Text: Letitia Stockett, “Poe Backgrounds,” Johns Hopkins Alumni Magazine, January 1932, 20:123-132


­ [page 123, unnumbered:]


IN THE year 1809 four babies were lying peacefully in their cradles regarding the world with wide unseeing eyes. little did their mothers dream that a great destiny awaited each. Born in widely separated parts of the earth there they lay, more or less obscure, but babies chosen by the high gods for mighty ends. The first of these children saw the light of day through the crannies of a log cabin in the mountains of Kentucky. His name was Lincoln. The second gazed out upon the green and tranquil garden of a rectory in England. His name was Tennyson. The third boy, son of a merchant in Liverpool, was Gladstone. The fourth, born in squalid lodgings in Boston, was Edgar Allan Poe. Utterly diverse in background, in outlook, in training, all four of these boys sere born inheritors of the romantic tradition. They were peculiarly the product of their time. Born into a romantic world, they grew up to be the protagonists of this great movement. Politics and literature were the fields of their endeavor, fields bordering close one upon the other, for literary liberty is the child of political liberty, but the stamp of romanticism was upon all four.

What however does one mean by this romantic impress, this mark strong and individual? It means something new and fresh, something exalting, it means freedom and adventure. Indeed, the term means precisely what young people intend when they enquire diligently if the story is romantic. When you reply in the affirmative, the book is read at once, for even in this hardboiled age the thirst for romanticism is unquenchable. Of course, there are many literary definitions. For instance — “A deep disgust with life as it is, and a determination to depict something better.” That sounds too much like uplift to be convincing, but it is the definition of a great scholar. This is better — less ethical and therefore ­[page 124:] more vivid — “classicism is what gives pleasure to our grandparents; romanticism is what gives pleasure to our generation.” Never in his wildest moments had Stendhal envisioned the present generation, so that definition should not be pressed too closely. What pleased our grandfathers is classic; what pleases us is romantic; that provides food for thought, and for a considerable range of thought. Nevertheless, liberty, originality, daring, strangeness added to beauty, these are romantic criteria.

Judged by this standard, the romanticism of Lincoln is not at once obvious. But first I would call your attention to his humor. No realist is ever humorous. If he were, he would be moved to laugh at himself, and to the realist this is an unfamiliar gesture. Only the romanticist sees the disparity between the apparent and the real. Then he is moved to mirth. He laughs like Barrie, or he mocks like Mencken, the greatest living romanticist. Lincoln was aware of this strange gulf and he laughed even in thick darkness. Not only his inextinguishable humor proclaims him a romanticist, but his adherence to the abolition of slavery is further proof. Last of all is his incredible belief that government “of the people, for the people, and by the people shall not perish from the earth.” Incurable romanticist! We who are in at the death find a faint ironic flavor in these words.

With Gladstone we have much the same spirit. Disraeli for all his plush waistcoat and eau de cologne was a realist. Gladstone on the other hand championed every unpopular cause he could find, and when he could discover none readily, he dug one out. He opened Oxford to the rankest outsiders; he reorganized the British army; he even reformed Chancery; and if you wish to realize the extent of that task, read again Bleak House, where in fog and murk, literal and symbolic, Miss Flite waits for a judgment. But Gladstone carried his ardor to a more prodigal length. He sought Home Rule for Ireland, peace and security for her people. Any man who would attempt to pacify the Irish is so palpably romantic that I need not labor the point. ­[page 125:]

As to Tennyson, from the moment when he carved upon a stone “Byron is dead” to “sunset and evening star,” the man’s spiritual hall-mark is plain. Like the Lady of Shalott, he beheld the world in a mirror, imaged with marvelous fidelity, that exquisite English world of his native Lincolnshire. His mirror, unlike the Lady’s, did not crack, but it had the artifice of all reflected things. He beheld his natural face in a glass and straightway it was no longer natural. It was perfect, flawless.

