Text: Arthur Hobson Quinn, “Chapter 08,” Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941), pp. 166-185


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[page 166:]

CHAPTER VIII
 
West Point and the Poems of 1831

Poe’s residence from December, 1829, until May, 1830, is not fully established. He was certainly at home in Richmond for a part of the time,(1) waiting for the appointment to West Point, which came in March, 1830, through the influence of Powhatan Ellis, Senator from Mississippi, and the brother of T. H. Ellis. John Allan gave his formal permission on March 31st. Poe’s letters to John Allan cease for a while. Again there seems to have been a temporary reconciliation, and Poe may have enjoyed his “home” for the last time. In a letter to an army comrade, “Bully Graves,” written from Richmond May 3, 1830,(2) Poe says that he has not been in Washington “for some time.” This letter, which was one of the most unfortunate Poe ever wrote, was evidently in response to a request for the repayment of money. It was from his army “substitute,” as the second Mrs. Allan later stated.(3) Unfortunately, Graves’ letter to Poe has disappeared. But he evidently reproached Poe with sending money to others, and quoted Allan to support his statement. Poe replied: “Mr. Allan is not very often sober — which accounts for it.” The bad taste of this statement is as obvious as Poe’s indiscretion in making it. Graves sent the letter to John Allan some months later, after Poe had gone to West Point, for the letter of Poe, written on January 3, 1831, is evidently in reply to recriminations by Allan based on the receipt of “Bully’s” damaging communication. Poe then offered a defence that was at the same time an attack:

“As regards Sergt. Graves — I did write him that letter. As to the truth of its contents, I leave it to God, and your own conscience. — The time in which I wrote it was within a half hour after you had embittered every feeling of my heart against you by your abuse of my [page 167:] family, and myself, under your own roof — and at a time when you knew that my heart was almost breaking.”(4)

If there was a quarrel on May 3, 1830, as this letter states, it did not prevent Allan’s furnishing Poe with some equipment on May 13th.(5)

The relations of Poe and his substitute have naturally been discussed at length on account of the charge made by Mrs. Louisa Allan that Poe spent for other purposes the money that John Allan sent him for the necessary payment for the substitute.(6) In an attempt to refute this charge Mrs. Stanard claimed that the now famous letter to “Bully Graves” of May 3, 1830(7) did not refer to money owing to a substitute but to sums borrowed from a friend. Her plausible explanation has been adopted by later biographers. When the report of the War Department Records in December, 1939, showed that Sergeant Graves was Poe’s substitute, I sent to General Adams a copy of Poe’s statement to Allan asking if it could be checked, and received this reply:

War Department
The Adjutant General’s Office
Washington

A. G. 201
In Reply   Perry, Edgar A.
Refer to   (12-22-39) OR

January 4, 1940.

Dear Sir:

Receipt is acknowledged of your letter of December 22, 1939 in further reference to the record of Edgar Allan Poe, known also as Edgar A. Perry, particularly concerning a quoted statement he is believed to have made to his foster father, John Allan.

A search has resulted in failure to find any record of the statement quoted. No record has been found of any financial arrangement which was made for a substitute for Edgar A. Perry. As previously stated, if such a financial transaction was made it was no doubt a private affair of which no record would be kept by the military authorities.

Very truly yours,

E. S. ADAMS  
Major General,  
The Adjutant General. [page 168:]

In view of Graves’ demand for money, what is to be made of Poe’s statement in the letters of June 25 and July 26, 1829, that he had taken up the note for $50.00, cancelling the debt to Graves, and his later acknowledgment, in reply to Graves’ demand, that he still owed him money? The only explanation which would save Poe’s reputation for honesty is that he paid Graves for acting as his substitute, but that he still owed him for money borrowed for other reasons. Poe wrote to Graves, “I have never had it in my power as yet to pay either you or St. Griffith” — implying that the debts he owed to both of them were of the same nature. He says nothing of the substitution. It is, I am afraid, not a thoroughly satisfactory explanation.

Poe left Richmond before May 21st, and after stopping in Baltimore, went on to West Point. He was there on June 25th, for his letter of June 28th(8) acknowledged one from Allan, dated May 21st, and containing twenty dollars. John Allan had evidently seen Poe off on his way, for in the letter of January 3, 1831, Poe, looking back on the parting remarked “When I parted from you — at the steamboat, I knew that I should never see you again.”(9)

In any final judgment on the relations of John Allan and Edgar Poe, the apparent ebb and flow of the affection between them must be taken into account. Either there was some remnant of regard left at this time, or else both were to a certain degree, hypocrites. There are definite facts, however, which may explain John Allan’s willingness to speed the parting cadet. In Allan’s will, the following significant paragraphs occur:

I desire that my executors shall out out [sic] of my estate provide give to —— a good english education for two boys sons of Mrs. Elizabeth Wills which she says are mine, I do not know their names — but the remaining fifth, four parts of which I have disposed off [sic] must go in equal shares to them of [or] the survivor of them but should they be dead before they attain the age of 21 years then their share to go to my sisters Fowlds children in equal proportions with the exception of three thousand dollars, which must go to Mrs. Wills and her daughter in perpetuity.

