Text: James A. Harrison, “Appendix F,” Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1903), pp. 383-392


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[page 383, continued:]

EDGAR A. POE.

By P. PENDLETON COOKE,

Author of the ” Froissart Ballads.”

[Southern Literary Messenger, January, 1848.]

(The following paper is a sequel to Mr. Lowell’s Memoir, (so-called,) of Mr. Poe, published two or three years since in Graham’s Magazine. Mr. P. edited the Messenger for several years, and the pages of that magazine would seem, therefore, a proper place for the few hurried observations which I have made upon his writings and genius. P. P. C.)

Since the memoirs of Mr. Poe, written by James Russell Lowell, appeared, Mr. P. has written some of his best things; amongst them The Raven, and Dream land — poems — and M. Valdemar’s Case — a prose narrative. [page 384:]

“The Raven” is a singularly beautiful poem. Many readers who prefer sunshine to the weird lights with which Mr. Poe fills his sky, may be dull to its beauty, but it is none the less a great triumph of imagination and art. Notwithstanding the extended publication of this remarkable poem, I will quote it almost entire — as the last means of justifying the praise I have bestowed upon it.

The opening stanza rapidly and clearly arranges time, place, etc., for the mysteries that follow.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door,

‘ ’T is some visiter,’ I muttered, tapping at my chamber door —

Only this, and nothing more.’ ”

Observe how artistically the poet has arranged the circumstances of this opening — how congruous all are, This congruity extends to the phraseology; every word is admirably selected and placed with reference to the whole. Even the word “napping” is well chosen, as bestowing a touch of the fantastic, which is subsequently introduced as an important component of the poem. Stanza 2d increases the distinctness and effect of the picture as already presented to us. The “Midnight Dreary” is a midnight “in the bleak December,” and the “dying embers” are assuming strange and fantastic shapes upon the student’s hearth. We now pass these externals and some words of exquisite melody let us into the secret of the rooted sorrow which has led to the lonely night-watching and fruitless study. [page 385:]

“Vainly I had sought to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore —

For the rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore,

Nameless here forever more.”

A death was never more poetically told than in the italicised words:

The “tapping” is renewed —

“And the silken, sad, uncertain, rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me, filled me, with fantastic terrors never felt before,

So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating

‘ ’T is some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door,

Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door,

Only this and nothing more.’ ”

After some stanzas, quaint and highly artistical, the raven is found at the window; I quote now continuously to the end.

[Here follows “The Raven.”]

The rhythm of this poem is exquisite, its phraseology is in the highest degree musical and apt, the tone of the whole is wonderfully sustained and appropriate to the subject, which, full as it is of a wild and tender melancholy, is admirably well chosen. This is my honest judgment; I am fortified in it by high authority. Mr. Willis says: — “It is the most effective single example of fugitive poetry ever published in this country, and ‘unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent sustaining of imaginative lift. It is one of those dainties which we feed on. It will stick to the memory of every one who reads it.”

Miss Barrett says: — “This vivid writing! — this power which it felt! ‘The Raven’ has produced a sensation — a ‘fit horror’ here in England. Some of [page 386:] my friends are taken by the fear of it, and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the Nevermore, and one acquaintance of mine, who has the misfortune of possessing a bust of Pallas, never can bear to look at it in the twilight. Our great poet, Mr. Browning, author of Paracelsus, etc., is enthusiastic in his admiration of the rhythm. . . . Then there is a tale of his which I do not find in this volume, but which is going the rounds of the newspapers, about mesmerism, throwing us all into most I admired disorder,’ or dreadful doubts as to whether it can be true, as the children say of ghost stories. The certain thing in the tale in question is the power of the writer, and the faculty he has of making horrible improbabilities seem near and familiar.”

