Text: Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “The Power of Words in Poe’s ‘Silence’,” Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies (1978), pp. 56-72 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 56:]

The Power of Words in Poe’s “Silence”


THE haunting prose of “SilenceA Fable” has teased critics since its original appearance as “SIOPEA FABLE [In the manner of the Psychological Autobiographists.],” in The Baltimore Book, one of many ephemeral literary annuals of the early nineteenth century. It subsequently reappeared in 1840 (TGA) and 1845 (BJ: September 6), and Poe’s revisions, albeit few, are important and will be examined below. They indicate his developing artistry because the tale moves from undeniable pastichewith obvious dependence upon sourcesinto subtler refinements that show what so occupied Poe: the terror not of Germany, or literary Gothicism, but of the soul. Surveying textual commentary about and critical approaches to the tale reveals confusion, downright inaccuracies, and uneasy analyseswhich customarily manifest themselves by cursory bypassings of “Silence.”

Three critical remarks supply differing attitudes. First, an anonymous review of the original 1837 appearance:

This fable, if we reck it right, is intended to indicate the horror of silence, that man may not be entirely accursed while he can hear the sounds which hurtle in the bosom of nature; the curse of tumult is represented as happiness to the curse of silence. The strain is wild, the language beautiful and peculiar to Mr. Poe.

Second, another anonymous commentator, noticing TGA: “Siope and The [sic] MS. Found in a Bottle” afford good specimens of the author’s stronger and more graphic powers.” Finally, a modern critique, by G. R. Thompson:

“Shadow” (1835) and “Silence” (1837), under their mystic and “poetic” and flawed surfaces, in substance and style seem to be parodies of pseudo-poetic transcendental fictions, especially those of Bulwer-Lytton, De Quincey, and the “psychological autobiographists” (Disraeli’s Contarini Fleming was first subtitled A Psychological Auto-Biography) indicated in Poe’s subtitle to “Silence.” . . . “Silence” develops the theme of a deceptive [page 57:] and illusory world, with shrieking water lilies, lowing hippopotami, graven rocks whose letters change. At the end, a Demon laughs hysterically at a confused human being, while a lynx stares steadily at the Demon’s face. That the lynx is a symbol of the ironic vision peering unflinchingly into the face of perversity is corroborated by Poe’s lynx metaphor in Marginalia. “It is only the philosophical lynxeye that, through the indignitymist of Man’s life, can still discern the dignity of Man.”

Thompson adds that “Silence” and others he has been discussing as representing the comic-ironic side of Poe “are the ‘Gothic’ tales, published in the Southern Literary Messenger from 1835 to 1837, that Poe intended to include in the burlesque Folio Club series. . . . . .(1)

The quotations make evident the indecision abundant in criticism of “Silence,” although the contemporaneous pair show that early readers discovered no humorous intent. Thompson of course has stressed that we must read Poe anew, even if his own readings often elicit negative responses. My study presents accurately the Ms fragment of “Silence” and some theories about how the evolving texts emphasize an even greater serious intent on Poe’s part. To proceed in the Biblical vein so obvious in the tale, the last shall be first, and I place next the printing of the manuscript.(2)



forest, and up higher at the rustling Heaven, and into the crimson moon. And I lay close within shelter of the lilies and I observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitudebut the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

And the man turned his attention from the Heaven, and looked out upon the I dreary river Zaireand upon the yellow ghastly waters, and upon the pale legions of the water-lilies. And the man listened to the sighs of the water-lilies and to the murmur that came up from among them. And I lay close within my covert, and I observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitudebut the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

Then I went down into the recesses of the morass, and waded far in among the wilderness of the lilies, and called unto the hippopotami which dwelt among the I fens in the recesses of the morass. And the hippopotami heard my call and came with the behemoth unto the foot of the rock, and roared loudly and fearfully beneath the moon. And I [page 58:] lay close within my covert and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitudebut the night waned and he sat upon the rock.

Then I cursed the elements, and a frightful tempest gathered in the Heaven where before there had been no wind. And the Heaven became livid with the violence of the tempestand the rain beat upon the I head of the manand the floods of the river came downand the river was tormented into foamand the water-lilies shrieked within their bedsand the trees crumbled before the windand the lightning flashedand the thunder felland the rock rocked to its foundation. And I lay close within my covert, and I observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled within the solitude but the night waned, and he sat upon the rock.

Then I grew angry and cursed with a silent curse the river, and the lilies, and the wind, and the I forest, and the Heaven, and the thunder, and the sighs of the water-lilies. And they became accursedand were still. And the moon ceased to totter in its


pathway up the Heavenand the thunder died awayand the lightning did not flashand the clouds hung motionlessand the waters sunk to their level and remainedand the trees ceased to rockand the water-lilies sighed no moreand the murmur was heard no longer from among themnor any shadow of sound throughout the vast illimitable desert. And I looked upon the characters of the I rock, and they were changedand the characters were SILENCE.