JOHN ALLAN
Dec. 31, 1832.

Then follows:

This Memo in my own handwriting is to be taken as a Codicil and can be easily proven by any of my friends. . . . The twins were [page 169:] born sometime about the the 1st of July 1830. I was married the 5th October 1830, in New York, my fault therefore happened before I ever saw my present wife and I did not hide it from her. . . .

Mar. 15 1833. I understand one [of] Mrs. Wills’ twin sons died some weeks ago, there is therefore only one to provide for.(10)

The reference to the daughter indicates that this affair had been progressing even during the life of Frances Allan. The birth of the twins in July, 1830, was not in all probability disturbing the serenity of John Allan. He was courting Miss Louisa Gabriella Patterson, of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, a woman whose family was well established in and near New York City.(11)

Poe evidently took the examination for entrance to West Point during the last week in June, 1830, as required by the regulations. It consisted merely of a test in reading and writing and “the four ground rules of arithmetic.”(12) During July and August he took his part in the encampment required, in which the instruction was entirely military, and in September he began his academic studies. For the fourth, or lowest class, these were principally in Mathematics and French, in both of which he was probably going over ground familiar to him.

The daily schedule was, however, quite strenuous. Cadet Edgar Poe began at sunrise with his classes, breakfasted at seven, attended classes again from eight until one, and from two to four. For variety, there were military exercises until sunset, and after supper classes again until half past nine. At the ten o’clock signal, he put out his lights, or was supposed to do so.

The Regulations, of which there were three hundred and four, mainly concerned with discipline, prescribed the actions of the Cadets for every moment of their lives. Drinking and smoking and card playing, as might have been expected, were proscribed, but Regulation No. 173, “No Cadet shall keep in his room any novel, poem or other book, not relating to his studies, without permission from the superintendent,” or No. 176, which forbade such games as chess or backgammon, are two examples among many of rules which must have [page 170:] annoyed a young man of twenty-one, and which he probably disobeyed.

Although Allan’s second marriage, on October 5, 1830, had its share in determining Poe to leave West Point, its effect was not immediate. His letter of November 6th, after expressing his disappointment at Allan’s failure to visit him while he was in New York, speaks of his own “excellent standing in my class” and continues: “I have spent my time very pleasantly hitherto — but the study requisite is incessant, and the discipline exceedingly rigid. — I have seen Genl Scott here since I came, and he was very polite and attentive. I am very much pleased with Colonel Thayer, and indeed with everything at the institution.”

Poe also speaks of his having no deposit to cover books and other expenses, and it is evident that Allan had been as economical in providing the cadet as he had been in supplying the student at Virginia.

Poe also refers to the beauty of the river, and at least while at camp he would have had full opportunity to appreciate his picturesque and romantic surroundings. The scenery on the Hudson has been so long well known, that it is unnecessary to describe it here. But to Poe it must have seemed that the river, sweeping around Constitution Island on its way south, deliberately halted in its progress in order that the residents of West Point could see it constantly in one of the loveliest of its settings.(13)

Edgar Poe lodged in 28 South Barracks, a building demolished in 1849. Three cadets roomed together, and Room 28 was shared by Thomas W. Gibson and Timothy Pickering Jones. Both have recorded their memories of Poe, Gibson in 1867, and Jones in 1903 and 1904.(14) They are a mixture of fact and fancy, contradictory of each other in places, and also of the account of another classmate, General Allan B. Magruder.(15) They agree that Poe was liked by his friends, who admired his attainments, especially his ability at lampooning the officers, [page 171:] and that he seemed careworn, and reserved, except to his intimates, chiefly Virginians.

