

She paused, and panted Zanthe! all beneath

The brilliant light that kissed her golden hair,

And long to rest, yet could not sparkle there.

From the wild energy of wanton haste

Her cheek was flushing, and her lips apart,

And zone, that clung about her gentle waist,

Had burst beneath the heaving of her heart.” ­[page 119:]

When critical readers object to the laborious combination of images here, let it be remembered this was the composition of a boy. This, however, if carried out strictly, becomes a very serious drawback upon our estimate of Mr. Poe’s genius, for we do not find, as a poet, he made much progress from fourteen to forty. His prose grew firmer, more thoughtful, fuller of artistic effects every year he wrote, as his numerous tales unmistakably testify; but his verses seemed modelled on his earliest school. Of all poets he seems earliest to have caught the trick of verse. His schoolboy effusions possess the glow of his more matured efforts; and with the exception of two or three productions, where the ingenuity of the mechanical construction shows the man’s thought, there is nothing to demarcate one poem from another.

That development of progressive power so naturally visible in all the productions of a great mind is not traceable in our author’s verse, but, with a singular psychological contradiction, is evident throughout his other writings.

In this short extract we may observe much of the after man.

“Nyctanthes too, as sacred as the light,

She fears to perfume, perfuming the night:

And that aspiring flower that sprang on earth,

And died ere scarce exalted into birth,

Bursting its odorous heart in spirit, to wing

Its way to heaven from garden of a king.

And Valisnerian Lotus thither flown,

From struggling with the waters of the Rhone,

And thy most lovely purple perfume Zante,

Isola d’ oro — fior de Levante, ­[page 119:]

And the Nelumbo bud that floats for ever,

With Indian Cupid down the Holy River.”

This description of poetry is, of all others, the most difficult to judge from. It possesses so many features of the composite order that we know not how much belongs to the memory or the imagination. Still there is a flow of music throughout which convinces the most sceptical of the presence of poetic susceptibilities and power of sound.

In his sonnet to Science we have a clearer insight into our author’s mode of dealing with thought in an emphatic manner:

“Science, true daughter of Old Time thou art:

Who alterest all things with thy piercing eyes,

Why prey’st thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise

Who would’st not leave him in his wandering

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,

Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,

And driven the Hamadryad from the wood,

To seek a shelter in some happier state?

Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?”

This is certainly a fine sonnet, and contains an agreeable mixture of classical reminiscence and personal romance.

Without in any way meaning to convey to the reader the ­[page 120:] idea of imitation, we cannot help quoting, as an agreeable companion to the above, Wordsworth’s sonnet embodying similar regrets. It is justly considered one of the old English Bard’s most finished efforts.

“The world is too much with us; late or soon,

Getting or spending, we lay waste our powers.

Little we see in nature that is ours;

We’ve changed our hearts away — a sordid boon.

Yon sea that bares its bosom to the moon —

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

But are upgathered now like sleeping flowers.

For this — for all things we are out of tune,

They move us not: great God I’d rather be

A pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,

“So might I, staaiding on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn.

Have sight of Venus rising from the sea,

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”

Of all the masters of versification Mr. Coleridge was certainly the one who made it a great feature in his poetry; but his system was so refined, so subtilized, as to escape the notice of the outward senses; its presence was felt within by reason of the effect produced on the mind by his charmed verses. His witchcraft was invisible; the spell was a pervading power. In Mr. Poe, who in some respects may be called a mechanical or machine Coleridge, we have more of the old conjurer’s tricks. There is a needless display of cabalistic symbols; an officious ­[page 121:] devil draws ostentatious circles, and other mathematical deviltry, so that we surrender to the show, and not to the soul of magic power; it is really not too much to say that a fine algebraist might get a tolerably correct idea of some of the most characteristic of Mr. Poe’s verses by an architectural skeleton or design of his poems. The physique of melody is generally fatal to its spirituality; but, owing to a curious faculty in our author, he marvellously escapes detection, except from a few of the more over wise and over curious critics. To many, we feel sure this is his great charm; it requires a very nice and a very dose analysis to discover the source of his success with the many.