And mine eyes fell upon the countenance of the manand his countenance was wan with terror. And he raised his head from his hand, and stood forth upon the rockand listened. But there was no voice throughout the vast illimitable desert, and the characters upon the rock were SILENCE. And the man shudderedand turned his face awayand fled afar off and I saw him no more.

Now there are fine tales in the volumes of the Magiin the iron-bound melancholy volumes of the Magi. I Therein, I say, are glorious histories of the Heaven, and of the Earth, and of the mighty Seaand of the Genii that over-ruled the Sea, and the Earth, and the lofty Hea-ven. There was much lore too in the Sayings which were said by the Sybilsand holy, holy things were heard of old by the dim leaves that trembled around Dodonabut as Allah liveth that fable which the Demon told me, as he sat by my side in the shadow of the old tomb at Balbec, I hold to be the most wonderful of all. And I as the Demon made an end of his story he fell back within the cavity of the tomb and laughed. And I tried, but could not laugh with the Demonand he cursed me because I could not laugh. And the lynx which dwelleth in the cavern by the tomb came out from his lair, and lying down at the feet of the Demon looked at him steadily in the face.


The text above is a portion of Poe’s projected 1833 “Tales of the Folio Club,” which never appeared. The MS., a single leaf with writing on both sides, measures roughly quarto size, being 6 by 7 5/8 inches just slightly smaller, because of trimming, than that for the Introduction to the Folio-Club text, now at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. It is numbered pages 61 and 62, and its opening corresponds, generally, with the seventh paragraph (that is, beginning about halfway through) of the final published version, and continues to approximate the printed texts, although the differences will be pointed out. The paper is white wove, aged to a creamy or ivory color.


Advocates of latent satire upon Transcendentalism in “Silence” must give way when we recall that the impact of that school, particularly of its American branch, was not felt until after the first publication of the tale. Because “Silence” was written between 1831 and 1833, we must discount such speculation and turn instead to resemblances between the prose and some of Poe’s own verse, keeping in mind some other inspirations as well. If the tale was originally intended as an obvious quiz upon Edgar Poe, the youthful poet of melancholy themes and settings, as Hammond reasonably suggests, it also contained elements that lift it from the realms of pure satire and parody. It departs from techniques and the general tone of tales like “Lionizing,” “Loss of Breath,” and “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” which number among Poe’s earlier, overtly comic ventures.

Among the members of the Folio Club “Silence” may have appeared as an evident piece of orientalism of the English Romantic-Early-Victorian variety. It might also have reminded them of the verse of Edgar Allan Poe, the little man in black. The so-called [page 60:] overdone, luscious prose might have been meant to approximate a drunkard’s irregular speech, because the Introduction to the whole work particularly mentions eating and drinking, and several of Poe’s other early tales feature drunkenness or near-drunkenness as part of their appeal. “King Pest,” “The Duc de L’Omelette,” “The Assignation,” and “Lionizing” are such pieces, laying the groundwork, one might say, for such subsequent fictions as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Hop-Frog,” in which alcohol leads to far more horrifying consequences. One subtle aspect of “Silence,” then, may be that it is told, or read, by one of an increasingly irresponsible, wine-sodden group, although, detached from such a context, it can stand on its own merits as a symbolic drama of a tortured human self, one who cannot elude his Demon, or his irrational, destructive side, a part of the self that exists close to the animal potential within all of us (witness the lynx) and just as close to death, implicit in the “shadow of the tomb.” Poe’s revisions strengthen one’s impression that “Silence” is more than easily dismissable froth.