They disagree as to his ability in class, but the official records here show that he stood third in French and seventeenth in Mathematics in a class of eighty-seven. His roommates dwell on his fondness for drinking, and retail highly colored accounts of expeditions after “lights out” to “Benny’s,” a place where liquor could be surreptitiously obtained. Any one familiar with the conversation of classmates after a lapse of years knows that they discuss chiefly their escapades and violations of discipline, so that the accounts of Poe’s dissipation may be discounted. But neither Gibson nor Pickering Jones, who was probably the “Old P——” of Gibson’s story, could have invented completely the unrest and dissatisfaction of Poe. He was probably drinking again, although this offence was not one of the charges brought against him in his courtmartial.(16) Perhaps the most interesting contribution is Gibson’s testimony that Poe was already criticizing the poet Campbell for plagiarism. In view of the influence of Campbell upon Poe’s own early verse, this has an ironic flavor.

The only contemporary description of Poe by a West Point colleague occurs in a letter from David E. Hale, a cadet whose mother had noticed Al Aaraaf in her magazine. Writing to her on February 10, 1831, Hale says of Poe, “I have communicated what you wrote to Mr. Poe, of whom perhaps you would like to know something. He ran away from his adopted father in Virginia who was very rich, has been in S. America, England and has graduated at one of the Colleges there. He returned to America again and enlisted as a private soldier but feeling, perhaps a soldier’s pride, he obtained a cadet’s appointment and entered this Academy last June. He is thought a fellow of talent here but he is too mad a poet to like Mathematics.”(17)

As Hale must have received his information from Poe, his letter indicates how unreliable were Poe’s accounts of his life, and also that at this period he was not desirous of concealing his army record.

Poe’s dislike of the Academy routine was probably growing during the early winter. His pride must have revolted at the drill which a former “top sergeant” knew by heart, and his plan of completing the whole course in six months went down before the rigidity of the curriculum. Yet it was not until January 3rd, the very day on which [page 172:] the mid-term examinations began in 1831, that he wrote to John Allan his intention to leave West Point. This letter, portions of which have already been quoted in their appropriate places, for it is a summary of Poe’s entire relations with his foster-father, was written in response to what must have been a bitter letter from Allan. John Allan had heard finally from “Bully Graves” and the opening sentence indicates a definite warning of a complete break:

West Point, Jany 3d 1830 [Error for 1831]

Sir,

I suppose, (altho’ you desire no further communication with yourself, on my part,) that your restriction does not extend to my answering your final letter.

Did I, when an infant, sollicit [sic] your charity and protection, or was it of your own free will, that you volunteered your services in my behalf? It is well known to respectable individuals in Baltimore, and elsewhere, that my Grandfather (my natural protector at the time you interposed) was wealthy, and that I was his favourite grand-child — But the promises of adoption, and liberal education which you held forth to him in a letter which is now in possession of my family, induced him to resign all care of me into your hands.”(18)

After the account of his career at the University of Virginia,(19) Poe proceeds:

You sent me to W. Point like a beggar. The same difficulties are threatening me as before at Charlottesville — and I must resign. . . . I have no more to say — except that my future life (which thank God will not endure long) must be passed in indigence and sickness — I have no energy left, nor health, [[.]] If it was possible to put up with the fatigues of this place, and the inconveniences which my absolute want of necessaries subject me to, and as I mentioned before it is my intention to resign — For this end it will be necessary that you (as my nominal guardian) enclose me your written permission. It will be useless to refuse me this last request — for I can leave the place without any permission — your refusal would only deprive me of the little pay which is now due as mileage.

From the time of writing this I shall neglect my studies and [page 173:] duties at the institution — if I do not receive your answer in 10 days — I will leave the point without — for otherwise I should subject myself to dismission.(20)

John Allan endorsed this letter: “I recd this on the 10th & did not from its conclusion deem it necessary to reply. I make this note on the 13th & can see no good Reason to alter my opinion. I do not think the Boy has one good quality. He may do or act as he pleases, tho’ I wd have saved him but on his own terms & conditions since I cannot believe a word he writes. His letter is the most barefaced one sided statement.”

How much Poe really believed of his statement concerning his grandfather’s “wealth,” and whether his illness was physical or due to self-pity, it is impossible now to judge. Equally exaggerated is Allan’s endorsement that Poe “had not one good trait” — but in any event, the letter proves the impossibility of any real understanding between the two men.

His statement that John Allan had sent him to West Point “like a beggar” is again a half truth. During Poe’s period at West Point, he was paid monthly sixteen dollars, plus two rations a day, which were valued altogether at twenty-eight dollars. From this sum clothing and uniforms and all supplies were to be purchased, and four dollars were deducted for books.(21) It seems to have been the custom for cadets to have an allowance from home, which apparently Poe did not receive. He is correct in his statement concerning the necessity for John Allan’s written consent to his resignation.(22)

This time he carried out his threat. A general courtmartial had been convened, to meet on January 5, 1831, and met, pursuant to adjournment on January 28th. On that day Cadet E. A. Poe was tried on the following charges:

First, “Gross neglect of Duty,” which under “Specification 1st” included absenting himself from parades and roll calls, between January 7th, and January 27th, 1831, and under “Specification 2nd” absenting himself from “all his academical duties between the 15th and 27th of January 1831.”

