Text: John Moncure Daniel, “Edgar Allan Poe,” Southern Literary Messenger, vol. XVI, no. 3, March 1850, pp. 172-187


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[page 172, column 2:]

EDGAR ALLAN POE.

The works of the late Edgar Allan Poe, with notices of his life and genius. By N. P. Willis, J. R. Lowell and R. W. Griswold. In two volumes. New York: J. S. Redfield, Clinton Hall, 1850. 12mo. pp. 483, 495.

Here we have at last the result of the long experiment; the residium in the retort; the chrystals in the crucible; the ashes of the furnace; the attainment of fiery trial and of analysis the most acute. How much bitter misery went to write these pages; — what passion, what power of mind and heart were needed to strike these impressions — the only footprints on the sands of time of a vitality in which the lives of ten ordinary men were more than condensed — will never be known save to those who knew in person the man they embody.

These half told tales and broken poems are the only records of a wild, hard life; and all that is left of a real genius, — genius in the true sense of the word, unmistakeable and original. No other American has half the chance of a remembrance in the history of literature. Edgar Poe’s reputation will rest in a very small minority of the compositions in these two volumes. Among all his poems, there are only two or three which are not execrably bad. The majority of his prose writings are the children of want and dyspepsia, of printer’s devils and of blue devils. Had he the power of applying his creative faculties — as have had the Miltons, the Shakspeares and all the other demiurgi — he would have been a very great man. But there is not one trace of that power in these volumes; and his career and productions rather resemble those of the Marlowes, the Jonsons, the Dekkers, and the Websters, the old dramatists and translunary rowdies of the Elizabethan age, than the consistent lives and undying utterances of those who claim the like noble will and the shaping imagination. Had Mr. Poe possessed mere talent, even with his unfortunate moral constitution, he might have been a popular and money-making author. He would have written a great many more good things than he has left here; but his title to immortality would not and could not have been surer than it is. For the few things that this author has written which are at all tolerable, are coins stamped with the indubitable die. They are of themselves, — sui generis, — unlike any diagrams in Time’s Kalaidescope, — and gleam with the diamond hues of eternity.

But before passing to a consideration of the amber, convention and circumstance require an examination of the dirty little fleas and flies who have managed to embalm themselves therein. The works of Edgar Allan Poe are introduced to the [page 173:] world by no less than three accredited worldlings — or as the public would have us say no less than three celestial steeds of the recognized Pegasean pedigree are harnessed to drag the caput mortuum of the unfortunate Poe into the light of public favour. Mr. Rufus Griswold had seen the poor ‘fellow.’ Mr. N. P. Willis had also seen and pitied the man; had gone so far as to give him the post of sub-critic to himself — N. P. Willis, Esq. — in one of his newspapers; Mr. James Russell Lowell had found his sable sympathies sufficiently extensive to take in the distressed master of the Raven, in spite of his colour and birth-place; — he could spare enough affection from Brother Frederick Douglass and Brother William Brown to make a Brother Poe out of him too. The three felt quite pitifully sentimental at his dog’s death; and with the utmost condescension they hearkened to the clink of the publisher’s silver, and agreed to erect a monument to the deceased genius, in the shape of Memoir and Essay preliminary to his works. Their kindness and their generosity has been published to the world in every newspaper. The bookseller’s advertisement, that all persons possessing letters and correspondence of Poe should send them straightway to him, has gone with the news. The publication of the works of Poe were kept back from the public for a long time, that they might be brought out in a blaze of glory by this mighty triumvirate of patrons. Troy was not built; composition like theirs is not finished in a day. Here it is at last — and duty compels us to say, that this is the rawest, the baldest, the most offensive, and the most pudent [[sic]] humbug that has been ever palmed upon an unsuspecting moon-calf of a world. These three men have managed to spin into their nineteen pages and a half of barren type more to call forth the indignation of all right feeling and seeing people than we have ever seen before in so little space; and they have practised in the publication as complete a swindle on the purchaser as ever sent a knave to the State prison. Mr. Rufus Griswold we know to be the dispenser of literary fame — the great Apollo of our literary heavens. Through the successive editions of those big little books, the “Prose and Prose Writings of America,” and the “Poets and Poetry” of the same, he lifts either the head of the miserable American to the stars, or sinks him into the ignominious chills and shadows of Hades. Why his name goes forth to the world on the title page of these volumes we are totally unable to say; — for not one word of his do they contain. We are forced to believe that he is stuck into the frontispiece for the purpose of giving respectability to the author whose writings follow. As Smollet, Voltaire, Johnson and other names celebrated on the doorposts of booksellers, were wont, for so much a [column 2:] volume, to grant the privilege of their names to miserable translations, and to compiled memoirs still more miserable — so doth the eminent Griswold give his imprimatur to the amaranthine verse and to the fadeless prose of Edgar Poe! The Life, &c., with the details of Poe’s adventures in Russia, his letters, and his personal history, which were repeatedly promised through the press, and for which those already owning nearly all of Poe’s writings have been induced to purchase this new edition — is no where. In the place thereof, we have a counterfeit shin-plaster, ragged, dirty, ancient and worn, which Mr. James Russell Lowell had palmed upon the publisher of a Magazine very many years ago. Mr. James Russell Lowell belongs to a minute species of literary insect, which is plentifully produced by the soil and climate of Boston. He has published certain “Poems;” they are copies of Keats, and Tennyson, and Wordsworth; and baser or worse done imitations the imitative tribe have never bleated forth. He has also written some very absurd prose — a volume entitled “Conversations on the Old Dramatists,” &c. Into this he has managed, together with a great deal of false sentiment and false criticism, to stow a a [[sic]] large amount of transcendentalism, socialism, and abolition. For Mr. Lowell is one of that literary set, which has grown up in the Northern States of this Union, who find no delight in the science and the philosophy of this earth save when it is wrong and wicked — save when it sets common sense and common humanity at defiance. If there is anything that ought not to be believed, these people go and believe it for that very reason. But the book and its teachings are alike forgotten and unknown. With the name of Mr. James Russell Lowell the public is better acquainted from its frequent appearance in the proceedings of abolitionist meetings in Boston, cheek by jowl with the signatures of free negroes and runaway slaves. His seven pages in this present compilation contain none of his great political principles, but they contain not one single fact of Poe’s history accurately stated. They furnish a very happy exemplification of the style in which his “Conversations” are written — which is that of a broken merchant’s ledger, all figures signifying nothing save the number and variety of his pickings and stealings.