Traces of Bulwer, Coleridge, De Quincey, as well as of Poe himself, do figure in the backgrounds of “Silence,” but other origins may be detected; we must consider these backgrounds because they probably relate to several revisions. Poe’s tale also keeps good company among the “Fables,” “Allegories,” “Parables,” and “Sketches” that overflowed the pages of thenpopular periodicals, gift books, and annuals. Its orientalism is another stock in trade of the same market, and, considering the wealth of other oriental items in The Baltimore Book, we understand that the young author did not err when he directed “Silence” to its editors. Long ago, that indefatigable quarrier after Poe’s sources, Killis Campbell, asked (strangely enough for one so steeped in such backgrounds): “And whence could he have drawn the conception of such a story as ‘Silence’?” With Poe’s appropriations from it recorded elsewhere, one probable reply is “Moore’s Byron,” although others, the Bible among them, are just as likely. If within the confines of the Folio Club “SiopeA FABLE” had comic perspective, it may have had several ramifications as yet unnoticed. Poe’s fascination with “demons” is evident in other early writings, such as “Alone,” “Metzengerstein,” and “The Assignation,” and one can only wonder if Byron’s letter to Murray (December 27, 1816), opening “As the demon of silence seems to have possessed [page 61:] you,” — which phrasing lies in close proximity to remarks about ruins and “poetical desolation” — may partially have inspired the writing of “Silence.” Shortly before, moreover, Byron stresses the decay and desolation of the so-called Tomb of Juliet, which he visited in Verona, as well as that of Venice, concluding: “But I have been familiar with ruins too long to dislike desolation.” With Poe’s admiration for Byron well known, the latter’s remarks about Childe Harold III: “It is a fine indistinct piece of poetical desolation, and my favorite,” may also contribute to “Silence,” With revision, however, the tale becomes less a quiz and more a dramatized version of the bombardment and disintegration of a psyche, less an eastern travel tale in the Byron-Bulwer mode, and instead a delineation of those realms “out of SPACEout of TIME” so dear to Poe.(3)

In so brief a piece, the alterations of title, subtitle, motto, as well as a deft rearrangement of several verbal structures, assume more than casual importance. Poe’s methods of prose fiction link with those usually considered the hallmarks of verse. Even an ever-so-slight shift in punctuation may reshape meaning, as attested in the meticulous attention to like matters by a kindred spirit, A. E. Housman, fanatically proofreading his tiny poems. Poe’s procedures in “Silence” “charge” the meaning of what remains with additional suggestiveness or undercurrent just the sort of excellence he recommended for a truly great tale. A convolute plot is not essential; “Silence” is as striking a vision as that other early, scantily plotted tale, “The Visionary,” later “The Assignation.” Sound and sense coalesce neatly in this recitation to make it even more of a dream fiction than is the tale of intrigue and passion in Venice, and the revisions highlight the dreaminess.(4)

The Demon tries with cleverly orchestrated sound effects, as much as by, or more than by, visual lures, to enchant his listener, our narrator. That the Demon does not wholly accomplish his task, but that he does manage to instill an inescapable uneasiness into his quarry is only too clear as “Silence” closes. Like Egaeus in “Berenice,” the narrator in “Silence” has delved deeply into outré, literary pursuits, and, like Egaeus and the protagonist-narrator in “MS. Found in a Bottle,” his soul ultimately becomes as ruinous as the spectacle he is shown. Not accidentally does “Silence” end in shadow and keep the narrator firmly subordinated to the Demon and lynx. He, the narrator, [page 62:] has become nothing; that is, he has been so lured from normal, everyday reality that he now exists in a mental-spiritual void, comparable to the desolation pictured by the Demon. The auditory effect in the tale is hypnotic if it is read aloud, as Poe thought poetry should be, and as much fiction also was at the time. So far as I can comprehend it, the ultimate result is not comic. Witness the replacement of the flowery “litten” by “lighted” in describing the moonlight upon the characters in the rock. The first word is hokey De Quincey or Coleridge, the second is good sense in a tale now out of the FolioClub context. Poe may have written in a manner that readily reminded his contemporariesand later readersof Bulwer, Disraeli, De Quincey, and Coleridge, but perhaps the criticism by the FolioClub hearers, not “Silence” itself, would have run into burlesque and “dunderheadism.” If the tale were intended for the little man in black as Poe, it may have been composed primarily to draw attention to his early verse as misunderstood works of art rather than to satirize them or those writers just named. That Poe’s awareness of his own methods may have produced a measure of caricature within the Folio-Club framework is not unthinkable, because in this respect he and his later but fellow poet Swinburne knew their craft so well that they could pillory it. We recall, too, that Poe’s attitude toward his art grew ambivalent at times.(5)

The title and epigraph changes possibly dissuade readers from seeing too obvious sources. The first epigraph is from Poe’s own “Al Aaraaf ’: “Quiet we call Silencewhich is the merest word of all.” In subsequent appearances, the alteration of “SIOPEA FABLE” to “SilenceA Fable” and the epigraph to “The mountain pinnacles slumber; valleys, crags, and caves are silent,” from a fragment of Greek verse by Alcman, are significant. Both revisions reveal that the drift is away from spotlighting Poe himself (if we agree with Hammond that “Siope” may first have meant “is Poe”) and toward a broader implication throughout the tale. The later title may also suggest the eradication of an initial “piquancy” of the sort Mr. Blackwood praised to the Signora Psyche Zenobia. If Poe intended to leave punning and potential hoaxing behind, then the confusing Greek title (Siopetransliteration of Greek ‘silence’) becomes extraneous and diminishes the effect of his ever-desired representative fine brief tale. The lines of Alcman become more functional, reinforcing [page 63:] Poe’s objections to mottoes that did not point the way toward the main intent in a tale or poem (H.VIII:125-126), and link more tightly to what follows than “Al Aaraaf” had, playing subtly upon the double strands of aural-visual content. The 1845 text also dispenses with the subtitle, as if to indicate our writer’s departure from such popular influences upon his juvenilia as Disraeli’s novels.