The second charge was “Disobedience of Orders.” The first specification read “in this that he the said Cadet Poe, after having been directed by the officer of the day to attend church on the 23rd of [page 174:] January, 1831, did fail to obey such order.” The second specification referred to a direct defiance of orders on January 25th, by which he was absent from the Academy.

Poe pleaded “not guilty” to the first specification of the first charge, and “guilty” to the remaining charges. The court found him guilty on all charges and adjudged that he be dismissed from the service of the United States. The proceedings of the General Courtmartial were approved by the Secretary of War on February 8, 1831, but only to take effect after March 6, 1831.(23)

It is evident that Poe in pleading “not guilty” to detailed charges that could be easily proved, was deliberately putting himself in a position where he must be dismissed, especially as he declined to make a defence. It is also to be noted that there was no charge that reflected upon his moral character.

Poe’s stay at West Point must be looked upon as an interruption of his real career. He was not aided by such education as he consented to receive, and he simply declined to continue, under circumstances which hampered his creative work. In endeavoring to understand his desire to enter the service, which seems to demand some explanation, one reason may be suggested. Poe had suffered for years from a social code which looked askance at the son of an actor and an actress. In Virginia, which held the only code Poe respected, a commission in the Army or Navy carried with it a definite status as “an officer and a gentleman.” But he knew, as he said later in his curious “Autobiography” that the Army was “no place for a poor man.” He must have anticipated more leisure to write at the Academy than he found there, and when his hope, still cherished, that John Allan would help him, vanished, no course was open but to resign.

The only concrete result of his stay at the Academy was a subscription list, circulated among his fellow students, which persuaded a New York publisher, Elam Bliss, to issue the new volume of poems. It is hard to see how Poe had much time to write poetry at West Point, and the new poems must have been conceived during the months in which he was waiting for the appointment.

Poe did not wait at West Point for March 6th, the date fixed by the Courtmartial as that of his dismissal. From the pitiful letter to John Allan, sent from New York on February 21st, we know that he left West Point on February 19, 1831. Poe was evidently ill with severe ear trouble, and the letter, upbraiding Allan for not giving his approval [page 175:] of Poe’s resignation, and at the same time begging for money to help him out of his difficulties, is incoherent both in its tone and its physical appearance. How Poe lived in New York is a mystery, for the subscription of seventy-five cents a volume, which had been paid by many of the cadets, could hardly have netted Poe much, after the expenses had been paid. He was still in New York on March 10th, when he wrote to Superintendent Thayer, asking for a certificate of “standing” in order that he might volunteer in the Polish Army.(24)

This wild scheme coming to nothing, he may have obtained some employment in New York, for there is no evidence that he received any reply from Allan. The latter contented himself with an endorsement, written two years later, in which Poe is described as “the blackest heart and deepest ingratitude,” a mixture of concrete and abstract terms which indicated Allan’s state of mind in April, 1833.

It is not certain when the Poems by Edgar A. Poe, Second Edition, appeared, but it was probably in April, 1831, since it was reviewed in the New York Mirror on May 7th. The review, which may have been by Willis, or George P. Morris, is not unfriendly, but contains no real appreciation of the significance of the volume. It is a smaller book than Al Aaraaf, of one hundred and twenty-four pages, and is dedicated to “The U. S. Corps of Cadets.”

Prefixed to the Poems of 1831 is an introduction by Poe in the form of a “Letter to Mr. — —” dated “West Point — 1831,” and beginning “Dear B—.” who may have been Mr. Bliss, the publisher of the Volume. It has a definite interest as being probably the earliest of Poe’s critical prose expressions to be printed. He states his belief that a poet makes the best critic, suggests that Milton preferred “Comus” to “Paradise Lost,” and then attacks Wordsworth as a metaphysical poet. Poetry, to Poe, “is a beautiful painting whose tints, to minute inspection, are confusion worse confounded, but start boldly out to the cursory glance of the connoisseur.” This foreshadowing of the doctrine of impressionism is worth remembering.

