Text: John Moncure Daniel, “Characteristics of Edgar A. Poe,” Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner, vol. II, no. 100, October 19, 1849, p. 2, cols. 4-7


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CHARACTERISTICS OF EDGAR POE.

A few days ago, a condensed statement of the generally known facts of Mr. Poe’s life was laid before the readers of this newspaper. It is now proposed to throw together some detached pieces of information relative to his history, and some remarks upon his genius and writings. Before sitting down to the task, the writer has reflected with some perplexity upon the proper color and tone to give it. Mr. Poe’s life and character contain many blemishes, and a notice of them is absolutely necessary to anything that pretends to be a picture of the man. Yet it appears to every mind, hard and unfeeling in the extreme, to speak aught that is ill of the newly dead — De mortuis nil nisi bonum, is a sentiment universal in the human heart; and we are no advocate for the stoical alteration of nil nisi verum. The considerations which have determined us to state the whole truth, are a recollection of the long notoriety of the worst, with all who possess the slightest knowledge of Mr. Poe, either in person or through report; and the absolute necessity of mentioning them, to give a distinct conception of this most brilliant and original individual. No one can possibly suspect us of unkind motives in doing so.

In person, Mr. Edgar Poe was below middle height, slenderly but compactly built. His hands and feet were moderately large, and strongly shaped, as were all his joints. Before his constitution was broken by dissipation and consequent ill health, he had been capable of great feats of strength and endurance. He once swam from the Rocketts wharf of this city seven miles in the James River, and walked back through a burning summer day, for a wager, and without any consequent ill effects that we ever heard of. Countenance, person, gait, everything about him when he was himself, distinguished Mr. Poe as a man of mark. His features were not large, were rather regular, and decidedly handsome. His complexion was clear and dark — when the writer knew him. The general expression of his face beyond its ordinary abstraction was not pleasant. It was neither insolent, rude, nor angry. But it was decidedly disagreeable, nevertheless. The color of his fine eyes generally seemed to be dark grey; but on closer examination, they appeared in that neutral violent tint, which is so difficult to define. His forehead was, without exception, the finest in its proportions and expression that we have ever seen. It did not strike one as being uncommonly large or high, but seemed to bulge forth with the protuberance of the reflective and constructive organs. They perceptive regions were not deficient, but seemed pressed out of the way by the growth and superiority of causality, comparison and construction. Close to them rose the arches of ideality, a dome where beauty sat weaving her garlands. Yet the head, as a whole, was decidedly a bad one. When looked at in front, the gold and expressive frontal developments took up the attention, and the beholder did not observe the want of cranium above. A profile view showed its deficiencies in a very strong light. There was an immense mass of brain in front and in rear, with little or none above or between the two masses. Or to speak more succinctly, the basilar region possessed immense power, both intellectual and animal; the coronal region was very deficient. It contained little moral sense and less reverence. — This was one key to many of his literary characteristics. With more reverence, conjoined with the other traits of craniology, Mr. Poe would have been a mocker and a sneerer. Such was the head of Voltaire, whose organ of reverence equalled that of Wesley or Howard, — but which only served as guide to his mirthfulness and combativeness, in consequence of the still greater predominance of his animal organs. But Mr. Poe wanted the perception of reverential things to give them a sufficient importance to be mocked. The same fact accounts for an absence of that morbid remorse and sense of duty unfulfilled which marks so distinctly all the writings of Byron, and of most modern authors of distinction. In Poe’s writings there is despair, hopelessness; and the echoes of a melancholy extremely touching to those who read with a remembrance of his broken life, but nowhere in them does “conscience roused, sit boldly on her throne.” The ideas of right and wrong are as feeble in his chains of thought as in the literature of Ancient Greece.

