Text: Roger Forclaz, “Edgar Poe and France: Toward the End of Myth?,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. 9-17 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 9, unnumbered:]



The spiritual bond between Edgar Poe and Baudelaire is a unique phenomenon in the annals of literature. It is tempting to imagine them meeting; Barry Perowne has done so in a novel locating Poe in Paris in 1844(1) (in fact, certain biographies of Poe present a hiatus of several months for this period). There he meets Baudelaire, with whom he plots to dishonor the latter’s father-in-law, General Appick; but the ingenious plan elaborated by Poe is reduced to naught by unforeseen circumstances. Here we find again the Poe of legend, romantic hero par excellence, living in the world of his dreams and experiencing in life what he imagined in his tales; a person marked for misfortune, he wears “the haggard mask of tragedy” and states with bitterness after his defeat that nothing had ever been his “except the burden of his mistakes weighing on his back and growing al ways heavier.”(2) Poe appears as a Byronic hero, trampled by destiny and victimized by implacable fatality, which he is as incapable of resisting as his heroes, like the unhappy one “whom unmerciful Disaster / Followed fast” in “The Raven.”(3)

Perowne’s novel attests the fascination Poe exerts, especially the force of myth attached to him, particularly in France. Baudelaire is chiefly responsible for this state of affairs; if he deserves thecredit for having “discovered” the American story-teller, for having translated his works into French(4) and for having assured his glory, then Poe had to pay the price of this posthumous celebrity. Indeed, the author of Fleurs du Mal proceeded to select, somewhat arbitrarily, from the works of his senior, laying aside certain interesting and important stories; furthermore, he recreated Poe according to his subjective image of an inspired poet for whom intoxication was a method of work. The result was a double obstacle to the comprehension of the author of Histoires Extraordinaires (Baudelaire’s edition of Poe’s fiction): first because readers of French knew only a part of his work — significantly, the volume dedicated to Poe in the library of the Pleiade and regularly re-edited for more than forty years contains only Baudelaire’s translations — and then because the image of Poe presented to them was distorted. It is all the more regrettable, a half-century later, that that point of view was given credence by so-called scientific criticism, especially by Emile Lauvrière and Marie Bonaparte. It is not to show Poe in his true light, though, merely to make of him an accursed poet, seeking inspiration in alcohol and opium, merely to see in him a being resembling his creations, a bohemian living on the edge of society and finding himself isolated from the America of his time. The true Poe is much different, as one may well perceive if he replaces the man’s work in its literary and intellectual context, and applies himself to studying the theories applicable to the work.(5) [page 10:]

We cannot understand Poe if we are limited to what Baudelaire translated; it is imperative to study his corpus, as Floyd Stovall has said: “We shall understand Poe best by a direct and earnest analysis of his total work.”(6) Unfortunately, only a small part of this writing is accessible to French readers. True, the novels have been wholly translated; some of the stories not translated by Baudelaire were done by journalists and critics contemporaneous with the author of Fleurs du Mal, and, nearer our time, Léon Lemonnier newly translated all the tales laid aside by Baudelaire, including the almost intranslatable “Why the Little Frenchman Wears His Hand in a Sling.”(7) There are also poems translated by Mallarmé, Gabriel Mourey and Victor Orban, then by Leon Lemonnier and Henri Parisot. It is rather the rest of Poe’s works that remain unpublished in French, with the exception of isolated works such as the “Marginalia,” the unfinished Politian, several critical articles, and certain letters.(8) Nothing exists in French comparable with the recent German edition, whose four volumes — more than 4000 pages — include, besides the complete fiction and poetry, Eureka, the “Marginalia” and most of the essays, as well as a selection of notes and letters; thus German readers may perceive the diversity of Poe’s works.(9)