Six pages by the man milliner of our literarature [[literature]], Mr. N. P. Willis, constitutes in reality the only original writing in the be-heralded “Notices of Edgar A. Poe by Rufus Griswold, James Russell Lowell, and N. P. Willis,” — and of these six, three are taken up with extracts from the New York Tribune. The rest are occupied rather with N. P. Willis than with Edgar Allan Poe. It is here explained how all Poe’s celebrity came [page 174:] from the good-natured patronage of N. P. Willis — and how N. P. Willis rescued the “Raven” from oblivion and spread its wings to all the world by consenting to its insertion in his Home Journal, — the weekly newspaper of mantua-maker’s girls, and of tailor’s boys. Such is the tone and air of the entire editorial work of this publication. These three horny-eyed dunces come before the world as the patrons and literary vouchers of the greatest genius of the day. But with all their parade, as we before mentioned, these editors make no pretence [[pretense]] of informing the reader in relation to the facts of Mr. Poe’s Life. So far as we are able it shall be our endeavour to supply the deficiency. The sketch which follows is a compilation of the facts contained in the New York Tribune’s obituary of Poe; in Griswold’s Prose Writers; one or two others which we pick from Mr. Willis’s three pages; and several furnished by our own recollections of and conversations with the subject of discourse.

His family was a very respectable one in Baltimore. His grandfather was a Quartermaster-General in the Revolution, and the esteemed friend of Lafayette. During the last visit of that personage to this country, he called upon the widow to tender her his acknowledgments for services rendered him by her husband. His great-grandfather married a daughter of the celebrated British Admiral McBride. Through him they are related to many of the most illustrious families in England. Edgar Poe’s father was reputably brought up and educated. Becoming enamored with a beautiful young actress, he made up a runaway match with her, and was disowned by his friends therefor. He then went upon the stage himself. But neither he or his wife possessed mimetic genius, and they lived precariously. They came to Richmond in pursuit of their profession. She was somewhat of a favorite on our boards — but more on account of her beauty than her acting. They both died in Richmond — both of consumption, and within a few weeks of each other, and left here without a friend or home their gifted but most miserable and unfortunate son. Mr. John Allan, a wealthy and kind hearted merchant of this place, having no children of his own, taking a natural fancy to the handsome, clever child, adopted him as son and heir. He was consequently brought up amidst luxury, and received the advantages of education to their fullest extent. In 1816 he accompanied his adopted parents in a tour through England, Scotland and Ireland. They returned to this country, leaving him at Dr. Brandsby’s [[Bransby’s]] High School, Stoke Newington, near London, where he continued five years.

Those accustomed to self-consciousness and mental analysis, will know that nearly all the [column 2:] images of memory and passion are gathered in the years when the child approaches the youth. It is then that the idiosyncracy receives its peculiar tinge, genius its individuality, and expression its ground-colors. Those of Poe differ remarkably from all other of American Literature. One would scarcely deem him American at all — and yet he is not English. The circumstances under which these five years were past, throw light upon many of his peculiarities. In one of his very best but least noted tales, he gives a singular account of his life at this school of Stoke Newington. We allude to the sketch entitled “William Wilson.” Nearly all of Poe’s tales are biographical — all the best are. The characters and the incidents are but the drapery of some memory of himself. The tale in question is peculiarly so. We have been often told by himself, that the following picture of Dr. Bransby’s school is accurate to the letter.

“My earliest recollections of a school life, are connected with a large, rambling, Elizabethan house, in a misty-looking village of England, where were a vast number of gigantic and gnarled trees, and where all the houses were excessively ancient. In truth, it was a dream-like and spirit-soothing place, that venerable old town. At this moment, in fancy, I feel the refreshing chilliness of its deeply-shadowed avenues, inhale the fragrance of its thousand shrubberies, and thrill anew with undefinable delight, at the deep hollow note of the church-bell, breaking, each hour, with sullen and sudden roar, upon the stillness of the dusky atmosphere in which the fretted Gothic steeple lay embedded and asleep.

It gives me, perhaps, as much of pleasure as I can now in any manner experience, to dwell upon minute recollections of the school and its concerns. Steeped in misery as I am — misery, alas! only too real — I shall be pardoned for seeking relief, however slight and temporary, in the weakness of a few rambling details. These, moreover, utterly trivial, and even ridiculous in themselves, assume, to my fancy, adventitious importance, as connected with a period and a locality when and where I recognise the first ambiguous monitions of the destiny which afterwards so fully over-shadowed me. Let me then remember.

The house, I have said, was old and irregular. The grounds were extensive, and a high and solid brick wall, topped with a bed of mortar and broken glass, encompassed the whole. This prison-like rampart formed the limit of our domain; beyond it we saw but thrice a week — once every Saturday afternoon, when, attended by two ushers, we were permitted to take brief walks in a body through some of the neighboring fields — and twice during Sunday, when we were paraded in the same formal manner to the morning and evening service in the one church of the village. Of this church the principal of our school was pastor. With how deep a spirit of wonder and perplexity was I wont to regard him from our remote [page 175:] pew in the gallery, as, with step solemn and slow, he ascended the pulpit! This reverend man, with countenance so demurely benign, with robes so glossy and so clerically flowing, with wig so minutely powdered, so rigid and so vast, — could this be he who, of late, with sour visage, and in snuffy habiliments, administered, ferule in hand, the Draconian Laws of the academy? Oh, gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution!

At an angle of the ponderous wall frowned a more ponderous gate. It was riveted and studded with iron bolts, and surmounted with jagged iron spikes. What impressions of deep awe did it inspire! It was never opened save for the three periodical egressions and ingressions already mentioned; then, in every creak of its mighty binges, we found a plenitude of mystery — a world of matter for solemn remark, or for more solemn meditation.

The extensive enclosure was irregular in form, having many capacious recesses. Of these, three or four of the largest constituted the play-ground. It was level, and covered with fine hard gravel. I well remember it had no trees, nor benches, nor anything similar within it. Of course it was in the rear of the house. In front lay a small parterre, planted with box and other shrubs; but through this sacred division we passed only upon rare occasions indeed — such as a first advent to school or final departure thence, or perhaps, when a parent or friend having called for us, we joyfully took our way home for the Christmas or Midsummer holydays.

But the house! — how quaint an old building was this! — to me how veritably a palace of enchantment! There was really no end to its windings — to its incomprehensible subdivisions. It was difficult at any given time, to say with certainty upon which of its two stories one happened to be. From each room to every other there were sure to be found three or four steps either in ascent or descent. Then the lateral branches were innumerable — inconceivable — and so returning in upon themselves, that our most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which we pondered upon inanity. During the five years of my residence here, I was never able to ascertain with precision, in what remote locality lay the little sleeping apartment assigned to myself and some eighteen or twenty other scholars.