That the author of the “Raven,” &c., was a poet no doubt can exist. Extravagant as our opinion may now appear, we venture to say that in a few years, when the memory of his failings shall have died away, he will be considered one of America’s best poets. He was the first who arrested our attention, and conveyed to our mind the fact that a man of great peculiarity was speaking. We use peculiarity out of a sort of insecurity and hesitation we do not often feel, otherwise we have a full and strong inclination to write originality. Had we been in England we should unhesitatingly have done so; but as Mr. Poe is only an American, we forbear to move a second time the indignation of the Press by claiming for a native of this great republic a common share of God’s great gift of intellect. The day will, however, come when all the objections of a foreign Press will not prevent justice being done to the native genius of the land of Washington. ­[page 122:]

One grand distinguishing feature in Mr. Poe’s mind is his mathematical power. He even constructs his poetry on its basis: in his prose writings he carries this occasionally to a wearisome extent: it is also visible in the mechanical form of his verse. In his later productions it is very strong; we more particularly allude to the most celebrated of his poems, viz. “The Raven;” this is too well known to quote entire, we shall therefore content ourselves by giving only a few stanzas, in order to illustrate our position and confirm our assertion.

We cannot dismiss this subject without paying our earnest tribute to the womanhood of the poet’s chief friend, his wife’s mother. To Mrs. Clem [[Clemm]] will be awarded in the history of genius the rarest of all crowns, the wreath placed by God’s hands — through his noblest creatures — on woman’s beautiful and matron brow. Even in her lifetime she will receive the world’s acknowledgment of her nobility of soul; and the tongues whom envy or shame froze in the life of her gifted but unhappy son-in-law, will thaw, and like the fable of old utter praises to the perished one, condemning their own wretched selves.

Oh! that a hand would arise, who, carefully registering the arts of these wretched shams of humanity — these suits of dress with a patent digester placed inside — would whip them naked through the world; when — after persecuting the prophets, and guarding the clothes of the murderers — they, terrified into a mongrel and disgusting recognition of genius, audaciously join in the procession, as though they were the genuine mourners of the martyred man. ­[page 123:]

We will not dwell long on the darkness of our poet’s fate: his errors were many and grievous. We all know how greedily the dull and the malignant catch at any straws to save them from perishing in their own self-contempt, for it is given to every man to feel his own low nature as compared with the lords of mind.

We have been told by those who knew Mr. Poe well, that so weakly strung were all his nerves, that the smallest modicum of stimulant had an alarming effect upon him, and produced actions scarcely resolvable by sanity. It may be said that it is not the quantity of stimulant, but the effect produced, which constitutes the drunkard, and that Mr. Poe was as much to blame for the inebriation of a glass as of a bottle; but we would tell these cold-blooded fishes — for they are not men — that it is not given to the common-place men either to feel the raptures of poetical inspiration, or the despondency of prostrated energies. The masses are wisely, as Pope says,

“Content to dwell in decencies for ever.”

There is a homely verse in an old ballad which was made upon Shakspeare’s masterpiece of human philosophy:

“Hamlet loved a maid;

Calumny had passed her

She never had played tricks —

Because nobody had asked her.”

This rough and unconditional doggrel gives a graphic ­[page 124:] insight into the proprieties of the masses: they have neither had the impulse nor the opportunity to be indiscreet. Let our readers clearly understand we are not the apologists of Mr. Poe’s errors — as Mark Antony says,

“We come to bury Cæsar, not to praise him;”

but, at the same time, we will not allow any undue deference to the opinion of the world.

We are glad to be confirmed in this by the testimony of the Editor of the Home Journal, a gentleman not only distinguished for his sympathy with men of genius, but also for the respect he pays the proprieties of life.

We quote the following manly tribute to his “dead brother in verse:”

“Some four or five years since, when editing a daily paper in this city, Mr. Poe was employed by us for several months as critic and sub-editor. This was our first personal acquaintance with him. He resided with his wife and mother, at Fordham, a few miles out of town, but was at his desk in the office from nine in the morning till the evening paper went to press. With the highest admiration for his genius, and a willingness to let it atone for more than ordinary irregularity, we were led by common report to expect a very capricious attention to his duties, and occasionally a scene of violence and difficulty. Time went on, however, and he was invariably punctual and industrious. * * * With a prospect of taking the lead in another periodical, he at last voluntarily gave up his employment with us, and through all this considerable period, we had seen but one presentment of the man — a quiet, patient, industrious, and most gentlemanly person, commanding the utmost respect and good feeling, by his unvarying deportment and ability. ­[page 125:]

“Residing as he did in the country, we never met Mr. Poe in hours of leisure; but he frequently called on us afterwards at our place of business, and we met him often in the street — invariably the same sad-mannered, winning, and refined gentleman, such as we had always known him. It was by rumor only, up to the day of his death, that we knew of any other development of manner or character. We heard, from one who knew him well (what should be stated in all mention of his lamentable irregularities) that, with a single glass of wine his whole nature was reversed, the demon became uppermost, and, though none of the usual signs of intoxication were visible, his will was palpably insane. Possessing his reasoning faculties in excited activity, at such times, and seeking his acquaintances with his wonted look and memory, he easily seemed personating only another phase of his natural character, and was accused, accordingly, of insulting arrogance and bad-heartedness. * * * The arrogance, vanity, and depravity of heart of which Mr. Poe was generally accused, seem to us referable altogether to this reversed phase of his character. Under that degree of intoxication which only acted upon him by demonizing his sense of truth and right, he doubtless said and did much that was wholly irreconcilable with his better nature; but, when himself, and as we knew him only, his modesty and unaffected humility as to his own deservings were a constant charm to his character.”