Fortunately, this gap is now partially filled thanks to Claude Richard, who published in the Cahiers de l’Herne a book on Poe.(10) This volume of nearly 500 pages is presented as a record of Poe’s theoretical ideas, with, on one hand, the three manifestoes (“The Philosophy of Composition,” “The Rationale of Verse” and “The Poetic Principle”) that formulate his theory of literature, and, on the other hand, selections from the critical work where this theory finds its application. At the outset Richard states: “the corpus of texts translated by Charles Baudelaire has traced, once and for all, the frontiers of Poe’s work,” and he announces without ambiguity his intention to “render to Edgar Poe the entirety of his territory.” Justly, he registers as inaccurate the image given by the author of Fleurs du Mal: “With Baudelaire, Poe, the man of procedure, complies with the frantic creation.” He is original in his postulation of Poe’s theoretical thought as a point of departure for understanding the writer and for affirming that “Poe’s text is itself sufficiently meaningful.” Richard’s concern is first of all to allow the writer to speak rather than determining his words and actions for him, as, in the wake of Baudelaire, the French, with rare exceptions, have done. He emphasizes that “the interpreters who created the image of a poet of disorder could work out their theory only by disregarding numerous unedited texts” — unedited in France, that is. Furthermore, the texts selected by Richard, which occupy a third of his book, show us a Poe “forever careful about planning, elaborating [page 11:] and ending” and make him appear as a poet of order and not of disorder, as the “literary engineer” that Valéry (almost the only one in France really to understand him) presented. We rejoin therefore Régis Messac, who, long ago, named Poe “one of the most extraordinarily lucid spirits that exist in all of literature.”(11) Poe’s audience in France deserves this quality of his genius — which appears equally in the detective stories, the genre he invented — the affinity between his and the French spirits, characterized by the preference for logic and clarity.

After the three manifestoes in which the writer enunciates his theory of literature, some twenty passages illustrate the development of Poe’s critical thought; they are divided into three parts, with reflections on the theater, on the novel and short story, and on poetry. These texts, remarkable for their lucidity, reveal a Poe analyzing and dissecting the works of his contemporaries, but also stating principles and a coherent aesthetic doctrine. No one attached a greater importance to the conscious progression of the writer; no one placed greater emphasis on the will in literary creation. Thus it is that Poe praises Daniel Defoe’s “faculty of identification” manifest in Robinson Crusoe, which he defines as “that dominion exercised by volition over imagination which enables the mind to lose itsown, in a fictitious, individuality.” Likewise, concerning Bulwer-Lytton: “Whatever may be the true merits of his intelligence, the merit of luminous and precise thought is evidently not one of the number.” Poe goes as faros to reconstitute the course of the novelist, reproaching him for oversights in the construction of his plot; the writer, he says, forgets his basic plan in the course of composition, omitting certain details previously introduced into the plot and destined for importance in the dénouement. In reviewing two novels of Dickens, Poe likewise deplores the disadvantages of the serial formula, which hinders the writer from abiding by a predetermined plan. When Dickens entitled his novel The Old Curiosity Shop, Poe says, his plan was quite different from what it appeared to be in its final realization, and obviously he now should have given another title to his story, in which the shop plays a secondary role. The article on Barnaby Rudge, written, like the preceding article, in April 1841, furnished an even more striking illustration of Poe’s analytical faculties. Did he not venture to predict the resolution of Dickens’s novel, also serialized, when just eleven chapters were published, only to see his predictions prove essentially correct?(12)

A critic of penetrating mind, a remarkably lucid writer who formulated in his critical articles a coherent theory of literary creation, of poetry and of the short story: so Poe appeared in his texts, which reveal the importance he accorded to verisimilitude, particularly to rendering plausible the fantastic, [page 12:] as well as the preponderance in his aesthetics of the combined effect on the reader. An important text that is yet little known in France is the review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, in which Poe formulates his theory of short fiction: “The tale proper, in our opinion, affords unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent, which can be afforded by the wide domains of mere prose.” This article constitutes a counterpart to “The Philosophy of Composition” — translated by Baudelaire under the title “La Génèse d’un poème”; here Poe affirms the necessity for a writer to determine the dénouement even before beginning to write, as well as to put everything in harmony with the pre-established design: “no poet can afford to dispense with any thing that may advance his design.”