But we anticipate our subject. Mr. Poe’s hair was dark, and when we knew him, seemed to be slightly sprinkled with grey. He wore a heavy and ill-trimmed moustache. He dressed uniformly in good taste, simple and careless, the attire of a gentleman. His manners were excellent, unembarrassed, polite, and marked with an easy repose. His conversation was the very best we have ever listened to. We have never heard any other so suggestive of thought, or from which one gains so much. On literary subjects, books, authors, and literary life, it was as superior to all else that we have head or read, even the best, as the diamond is to other jewels. It cut into the very gist of the matter. It was the essence of correct and profound criticism divested of all the formal pedantries and introductory ideas — the kernel clear of the shell. He was not a “brilliant talker,” in the common after-dinner sense of the term, — was not a maker up of fine points of a sayer of funny things. What he said was prompted entirely by the moment, and seemed uttered for the pleasure of uttering it. — But when he became well roused, when his through was well worked up, and the juice all over it, he would say more, send out more pithy ideas, driving straight and keen as arrows to their mark, than any other we ever listened to. He was very fond of talking, and not at all exclusive in his audiences. Whether his hearers understood his acute abstractions or appreciated the glorious conceptions that perpetually flashed and sparkled across his mental sky, was no care of his. He would sit himself down in a tavern porch beside any dirty dunce, and unfold to him the great designs of that [column 5:] most wonderful book, EUREKA, with the same abstracted earnestness as if it was an amanuensis to whom he was dictating for the press, or a Kepler, or a Bacon — who alone, besides himself, could have written it. This carelessness of companionship contained a trait of his character. If any man ever was perfectly emancipated from all trammels of society, cared not ten straws what was thought of him by the passer, cared not whether he was admitted freely into upper-tendom, or denied access to respectable grog-shops, it was this singular and extraordinary man. And this want of all conception and perception of the claims of civilized society, and the inevitable penalties which attend violations of the laws of human society, (which are none other than the laws of nature) as necessarily as those attending violation of the laws of the physical elements — was one of the causes which rendered Mr. Poe’s life so unfortunate. Few men of literary powers so marked, of genius so indubitable as his, could fail of doing at least tolerably in the nineteenth century, — if they conducted themselves at all in accordance with the behests of society. True genius does not now receive it meed of fame from its generation nor ever will; but it can make books that will sell, and it will keep its owner above want if he chooses to use it with ordinary discretion. Talent is still better than genius in such matters; but genius of such force, we repeat, always obtains a competency, if nothing intervenes. That which intervened between Mr. Poe’s genius and competency, was Mr. Poe himself. His changeable humors, his irregularities, his caprices, his total disregard of everything and body, save the fancy in his head, prevented him from doing well in the world. The evils and sufferings that poverty brought upon him, soured his nature, and deprived him of all faith in human beings. This was evident to the eye — he believed in nobody, and cared for nobody. Such a mental condition of course drove away all those who would otherwise have stood by him in his hours of trial. He became, and was, an Ishmaelite. His place of abode was as uncertain and unvixed as the Bedouines. He was equally well known in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and Richmond.

His habits of intoxication were another reason for his want of success in life. — From all that we can learn he fell into them early in life, and they caused his death. — Thousands have seen him drunk in the streets of this city. In all his visits save the last, he was in a state approaching mania. Whenever he tasted alcohol he seldom stopt drinking it so long as he was able. He did drink most barbarously. Most men, even the most inveterate, make their bad habit a source of pleasure — luxury — voluptuousness, a means of excitement or a gratification of the palate. — Such was not the case with Edgar Poe. — His taste for drink was a simple disease — no source of pleasure nor excitement. When once the poison had passed his lips he would go at once to a bar and drink off glass after glass as fast as its tutelar genius could mix them, until his faculties were utterly swallowed up. His long fits of intoxication, and the consequent ill health and listlessness, of course diminished the quantity of Mr. Poe’s intellectual products, and interfered with their finish. But wonderful as it may seem, we do not believe that the force of his intellect was at all impaired thereby. He was a greater man at the time of his death than he had ever been before. His greatest work is his last. It is somewhat singular that this and several other of his best works either immediately preceded or succeeded long and fearful fits of his unhappy disease. He came to this city immediately after the appearance of Eureka, and plunged into the very depth of his woe. And we learn through an eye witness, that on the morning the “Raven” saw the light in the pages of the “Whig Review,” when all New York was just agog about it, when the name of Poe was in every mouth, he saw him pass down Broadway in such a state that he reeled from side to side of the pavement at every yard he advanced.