Clearer functionalism appears too in the deletion or muting of specific geographical references, or indeed of most tangible referents. For example, the verbose opening of 1837 includes “There is a spot upon this accursed earth which thou hast never yet beheld. And if by any chance thou hast beheld it, it must have been in one of those vigorous dreams which come like the Simoom upon the brain of the sleeper who hath lain down to sleep among the forbidden sunbeams among the sunbeams, I say, which slide from off the solemn columns of melancholy temples in the wilderness.” Cutting this passage produces not just greater concision, so far as the rudiments of prose composition go, but plunges readers more quickly into the midst of the intense drama of the self, which I think is central to “Silence.” Although the tale might be read as yet another bit of hackneyed orientalism for average readers, what with the references to Libya and the river Zaire, excising “the old tomb at Balbec,” (which had appeared in the manuscript, but not in any published version), eliminates actual geographical location while it leads away from Poe’s earlier writings. An ancient ruined city famous for pagan sun worship, Balbec had already appeared in “Al Aaraaf” and “MS. Found in a Bottle”; hence the author probably wanted to clean out this too detectable echo of his own work, as well as to create an increasingly less realistic “world” for intensifying the sense of desolation and alienation noticed by both Demon and narrator in this eerie alternation between horrifying noises and the more horrible silence. The removal of the sunshine lighting the temples would heighten this shadowy, obscure vision. In the familiar dream structure of a Poe tale, the move from reality, as symbolized by the specific eastern regions mentioned at the opening to a nongeographical destination at the end, is perfect artistry. The narrator completely enters a visionary world, then awakens.

Even though much sensational sound is mentionedthe wind, the thunder, the hippo roars, and the laughterit is told rather than cast [page 64:] into dialogue or direct discourse. In other words, “Silence” is decidedly a narrated tale, framed by a device akin to that in “MS. Found.” It is a retrospective vision, but one sufficiently compelling to drive the narrator to relate it, after the manner of Coleridge’s famous old mariner, Byron’s versifying storytellers, or Poe’s own Montresor. If it is a recounting of exaggerated horrors, which may be overdone solely because they drive the narrator into incoherence, it is an incoherent confessionalism, intensely personal in nature. Perhaps our narrator only imagines that a real, blue-fire Gothic Demon related these wild, weird events, and the bracketing of this narrative with those in the Magian chronicles may indicate our tale-teller’s own sense of uncertainty (and the consequent implication of the tale’s being at a remove from himself proper as he nears his conclusion). Such uncertainty complements the movement of the earlier sections, shot full of dashes and other punctuation to force careful attention because of the weird sights and strange language, by hearer or reader.

“Demon” begins with a capital d fairly consistently,(6) as if this creature were a personification of some emotional force, such as Hope, Memory, and Love, which populate allegorical writingin spite of Poe’s strictures about such techniques. He is never described, but exists only as a voice to create word-pictures for his listener, who, like the man of the Demon’s tale, seems cursed into silence. Hence “his” tale is told for him by the Demon. This creature may, ironically, resemble the God, with the “G” always in uppercase, of the King James Bible in creating a “world” for his listener. A linked irony is the change of “Deity,” describing the man in 1837, to “deity”which ever-so-slight alteration may be evidence for our seeing the Demon as essentially evil, with none of the vitality that “daemonic” might imply. If he, a probable psychological symbol, is so designated as to make him more credible for his double, the narrator, then he must embody deep implications for his other self, and, as such, could hardly be humorous within the context of the tale. The narrator cannot share his laughter about desolation and emotional harrowing. Another Biblical facet, not unreasonably enhanced by the Demon-deity spellings, is that this Demon resembles Satan in his role as Christ’s tempter. Like that devil, he exercises his wiles to ensnare his victim, by creating a hypnotically musical “poem” that simultaneously persuades the ear of his listener and reveals a scene of [page 65:] visual desolation and spiritual vacuity. Poe anticipates the vein mined by Swinburne, whose poems often lull so much with their “music” that readers fail to penetrate to the underlying themes of pain and fear.(7)

