Text: Caroline Sheldon, “Some Causes of ‘The American Rejection of Poe’,” Dial, Feb. 16, 1899, 47:110-111


­ [page 110, column 1:]


(To the Editor of THE DIAL.)

Is it altogether a matter of unfairness and prejudice that American readers as a rule make little of Poe? Surely Griswold’s misrepresentations have been so often and so convincingly answered by Poe’s friends and acquaintances that no serious student of American letters is influenced by their manifest injustice. Does not the real reason lie deeper — in the nature of the poet himself, [column 2:] and in that of the nation which, as a rule, does not read him?

In fact, your contributor who deplores Poe’s non-appreciation by the mass of his countrymen has himself supplied several good reasons for it. One is his fatal lack of humor. Let us take as an example the opening lines “To Helen”:

“I saw thee once — once only — years ago;

I must not say how many — but not many,” —

where the attempt at playfulness, taken in connection with the rest of the poem, produces an effect that is neither more nor less than ludicrous. No man with the faintest sense of humor could have been guilty of a blunder like that. Now, humor is a warm-hearted, kindly quality, which endears a man to his fellows. He who does not in some degree possess it must makeshift as best he can to dwell in a world apart from humankind; and however this world may be lighted by poetic fancy and adorned by imagination, it will after all be only a cold moonlit region whose beauty will never compensate for its loneliness. George Eliot has told us that “there is no strain on friendship like a difference of taste in jokes,” and this is one explanation of the distance between Poe and the public whom he failed to reach: they had no common ground whereon to stand long enough to become acquainted with each other.

Poe had in him, it is true, “something exotic which hinted of another clime and age.” Had he lived in Persia one or two thousand years ago, some enterprising Orientalist might have discovered him, and translated his writings for the benefit of a small but enthusiastic circle of readers, and publishers might have brought out his works in beautifully bound and illustrated éditions de luxe. There is scarcely another nineteenth century author whose works afford scope for greater originality in illustration.

Poe has certain qualities that the most unkindly critics cannot deny him: weird and powerful imagination, constructive ability, and exquisite melody of expression in both prose and verse. His perception and handling of tone-color are unsurpassed by even the greatest of literary artists. There are certain lines of his that linger in the memory because of their perfect beauty of sound, while others come back frequently because of the pictures they suggest. But to many readers, the realization of Poe’s artistic genius is only another source of vexation. Great poetry must have great subjects. Perfection of form is not enough, — although, in spite of Whitman and his followers, some readers will continue to think beauty of form one of the essentials of genuine poetry. The great poet, however, the poet who lives in the hearts of his own countrymen and wins for himself a lasting place in the affections of mankind, must voice in some effective manner the feelings and thoughts common to humanity. This Poe does not do. As he does not laugh with those that laugh, neither does he weep with those that weep. His weeping he does all by himself. In fact, his most musical dirges, with their refrains of “the lost Lenore,” “beautiful Annabel Lee,” and “Ulalume,” seem less like the expression of real sorrow than complex and finished studies in minor chords. One’s heart is not touched by them as by such simple lines as those in “After the Burial”:

“There’s a little ridge in the churchyard

Would scarce stay a child in its race,

But to me and my thought it is wider

Than the star-sown vague of space.”

This quatrain is a sincere and beautiful expression of ­[page 111:] human experience. No heart that has shrunk before the mystery of death can fail to vibrate in response to it. Even pagan Horace appeals to us more than Poe, when he says, with sturdy manliness:

“The sorrow that we cannot care may yet

Be lessened by that strength of heart

That is all trials of our life endures.”

We are a strenuous race, we Anglo-Normans, and this girding-up of the loins of the soul in the face of bereavement has for as far more of pathos than the most musical outpourings of self-pity. Herein is Poe’s vital defeat: he indulges too much in self-pity, and is too little moved by the sorrows and burdens of the world.

Poe himself says that “a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites by elevating the mind.” Whether or not it be a defeat in our make-up, it must be acknowledged that for the most part Americans, while we may be refreshed and soothed by poems which give us “pure beauty” and nothing else, are elevated only by those which voice the experiences of our common humanity, or call as to high endeavor. And is not one or the other or both of these elements to be found in all poems which have outlasted the century wherein they were produced?

Victor Hugo has told us that “while the poet needs wings, he must also have feet”; he must touch the earth occasionally, most come near to us, if he would persuade us to follow him into the blue ether. So, notwithstanding Poe’s many and varied gifts of the intellect, the poet of our hearts will for a long time continue to be some other than the poet of “Lenore.”


Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 5, 1899.



It is difficult to comment further on any reader who finds his or her heart entirely untouched by “The Raven” or “Annabel Lee.” Poe’s writings have indeed “outlasted the century wherein they were produced.” Even by 1899, Poe’s works had already begun to appera in “beautifully bound and illustrated éditions de luxe,” and they continue to do so to this day. The humor in Poe that has apparently eluded Caroline Sheldon has not eluded everyone else (see, for example, D. B. Stauffer, “The Merry Mood: Poe’s Uses of Humor,” among other studies on the subject). Although Poe wrote a number of purely humorous tales, it is, perhaps, somewhat ironic that the public has choosen chiefly to read the tales of horror (and these, too, often reveal glimpses of humor).


[S:1 - DIAL, 1899] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Some Causes of the American Rejection of Poe (C. Sheldon, 1899)