­

Title page of Poems of 1831 [thumbnail]

[Illustration on page 176]
 
Title page of “Poems” of 1831

Poe pays a tribute to the genius of Coleridge and then adopts the first element of Coleridge’s definition of a poem.(25) As Poe expressed it, “a poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object pleasure, not truth.” Instead of proceeding, as Coleridge did, to speak of the relation of the part to the whole — Poe continues his sentence by saying that a poem is opposed “to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure; [page 177:] romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception.”

Poe returned to this theory of poetry in later criticism, but it is seldom that a poet of twenty-two knew so well his own special field of creative art, and was able to express his fundamental conception in such definite words. That he adopted the definition of Coleridge in part is in accord with his later practise to start with an idea from an earlier writer and develop it in his own way.

This theory of Poe’s gains its importance from its relation to the new poems in the edition of 1831. “To Helen,” one of the lyrics which approach perfection, illustrates not only Poe’s standards, but also certain general laws of versification:

“Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicéan barks of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.

 

On desperate seas long wont to roam,

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome.

 

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche

How statue-like I see thee stand,

The agate lamp within thy hand!

Ah, Psyche, from the regions which

Are Holy-Land!”

I print it as it was perfected, through Poe’s various alterations, in the Philadelphia Saturday Museum in 1843, but these changes while very important, lie in individual lines and not in the general conception of the poem. Many and various have been the interpretations of the meaning of “To Helen.” Poe himself told Mrs. Whitman that he wrote it in honor of Mrs. Stanard, and her beauty was probably his initial inspiration. That he changed her own name “Jane” to Helen was natural. “Helen” has become symbolic of beauty, of the Greek type. That he wrote the poem as he claimed, in his “earliest boyhood” seems [page 178:] incredible,(26) for he would surely have included it in the earlier volumes. Indeed, the woman becomes almost instantly symbolic of the poet’s own emotional or creative state. This leads him back after years of spiritual wandering, to an earlier inspiration. The return may be to the definite civilizations of Greece and Rome, or they may be symbolical of beauty in its more general aspects. In the third stanza, it is clear from the invocation that Psyche, or the soul, is another name for Helen, and that the love is an ideal one. It is not hard to imagine that Poe, who was studying Horace, Cicero, and Homer about the time he met Mrs. Stanard, should associate his “native shore” with a culture in which his choice of later study at Virginia showed him to be interested. Indeed, the changes he made in the second stanza prove that this interest was not lessened by 1841. In the substitution of the magnificent phrases that have become an ornament to the language:

“To the glory that was Greece

And the grandeur that was Rome,(27)

for the earlier

“To the beauty of fair Greece

And the grandeur of old Rome”

Poe revealed once more that he wrote best when he wrote in phrases rather than words. The new lines are great ones not simply because of the alliteration, but because no two words in English could better epitomize the contrast between the civilizations of Greece and of Rome than “glory” and “grandeur.” Invert them and the contrast is lost. “Glory” calls up the younger, brighter, more concrete culture which, through its drama and its sculpture, speaks to us with the voices of its undying art. “Grandeur” describes that more sophisticated, more abstract civilization, articulate through its laws and its power, through which we hear the tramp of the Roman legions, on their way to the conquest of the world. The substitution of the inevitable phrases, “that was Greece” for the obvious “of fair Greece” and “that was Rome” for “of old Rome,” creates that atmosphere of finality, of a greatness that was but is no more, which adds immeasurably to the effect.

With this insight of Poe into the classic cultures, it is perhaps unnecessary to seek for further symbolism. The “regions which are Holy [page 179:] Land” may refer to Greece and Rome, or to the surroundings of Mrs. Stanard, who was to him a sacred presence. The fourteenth line in the 1831 form,

“A Psyche from the regions which”

was changed to

“Ah, Psyche, from the regions which.”

This change seems to make the invocation more personal, but the earlier form may be merely a misprint.

Much discussion has raged, also, over the meaning of the word “Nicéan.”(28) I prefer the explanation given to me thirty years ago by my colleague, John C. Rolfe, who identified the adjective with Nicaea, a city founded by Alexander the Great on the banks of the Hydaspes, or Jelum River in India, where a fleet was built to convey a portion of the army through the Red Sea homeward. I see, however, no great light shed upon the poem by any of these interpretations of “Nicaea.” For true to Poe’s conception of poetry, the effect of “To Helen” is pure pleasure in the exquisite harmony of the phrases, creating that unity in variety which makes for great art. The poem is through its meaning a unit, the recording of a soul reawakened to eternal beauty. Through its rhythmical form, it has variety of an unusual quality. Not only do the lines vary in number and intensities of stress, but the stanzas, each of five verses, vary in their rime schemes. If Poe had obeyed a metrical rule, introduced in Middle English from Romance sources, which required each stanza to conform to the succession of rimes established by the first, the immortal phrases of the second stanza could not have been written. In other words, Poe proved that this uniformity is not a law but only a rule which may be broken by a poet to whom the meaning always governs the expression. That this poet was master of the resources of expression makes this deliberate violation of an exotic rule more striking. That it is not a law, can easily be proved by asking anyone who reads the poem intelligently whether he has noticed the differences among the rime schemes of the three stanzas. The reply will always be in the negative.