He died in consequence of one of those affairs the other day in Baltimore. The newspapers of that city and of Philadelphia all contain the same account — that he was taken up from the pavement in a state of mania, and conveyed to the identical Hospital in which John Loffland, the “Milford Bard,” died last year in the self same manner. Loffland was, in our opinion, a very common-place spinner of newspaper tales and namby-pamby verses — though he had a wider circle of admirers and sympathizers than even Mr. Poe — for the simple reason that there are more people in the world who can comprehend common-place than original and sterling genius, when first presented to them. But to those who are sufficiently acquainted with literature to estimate Mr. Poe, what can be more melancholy, more heart-sinking, than this story and this end? We know nothing like it in literary history since Otway strangled himself with the roll thrown to him when in a state of starvation. We had thought that such was no longer the possible life and death of first-class minds. But this American has brought up into the nineteenth century the scenes and facts of another day and an older world. In him we have seen a practical exemplification of literary life in the Elizabethan Age — the era of those great dramatists, the Titans of the English tongue, who passed their lives between the theatre and the garret, the squalid cellar and the expensive tavern, between mad revelry and the most hideous want and starvation.

“Brave Marlowe, bathed in Thespian springs,”

Who

“Had in him those bright translunary things

That the first poets had,”

was stabbed with his own dagger in a drunken brawl; and Edgar Allan Poe, who re-organized the Universe, and subverted the theory of a world’s belief and a world’s science, the true head of American literature — it is the verdict of other nations and after times that we speak here — died of drink, friendless and alone, in the common wards of a Baltimore Hospital. “He has but passed the portals of his glory;” some enthusiast will answer, “and the wondrous hall is “[[sic]] proportioned by the grimness of its warder, the “[[sic]] gleams of immortality are but equalized by the “[[sic]] dark shadows that envelope them. His good is “[[sic]] to come. The grief is gone away, and the glory “[[sic]] now begun.” Such is the answer which nature, wisely and benevolently for the race, prompts to every genius and to every great nature. It is well. Did such recollect that fame, and that glory, are but the echo of a long lost name, the shadow of an arrant naught, the flower that blossoms when light there is no longer to see it, a rose stuck in a dead man’s breast, a dream, a joke scrawled on an epitaph, a word of praise or blame — the chance equal; a grin at death’s own laugh, the quicksilver drop we may see, but touch never, — did we recollect these undeniable and oft repeated aphorisms, the world would be the loser of much that might profit the race, and of many a name as valuable to it as rich jewels to a woman.

We pass to the writings of Mr. Poe, the portion of our subject we are much more willing to contemplate. About them there is no doubt. — The true gold rings in that coin. Many things that he has written are children of hunger and [column 6:] haste; much more is marked with the flatness which makes up the nine days in ten of a dissipated life. If his multifarious outpourings were collected, they would appear unequal and uneven, gothic and grotesque; but of great weight as a whole, and of inestimable value in its parts. Then, it is new. This is not old wine in new bottles, this is no new broadcloth from old cassinet, no bread pudding of yesterday’s scraps. It is seldom that one hears any new music. Each village music master picks a favorite movement from Mozart or Rossini, and dishes it up in the mild and water of his own “variations.” Rarely do we hear a new theme. But this author’s theme, movement, all are new — in his prose at least. — Those notes have not been struck before. That is the true cause why his place as an author was not and has not yet been awarded him by the people. When a new musical composition is for the first time listened to by the unpractised ear, it seems a strange jumble. But when frequently heard, its design by degrees dawns upon the mind of the hearer, its harmonious coloring becomes visible, its glorious fancies come slowly out like stars. It is just thus with an entirety new composition in literature. When the world’s ear becomes sufficiently accustomed to the strain, it will perceive that it si good as well as new, it gives the author to whom it was indifferent in the days of its ignorance, and estimation proportioned to that indifference. It then ranks him in comparison with the mere men of talent, who were admired at the first, just as we rank the demiurgos the creator of a Venus or a Greek slave with the mechanic who cut the marble into shape; as we rank the producer with the manufacturer, the navigator with the bold discoverer, the honored and flattered Americus Vespucci with the Columbus brought home in chains. While the people of this day run after such authors as Prescott and Willis, speak with reverence of Channings and Adamses and Irvings, their children in referring back to our time in literary history, will say, “this was the time of Poe.”