Richard’s work also contains a particularly interesting article, even if its attribution to Poe remains uncertain — a review of Tales (1845).(13) This article, in an ephemeral New York review whose editor-in-chief was Thomas Dunn English, later arch-enemy of our author, reflects Poe’s opinion of some of his most famous stories and also expresses ideas dear to him, such as the importance of originality — “The creative power of the mind is boundless” — or the primordial role that he attributes to what he calls the “power of simulation”: “A writer must have the fullest belief in his statements, or must simulate that belief perfectly, to produce an absorbing interest in the mind of his reader. That power of simulation can only be possessed by a man of high genius.” It is not at all proven, however, that Poe is the author of the article in question, and one can reproach Richard for going a bit too far when he says that it is a “manifestation of the hand of Poe” and that it was published under the signature of the writer. Probably the article is the collaboration of Poe with English, written by the latter from what the author had furnished him.(14)

After the texts giving an outline of Poe’s literary doctrine, Richard presents criticisms raised by the writer and his work, in three nearly equal parts. The first includes the testimonies of Poe’s contemporaries, friends and enemies, beginning with his first biographer, the sinister Griswold, who worked at tarnishing his subject’s memory in slanderous articles and in the posthumous edition of his works. Richard makes evident the errors perpetrated by Griswold, who did not hesitate to modify certain of Poe’s letters to cast him in a bad light, nor to retouch the article by Lowell (who had written several years previously a study on Poe, reproduced by Griswold in his edition and figuring in Richard’s work), which he deemed too favorable. This article aside, these texts make no pretension to criticism; instead they illustrate the controversy that raged after the writer’s death between his partisans and his adversaries, and the tendency of most American critics during the nineteenth century to explain the work in terms of the man and to [page 13:] condemn both in the name of bourgeois morality. The distorted image popularized by Baudelaire and continuing in France began in America. The articles of Griswold, Daniel and Thompson — the latter two were journalists from Richmond with whom Poe was associated — constitute in fact sources for the different articles that Baudelaire wrote in the preface to his translations. The French poet sometimes was content to translate entire passages from the essays of the American journalists; in his first article, published in the Revue de Paris in 1852, Baudelaire resorted to his informants for presenting to his compatriots works which he had not yet read, such as Eureka and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (which, according to Daniel, he named a “purely human book”). The French myth has truly “pitiable origins,” emphasizes Richard, who justly entitles his introduction to this section “Birth of a Myth.”

This chapter, which furnishes the pieces of the record for Poe’s literary fortune in France, prefigures the next chapter, which shows the myth in full bloom, especially with Baudelaire and Mallarmé. The author of Fleurs du Mal, who had as much determination in defending Poe as Griswold had in disparaging him, added even more to the myth, affirming that America, that “great barbarity lighted by gas,” had been merely a “vast prison” for the writer and that he had nothing in common with his country, to such an extent that his countrymen did not consider him American.(15) Therein, however, is one of the most tenacious legends received in France, emphasizes Richard, who likewise clears up another legend, that of the alleged superiority of Baudelaire’s translations to the original texts. That said, it would be unjust not to recognize the merits of Baudelaire, both as a translator of Poe and as an artist worthy of his literary glory in France, as it would be unjust not to recognize that, thanks to his inspired intuition, the French poet discovered in Poe qualities that had escaped the ordinary reader, for example when he speaks of Poe’s “driving aspiration toward unity.” From this point of view, it is certainly exaggerated to allege, as Richard does, that the essence of two famous reviews by Baudelaire (“Edgar Poe, His Life, His Works” and “New Notes on Poe”) is contained in the articles of Griswold, Daniel and Thompson and that therefore they need not be reproduced in his own book.