It is worth noting here that in the second printing of “The Visionary” (SLM July 1835) the “Demon” of Romance becomes “Genius,” and that the second version of “MS. Found” also alters “[the phantom ship] rose up, like a demon of the deep” to just plain “rose.” Evidently, Poe does not consider casually his concept of demonism, but seems to reserve the terminology for representing evil and fearful, not comic, phenomena. Noteworthy, too, is the refashioned final glimpse by the Demon of his man. The MS. runs: “and I saw him no more,” but in 1837 this becomes “and I beheld him no more,” which, finally, stands: “so that I beheld him no more.” The trite conjunction departs as a more Biblical verb replaces the equally humdrum “saw.” The impossible stylistics that some readers attribute to “Silence” do not, it appears, represent merely the jeu d’esprit of a parodist, out for the hides of Bulwer, De Quincey, & Co. A similar achievement of precision occurs in the closing lines. The lynx of the MS. “came out from his lair, and lying down at the feet of the Demon looked at him steadily in the face.” In print that same Lynx “came out therefrom, and lay down at the feet of the Demon, and looked at him steadily in the face.” The consistency in tense improves, and, more important, the rhetorical shift creates an echo, by the narrator, of the Demon’s phraseology. So, the Demon’s impact is powerful; he tells a story, and his listener in consequence “speaks,” or perhaps more strictly within the Folio-Club environs, reads in imitative language. The mood, however, suggests no comedy, no parody.

Another reshuffling in the text supports my contention. The conclusion to the sixth paragraph in 1837 reads: “And the moon shone upon his face, and upon the features of his face, and oh! they were more beautiful than the airy dreams which hovered about the souls of the daughters of Delos!” Such splendid beauty is inconsistent with the man’s state as he flounders amongst the dreary regions outlined by the Demon; hence, the portrait becomes “and, in the few furrows upon his cheek I read the fables of sorrow, and weariness, and disgust with mankind, and a longing after solitude.”(8) [page 66:]

Most obviously, facile lyricism departs from this passage; the alliterative effect is inessential here. It gives a cast of effeminacy to this man who is a “deity,” but a deity brought low by an evil tormentor. Reducing the echo of “characters” (H.I:223;I:32) by substituting “then” also alters a bit of clumsy repetition, a practice notable as well in the condensation, through revision, of the opening paragraph. The baneful effects of such yearning for isolation from regular human communality are also too quickly realized in the man’s reaction to desolation and silence. His state parallels that of our narrator, who cannot laugh, and finally, who cannot even respond directly to the darker side of his own nature, but exists in an emotionally barren limbo, and places the tales of the Magi, as it were, between himself and the Demon’s tale. What originally may have been jibes at the creations of young Poe the versifier become through careful revision the influence of a threatening aspect of self.

A reader may begin to go round in circles because of the characterization in “Silence.” The man in the Demon’s vision may be a mirror image of the narrator, considering that both are left shattered emotionally by the end, one in frantic flight, the other in torpid meditation, but do these multiple reflections or segments of one’s self offer deliberate parody of reality, as, say, the Henry IV of Pirandello’s play does? Given the Old Testament tone, which seldom deals in crackling humor, I think not. Our narrator is isolated, within his own morbidity, and alienated (he is alone, or so it would seem). Contrary to some views, he is neither absurd nor primarily a caricature, but he is lonely.(9) Where he is and where he has been matters little, because anyone could experience a similar psychological isolation were he to journey far enough within himself, and encounter his own “Demen.”Removing the tangibles and other signposts of the concrete, such as those already noticed, makes more of a psychological drama out of this one-time pastiche. The “tomb” is nonspecific enough as it stands at the last to show Poe’s move from magazine to psychological Gothicism. The conclusion to “Silence” is emotionally correct; after the imaginative journey through the Demon’s land of terrorinto some frightening recesses of the soulno better destination could be reached than the “shadow of the tomb.” This phrase, rather than the manuscript reading, may indicate Poe’s arrival by 1837 at some principles of solider stature, beyond those of the mere parodist, if indeed [page 67:] such were his earliest main intentions. The “hero” in “Silence” adumbrates such later characters in the Poe gallery as Montresor (whose tale also provides us with plenty of laughter of a mirthless sort), as well as the greatest Gothic hero of them all in American Literature: Melville’s Ishmael. Taking away geographical particularity from the tomb, Poe intensifies its psychological dimension, making it akin to the foreboding November in Ishmael’s soul. It is not so important that we move from the Libya and Congo River (Zaire) of the origin a Baltimore Book text to another global location (Balbec); what counts is the slackening of the moorings of mental balance and stability. Poe could create the converse; that is, he could emphasize realism and tangibility where it contributed strength to the desired effect. For instance, the novice Poe wrote in MS.: “and the lightning flashedand the thunder fell.” Wisely, he changed the printed phraseology to “and the thunder rolledand the lightning fell.” Sound and sense improve in the revision because the “roll” of this thunder is onomatopoetic, and lightning literally does fall, as well as flash. Its falling about the terrified victim of the Demon’s wrath is far more calculated to engender terror in his and in the narrator-listener’s soul.