The prose narrative, “M. Valdemar’s Case” — the story of which Miss Barrett speaks — is the most truth-like representation of the impossible ever written. M. Valdemar is mesmerized in articulo mortis. Months pass away, during which he appears to be in mesmeric sleep; the mesmeric influence is withdrawn, and instantly his body becomes putrid ,and loathsome — he has been many months dead. Will the reader believe that men were found to credit this wild story? And yet some very respectable people believed in its truth firmly. The editor of the Baltimore Visiter republished it as a statement of facts, and was at the pains to vouch for Mr. Poe’s veracity. If the letter of a Mr. Collier,(1) published just after the original appearance of the story, was not a quiz, he also fell into the same trap. I understand that some foreign mesmeric journals, German and French, reprinted it as being what it purported to be — a true [page 387:] account of mesmeric phenomena. That many others were deceived in like manner by this strange tale, in which, as Miss Barrett says, ” the wonder and question are, can it be true? ” is very probable.

With Mr. Poe’s more recent productions I am not at all acquainted — excepting a review of Miss Barrett’s works, and an essay on the philosophy of com position. The first of these contains a great deal of noble writing and excellent criticism; the last is an admirable specimen of analysis. I believe Mr. P. has been for some time ill — has recently sustained a heavy domestic bereavement — and is only now returning to his literary labors. The public will doubtless welcome the return of so favorite an author to pursuits in which heretofore he has done so much and so well.

Unnecessary as the labor may be, I will not conclude this postscript to Mr. Lowell’s memoir, without making some remarks upon Mr. Poe’s genius and writings generally.

Mr. P.’s most distinguishing power is that which made the extravagant fiction of M. Valdemar’s Case sound like truth. He has De Foe’s peculiar talent for filling up his pictures with minute life-like touches — for giving an air of remarkable naturalness and truth to whatever he paints. Some of his stories, written many years ago, are wonderful in this fidelity and distinctness of portraiture; ” Hans Phaal,” ” A Descent into the Maelstrom,” and ” MS. Found in a Bottle,” show it in an eminent degree. In the first of these a journey to the moon is described with the fullness and particularity of an ordinary traveller’s journal; entries, astronomical and — thermical, and, on reaching the moon, botanical, and zoölogical, are made with an inimitable matter-of-fact air. In A Descent into the [page 388:] Maelström you are made fairly to feel yourself on the descending round of the vortex, convoying fleets of drift timber, and fragments of wrecks; the terrible whirl makes you giddy as you read. In the MS. Found in a Bottle we have a story as wild as the mind of man ever conceived, and yet made to sound like the most matter-of-fact veracious narrative of a seaman.

But in Mr. Poe, the peculiar talent to which we are indebted for Robinson Crusoe, and the memoirs of Captain Monroe, has an addition. Truthlike as nature itself, his strange fiction shows constantly the presence of a singularly adventurous, very wild, and thoroughly poetic imagination. Some sentences from them, which always impressed me deeply, will give full evidence of the success with which this rare imaginative power is made to adorn and ennoble his truthlike pictures. Take this passage from Ligeia, a wonderful story, written to show the triumph of the human will even over death. Ligeia, in whom the struggle between the will to live, and the power of death, has seemed to terminate in the defeat of the passionate will, is consigned to the tomb. Her husband married a second wife, ,the fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena.” By the sick bed of this second wife, who is dying from some mysterious cause, he sits.

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Again take this passage from the Fall of the House of Usher.

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These quoted passages — the “white and ghastly spectrum of the teeth” in “Berenice” — the visible vulture eye, and audible heart-beat in the “Tell-tale Heart” — the resemblance in “Morella” of the living child to the dead mother, becoming gradually fearful, [page 389:] until the haunting eyes gleam out a terrible identity, and prove as in Ligeia the final conquest of the will over death — these and a thousand such clinging ideas, which Mr. P.’s writings abound in, prove indisputably that the fires of a great poet are seething under those analytic and narrative powers in which no living writer equals him.