And now for Poe. He, too, wore the habit of his age. It is customary to regard him as a man under glass, a creature living as by some miracle in a vacuum. But it is not so. He was as completely a man of his day as any of these three contemporaries, but with difference. Gladstone and Lincoln brought their romanticism to bear upon politics and economics. Tennyson’s mirror reflected the world of form and color, wheatfield, blue sky, sliding river. His mirror was a burnished surface. Poe had slight interest in politics. Beauty he gave us with a surface as smooth and polished as the Lady of Shalott’s mirror. But Poe had a sense of strangeness added to beauty which Pater says is the true romantic principle. Poe looked behind the mirror. Like Alice, he went through the looking glass. There he beheld a terrible world, glimpses of despair, madness, corruption, and death. He is by no means the man under glass. He pierces through it to the unseeable regions beyond.

What then was the common source of this romantic quality evident in these four men? To answer that one must turn to the history of the day. The French Revolution was over. Robespierre, the “Sea-green incorruptible,” had looked through the little window of the guillotine. The dispirited young corporal, who had meditated offering his services to the Turk, had decided to remain in or near Paris. Indeed, the Bonapartist bees were buzzing all over Europe. Austerlitz and Jena were old stories. In this very year, 1809, Wagram was fought. Only four years before, Nelson at Trafalgar had run up his famous signal. The country still ­[page 126:] felt the glamor of that tiny one-eyed admiral. The British seamen were even then wearing in his honor the scarf of mourning later to be known is the middy tie, and the three rows of braid freshly stitched on the sailor’s collar still recalled the famous victories of the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar. England was the mistress of the seas, though across the ocean the “nest of pirates” — Baltimore — still harbored a swarm of impudent privateers. The capitol at Washington was yet unburned, and Francis Scott Key, quietly practising law, had no thought of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

When these boys were six and just breeched, no doubt wearing tight little nankeen suits with wide frills at the neck, the battle of Waterloo was fought. Then reaction set in. The old regime under Talleyrand, inimitable rascal, banded itself together to slay liberty, equality, fraternity. Impossible task. These letters cut on the stone facades of Parisian churches were yet more deeply chiselled on men’s hearts. For a time, however, the Bourbon spirit was supreme. These were the days of the high cost of living, of unemployment, of the Manchester massacres, of Cobbett’s Political Register. These, too, were the years that Poe spent in an English boarding school. Much of the current talk, no doubt, went over his head, but he was a boy thoughtful beyond his years. Even if he were utterly indifferent to the happenings in the world beyond the master’s desk, these were, willy-nilly, the forces that molded the age. In later years he took no part in political life, yet as a critic he must have been aware of the temper of his time. His kingdom was not of this world. That very fact nevertheless proves that he was conscious of its trends, its possibilities. Men of one temperament fortified their ivory towers and from that position harrassed the enemy. Such were Lincoln and Gladstone. Men of another grain retired into their ivory towers and dreamed dreams and saw visions. Such were Tennyson and Poe.

In literature the world beheld an upheaval similar to that in the realm of politics. The three unities of the classical age ­[page 127:] were replaced by liberty, equality, fraternity. In Germany B¨rger’s Leonore and The Wild Huntsman had been precursors of continental romanticism. The Lorelei uttered her dulcet and harmonious song early in the century. Undine, the water sprite, achieved a soul through suffering. The clean exact lines of the eighteenth century vanish. Poetry is drenched in moonlight; Tieck’s haunted towers, his lonely moors, his solitary graveyards are lighted only by the green glimmer of a waning moon. Only students now remember Tieck, but to the men of the early nineteenth century he was a tremendous influence. His very titles delighted Poe. Roderick Usher’s library contained The Journey into the Blue Distance, though Colonel Higginson — Emily Dickinson’s friend — confesses that he has searched in vain for this fascinating title among the works of Tieck. It is to be found there nevertheless: The Old Book or the Journey into the Blue Distance. That blue distance drew Poe irresistibly. It was the border of his own mysterious world.

Melancholy, too, pervades the age. Sadness is recurrent in English literature, but the sadness of the romantics is of a peculiar quality. Gray in the early dawn of the movement describes thus the boys at Eton:

Alas, regardless of their doom

The little victims play;

No sense have they of ills to come

Nor care beyond today.