The school room was the largest in the house — I could not help thinking, in the world. It was very long, narrow, and dismally low, with pointed Gothic windows and a ceiling of oak. In a remote and terror-inspiring angle was a square enclosure of eight or ten feet, comprising the sanctum, “during hours,” of our principal, the Reverend Dr. Bransby. It was a solid structure, with massy door, sooner than open which in the absence of the “Dominie,” we would all have willingly perished by the peine forte et dure. In other angles were two other similar boxes, far less reverenced, indeed, but still greatly matters of awe. One of these was the pulpit of the “classical” usher, one of the “English and mathematical.” Interspersed about the room, crossing and recrossing in endless irregularity, were [column 2:] innumerable benches and desks, black, ancient, and time-worn, piled desperately with much-bethumbed books, and so beseamed with initial letters, names at full length, grotesque figures, and other multiplied efforts of the knife, as to have entirely lost what little of original form might have been their portion in days long departed. A huge bucket with water stood at one extremity of the room, and a clock of stupendous dimensions at the other.

Encompassed by the massy walls of this venerable academy, I passed yet not in tedium or disgust, the years of the third lustrum of my life. The teeming brain of childhood requires no external world of incident to occupy or amuse it; and the apparently dismal monotony of a school was replete with more intense excitement than my riper youth has derived from luxury, or my full manhood from crime. Yet I must believe that my first mental development had in it much of the uncommon — even much of the outre. Upon mankind at large the events of very early existence rarely leave in mature age any definite impression. All is gray shadow — a weak and irregular remembrance — an indistinct regathering of feeble pleasures and phantasmagoric pains. With me this is not so. In childhood I must have felt with the energy of a man what I now find stamped upon memory in lines as vivid, as deep, and as durable as the exergues of the Carthaginian medals.

Yet in fact — in the fact of the world’s view — how little was there to remember. The morning’s awakening, the nightly summons to bed; the connings, the recitations; the periodical half-holydays and perambulations; the play-ground, with its broils, its pastimes, its intrigues; these, by a mental sorcery long forgotten, were made to involve a wilderness of sensation, a world of rich incident, an universe of varied emotion, of excitement the most passionate and spirit-stirring. ‘Oh, le bon temps, que ce siecle de fer!’ ”

Edgar Poe returned from Dr. Bransby’s school to Richmond, in 1822, and continued his studies, under the best masters which the city afforded, for two or three years more. He was at this period remarkable for his general cleverness, his feats of activity, his wayward temper, extreme personal beauty, his musical recitations of verse, and power of extemporaneous tale-telling. In 1825 he went to the University of Virginia. The University was then a most dissolute place, and Mr. Edgar A. Poe was remarked as the most dissolute and dissipated youth in the University. He was already a great classical scholar, and he made huge strides in mathematics, botany, and other branches of natural science. But at the same time he drank, gambled, and indulged in other vices until he was expelled from the place. On Mr. Allan’s refusal to pay some of his gambling debts, he broke with him and went off at a tangent to the Greeks — those being the times of Bozzaris and the Greek Revolution. When he reached St. Petersburg, however, he [page 176:] found both money and enthusiasm exhausted, and he got into a quarrel with the Russian authorities — whether about liberty or lucre is not known. At any rate he found himself nearly adding some knowledge of the knout and Siberia to his already extensive knowledge of men and manners, and was glad enough to accept the intervention of the American consul, Henry Middleton, and his aid to get home. In 1829, he entered the Military Academy at West Point. In the meantime Mr. Allan bad lost his first wife, and married a lady, his junior by a very great number of years — he being sixty-five. Mr. Poe is said to have behaved uncivilly to the lady and to have ridiculed the match. The old gentleman wrote him an angry letter, and Mr. Poe answered it with a very bitter one. The breach was never healed. Mr. Allan died a short time afterwards, and left Poe nothing.

That is his account of the matter. The story of the other side is different; and if true throws a dark shade upon the quarrel and a very ugly light upon Poe’s character. We shall not insert it, because it is one of those relations which we think with Sir Thomas Brown, should never be recorded, — being “verities whose truth we fear and heartily wish there were no truth therein. * * * * Whose relations honest minds do deprecate. For of sins heteroclital, and such as want name or precedent, there is oft-times a sin even in their history. We desire no record of enormities: sins should be accounted new. They omit of their monstrosity as they fall from their rarity; for men count it venial to err with their forefathers, and foolishly conceive they divide a sin in its society. * * * In things of this nature silence commendeth history: ’tis the veniable part of things lost; wherein there must never arise a Pancirollus, nor remain any register but that of hell.”

Mr. Poe left West Point without graduating, and commenced his disastrous battle of life. In 1831, he printed a small volume of poems, which constituted his first brochure. They were favorably received by the reviewers, and well spoken of by their few readers. But they did not sell — at which we have never wondered. They contain but one good thing — the verses “To Helen.” Of this piece Mr. James Russell Lowell affectedly says, “There is a smack of ambrosia about it” — and in truth its graceful simplicity will compare with the best things in the Greek Anthology.

Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gently, o‘er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

To his own native shore. [column 2:]

 

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!

He wrote for newspapers, compiled and translated for booksellers, made up brilliant articles for reviews, and spun tales for magazines. But although publishers willingly put them forth, they paid the young man so little, that in poverty and despair he got abundantly near enough to death’s door to “hear the hinges creak.” At last a newspaper in Baltimore offered two premiums — for the best poem and the best prose tale. A committee of distinguished literateurs — John P. Kennedy at their head — was appointed to judge the productions. Of course they did not read them — the sanction of their names being all that was wanted by the publisher. But while chatting over the wine at the meeting, one of them was attracted by a bundle among the papers written in the most exquisitely beautiful caligraphy [calligraphy]] ever seen. — To the end of his life Poe wrote this surpassingly perfect hand. Mr. Kennedy read a page solely on that account; and being impressed with the power of the style, he proceeded to read aloud. The committee voted the premium by acclamation “to the first of geniuses that has written a legible hand.” The confidential envelope being broken, within it was found the then unknown name of Poe.

The publisher gave Mr. Kennedy an account of the author, which induced him to see Mr. Poe. He describes him at that day as a young man thin as a skeleton from evident starvation, dressed in a seedy frock coat, buttoned up to his chin to conceal the want of a shirt, with tattered trousers, and a pair of torn old boots, beneath which were evidently neither drawers nor socks. But his manners were those of a gentleman, and his eyes full of intelligence. Kennedy spoke in a friendly manner to him, and he opened his heart — told him all his story, his ambition and his great designs. Kennedy took him to a clothing store, gave him a good suit, and introduced him into society.

These were the days in which Thomas W. White was building up the Messenger. He got Mr. Poe to edit it, giving him $500 per annum. On this income he immediately married himself to a girl without a cent. It is said that he was generally intemperate even them, but he certainly found time to write many great articles and [page 177:] brilliant criticisms for the Messenger. It was Poe who first gave the periodical its standing.