The peculiar cadence of “the poet’s soul — somewhat, perhaps, too artificially forced upon the attention, is well developed in the little poem of Annabel Lee. It is evidently an echo of “Christabel,” but it is a very beautiful one, and charms the ear, if it does not strike the mind as an original. There is a haunting sense of beauty about the metrical arrangement of Poe’s ­[page 126:] verses which is always evidence of a finely strung nervous system.

ANNABEL LEE.

“It was many and many a year ago,

In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know

By the name of Annabel Lee;

And this maiden she lived with no other thought

Than to love and be loved by me.

 

I was a child and she was a child,

In this kingdom by the sea.

But we loved with a love that was more than love —

I and my Annabel Lee —

With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven

Coveted her and me.

 

“And this was the reason that, long ago,

In this kingdom by the sea,

A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling

My beautiful Annabel Lee;

So that her high-born kinsmen came

And bore her away from me,

To shut her up in a sepulchre

In this kingdom by the sea.”

The next line is a striking proof of that mixture of puerility and beauty, which, like the conflict of his own discordant ­[page 127:] nature, renders his writings as well as himself a problem to his fellow men.

There is great force and beauty in

“The wind came out of the cloud by night,”

and yet how immediately he spoils the effect for the sake of the jingle of “chilling and killing —”

“The angels, not half so happy in heaven,

Went envying her and me —

Yes! — that was the reason (as all men know

In this kingdom by the sea)

That the wind came out of the cloud by night,

Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

 

“But our love, it was stronger by far than the love

Of those who are older than we —

Of many far wiser than we —

And neither the angels in heaven above,

Nor the demons down under the sea,

Can ever dissever my soul from the soul

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

 

“For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side

Of my darling — my darling — my life and my bride,

In her sepulchre there by the sea —

In her tomb by the sounding sea.” ­[page 128:]

Well known as the “Raven” is, we should leave the poetical idea of him incomplete without illustrating our remarks by a quotation. We have printed the stanzas differently in shape to the method he has followed, but the words are of course unaltered.

“Once upon a midnight dreary,

While I pondered weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious

Volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping,

Suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping,

Rapping at my chamber door.

‘ ’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered,

‘Tapping at my chamber door —

Only this, and nothing more.’ ”

The next stanza closes with one of the finest touches of poetical imagery and pathos.

“For the rare and radiant maiden

Whom the angels name Lenore.”

As Coleridge says, “beautiful exceedingly.”

The mechanical structure of the verse is very apparent when read with attention to the pauses. Nevertheless, it is a poem which will always give pleasure to the reader, even though it be read for the hundredth time; for, notwithstanding the marked arithmetic ­[page 129:] of the shape, it is one of those few productions which bear repetition without palling.

“Deep into that darkness peering,

Long I stood there, wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal

Ever dared to dream before;

But the silence was unbroken,

And the darkness gave no token,

And the only word there spoken

Was the whispered word ‘Lenore!’

This I whispered, and an echo

Murmured back the word ‘Lenore!’

Merely this, and nothing more.

 

“Back into the chamber turning,

All my soul within me burning,

Soon I heard again a tapping

Somewhat louder than before.

’Surely,’ said I, ‘surely that is

Something at my window lattice;

Let me see, then, what thereat is,

And this mystery explore —

Let my heart be still a moment

And this mystery explore; —

’Tis the wind and nothing more!’

 

“Open here I flung the shutter,

When, with many a flirt and flutter,

In there stepped a stately raven

Of the saintly days of yore; ­[page 130:]

Not the least obeisance made he;

Not an instant stopped or stayed he;

But, with mien of lord or lady,

Perched above my chamber door —

Perched upon a bust of Pallas

Just above my chamber door —

Perched, and sat, and nothing more.”

The last stanza is very felicitous.