This added gift of a daring and wild imagination is the source of much of the difference between our author and De Foe. De Foe loves and deals always with the homely. Mr. Poe is nervously afraid of the homely — has a creed that Beauty is the goddess of the Poet: — not Beauty with swelling bust, and lascivious carriage, exciting passions of the blood, but Beauty sublimated and cherished by the soul — the beauty of the Uranian, not Dionean Venus. De Foe gives us in the cheerful and delightful story of his colonist of the desert isles, (which has as sure a locality in a million minds as any genuine island has upon the maps,) a clear, plain, true-sounding narrative of matters that might occur any day. His love for the real makes him do so. The “real” of such a picture has not strangeness enough in its proportions for Mr. Poe’s imagination; and, with the same talent for truthlike narrative, to what different results of creation does not this imagination, scornful of the soberly real, lead him 1 Led by it he loves to adventure into what in one of his poems he calls —

“a wild weird clime

Out of space, out of time;” —

deals in mysteries of “life in death,” dissects monomanias, exhibits convulsions of soul — in a word, wholly leaves beneath and behind him the wide and happy realm of the common cheerful life of man. [page 390:]

That he would be a greater favorite with the majority of readers if he brought his singular capacity for vivid and truth-like narrative to bear on subjects nearer ordinary life, and of a more cheerful and happy character, does not, I think, admit of a doubt. But whether with the few he is not all the more appreciable from the difficult nature of the fields which he has principally chosen, is questionable. For what he has done, many of the best minds of America, England and France, have awarded him praise; labors of a tamer nature might not have won it from such sources. For my individual part, having the seventy or more tales, analytic, mystic, grotesque, arabesque, always wonderful, often great, which his industry and fertility have already given us, I would like to read one cheerful book made by his invention, with little or no aid from its twin brother imagination — a book in his admirable style of full, minute, never tedious narrative — a book full of homely doings, of successful toils, of ingenious shifts and contrivances, of ruddy firesides — a book healthy and happy throughout, and with no poetry in it at all anywhere, except a good old English ” poetic justice” in the end. Such a book, such as Mr. Poe could make it, would be a book for the million, and if it did nothing to exalt him with the few, would yet certainly endear him to them.

Mr. Lowell has gone deeply and discriminatingly into Mr. Poe’s merits as a poet. Any elaborate remarks of mine on the same subject, would be out of place here. I will not, however, lose this opportunity of expressing an admiration which I have long entertained of the singular mastery of certain externals of his art which he everywhere exhibits in his verse. His rhythm, and his vocabulary, or phraseology, are [page 391:] perhaps perfect. The reader has perceived the beauty of the rhythm in The Raven. Some other verses from poems to which Mr. Lowell has referred, are quite as remarkable for this beauty. Read these verses from Lenore: —

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And take these, in the most graceful of all measures — they are from “To One in Paradise.”

“And all my days are trances

And all my nightly dreams

Are where thy dark eye glances,

And where thy footstep gleams —

In what ethereal dances,

By what eternal streams.”

Along with wonderful beauty of rhythm, these verses show the exquisite taste in phraseology, the nice sense of melody and aptness in words, of which I spoke. We have direct evidence of this nice sense of verbal melody in some quotations which are introduced into the dramatic fragment “Politian.” Lalage reads from a volume of our elder English Dramatists

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I must conclude these insufficient remarks upon a writer worthy of high and honorable place amongst the leading creative minds of the age.

As regards the Wiley & Putnam publication of Mr. Poe’s tales — a volume by which his rare literary claims have been most recently presented to the public — I think the book in some respects does him injustice. It contains twelve tales out of more than seventy; and it is made up almost wholly of what may be called his analytic tales. This is not representing the author’s mind in its various phases. A reader gathering his knowledge of Mr. Poe from this Wiley [page 392:] & Putnam issue would perceive nothing of the diversity and variety for which his writings are in fact remarkable. Only the publication of all his stories, at one issue, in one book, would show this diversity and variety in their full force; but much more might have been done to represent his mind by a judicious and not wholly one-toned selection.(1)

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 386:]

1.  See Vol. II. — ED.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 392:]

1.  See Vol. II. for the Poe-Cooke correspondence on this subject. — ED.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - LLEAP, 1903] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Appendix F)