After conducting the Messenger a year and a half, he removed to Philadelphia, and edited the Gentleman’s Magazine. This periodical was finally merged in Graham’s Magazine. For this last he always continued to write, and to be well paid therefor. In 1840, he published his “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.” in 1844, we find him in New York editing the “Broadway Journal.” In 1845, the well-known volumes of his collected tales and poems by Wiley & Putnam made their appearance. He continued to issue many things — which we shall notice more fully hereafter, until 1847. We then hear of his wife dying in a state of great destitution at a place called Fordham near New York. A subscription was gotten up to relieve him by the litterateurs of New York, and the requisite amount was easily raised. We next hear of him through the newspapers as again at death’s door — but this time with delirium tremens. A bitter note through the same vehicles of intelligence in answer to the various inquiries made about him, announced his contempt for all who professed themselves his friends, and his general disgust with the world. But he seems to have suffered nothing farther from destitution, his literary labors bringing him enough. For the last two years he has been seen now and then about Richmond, generally in a state of intoxication very unbecoming to a man of genius. But during his last visit of nearly two months’ duration, he was perfectly himself, neatly dressed, and exceedingly agreeable in his deportment. He delivered two lectures, during this visit to Richmond, which were worthy of his genius in its best moods.

These lectures are not to be found in this edition of his works, and have never been published. They were delivered in the Exchange Concert Room, and their subject was the “Poetic Principle.” He treated this congenial theme with even more acuteness and discrimination than we had expected. His chief object was the refutation of what he very properly denominated the “poetical heresy of modern times,” to wit: that poetry should have a purpose, an end to accomplish beyond that of ministering to our sense of the beautiful. We have in these days poets of humanity and poets of universal suffrage, poets whose mission it is to break down corn-laws and poets to build up workhouses. The idea infects half the criticism and all the poetry of this utilitarian country. But no idea can be more false. As we have elementary faculties in our minds, whose end is to reason, others to perceive colors and forms, and others to construct; and as logic, painting and mechanics are the products of those faculties and are adapted only to them; as we [column 2:] have nerves to be pleased with perfumes; others with gay colors, and others with the contact of soft bodies; — so have we an elementary faculty for perceiving beauty, with an end of its own and means of its own. Poetry is the product of this faculty and of no other; and it is addressed to the sense of the beautiful and to no other sense. It is ever injured when subjected to the criterion of other faculties, and was never intended to fulfil any other objects than those peculiar to the organ of the mind from which it received its birth. Mr. Poe made good this distinction with a great deal of acuteness and in a very clear manner. He illustrated his general subject by various pieces of criticism upon the popular poets of this country, and by many long recitations of English verse. The critiques were for the most part just and were all entertaining. But we were disappointed in his recitations. His voice was soft and distinct, but neither clear nor sonorous. He did not make rhyme effective; he read all verse like blank verse; yet he gave it a sing-song of his own, more monotonous than the most marked cadence of versification. On the two last syllables of every sentence he fell invariably the fifth of an octave. He did not make his own “Raven” an effective piece of reading. At this we would not be surprised were any other than the author its reader. The chief charm perhaps of that extraordinary composition is the strange and subtle music of the versification. As in Mr. Longfellow’s rhythm, we can hear it with our mind’s ear while we read it to ourselves, but no human organs are sufficiently delicate to weave it into articulate sounds. For this reason we are not surprised at ordinary failures in reading the piece. But we had anticipated some peculiar charm in its utterance by the lips of him who had created the verse, and in this case we were disappointed.

A large audience, we recollect, attended these lectures. Those who had not seen Edgar Poe since the days of his obscurity, came in crowds to behold their townsman then so famous. The treatment which he received thereafter seems to have pleased him much; — and he became anxious to make Richmond his permanent home. He joined the “Sons of Temperance,” and it was universally reported that he was soon to be married in the city. The lady was a widow, possessed of wealth and beauty, and was an old flame, whom he declared to be the ideal and original of his Lenore. When we last saw him, he was just starting for New York, to publish a new collection of his tales. He had another errand. Some rich woman, named Mrs. St. Leon Loud, had written verses. Her husband wanted Poe to prepare them for the press, make a memoir, &c. he knew nothing about them [page 178:] save their good price, and he was going on for the job. Death cut him short at Baltimore.

Of the circumstances of that death it is painful to speak. Mr. Poe was indisposed when he left Richmond — complained of chilliness and exhaustion. Still feeling badly when he reached Baltimore, he took a small quantity of spirits for relief. It was the first that had passed his lips for some months; but it was sufficient to rouse the passion which ruled him to his ruin. A day of wild debauchery brought on a fit of his old familiar, the delirium-tremens; and he was taken out of a gutter by the watchmen next morning in a state of stupor. Having no home, no friends, and no money, they conveyed him to the common hospital; and in its wards died the author of the Raven and of Eureka.

It was the identical Hospital in which John Loffland, the “Milford Bard,” died the year before 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 for charity, 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.

“Bravo 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 [column 2:] but passed the portals of his glory;” some enthusiast will answer, “and the wondrous hall is proportioned by the grimness of its warder, the gleams of immortality are but equalized by the dark shadows that envelope them. His good is to come. The grief is gone away, and the glory 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.

He left no near relative or connexion save a sister, who resides in Richmond. His wife, as already mentioned, died sometime before him, and they had no children. She was a Miss Clemm, a cousin in some degree to her husband. We hope for the honor of man, and we believe from all the rumors that we have heard, that his treatment of this wife was kind throughout. Certain it is that her mother was deeply attached to Poe, stuck by him through all his miseries, and passionately regretted his untimely fate. The connection between them did not cease with the decease of the daughter; and her affection for him is the best thing that we know of Edgar Poe. He who inspired such attachment, could not be wholly lost himself. The sole redeeming trait in the editorial department of these newly published volumes, is the passage in Mr. Willis’s three pages which details it:

“Our first knowledge of Mr. Poe’s removal to this city, was by a call which we received from a lady who introduced herself to us as the mother of his wife. She was in search of employment for him, and she excused her errand by mentioning that he was ill, that her daughter was a confirmed invalid, and that their circumstances were such as compelled her taking it upon herself. The countenance of this lady, made beautiful and saintly with an evidently complete giving up of her life to privation and sorrowful tenderness, her gentle and mournful voice urging its plea, her long-forgotten but habitually and unconsciously refined manners, and her appealing and yet appreciative mention of the claims and abilities of her son, disclosed at once the presence of one of those angels upon earth that women in adversity can be. It was a hard fate that she was watching over. Mr. Poe wrote with fastidious difficulty, and in a style too much above the popular level to be well paid. He was always in pecuniary [page 179:] difficulty, and, with his sick wife, frequently in want of the merest necessaries of life. Winter after winter, for years, the most touching sight to us, in this whole city, has been that tireless minister to genius, thinly and insufficiently clad, going from office to office with a poem, or an article on some literary subject, to sell — sometimes simply pleading in a broken voice that he was ill, and begging for him — mentioning nothing but that ‘he was ill,’ whatever might be the reason for his writing nothing — and never, amid all her tears and recitals of distress, suffering one syllable to escape her lips that could convey a doubt of him, or a complaint, or a lessening of pride in his genius and good intentions. Her daughter died, a year and a half since, but she did not desert him. She continued his ministering angel — living with him — caring for him — guarding him against exposure, and, when he was carried away by temptation, amid grief and the loneliness of feelings unreplied to, and awoke from his self-abandonment prostrated in destitution and suffering, begging for him still. If woman’s devotion, born with a first love, and fed with human passion, hallow its object, as it is allowed to do, what does not a devotion like this — pure, disinterested and holy as the watch of an invisible spirit — say for him who inspired it!

We have a letter before us, written by this lady, Mrs. Clemm, on the morning in which she heard of the death of this object of her untiring care. It is merely a request that we would call upon her. but we will copy a few of its words — sacred as its privacy is — to warrant the truth of the picture we have drawn above, and add force to the appeal we wish to make for her: —

“ ‘I have this morning heard of the death of my darling Eddie. . . . . . . . Can you give me any circumstances or particulars. . . . . . . Oh! do not desert your poor friend in this bitter affliction. . . . . . . Ask Mr. —— to come, as I must deliver a message to him from my poor Eddie. . . . I need not ask you to notice his death and to speak well of him. I know you will. But say what an affectionate son he was to me, his poor desolate mother.’ ” . . . . . .

It is now purposed to throw together certain detached fragments of information relative to Mr. Poe’s personal habits and history, some remarks on his genius and writings, and also to delineate, in some degree, the traits of his morale. Before sitting down to the task, the writer has reflected, with some perplexity, upon the proper one and colour to give it. Mr. Poe’s life contained many blemishes: — the foregoing narrative has fully informed the reader of that. These blemishes, we are compelled to say, were the retails of character rather than of circumstance; and in aught that pretends to be a picture of the man, some dark shades are indispensable. Yet it appears hard and unfeeling in the extreme to speak aught that is ill of the newly dead. De mortuis nil nisi bonum is the sentiment universal, in every rightly constituted mind and heart; and [column 2:] the writer is not an advocate for the stoical emendation of nil nisi verum. The considerations which have determined him to write this article without reserve, are a recollection of the long notoriety of the worst to all who possess the slightest knowledge of Mr. Poe either by personal intercourse or by report, — and the absolute necessity of mentioning them to give a distinct conception of this most brilliant and original individual. It is hoped, therefore, that no one will attribute the evil points of character brought forward in any part of this article to a carelessness of the memory of the dead, or to sinister sentiment towards his living connections.

In person Mr. Edgar Poe was rather 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. Countenance, person, gait, everything about him, when he was sober, 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 violet 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. The 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, the dome where beauty sat weaving her garlands. Yet the head, as a whole, was decidedly a bad one. When looked at in front, the bold and expressive frontal development 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 these two masses. Or to speak more succinctly, the basilar region possessed immense power, both intellectual and animal; the coronal region [page 180:] 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 a 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 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 any from which one gained so much. On literary subjects, books, authors, and literary life, it was as superior to all else that we have heard 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 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 or 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 thought 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 man we ever heard speak. 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 [column 2:] of that 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, beside 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 its laws — for there are penalties which attend violations of the laws of human society, (which are none other than the laws of nature) as necessarily as those attending violations 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 living at least tolerably well in the nineteenth century, — if they conducted themselves at all in accordance with the behests of society. As we shall presently show, true genius does not now receive its meed of fame from its generation nor ever will; but it can now 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 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 unfixed as the Bedouins. 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 alchohol [[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 of 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 perfecton [[perfection]]. 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.

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 haste; much more is marked with the flatness and inanity which makes up nine days in ten of a dissipated life. His multifarious outpourings, as collected in the mass before us, are unequal and uneven, gothic and grotesque; but of great weight as a whole and of inestimable value in parts.

This we are convinced is the opinion of every one who possesses sufficient originality of mental conformation, or of research into the powers of expression and the fields of imagination, to constitute him a judge of an author entirely new, and of fruit entirely distinct from all ordinary species. The writer is well aware that the multitude of well-educated readers, and the multitude also of gentlemen who “write with ease,” will set down his sentence as extravagant and untenable in the extreme. Edgar Poe has not yet reached his proper seat in the temple of fame — nor will for many a long year. These writings are too new and too great to be taken at once into the popular mind. The temporary success [column 2:] of TALENT and GENIUS, is the same alike in the achievements of reason and of imagination — though the vulgar error would confine the rule to the first. For the fact is well known and sufficiently admitted, melancholy though it be, that nearly all those who have blessed mankind with great discoveries have lived and died miserably. The men who have that degree of mind which we denominate talent, who make a good use of the store of knowledge already in the world, and who carry the discoveries which others have made, but a short distance forward, (not so far as to be out of sight of the age in which they live,) are treated with honor by the world. Such men the world can understand and estimate. But those who are cursed with that high and peculiar intellect, that strange thing called genius, that power of seizing on great truths — or images — or expressions, which lie beyond the ken of all but themselves — in short, the men who go ahead of their age — are invariably either treated with neglect and stupid scorn, by the mob of common-place respectabilities who compose the enlightened public — or they are stoned and trampled under foot. These men speak to us of things which they cannot comprehend — things which are to be seen only in THE FUTURE, that strange world which the curtain of time yet hides from our dull and horny eyes. Capt. Cooke says that when he came to Nootka Sound, the naked savages he found there split their sides with laughter at the sight of his ships with their great white sails, tall masts and innumerable ropes, because they were so different from their canoes of bark. So it is with the mass of mankind. We cannot understand the strange notions, the inconceivable ideas, told to us by the men who have leaped the bar which three centuries place between us and the world to come: therefore we “utter our barbarian cackle.” According to our temper, we pass with a smile, and leave the man to poverty and neglect, or we get angry and rail at him for a fool and pestilent disturber of peace and quiet. When this huge globe has thundered on its path some hundreds of years further, we begin to reap the benefit of their great ideas and their grand discoveries, and to understand the magnificent creations of their imagination. We then look back to their lives with melancholy admiration and pity, and pour out to their empty names the affection and honor which would have soothed the fevered brain and broken heart, long since mouldered into dust. And say, if we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have done thus and so. But we would, and we are now doing the same things to all such, only in a more civilized method. And, from the nature of things, thus it must ever be; for, as we have said, although the world will [page 182:] always estimate talent, it cannot at first judge correctly of genius. Therefore, the age must ever know little of its truly great men, and thus must we ever “build the tombs of the prophets whom our fathers have slain.”