The writings of this author — that is to say, the good things among them — are distinguished, not only by their great merits in material, but by a finish in style, beyond what we perceive in any other American writer. They are marked not merely by that clear perfection of arrangement which comes naturally with the best thoughts and hours of a first rate mind; but contain also charms procured from a great mastery in the art of writing, surpassing those of our other writers. Mr. Poe was an exceedingly learned man. In spite of his irregular life, he managed to master both literature and science to an extent reaching far beyond any American we have known. He had, without a doubt, gotten possession of many critical tools and springs not commonly in use. At one time in his life — we are unable to fix the period — Mr. Poe is said to have lived in London. How he got the means, and how he lived while there, no one knows. Little could be got out of him, save that he saw nothing of the great world in any sense of the word. He had been heard to mention Hunt and Hook as two of those whom he knew there; and it is supposed that he lived very much with that class of men — the men like himself, possessed of genius but down in the world, dragging out a precarious existence in garrets, doing drudg [[drudge]] work, writing for the great presses and for the reviews whose world wide celebrity has been the fruit of such men’s work. From these he is thought by some to have learned much relative to the literary profession, comparatively unknown in this new country. Here too he may have gained acquaintance with many fields of learning, which are terra incognita in American students, for wants of the books and machinery to explore them. But be this as it may, it is certain that in his compositions may be observed things that are far in advance of the professions on this side of the water.

As a critic we prefer what remains of Edgar Poe to any thing after Hazlitt. The reader must not judge him by the reviews he has been publishing in the magazines and other periodicals for the last year or two; or by that stuff he has been putting forth under the heading of “marginalia.” All that is poor enough. But while he conducted the Southern Literary Messenger, he poured forth quantities of critical writing that was really “great.” It was this writing which established the Messenger and gave it all the celebrity it ever had. Newspapers of the day denounced it hugely; so did all the small authors about New York and Philadelphia; and all the ninimee pinimnee people every where joined in the cry. The burden of that cry was “wholesale denunciation,” “abuse,” &c., &c. He did lay on with the most merciless severity, crucifying many. But he did not condemn one whit too much. The objectors should recollect this great truth: As there are great many more bad than good people in this world, just so are there many more bad than good in the world. We go not too far — no, not half far enough — in saying that for every one good book there are one hundred volumes which are utterly worthless. This is a fact. From the imperfection of human things it is so. The reviewer who pretends to treat the literature of his age with justice, must needs condemn a hundred times as much he praises. The contrary is the course of American reviewing at present. — The press deluges every thing with insipid eau sucree. Mr. Poe dealt out nothing but justice to the dunces. He flayed them alive. He was like some savage boar, broken into a hot-house of pale exotics, and laid about him with white foaming tusks, uprooting all. His writing then attracted universal attention. But it made him an immense number of enemies among literary men. This was a cause why his merit was never acknowledged, even by his own profession in this country. He was not recognized by the popular mind, because it did not comprehend him. He was not recognized by the writers, because they hated him of old.

As a poet, Mr. Poe has left very little that is good; but that little is super-eminently good. — Most of his collected pieces were written early in youth. They are not above the usual of newspapers. He retained them along with the Raven, Lenore, and his two or three other jewels, only because of the attachment of early association. Just before his death, he wrote some things worthy of the Raven and of Ullulume [[Ulalume]]. — The chief of these is a poem headed “Bells,” which is just out in Sartain’s Magazine. The design of the verse is to imitate the sound of bells; and it is executed with a beauty, melody, and fidelity, which is unsurpassed among compositions of its nature. Southley’s famous account of “How the waters come down at Lodore,” is not for a moment comparable to it — either in the perfection of imitation, or poetical imagery. No man ever owned the English language more completely than Edgar Poe. In all its winding bouts, in all its delicate shades and powerful tones, from the most voluptuous sensualities of Moore, and from the oddest combinations of Charles Dickens’s lingo, up to the full organ notes of Milton, he was master of it. His poems contain evidence that anything that could be done with English he could do. The following lines are well known in literary history as an example of [column 7:] the convertibility of the French language:

“Quand une cordier, cordant, veut cortier une corde

Pour sa corde, trois cordona il accorde;

Mais si des cordone de la corde descorde

La corde descordant fait descorder la corde.”