In a “fable” like “Silence,” the confusion of appearance and reality is no mighty wonder, and the supernatural being and strange animal contribute to the typical fable elements in the tale. Poe, however, carefully manipulated his power of words to move beyond the Gothic and into the symbolic and psychological, even while he employed traditional themes. Supernatural the Demon is for those bent on seeking out only another ghost story, but Poe’s imagination modified this spirit into something of greater substance, nonphysical though it is. Gone is the surface of mere hair-raising, like that in Bulwer’s “Monos and Daimonos,” and, perhaps via Coleridge and De Quincey, a more genuine literature appears. Just so with the lynx; he becomes far more than another specimen of travel-book fauna, although he may initially have been intended for just that if “Silence” was to provide the Folio Club with a tale à la Disraeli-Bulwer-De Quincey, to be misinterpreted by those ever more sodden litterateurs. Maybe the narrator and listeners alike could grow “spirit”-sodden in another fashion in relating to this poetic prose. A lynx recurs in Marginalia, but, as I see it, the later context differs from [page 68:] that in “Silence.” Revision shows the import in the latter; the MS. reads: “And the lynx which dwelleth in the cavern by the tomb, came out from his lair, and lying down at the feet of the Demon looked at him steadily in the face.” Prior to any publication, Poe recast this passage thus: “And the lynx which dwelleth forever in the tomb, came out therefrom, and lay down at the feet of the Demon, and looked at him steadily in the face.” Besides creating more felicitous syntax, the final rendering makes the creature a far less actual species, placing him beyond traditional, sensational Gothicism, instead grounding him in psychological regions, and making him far more suggestive or symbolic. A classical symbol of perfidy, this lynx, when more closely associated with the vague “tomb” rather than a realistic habitat for an actual animal, moves us deftly into the regions of fable from those of wildlife accounts. A dangerous companion, he glances at an equally untrustworthy fellow, and herein is formed yet another mirror image, so to speak. No wonder the narrator is sore perplexed at the end; from such a deadly duo he shies away, although he cannot entirely elude them. Terror of the soul cannot be so easily shaken off as that of Germany.

Several other textual matters are of bibliographical importance, and Stewart’s transcriptions (H.I:380-382) have allowed inaccuracies to continue for nearly three-quarters of a century. First, he dates the Baltimore Book printing as 1839. The volume, however, has no date printed in it, and the actual time of appearance was probably late 1837 for the holiday season extending into 1838, which idea is supported by the 1837 date of the first quoted review. Second, he collates inaccurately the Baltimore Book with the BJ text because both actually read: “And I lay close within my covert and watched the actions of the man” (cf. H.I:381). Stewart also creates an artificial variance between the Ms and BJ. Both read (H.I:224, BJ.1:12) “Magi,” the dash not being omitted, as he implies, in the Ms Such botches may appear unimportant, but with Poe’s own attention to minute matters in punctuation and his criticisms of editors who do not abide by an author’s intents, we cannot overlook them.(10)


From the evidence presented above, I trust that we may read “silence” anew. The new stems from the traditional, however, and [page 69:] what the early reviewers, Harrison, and still other twentieth-century students, discern as seriousness in this tale is the foundation upon which I have built. Poe’s earlier tales continued as abiding interests of their creator, not merely because the time span allowed for his greater revisions in them, but because, as the import of much recent scholarship reveals, they arose from ambiguous origins; so he continually reshaped them. What may have been highly comic, in ways yet undetected because many of us cannot locate the staggering numbers of sources available to him, such as no-longer-extant periodical literature, seems to have gained increasing seriousness. Hence, following secondary materials that form a pattern of serious to comic, insofar as interpretations go, my own reading of “Silence” might be deemed new.


1.  The quotations are respectively from the Baltimore Monument, 2 (December 2, ‘837), 68-69 [which has, so far as I can determine, not been reprinted elsewhere; so I quote it entire]; SLM, 6 (‘840),’26; G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison, Wis., 1973), p. 169, who errs in listing “Silence” among the SLM tales, and whose remarks about the parodic and “Gothic” traits may lead readers to see overmuch humor therein; cf. Joseph J. Moldenhauer’s cautionary note in his review of Thompson’s book, NCF, 29 (1974), 215-220; and also that of Donald Daiker, SSF, 12 (1975), 41-42. J. Lasley Dameron, moreover, descries weaknesses in Thompson’s too-tight bracketing of A. W. Schlegel’s critical theories with Poe’s practices, a matter to which I also draw attention in Part Two of my study of revisions in “The Assignation.” Dameron’s review of Thompson is in MissQ, 27 (1974), 221-223; my essay is in LC, 40 (1976), 22’-251.