The rule holds as rigidly in the realm of poetry and imagination as in the realm of scientific discovery. When Beethoven’s Quartettes were brought over to the Philharmonic Society of London, the greatest pianist of the day threw them off his desk as rubbish, trash, unintelligible and useless. The neat poets and the Addisonian essayists have ever fared well; but Homer begged his bread, Dante died in exile, Tasso in in [[sic]] jail, Milton sold his Paradise Lost for ten pounds, and Shakspeare’s plays were so forgotten in the time of Pope, that in publishing a new edition he was forced to distinguish what he was pleased to denominate the good passages, by quotation marks at the beginning lines. The name of Poe does not at this moment rank with that of either N. P. Willis, James Russell Lowell, or Rufus Griswold. The matter which fills the two volumes before us, may he properly estimated by one person in two hundred who examine it; but the large majority will lay it down with utter contempt — perfectly unconscious of its merits and its beauties. The populace must have these things interpreted to them by time and imitators before they can understand or appreciate.

What we have here is new. It is not old wine in new bottles only; it is not glossy broadcloth from old cassinet, nor is it bread pudding from the scraps of yesterday. 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 milk 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 modus operandi of the principle we have established — that is the immediate and acting 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 gleam slowly out like stars. It is just thus with an entirely new composition in literature. When the world’s ear becomes sufficiently accustomed to the strain, it will perceive that it is good as well as new, and it gives the author to whom it was indifferent in the days of its ignorance, an 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 [column 2:] 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 the Channings and Adamses and Irvings, their children in referring back to our time in literary history, will say, “this was the time of Poe.”

If called upon to name the trait which distinguishes this writer from other writers of equal genius, we should say it was the metaphysical nature of all his productions and of every line of them. He is emphatically an ‘ideologist’ — his creations and his expressions are essentially abstractions. Edgar Poe had travelled much, — seen cities, climes, governments — known great numbers of distinguished and remarkable people; but they never appeared in his conversations or in his writings. His conversation contained no allusions to incidents, no descriptions of places, no anecdotes. In his animated moods he threw off brilliant paradoxes: and if he talked of individuals, his ideas ran upon their moral and intellectual qualities, — never upon the idiosyncracies of their active visible phenomena, or the peculiarities of their manner. His writings contain no descriptions — or next to none — of real life or landscape. When he sketches natural scenery, the trees, the rocks, the waters, the walls are phantasms, — it is from distorted, thin, strange and morbid sick-dreams of trees, rocks, waters, and walls, that he draws. Take the fall of the House of Usher for instance — examine the natural scenery in that tale for an illustration of what we have been saying. In short, Edgar Poe is a painter of ideas, not of men and things. He held precisely the same relations to Dickens, Thackeray, and the like, that the mad artist Blake, to whom the apparition of William Wallace and the ghost of a flea [vide, Cunningham’s British Painters and Sculptors, art. Blake,] were wont to sit for portraits, — held to Hogarth and Reynolds.

This is the distinctive element of these volumes. It is not merely the distinctive element, but also the essential element of every thing in them. The ideas are ideas par excellence. There is not the faintest odor of flesh and blood about them — no earthly smell. They have all the same thin, immaterial and intangible outline. They have no more atmosphere about them than the cliffs and peaks of the moon. No earthly thing can live there. The things called men and women who inhabit the tales of Poe, are no more like the beings of our world, than the strange and colorless creatures we can imagine as the denizens of [page 183:] the sun, passing and repassing in rays of light, homogeneous with the elements themselves, preexistent to, and superior to organization and to the laws of existence as we know them.

This elementary quality infects every faculty of his mind — his idealty [[ideality]] — his hate — his love — his taste. Look at its manifestations in his wit. The writings before us are not by any means destitute of those qualities in their abstract constitution. On the contrary, parts of Eureka, and very many of the tales exhibit them, and the disposition to indulge them in the greatest strength. But the humour never makes us laugh, and the wit never pleases while it surprises us by its scintillations. Both faculties depend for means of manifestation upon human beings as they appear to the eye, and can never be successful when separated from those phenomena. Edgar Poe’s wit and humour, in consequence of his superlatively metaphysical nature, becomes the pure grotesque. Passages which would be witty and humourous in the hands of an earthly man — of a real human being — upon his pages resemble only fantastic aperies, — the grimaces of some unknown species of goblin monkey, twistings and quaint gesticulations which we cannot understand at all. It is too far removed from fleshly sympathies to excite the nerves of laughter — or the odd surprise and smiling titilations which follow the natural exercises of wit.

From the writers of our new and unfinished country, the works of Poe, that is, the good things among them — are distinguished by another remarkable quality: — their finish of style. This superior finish consists not merely in that clear perfection of arrangement which comes naturally with the best thoughts and good hours of a first rate mind; but also in the charms of a mastery in the art of writing greater than those possessed by any other American author. Mr. Poe was a 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 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 relative thereto, 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 be 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 drudge-work, writing for the great presses and for the reviews whose world wide [column 2:] celebrity has been the fruit of such men’s labours. 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 to American students, for want 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 profession on this side of the water.

We shall now proceed to remark upon the matter of these volumes in particular. Mr. I James Russell Lowell thinks that as a critic Edgar Poe was “aesthetically deficient.” Very like, — for Poe was incapable of appreciating Mr. James Russell Lowell and his set. But as a critic we prefer what remains of Edgar Poe to anything after Hazlitt. In his paragraphs are no inanities, no vague generalities, no timorous and half-way work. His points are ever concrete and tangible. When he gave chase to an absurdity, he ran it into the earth. When he sets up a principle for a critical law, he demonstrates it with such clearness that you can all but see it. The reader must not estimate his critical writings by the specimens given in these volumes. For some reason or other, the editors have republished only the very dull stuff he had been putting forth for bread in the magazines of the last few years, under the headings of “Marginalia,” &c. All that is poor enough. But while he conducted the Southern Literary Messenger, he poured forth quantities of critical writing that was really “great.” The volumes of this periodical, which were published under his management, are worth an examination even at this late day. It was this writing which established the Messenger and gave it an early celebrity. Newspapers of the times denounced it hugely; so did all the small authors about New York and Philadelphia; and all the ninimee pinimee 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 books in the world. We go not too far — no, not half far enough — in saying that for every one good book one hundred volumes which are utterly worthless are published. 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 characteristic of American reviewing at present. The press deluges every thing with eau sucrée. Mr. Poe dealt out nothing but justice to the dunces. He flayed them alive. He was in those days like one possessed of a divine fury; tore right and left with an envenomed tooth; like some savage boar, broken into a hot-house of pale exotics, he laid about him with white foaming tusks, uprooting all. His writing then attracted universal attention. At the same time 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, we must contemplate in this author an unfinished column. He wanted money too often and too much to develope his wonderful imagination in verse. There is but one poem in which he succeeded in uttering himself; but on its dusky wings he will sail securely over the gulf of oblivion to the eternal shore beyond.