Next came “Israfel,” not so perfect in form but of singular interest in its revelation of Poe’s own nature and his theory of poetry. The title is explained in the 1831 form by a footnote: “And the angel Israfel, who has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures — Koran.” [page 180:] Poe may have derived this information from George Sale’s Preliminary Discourse on the Koran, (29) where Israfel is also identified as the angel whose office it will be to sound the trumpet at the resurrection.(30)

If, as I have suggested below, Poe derived from Moore his central idea, that of the rivalry of a human voice to that of the angel Israfel, and the supernatural quality of the singer’s lute, he made it in characteristic fashion, his own. The true lyric fervor resounds with the opening stanzas:

“In Heaven a spirit doth dwell

‘Whose heart-strings are a lute’;

None sing so wildly well

As the angel Israfel,

And the giddy stars (so legends tell) [page 181:]

Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell

Of his voice, all mute.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

And they say (the starry choir

And the other listening things)

That Israfeli’s fire

Is owing to that lyre

By which he sits and sings —

The trembling living wire

Of those unusual strings.”(31)

It is in the fifth stanza that Poe expresses his poetic creed:

“Therefore, thou art not wrong,

Israfeli, who despisest

An unimpassioned song;

To thee the laurels belong,

Best bard, because the wisest!

Merrily live, and long!”

As in “Romance,” Poe limits poetry to the “impassioned song” wrung out of the heartstrings of the poet, by a great urge that will not be denied. In the seventh stanza, Poe indicates the supernatural as delicately and as effectively as he ever did:

“Yes, Heaven is thine; but this

Is a world of sweets and sours;

Our flowers are merely — flowers,

And the shadow of thy perfect bliss

Is the sunshine of ours.”

Finally the challenge rang out:

“If I could dwell

Where Israfel

Hath dwelt, and he where I, [page 182:]

He might not sing so wildly well

A mortal melody,

While a bolder note than this might swell

From my lyre within the sky.”

It is the utterance of a proud spirit, unawed even by the lyre of Israfel, willing to match his own voice with the angelic choir. For Poe was listening to an inner harmony, which the pain and sorrow of his outer life might disturb but could not weaken.

In “Israfel” no attempt is made at uniformity in the stanzas, and no loss is suffered. For the poem is a succession of outpourings of the spirit and in each stanza the mood, as is proper, dictates the metrical expression. The calm serenity of the seventh stanza is a prelude to the outburst of the last.

“The Doomed City,” which became “The City of Sin” and finally “The City in the Sea,” is a picture of the death of the soul, brought on by sin. Poe was constantly concerned in his poetry and prose with the effect of sin, rather than with sin itself. Just as something inherently pure in his nature kept Poe’s great rival, Hawthorne, from describing the details of the adultery of Hester Prynne, so Poe, equally aware of the artistic value of reticence, leaves the sins for which the doomed city is punished to the imagination. Poe has so often been described as unmoral by those who fail to understand his work, that it will be necessary to call attention more than once to his realization of the dramatic values of the conflicts between Divine law and the idols wrought either by the strength or the weakness of mankind. Perhaps his own definition of a poem, quoted above, has led to this critical error. But although he speaks of a poem as having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth, he, like Coleridge, italicizes “immediate.” The ultimate object may be the stirring of the reader’s soul to its very depths, as in the “Raven,” or “Ulalume.”

“The City in the Sea” was foreshadowed in “Al Aaraaf.” When the lovers are on the high mountain,

“Rays from God shot down that meteor chain

And hallowed all the beauty twice again,”

but for cities like Gomorrah, the wave is upon them, and their destruction is foreshadowed in four lines printed in The Yankee but later omitted, [page 183:]

“Far down within the crystal of the lake

Thy swollen pillars tremble — and so quake

The hearts of many wanderers who look in

Thy luridness of beauty — and of sin.”(32)

“The City in the Sea” opens with a direct and challenging figure:

“Lo! Death has reared himself a throne

In a strange city lying alone

Far down within the dim West,

Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best

Have gone to their eternal rest.

There shrines and palaces and towers

(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)

Resemble nothing that is ours.