Dr. Wallis, [the mathematician, — the universal-language man] translated these lines so literally as to take away the Frenchman’s triumph and boast over the superior controvertibility of his tongue: —

“When a twister a-twisting will twist him a twist,

For the twisting his twist he three times doth entwist.”

But if one of the twists of the twist doth untwist,

The twine that untwisteth untwisteth the twist.”

Among the writings of Poe may be found many examples of the convertibility of the English language superior to either of them. These Bell-ringing verses are eminently such. We do not quote them here because they are too long. We have already published — with his own corrections — the Raven, which is a beautiful specimen of the more solemn and elevated music of his verse. We wish to give a sample of his still more delicate style — the epicureanism of language which was an art of his own. “Ullulume [[Ulalume]],” and copy of “Annabel Lee” — the last thing that he ever wrote, are samples of this; but they have been too much in the newspapers of late. We therefore choose and will publish in our next one from his collected poems, which we do not think has been properly appreciated. It is a fanciful picture of dreams — and the broken fantastic image which cross the mind’s eye — when the senses and judgment are enveloped in sleep.

As a tale writer, the name of Edgar Poe is best known. The collection published by Wiley and Putnam has been exceedingly popular. But it is not the things which are most remarkable and peculiar to the author, not its real wonders, that have attracted attention to that volume. It is not the Maelstroom [[Maelstrom]], the House of Usher, or Eros and Charmion, that are best known in it, but the Gold Bug, La Rue Morgue [[The Murders in the Rue Morgue]], and the Purloined Letter. The extraordinary specimens of analysis in these have caused the book’s sale. The collection was made up by a gentleman of a decided analytic turn. He selected those among Poe’s pieces which contained most exhibitions of his analytic power. This, although not the most peculiar and most original of Mr. Poe’s powers, was one of the most remarkable. He possessed a capacity for creating trains of thought astonishingly, painfully acute. A memorable example of it is to be found in the volume referred to, [121-124,] where the method by which the mind can pursue the association of ideas, is exhibited with wonderful metaphysical accuracy and clearness. Mr. Poe, however, did not think half so much of this collection as he did of his “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque;” but here we cannot side with him — we agree to the popular verdict. A criticism their author once made to us upon the German Fantastic Literature of which Hoffman was Corypheus, may justly be applied to them — “the gold in that hard ore is not worth the digging for it.” They are too goblin-like, too entirely unnatural, to be relished by anybody but their author. The great defect of Poe, as an author, was his want of sympathy, and indeed of likeness, to the human kind. He could not paint men well because he did not understand them; and he did not understand them because he was not at all like them. All his efforts were marked with that galvanic and unnatural character which marks the movements of Shelly’s [[Shelley’s]] mind.

He was certainly incapable of producing a novel presenting human life and character in any of its ordinary phases; but his chief fictitious work, the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. has been unjustly disparaged and neglected. That narrative is a history of some sailors who were becalmed on a wreck in the South Pacific until they were obliged to eat one another. Among those terrible scenes and in strange descriptions of undiscovered islands and unknown savages, the temper and genius of this author revel undisturbed. The execution of the work is exceedingly plain and careless — perhaps it is purposely so, as it purports to be the log book of a common sailor. But the concluding pages we take to be one of the most remarkable and characteristic passages in all his writings.

We have now glanced at all the publications of this man save his last and greatest — EUREKA. This article has run already to an unconscionable length, and we dare not extend it with a notice of Eureka now. We make our humble apology to the reader and promise to do so no more. At some future day when we again behold a dearth of revolutions, and when the cabinet has done nothing particularly abominable, and hen no election is on the horizon, we may find time to tell him what sort of thing that book with a strange name is.

 


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Notes:

This article, along with the earlier obituary, were reformulated as an article for the Southern Literary Messenger (March 1850).

 

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[S:0 - RSWE, 1849] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Characteristics of Edgar A. Poe (J. M. Daniel, 1849)