There is still such a difference of opinion in relation to this unique production, that it is entitled to a separate notice at our hands. With the learned in imaginative literature, the Raven has taken rank over the whole world, as the very first poem manufactured upon the American continent. In their eyes, but one other work of the western world can be placed near it: — that is the Humble Bee of Ralph Waldo Emerson. This last is admitted to be the superior of the Raven in construction and perfect elaboration; the latter possesses a greater merit as a work of pure art. But while the Raven maintains this exalted position upon the scale of all the class that possesses a taste sufficiently cultivated to be catholic, there is yet a large majority of those denominated “well educated people” who make it matter of special denunciation and ridicule. Those who have formed their taste in the Pope and Dryden school, whose earliest poetical acquaintance is Milton, and whose latest Hammond and Cowper — with a small sprinkling of Moore and Byron — cannot relish a poet tinged so deeply with the dyes of the nineteenth century. The “Raven” makes an impression on them which they are not able to explain — but that irritates them. Criticism and explanation are useless with such. Criticism cannot reason people into an attachment. In spite of our pleas, such will talk of the gaudiness of Keats, and the craziness of Shelley, until they see deep enough into their claims to forget or be ashamed to talk so. This class angrily pronounce the Raven flat nonsense. Another class are disgusted therewith because they can see no purpose, no allegory, no “meaning;” as they express it, in the poem. These [column 2:] people — and they constitute the majority of our practical race — are possessed of a false theory. They hold that every poem and poet should have some moral notion or other, which it is his “mission” to expound. That theory is all false. To build theories, principles, religious, &c., is the business of the argumentative, not of the poetic faculty. The business of poetry is to minister to the sense of the beautiful in human minds. That sense is a simple element in our nature — simple, not compound; and therefore the art which ministers to it may safely be said to have an ultimate end in so ministering. This the “Raven” does in an eminent degree. It has no allegory in it, no purpose — or a very slight one — but it is a “thing of beauty,” and will be a “joy forever,” for that and no further reason. The last stanza is an image of settled despair and despondency, which throws a gleam of meaning and allegory over the entire poem — making it all a personification of that passion — but that stanza is evidently an after thought, and unconnected with the original poem.

The “Raven” itself, is a simple narrative of simple events. A bird which had been taught to speak by some former master, is lost in a stormy night, is attracted by the light of a student’s window, flies to it and flutters against it. Then against the door. The student fancies it a visitor; opens the door; and the chance word uttered by the bird suggests to him memories and fancies connected with his own situation and his dead sweetheart or wife. Such is the poem. The last stanza is an accident and an after thought; and the worth of the Raven is not in any “moral,” nor is its charm in the construction of its story. Its great and wonderful merits consist in the strange, beautiful and fantastic imagery and colors with which the simple subject is clothed — the grave and supernatural tone with which it rolls on the ear, — the extraordinary vividness of the word painting, — and the powerful, but altogether indefinable appeal which is made throughout to the organs of ideality and marvellousness. Added to these is a versification indescribably sweet and wonderfully difficult — winding and convoluted about like the mazes of some complicated overture by Beethoven. To all who have a strong perception of tune, there is a music in it which haunts the ear long after reading. These are great merits. They render the Raven, in the writer’s esteem, a gem of art. It is engraved with the image of true genius — and of genius in its happiest hour. It is one of those things an author never does but once.

This author has left very little poetry that is good; but that little contains traces of merits transcendent — though undeveloped. Most of his collected pieces were written in early youth. They are not [page 185:] above the usual verse 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 Ulalume. The chief of these is the poem of “The Bells,” first published 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. Southey’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 any thing that could be done with English he could do. The following lines are well known in literary history as an example of the convertibility of the French language:

“Quand une cordier, cordant, vent corder une corde

Pour an corde, trois cordons il accorde;

Mais si des cordons 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 convertibility 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 untwisleth the twist.”

Among the writiugs of Poe may be found many examples of the convertibility of the English language superior to either of these. The Bell-ringing verses before alluded to are eminently such. We do not quote them, because it is but lately that we laid them before the reader. The Raven is familiar to every one as the most wonderful and beautiful example which the world affords of the complicated power of words, and of the more solemn and elevated music of verse.

A very remarkable quality in these poems is one which can scarcely be defined better, than as the ‘epicureanismof language. It is a delicate and most extraordinary style, which is the peculiar property of our author. “Ulalume” and “Annabel Lee“ — the last thing he ever wrote — are good illustrations of this quality. There is another poem in this collection, which is a most [column 2:] perfect specimen, but which has not been properly appreciated by the world — it is the fragment entitled “Dreamland.” That poem is a fanciful picture of the phantasmagoria of dreams, of the broken and fantastic images which swim before the half-closed eye of mind, when the senses and the judgment are enveloped in sleep. We wish we had room for its insertion here.

As a tale writer, the name of Edgar Poe is best known. The collection published by Wiley & Putnam has been exceedingly popular. But the things which are most remarkable and peculiar to the author, his real wonders, are not those that have attracted attention to that volume. It is not the Maelstrom, the House of Usher, or Eros [[Erios]] and Charmion, that are best known in it, but the Gold Bug, La Rue Morgue [[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 himself did not think half so much of this collection as he did of his “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque;” but in his estimate of these we cannot side with him. We agree to the popular verdict upon them. 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 with, 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 peculiar compositions were marked with that galvanic and unnatural character which marks the movements of 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 [page 186:] 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.

This book has been long out of print; and the publishers of this “new edition of Poe’s Works” have omitted it from their collection. We shall therefore present the reader with an extract. The vessel has become unmanageable, and the provision and water having long ago given out, the sailors are reduced to cannibalism. While in this condition a brig approaches:

“No person was seen on her decks until she arrived within about a quarter of a mile of us. We them saw three seamen, whom by their dress we took to be Hollanders. Two of these were lying on some old sails near the forecastle, and the third, who appeared to be looking at us with great curiosity, was leaning over the starboard bow near the bowsprit. This last was a stout and tall man, with a very dark skin. He seemed by his manner to be encouraging us to have patience, nodding to us in a cheerful although rather odd way, and smiling constantly so as to display a set of the most brilliantly white teeth. As his vessel drew nearer, we saw a red flannel cap which he had on fall from his head into the water; but of this he took little or no notice, continuing his odd smiles and gesticulations. I relate these things and circumstances minutely, and I relate them, it must be understood, precisely as they appeared to us.