Around, by lifting winds forgot,

Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.”

There is a temptation to forget that this is a biography and not a technical essay on versification. For where in our history has a boy of twenty-two showed such a mastery of nearly every form of temporal, accentual and tonal variety the English language affords? There are two poor lines in the 1831 form of “The City in the Sea,” which I have omitted, but nearly all the great lines are there.

In contrast with “Al Aaraaf,”

“No rays from the holy heaven come down

On the long night-time of that town,”

it is only the light from the lurid sea that streams up the walls and turrets of the city.

Poe secures his effects here and elsewhere by a masterly use of negations. The towers “resemble nothing” that is ours; and later,

“For no ripples curl, alas!

Along that wilderness of glass —

No swellings tell that winds may be

Upon some far-off happier sea —

No heavings hint that winds have been

On seas less hideously serene.” [page 184:]

This complete absence of life and of motion, aids in preserving the unity of tone, wrought out of the harmony of the very elements of variety. If, as is possible, Poe remembered the picture of desolation in Byron’s “Darkness,” he has surpassed his former master in the remarkable economy of the strokes and in the handling of the climax.

“The Valley Nis” is a variant on the theme of “The City in the Sea.” At the end of the introductory lines of 1831, which were happily omitted later, Poe explained,

“But the ‘Valley Nis’ at best

Means ‘the valley of unrest,’ ”

and the poem is now known by that title. Some amusement may be gained by reading the elaborate efforts of at least one recent biographer to derive the title from the “Nisses” of Celtic fairy lore! Of course “Nis” is “Sin,” inverted. The eternal restlessness is a punishment for an unknown sin. The effective method of negation is again used:

“Nothing there is motionless.”

There is one exception. In the revision, Poe changed the next two lines,

“Helen, like thy human eye

There th’ uneasy violets lie”

to

“Nothing save the airs that brood

Over the magic solitude.”

The omission of “Helen” marked the usual change to a less personal note. It may, of course, have referred to Mrs. Stanard. It was a great improvement to make the air, normally the most active element, the only exception to the eternal motion. In its final revision, the poem is almost perfect in its maintenance of tone.

“Irene” experienced many verbal changes before it emerged as “The Sleeper,” in 1842. The lament for the death of a beautiful woman remains, however, the theme. Poe at one time preferred “The Sleeper” to “The Raven.”(33) Few will agree with him, but in “The Sleeper” there is an uncanny association between the dead woman and

“The bodiless airs, a wizard rout,”

which

“Flit through thy chamber in and out.” [page 185:]

The old superstition that the night air was filled with evil spirits lasted long, and in 1831 few people slept with their windows open! Poe was developing his faculty of using words and phrases that were active and colorful.

“The ruin moulders into rest”

is an example of the progress from the obvious to the inevitable. If only he had omitted the line,

“Soft may the worms about her creep”

for which no defence can be made!

“A Pæan” with its short, almost jerky lines, and its frequent lapses into banality, is so far distant from “Lenore” of later days that it would misrepresent Poe’s achievement in 1831 to speak of it here in that later and more familiar form. Yet the most truly poetical conception in “Lenore” is already in “A Pæan.”

The revisions of “Tamerlane,” “Al Aaraaf” and “Fairyland” have already been discussed; they were wisely abandoned and Poe returned to the earlier versions in his later publications. Their very existence proves that Poe had not yet completely established his standards of taste. But if the volume of 1829 contained poetry unlike any that had as yet appeared in the United States, the volume of 1831 gave us in “To Helen,” “Israfel,” “The Doomed City,” “The Valley Nis” and “Irene,” poetry of a kind that had not yet been written in the English language.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 166:]

(1)  The Ellis-Allan “Daybook” for 1829-1832 contains the following entries: “Item, Jan. 8, 1830. John Allan for E. Poe 1 pr. Gloves 1.38./Jan. 30, 1830 John Allan for Mr. Poe. to ½ doz. Ret. L. Wool Hose. 4.50/May 13, 1830. John Allan for E. Poe. 4 blankets, 5.34. 7 (?) Hokfs. 4.63.”

(2)  Valentine Letters, pp. 225-227.

(3)  See pp. 206-207 and Appendix VI.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 167:]

(4)  Valentine Letters, p. 261.

(5)  Cash Book, Ellis-Allan Papers, L. of C. The date of the entry, of course, may not have been the date on which Allan gave Poe the equipment.

(6)  See pp. 206-207.

(7)  Valentine Letters, p. 219.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 168:]

(8)  Valentine Letters, p. 237.