Yet see how all around ‘em wait

The ministers of human fate

And black misfortune’s baileful train;

Ah show them where in ambush stand

To seize their prey, the murderous band!

Ah tell them they are men!

Surely not the most fanatical advocate of the progressive schools of our own day could paint a darker picture of youth in the clutches of an outworn educational system. Young’s Night Thoughts was funereal in the extreme. Collins’ Ode to Evening had a dying fall. Even in America this sadness had cast a dark shadow over literature. Consider Hawthorne’s ­[page 128:] ineradicable woe. Or if you are prejudiced enough to lay that melancholy to puritanism or a depleted vitality, observe Irving. Here was a hearty fellow, but he, too, languishes on occasion and flourishes the skull and crossbones. As to Poe’s immediate predecessors, Byron was soaked in tears, largely crocodile. Byron, like a Hollywood star, looked well when he wept; hence the tears. Rarely, however, did a man lead a life of more calculated gaiety. Keats was “in love with easeful death.” He called for wolfsbane.

Ay, in the very temple of delight

Veiled melancholy has her sovran shrine.

As to Shelley, he was too ethereal for tears. In spite of the phrase “to make angels weep,” that angel wept not. Or if he wept, he was so close to the Light Eternal that its immortal fire burnt up the human tears upon his check.

But revolution was apparent not only in the poetry of the period but in the costume of the age. The slight disorder in dress came as a natural reaction against the prim artificiality of the eighteenth century. Call to mind a lady of the court of Louis the Sixteenth and you see at once the stiff precision of her clothes. Such was the pattern that [[A]]my Lowell described:

I shall go

Up and down

In my gown

Georgeously arrayed,

Boned and stayed,

And the softness of my body

Will be guarded from embrace

By each button hook and lace.

It was the revolt against such formality that led to Byron’s tie. Perhaps there were others who wore such neckerchiefs, but certainly none wore them with a better grace. Nor was informality centered alone on dress. The hair was no longer powdered but worn naturally. Shelley’s towselled and revolutionary locks expressed perfectly the political and literary ­[page 129:] ideals of the day. Even Wordsworth permitted himself a few curls in 1798. They gave him the look of a Valentino, if it be not blasphemous to associate the debonair Latin with the poet of the Lakes. Tennyson clung to his ancient cloak, in spite of all that Mrs. Tennyson might say. Gladstone in his old age retained a trace of romanticism in his collars. You recall them — high, pointed affairs coming well up on his cheeks. If this were not a serious paper, we might say that Gladstone’s collars were Lord Byron in reverse, but perhaps that would not do. And what of Poe? Every portrait reveals him as a slender man with dark disordered hair, a man dressed in shabby black, “a gentleman, every inch of him,” as Latrobe wrote in his recollections.

As Poe shared in the literary manner of his day and in its taste in dress, so likewise he had a similar predilection in heroines. Godey’s Lady’s Book was a popular magazine of the period, and Poe was a contributor. Behold the Marchesa Aphrodite from The Assignation: “Her small bare and silvery feet gleamed in the black marble mirror below her. Her hair was not as yet more than half-loosened for the night from its ball-room array clustered round and round her classical head in curls like those of a young hyacinth.” Or here in Ligeia: “the skin rivalling the purest ivory, the commanding extent and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples. . . . the magnificent turn of the short upper lip, the soft voluptuous slumber of the under — the dimples which started — the color which spoke.” Berenice was a sylph among the shrubberies of Arbheim [[Arnheim]], a Naiad among its fountains.” Are not these the lovely gracile ladies of The Token and Godey’s Book? Are they not contemperaneous in taste with the Maids of Athens, with Lalah Rookh?

In actuality the ladies of the day were of more robust nature. For instance, Lady Caroline Lamb was made of sterner stuff. Fanny Brawne was a vixen, and Mary Godwin you remember her picture in the National Portrait Gallery? I shall never forget her sherry-colored eyes, her ­[page 130:] thick auburn hair, her keen sweet glance. Poor Mary! Her philosophical bringing up was subjected to a most searching test. Perhaps men dreamed of these sylphs to compensate them for the rigors of living. But had they the wits to see it, these women were more nobly planned than the phantoms of Shelley, Byron, and Poe.