Two other texts presented by Richard also add to the record of the “myth”: they consist of a very curious article by “Sâr” Péladan and an essay by Jules Verne — who produced almost simultaneously a notebook in the same series, containing a significant article on cryptography and on Poe’s influence on his work in that field.(16) That essay, entitled “Edgar Poë [sic] and His Works” and published in 1864 in the Musèe des Familles, probes the reason for the influence the American exerted on the author of Extraordinary [page 14:] Voyages (is not the general title of his work derived from that which Baudelaire gave to Poe’s stories when he translated them into French?). Its critical value is virtually nil, though, and it could have been replaced advantageously, for example, by the article that Barbey d’Aurevilly dedicated to Poe in Littérature étrangère. In return, other critiques have an undeniable value by reason of their authors’ detachment with respect to the “myth.” These include articles by Valéry — the two essays “Concerning Eureka” and “Position of Baudelaire” as well as a less known text, “On Literary Technique”and the first critical study on Poe in French, published in 1846 in the Revue des Deux Mondes under the pen of Paul-Emile D. Forgues — who was also the first translator of Poe into French; he brings to light the essential characteristic of the writers genius when he says of Poe’s stories: “The logic is plain; it dominates everything; it is queen and mistress.”

Finally, the third part of Richard’s work — Edgar Allan Poe before his peers — presents varying judgments passed on the author by English and American writers, from Margaret Fuller to Richard Wilbur, by way of Henry James, Walt Whitman, R. L. Stevenson, G. B. Shaw, T. S. Eliot and others. Claude Richard’s selection is representative of the range of attitudes toward Poe, from the enthusiasm of Shaw or of William Carlos Williams — who considered him “a genius intimately shaped by his locality and time” — to the unqualified condemnation of Henry James: “Enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive state of reflection.” The reader will perhaps regret the absence of D. H. Lawrence’s study,(17) but that is available in French; whereas Richard endeavored to present as many as possible unedited texts in our language, for which one can only praise him. This absence is elsewhere more than compensated for in a very little known article by John Cowper Powys and especially in two texts by T. S. Eliot, a “Note on Mallarmé and Poe” emphasizing the fundamental clarity of the writer,(18) and the lecture “Edgar Poe and France,” which serves as a link with the preceding section. The author of Murder in the Cathedral, whom one cannot place among Poe’s admirers since he questions the “enigma” of Poe’s importance, attempts in fact to explain the divergence between French and Anglo-American criticism concerning the author of “The Gold-Bug.” One cannot agree with the explanation he proposes — according to Eliot, this divergence occurs because English and American critics are more inclined to render isolated judgments on the different parts of a work, whereas French critics tend to consider the work as a whole — but one must concur when Eliot affirms the necessity of grasping Poe’s work in its entirety.

Paradoxically, French readers will have to consult the work of Claude Richard to be able to put this recommendation into practice. This work — [page 15:] which we reproach only for its abundance of printing errors, particularly annoying when one finds “reputation” instead of “refutation,” as well as several errors in French within a text otherwise excellently translated(19) — will surely contribute to making Edgar Poe better known in French-speaking countries, presenting him in his true light, as a writer plainly in control of his resources and not as the inspired poet of the Baudelairean tradition. One must praise Richard for undertaking demythification. This enterprise, however, is not without danger. When he speaks of the “moving, but fallacious, mythical image of the poète maudit created by Baudelaire to enhance Poe’s reputation” and when he emphasizes the “laborious banality of Poe’s life,” Richard falls into the defect of certain biographers who make of Poe someone rather ordinary, almost insignificant, and who see in him only a writer for hire and a needy journalist, thus losing sight of what was exceptional about him. Yet there was something that attracted Baudelaire to Poe; if he went too far in recreating Poe as he imagined him, the French poet was not mistaken in making of the author of “The Raven” the archetype of the accursed poet and in considering him his spiritual brother.

Almost inevitably, in attempting to react against the “myth,” Richard goes to the opposite extreme; the fact remains that, thanks to him, Poe appears in an entirely new light, as a lucid writer and as a theoretician of literature. Certainly, many features still are lacking, thus preventing French readers from forming a complete picture of the American writer. We lack, for example, the letters — of which, happily, Richard announces an edition in preparation; we lack especially a selection of the journalist’s articles showing that Poe was very much interested in the problems of his country and of his age. The merit of Claude Richard is, at the least, having done a pioneer work; thanks to him, let us hope, the “Aidgarpo” of the myth(20) will give place to the true Poe.