The brig came on slowly, and now more steadily than before, and — I cannot speak calmly of this event — our hearts leaped up wildly within us, and we poured out our whole souls in shouts and thanksgiving to God for the complete, unexpected, and glorious deliverance that was so palpably at hand. Of a sudden, and all at once, there came wafted over the ocean from the strange vessel (which was now close upon us) a smell, a stench, such as the whole world has no name for — no conception of — hellish — utterly suffocating — insufferable, inconceivable. I gasped for breath, and, turning to my companions, perceived that they were paler than marble. But we had now no time left for question or surmise — the brig was within fifty feet of us, and it seemed to be her intention to run under our counter, that we might board her without her putting out a boat. We rushed aft, when, suddenly, a wide yaw threw her off full five or six points from the course she had been running, and, as she passed under our stern at the distance of about twenty feet, we had a full view of her decks. Shall I ever forget the triple horror of that spectacle? Twenty-five or thirty human bodies, among whom were several females, lay scattered about between the counter and the galley, in the last and most loathsome state of putrefaction! We plainly saw that not a soul lived in that ill-fated [column 2:] vessel! Yet we could not help shouting to the dead for help! Yes, long and loudly did we beg, in the agony of the moment, that those silent and disgusting images would stay for us, would not abandon us to become like them, would receive us among their goodly company! We were raving with horror and despair — thoroughly mad through the anguish of our grievous disappointment.

“As our first loud yell of terror broke forth, it was replied to by something, from near the bowsprit of the stranger, so closely resembling the scream of a human voice, that the nicest ear might have been startled and deceived. At this instant another sudden yaw brought the region of the forecastle for a moment into view, and we beheld at once the origin of the sound. We saw the tall stout figure still leaning on the bulwark, and still nodding his head to and fro, but his face was now turned from us so that we could not behold it. His arms were extended over the rail, and the palms of his hands fell outward. His knees were lodged upon a stout rope, tightly stretched, and reaching from the heel of the bowsprit to a cathead. On his back, from which a portion of the shirt had been torn, leaving it bare, there sat a huge seagull, busily gorging itself with the horrible flesh, its bill and talons deep buried, and its white plumage spattered all over with blood. As the brig moved further round so as to bring us close in view, the bird, with much apparent difficulty, drew out its crimsoned head, and, after eyeing us for a moment as if stupified, arose lazily from the body on which it had been feasting, and, flying directly above our deck, hovered there awhile with a portion of clotted and liver-like substance in its beak. The horrid morsel dropped at length with a sullen splash immediately at the feet of Parker. May God forgive me, but now, for the first time, there flashed through my mind a thought, a thought which I will not mention, and I felt myself making a step towards the ensanguined spot. I looked upward, and the eyes of Augustus met my own with a degree of intense and eager meaning which immediately brought me to my senses. I sprang forward quickly, and with a deep shudder, threw the frightful thing into the sea.

The body from which it had been taken, resting as it did upon the rope, had been easily swayed to and fro by the exertions of the carniverous [[sic]] bird, and it was this motion which had at first impressed us with the belief of its being alive. As the gull relieved it of its weight, it swung round and fell partially over, so that the face was fully discovered. Never, surely, was any object so full of awe! The eyes were gone, and the whole flesh around the month, leaving the teeth utterly naked. This, then, was the smile which had cheered us on to hope! this the — but I forbear. The brig, as I have already told, passed under our stern, and made its way slowly but steadily to leeward. With her and with her terrible crew went all our gay visions of deliverance and joy.”

We find ourselves in an awkward position. Our theme has seduced us from our limits. We have traversed the wilderness of this man’s writings [page 187:] only to find that the span of magazine existence will never suffice to reach our goal and his Canaan. “EUREKA,” that divine work, the Parthenon of pure reason, we may not enter in this article. We have reviewed the long lines of columns of marble and jasper, arabesque and antic, which form its propylon, and stand upon its terrace, but we can only point the reader to its portal and leave him to explore it alone. Eureka is an attempt to develope the process and demonstrate the law by which the universe assumed its visible phenomena and present organization; and to demonstrate further, how this same law, or principle, and process, must evidently reduce all things to the vague, imperceptible, immaterial chaos of pure matter or spirit from which it arose. The theme is manifestly one which possesses little bearing on the world we live in, and is of little practical importance in the present state of human knowledge. The author leads us to the extreme boundary of reason’s horizon. His dramatis personæ are ideas and shapes, which have never yet walked the halls of experimental science. The senses furnish no data on which to erect the edifice; and the senses furnish no test of its finished solidity. The materials are dug from the mines of the exact sciences. But if there be certainty in mathematics, or reliability on mathematical reasoning, or on the logical concatenation of self-evident ideas, this book and its conclusions are true. It is a globule of crystalline clearness, teres ac rotundus. Few have read it. The plan of the work is one which, in him who would thread its labyrinth, requires an extensive knowledge of the entire cycle of material and metaphysical knowledge, and those who possess such knowledge are too much occupied with the tangible results of diurnal experiment, to walk with a companion so strange and wild in these regions, the most solitary and remote of the intellectual realm. It was thus with Kepler; and Copernicus, dying, left the world a book which it regarded with the same indifference and the same idle curiosity. But princes, and popes, and sages came forward to take up that book. And when the day comes, as it will come, when experimental science shall have so far enlarged its boundaries, as to catch a view of, and see the need of the grand generalties [[generalities]] which this poor drunkard has strewn to the winds and waters, Eureka will tower like a monumental obelisk before the world’s great eyes. It was thus with Copernicus; it was so with Kepler. In the presence of those grand recollections, we can sympathize at least with him who wrote these words: “I care not whether my work is read now, or by posterity. I can afford to wait a century for readers, when God himself has waited six thousand [column 2:] years for an observer. I triumph. I have stolen the golden secret of the Egyptians. I will indulge my sacred fury.

 


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Notes:

This article is chiefly made up from the earlier obituary and other articles printed in the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner in 1849 (Obituary of Edgar A. Poe and Characteristics of Edgar A. Poe).

Poe’s lecture on “The Poetic Principle” was printed later in 1850, in the third volume of Griswold’s edition. About the time of this publication, it was reprinted in the Home Journal, Sartain’s Union Magazine, and Daniel’s own Semi-Weekly Examiner.

The Narrative of A. G. Pym was included in volume four of Griswold’s edition, added to the previous three in 1856.

The Bells” appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger, November 1849, in an article by J. R. Thompson.

 

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[S:1 - SLM, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (J. M. Daniel, 1850)