Debate about the serious versus the comic “Silence” has a long tradition, although, as stated in the text, contemporaneous reviewers stressed its visual and psychological traitstwo of Poe’s strongest points. James A. Harrison (H.1:134) and Hervey Allen, Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1934), P. 325, see serious implications in the tale, as do two poets, John Gould Fletcher and Edwin Markham, whose views appear in The Muse Anthology of Poetry [Edgar Allan Poe Number], 2 (1938), 27, 42-47; and Roy P. Basler, Sex, Symbolism, and Psychology in Literature (New Brunswick, NJ., 1948), pp. 177-178. Two more recent critiques that discern satire aimed at Transcendentalism are Clark Griffith, “Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ and the English Romantics,” UTQ, 21 (1954), 8-25; and Alice Moser Claudel, “What Has Poe’s ‘Silence’ to Say?” BSUF, 10 (1969), 66-70both discredited by Eric W. Carlson in Poe on the Soul of Man (Baltimore, 1973), pp. 6,14-15. Like Griffith, [page 70:] Robert Regan pays passing respects to “Silence”along the way to “The Masque of the Red Death”noting comic qualities in both: NCF, 25 (1970), 281. He and Alexander Hammond, the latter in more extensive readings that attempt to place “Silence” in the Folio-Club scheme, realize that Poe’s humor defies analysis in simplistic terms. See Hammond’s essay in this collection and “A Reconstruction of Poe’s 1833 Tales of the Folio Club: Preliminary Notes,” PoeS, 5 (1972), 28, which synthesizes many time-honored studies of the humorous potential in the Folio-Club project. Yet another sensible interpretation is D:130-132. These studies are all too fleeting in attending to “Silence,” fine though the brief individual perceptions be.

2.  As with interpretive studies, textual work with “Silence” is erratic. The “facsimile” in John W. Robertson’s Bibliography of the Writings of Edgar A. Poe (San Francisco, 1934), II, facing pp. 114 and 115, does not agree with the actual MS. We are also misinformed in I, p. 224, to the effect that in republishing after the first appearance “Poe omitted the opening paragraph,” a reprehensible misstatement, but one heretofore unchallenged. He significantly revised the paragraph. The Ms now reposes in the Virginia State Library, and is published here through the courtesy of the Poe Foundation, Inc., Randolph W. Church, and Donald R. Haynes. I also thank Mary Ann Sterner, Anne I. and Jack H. Barton, of Orwigsburg, Pa., and William J. Zimmer, of Narberth, Pa., for assistance in checking the text of the Ms and in providing materials difficult to locate. Duff and M. E. Gilfond, Washington, D.C., also provided me with rare books, and Mrs. Barbara Moyer, Schuylkill Haven, Pa., has helped me beyond the call of duty.

3.  I comment on Poe’s affinities with Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” which Poe lauded, and which he could have seen in its original form in The Token for 1836, where it bore the subtitle “A Parable.” See “A Study on Hawthorne,” ABC, 24 (1974), 2. Bulwer’s “Monos and Daimonos,” whence “Silence” partially derives, is subtitled “A Legend.” Cf., too, “Humility and PerseveranceA Fable” and “The Two DreamsA Fable,” respectively in The New-York Mirror — a favorite quarry of Poe’sfor April 24, and August 11, 1833. David K. Jackson believes that “MemoryAn Allegory,” in the January 183 5 SLM, may have inspired “Silence”: Poe and the Southern Literary Messenger (Richmond, 1934), P. 39. Yet another possibility is “The Bosphorus. A Sketch,” The New Monthly Magazine, 35 (1832), 212, which precedes Isaac Disraeli’s “Of the Three Earliest Authors in Our Vernacular Literature,” a possible source for the More-Moore episode in “The Assignation,” as I note in my study cited in n. 1. The orientalism in “The Bosphorus” may have attracted Poe.

The Biblical features of “Silence” must not be minimized, considering Poe’s familiarity with and use of scripture. See C. Alphonse, Smith, “Poe and the Bible,” Biblical World [[Biblical Review]], 5 (1920), 355; William M. Forrest, Biblical Allusions in Poe (New York, 1928), pp. 89-91; and Killis Campbell, “Poe’s Knowledge of the Bible,” SP, 27 (1930), 549.