(9)  Valentine Letters, p. 261.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 169:]

(10)  John Allan’s Will is copied in Will Book No. 2. Chancery Court of Richmond, pp. 457-462.

(11)  T. H. Ellis in his article, Richmond Standard, May 7, 1881, gives an extensive account of Mrs. Allan’s ancestry and later social career in Richmond. They do not, however, concern this narrative.

(12)  Statements concerning the curriculum and discipline are based on Regulations of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point (New York, 1832).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 170:]

(13)  For an account of West Point nearly contemporary with Poe’s term, see Roswell Park, A Sketch of the History and Topography of West Point (Philadelphia, 1840). For a very effective drawing of the Point and surroundings, especially that of Major L’Enfant, in 1780, the plan of Major Villefranche, and the photographs of South Barracks, in which Poe lived, and other buildings of his day, see History of West Point, by Captain Edward C. Boynton (New York, 1863).

(14)  For Gibson’s account, see Harper’s Magazine (November 1867), pp. 754-756, reprinted in Ingram I, 82-87 and Harrison’s Life, pp. 85-94; for Jones’ “interview,” recorded in the New York Sun, May 10, 1903, supplemented by a later “interview,” May 29, 1904, see Woodberry, I, 369-372.

(15)  See Woodberry, I, 70.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 171:]

(16)  The books and records of the Adjutant’s Office, containing the history of the Academy, were consumed by fire in 1838. Records of Poe’s daily standing and conduct may have been included.

(17)  Quoted in Sales Catalogue, Anderson Galleries, January 25, 1917.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 172:]

(18)  Valentine Letters, p. 259.

(19)  See pp. 110-111.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 173:]

(20)  Valentine Letters, pp. 261-262.

(21)  History of West Point, p. 245.

(22)  Regulation No. 148. Edition of 1832.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 174:]

(23)  The certified copy of the trial and the findings of the War Department are given in detail in the Appendix.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 175:]

(24)  The original autograph letter is preserved in the library at West Point.

(25)  See Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 178:]

(26)  Preface to the 1845 edition of his poems.

(27)  First printed in Graham’s Magazine, XIX (September, 1841), 123, where, however, the second line read “To the grandeur that was Rome.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 179:]

(28)  See Killis Campbell, The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, p. 201, for several theories.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 180:]

(29)  Section IV, paragraph 76. “Israfil” is the spelling used here, as in Moore’s “Fire Worshippers,” where a note explains a line, “Sweet as the Angel Israfil’s” by “The Angel Israfil, who has the most melodious voice of all God’s creatures.” Poe might have taken the quotation from Moore without looking up the Koran, but “Al Aaraaf” indicates that he was at least acquainted with the Koran. Killis Campbell suggests that the line “whose heart strings are a lute” comes from two lines in Béranger’s Le Refus:

“Son coeur est un luth suspendu

Sitôt qu’on touche, il résonne.”

which Poe used as a motto for his story “The Fall of the House of Usher” in 1845. This is quite possible. But both Campbell and Woodberry, who stated (I, 180 n.) that “the idea on which his poem is founded . . . is neither in Moore, Sale, or the Koran” apparently overlooked a passage in Moore’s “The Light of the Haram”:

The Georgian’s song was scarcely mute,

When the same measure, sound for sound,

Was caught up by another lute,

And so divinely breathed around,

That all stood hushed and wondering,

And turned and looked into the air,

As if they thought to see the wing

Of Israfil, the Angel, there; —

So powerfully on every soul

That new, enchanted measure stole.

While now a voice, sweet as the note

Of the charmed lute, was heard to float

Along its chords, and so entwine

Its sounds with theirs, that none knew whether

The voice or lute was most divine,

So wondrously they went together: —

(30)  Preliminary Discourse, Section IV, par. 8.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 181:]

(31)  As before, I quote the best form, that of the Lorimer Graham copy of the 1845 edition. Important revisions were made in 1841, when the poem appeared in Graham’s Magazine, and in 1843 in the Saturday Museum. The first stanza in 1831 read:

“In Heaven a spirit doth dwell

Whose heartstrings are a lute —

None sing so wild — so well

As the angel Israfel

And the giddy stars are mute.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 183:]

(32)  The Yankee, N. S., No. 6 (December, 1829), 296.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 185:]

(33)  See Chapter XVI, Letter of Poe to Eveleth, December 15, 1846.


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Notes:

In the original, "The Yankee" in footnote 32 has not been italicized. The error has been corrected here.


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[S:1 - EAP:ACB, 1941] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - E. A. P.: A Critical Biography (A. H. Quinn) (Chapter 08)