How visibly the poet’s intention to produce effect by the outer shape of verse is here made apparent:

“Then this ebony bird beguiling

My sad fancy into smiling,

By the grave and stern decorum

Of the countenance it wore,

‘Though thy crest be shorn and shaven,

Thou,’ I said, ‘art sure no craven,

Ghastly grim and ancient raven

Wandering from the Nightly shore —

Tell me what thy lordly name is

On the Night’s Plutonian shore!’

Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’ ”

 

“Then, methought, the air grew denser,

Perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by angels whose faint foot-falls

Tinkled on the tufted floor.

‘Wretch,’ I cried, ‘thy God hath lent thee,

By these angels he hath sent thee

Respite — respite and nepenthe ­[page 131:]

From thy memories of Lenore!

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe

And forget this lost Lenore!’

Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’ ”

 

“‘Be that word our sign of parting,

Bird or fiend!’ I shrieked, upstarting —

Get thee back into the tempest

And the Night’s Plutonian shore!

Leave no black plume as a token

Of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

Leave my loneliness unbroken!

Quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and

Take thy form from off my door!’

Quoth the raven ‘Nevermore.’

 

“And the raven, never flitting,

Still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas

Just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming

Of a demon’s that is dreaming,

And the lamp-light o’er him streaming,

Throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow

That lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted — nevermore!”

Although his mechanical art is too visible, we cannot withhold our praise for the success of the attempt. Coleridge was a ­[page 132:] great master of the musical chords of verse, but he superadded a charm which spiritualized the vehicle of his thought.

In Mr. Poe we miss this power, and consequently we feel at times inclined to consider the whole affair as machine poetry, so far as the outer shape is concerned. But here Mr. Poe has not done himself justice; he has wilfully made his mechanical artifice so prominent, as to intercept the effect of his own poetical spirit. He has encumbered it with a needless ornament, which resembles a scaffolding so interwoven with the structure, as to persuade the beholder it is essential for the very support of the building.

We need hardly point out the injurious effect this has had upon Mr. Poe’s reputation as a man of genius, for such he undoubtedly was.

Nor was his power confined to poetry alone. As a prose writer he was one of the most peculiar of his age; his stories have a circumstantiality about them perfectly marvellous; they seem bewilderingly true; the most astounding contradictions are accounted for, and a combination of improbabilities seems to meet as matter of course. This of necessity implies a genius, in our estimate of the word, although many acute writers merely term it ingenious. We would say above all other writers of American prose and verse, Mr. Poe is undoubtedly the most peculiar. Now that the grave has made him famous in the eyes of the world, he will have a school of imitators, and this will no doubt be accepted as a sure proof of a certain originality. From first to last there is the peculiar stamp of the man on everything he did: it is his own genuine coin, with his well-known effigy upon it. We must, however, ­[page 133:] state that we think his circumstantiality becomes tedious, and that his over-anxiety to make every improbability fit into another improbability, so as to form a consecutive chain out of inconsistencies, throws very often a doubt over the whole story, and defeats his own object. We cannot illustrate this better than by relating a little anecdote we heard in our boyhood.

A certain Gascon nobleman, famous for his enormous fables, which he always swore were true, had a sycophant, who, whenever his patron’s guests seemed staggering into unbelief by some outrageous Munchausen, was appealed to as a kind of witness to testify and confirm the truth of the story in question.

At an entertainment one day, the Gascon lord was peculiarly sublime in his marvels and his boastings, and encouraged by his guests’ capacious swallow, he ventured to affirm that he had a herring pond in his park. As this was well known to be a salt-water fish, a general doubt of the fact was expressed. The somewhat offended owner of the pond in question appealed to his convenient friend, as to the truth of the statement. He readily and boldly confirmed it in the following manner:

“I can assure you, gentlemen, that what my lord says is true. He has a pond in his garden full of herrings! Ah! and red herrings too.”

This over-proving a case by capping it with a notorious impossibility is the besetting sin of Mr. Poe’s writings, more especially of his prose works. Nevertheless they are so marvellously ­[page 134:] well done, that we are inclined to think in a few years he will chiefly be remembered for his tales, and that his poetical works will dwindle into a small compass composed of half-a-dozen favorite poems.


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Notes:

In a way, Powell has been prescient. Poe is indeed, generally, better known for his tales and a handful of poems (such as “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee”).

The poem Powell calls “Ligrea” is actually part of “Al Aaraaf,” and by reference to the “Spirit’s Invocation,” he confirms the strong suspicion that he has based his article about Poe on the biographical sketch from the Philadelphia Saturday Museum of 1843.

The copy of this article in Google Books lacks pages 122-123.


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[S:0 - LWA, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (T. Powell, 1850)