[page 15, continued:]


1.  A Singular Conspiracy (Indianapolis and New York, 1974). I am indebted to Dr. Forclaz and the Editors of RLV for permission to translate freely, but without altering its meaning, this essay. It first appeared in RLV, 43(1977), 348-356. Dr. Forclaz wrote to Prof. Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, 6 August 1982, that he had discovered a French translation of The Journal of Julius Rodman (published in 1912), and that a sentence stating that no French version existed — p. 349 of RLV — should consequently be deleted from this translation.

2.  “He turned to Baudelaire the face of one marked for misfortune — the haggard mask of tragedy. . . Had anything, in all the uncaring world, ever been his — except the burden of guilt, growing always heavier, which rule upon his back?” — ibid., pp. 199, 202. [page 16:]

3.  Transl. Baudelaire.

4.  Note, however, that Baudelaire had been preceded by Isabelle Meunier and other contemporary journalists. For the history of the first translations of Poe in France, see the work of Léon Lemonnier, Les Traducteurs d’Edgar Poe en France de 1845 à 1875: Charles Baudelaire (Paris, 1928).

5.  See on this subject my work Le Monde d’Edgar Poe (Berne and Frankfurt, 1974). On the subject of the theories of Lauvrière and of Marie Bonaparte, cf. ibid., pp. 14-17, 66-69, and my “Edgar Poe et la Psychoanalyse,” RLV, 36(1970), 272-288, 375-389.

6.  Eight American Writers — An Anthology of American Literature, ed. Norman Foerster and Robert P. Falk (New York, 1963), p. 14.

7.  Cf. Histoires Grotesques et Serieuses, Suivies des Derniers Contes, transl. Charles Baudelaire and Léon Lemonnier (Paris, 1950). This work is unfortunately out of print, but a new complete edition is in preparation in the library of the Pleiade through the efforts of Claude Richard. It is necessary to note that the uncompleted tale “The Lighthouse,” the only tale not translated by Lemonnier, has since been done by Jacques Finné with the conclusion imagined by Robert Bloch in his anthology L’Amérique Fantastique (Verviers, 1973).

8.  One will find an almost complete list of French translations of Poe’s work in the bibliography of the work mentioned in 10 (pp. 465-466). Cf. Jean Rousselot, Edgar Poe (Paris, 1962), pp. 214-218.

9.  Werke, herausgegeben van Kuno Schuhmann und Hans Dieter Müller (Brussells, 1966-73).

10.  Edgar Allan Poe. Cahiers de l’Herne, No. 26 (Paris, 1974).

11.  Influences Francaises dans l’Oeuvre d’Edgar Poe (Paris, 1929), p. 76.

12.  The article in question was published in the Saturday Evening Post, l April 1841, p. 4; it does not figure in the complete works of Poe, but a passage from it is cited in the review of the novel that the writer published in Graham’s Magazine in February of the following year (cf. H. 11:58).

13.  “Poe’s Tales,” Aristidean, 1(1845), 316-319.

14.  That is especially the opinion of T. O. Mabbott: “The review of Poe’s Tales must have been written after talking with Poe — it contains things only their author could have known. But the writer of the review was clearly T. D. English” (letter — T. O. Mabbott to Roger Forclaz, 19 January 1966).

15.  The two citations are taken from “Sa vie, ses oeuvres,” Baudelaire’s preface to his first volume of translations, the Histoires Extraordinaires.

16.  Jules Verne, Cahiers de l’Herne, No. 25, ed. Pierre-André Touttain (Paris, 1974). Cf. pp. 324-329 for the article “Jules et la cryptographie.”

17.  Published in Studies in Classic American Literature (New York, 1923), pp. 93-120. Cf. Etudes sue la Litterature Classique Américaine (Paris, 1948) for the French translation of this work. [page 17:]

18.  “Il y a fort peu de l’hallucine cher Poe” — “Note sue Mallarmé et Poe,” Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 27(1926), 525; cf. p, 407 of Richard’s work.

19.  For example, the use of emprise as a masculine noun and the translation of annual for annual, whereas the English keepsake is used in French in this particular case; the use of bien que with the indicative shows a certain laxness.

20.  Cf. Malcolm Cowley, “Aidgarpo,” New Republic, II May 1945, pp. 607-610.





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