The query appears in Campbell’s edition of The Complete Short Stories of [page 71:] Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1927), p. xxiii. With Poe’s debt to Moore’s Byron well known, his recollection of it while composing “Silence” is probable. If we accept Hammond’s theory that behind “The Little Man in Black” of the Folio Club is Poe himself, then we must not forget that behind Poe’s early literary career looms the shadow of Tom Moore, as well as that of Byron. Moore’s Byron, first out in 1830, I cite from The Works of Lard Byron: with His Letters and Journals, and His Life, by Thomas Moore, Esq. (London, 1832), III, 328, 303-326, 339. These same pages link Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, by implication, to Venetian scenes and themes. I think, consequently, that they figure more emphatically in backgrounds of “The Assignation” than has hitherto been perceived. It is not straining after parallels to think that Poe drew upon these same passages in Moore for “Silence,” when Moore’s other works were also coursing in his imagination when he composed “ShadowA Parable.” See Burton R. Pollin, “Light on ‘Shadow’ and other Pieces by Poe; or, More of Thomas Moore,” ESQ,18 (1972),166-173

4.  The visionary qualities are noticed, but too scantily, by Basler, supra. Another analysis of literary uses of silence, which detects interesting blends of sound and vision (again, all too fleetingly), is John Hollander, “The Music of Silence,” Prose, 7 (1973), 87-89.

5.  In a letter to me, dated August 22, 1973, Professor Hammond states that he conceives the Folio-Club text to have involved not so much burlesque or parody in the tales themselves as would have appeared in the critical framework, playful aspects though there be in some of those pieces. He also emphasizes that Poe himself did not apply terms like “burlesque,” “parody,” or “satires” to the fiction, excepting such tales as “Loss of Breath” and “Lionizing.” He is consistent in theorizing about “Silence” in his published essays, cited in n. 1. I also treat Poe’s jocularity toward his own brand of writing in “Blackwood Articles a la Poe: How to Make a False Start Pay,” RLV, 39 (1973), 418-432; and “Poe’s ‘Usher’ Tarred and Fethered,” PoeS, 6 (1973), 49stressing that the humor occurs in later works.

6.  It is not consistent in BJ, probably because of a printer’s oversight, although all editors save Griswold capitalize it. Stewart’s collation (H.1:381-382) gives a lowercase d for the BJ text, even though Harrison’s own printing capitalizes it!

7.  A like use of “demonic spirit” to suggest an essentially evil, threatening being occurs in John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues (New York, 1973), p. 618. This “demon” proves, finally, to be a madman. Interestingly, he speaks in Biblical phraseology during much of his talking.

8.  This passage parallels Bulwer’s own phraseology in “MS. Found in a Madhouse,” which Poe probably knew in the New York printing of Conversations (1832), and which he mentions in L.I.58. In “Monos and Daimonos” the sharks are “lynx-eyed,” but Poe’s deliberately parodying Bulwer ultimately becomes secondary.

9.  The opinion of G. R. Thompson: “[the] suspicion that all the Folio Club tales were burlesque, ironic, and critical in intent grows into conviction,” may readily be challenged on these grounds. His interpretation of the lynx, for [page 72:] instance, does not concur with many accounts available to Poe, in which the treacherous qualities of that animal are stressed. See “ ‘Silence’ and the Folio Club: Who Were the ‘Psychological Autobiographists’?,” PN, 2 (1969), 23. A corrective appears in Stuart and Susan Levine, “History, Myth, Fable, and Satire: Poe’s Use of Jacob Bryant,” ESQ, 21 (1975), 207-211. As they state, Poe’s humor is difficult to pin down. Hammond, in “A Reconstruction,” says he only speculates that Poe’s university career is a part of the background of “Silence.” Considering Richard P. Benton’s remark that those who consider Poe a serious writer of Gothic fiction “miss half the meaning and all the fun,” and his comparisons of Poe with writers such as Pirandello and Dürrenmatt [ATQ, 24 (1974), 3], I think we should remember the latter’s own remarks about parody as applicable to Poe: “He [the literary artist] parodies his materials, contrasts them consciously with what they have actually been turned into.” I have been trying to show that “Silence” is not parody of Bulwer or other Romantic writers, or of the Bible, simply because it is cast in their manner. I also think that the evolving texts reveal a move, conscious or otherwise, toward greater somberness, once “Silence” was removed from the Folio-Club framework. Cf. Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi: A Play, and Problems of the Theatre, trans. Michael Bullock and Gerhard Nellhaus (New York, 1964, 1958), pp. 34-36. I do not see Poe making the contrast to which Dürrenmatt refers as part of parody.

10.  A more glaring omission is Stewart’s failure to record that in “The Assignation” the hero’s action and final speech, the recitation of Henry King’s verse (H.I:124; BJ.II:8-12), appeared only in the last version of the tale. Stewart also passes over the vertical lines appearing at the end of each one hundred words of manuscript text. Along with the number 71 on the second side of the Ms, these are marks not in Poe’s hand. The 71 indicates the number of words after the last full 100. These divisions do not correspond with the numbers of words per page in the Baltimore Book, so they must continue as mysteries in a literary career dogged by mystery.






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