Oddly enough architecture, too, was affected by the romantic movement. The sturdy warm brick of the Georgian era fell into disrepute. Gothic became the rage, and never was a period less fitted to understand the principles of thirteenth century architecture. It was fashionable to be medieval, and medieval one must be, even if every line were false. In that fateful House of Usher the windows were long, narrow, and pointed. “Encrimsoned light made its way through the trellised pane. The ceiling, vaulted and shadowy, refused to render up its secrets.” But Lady Rowena Trevannion’s bridal chamber was still more singular. Here it was “fretted with the most grotesque specimens of semi-Gothic and semi-Druidical device.” Alas, this ceiling is enough to cause Henry Adams intense anguish, and no doubt Viollet de Duc gazing upon it would admit that semi-Gothic was an adjective well chosen. Horace Walpole had set the fashion for this sort of thing in the mid-eighteenth century. Enamored with the past, men turned their backs on honest brick, and fabricated medieval piles and castellated abbeys. Scott actually lived in one. Other men followed suit, and before long all poetry is bristling with keeps and dungeons, with hanging lamps, with stained glass windows, and with mastiffs keeping watch on the threshold. A movement beginning in revolution moved steadily on to a glorification of the age of chivalry.

Poe’s ivory tower had windows, however, that looked both ways. The peaks of romantic song rose on the far horizon; around him lay the levels of ordinary early nineteenth century life, but reaching out into a new world was a road of his own making. He truly looked before and after. His influence on younger French poets, such a man as Baudelaire, ­[page 131:] is too well known for any comment of mine. But Poe’s influence is apparent in a far more recent development. A modern German, writing of our own day, traces the present interest in the bizarre, the occult, the unreal, to Poe. The strange gloomy backgrounds, the sudden shafts of light, the curious plans of that inquisitorial chamber — all these have had their influence upon modern design and modern art. The Masque of the Red Death with its symbolic colors, green, blue, violet, and black, these vivid images calling up sensations rich and voluptuous, these too find their reflection in modem literature. The preoccupation with self, with the world of being, the analysis of feeling, the probing into the layers of consciousness — here we have the germ of the modern psychological story. The occult, the weird, the unknown: to those who live in an age of materialism those influences are potent indeed. Poe was the master of such a field. But the poet was complex. Along with this romantic spirit there was within him a cold rationalism. This led him to a fondness for mathematics, for criticism, for the problem tale, or as we call it, the detective story. The Gold Bug, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter — these tales served as guide posts to a new kind of fiction.

Thus the romanticism of Poe has been curiously transmitted into the fabric of our own age. It is a strange process. A modem English critic has spoken of Poe’s vulgarity. As well indite Byron, Scott, Coleridge — even Shelley and Keats — yes, the great Wordsworth. All of these men had their trappings, their externals, their impediments. Even Mr. Huxley has a few, and of a most offensive sort. But those things are not the lasting, the enduring marks of a man’s greatness. Time sheds our husks for us. The pseudo-Gothic, the hyacinthine locks, the lustrous orbs, these perish.

The play is the tragedy man,

The hero the conquering worm.

This was written in a moment of despair, but it is a transient mood as impermanent as Byron’s loves or Scott’s castles. ­[page 132:] The play is indeed the tragedy man, and there is none better. But the hero is not the conquering worm. Lincoln, Gladstone, Tennyson, and Poe have proved forever that the hero is the imperishable spirit of the poet, the maker, that forges beauty and truth out of the grim stuff of life.



This lecture was delivered by Miss Maria Letitia Stockett (1884-1949) at the Ninth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society on January 19, 1931. Miss Stockett was a Baltimore schoolteacher (at Friend’s School) and poet, who wrote Baltimore: A Not Too Serious History (Baltimore: The Norman-Remington Co, 1928) and America, first, fast, and furious (Baltimore: The Norman-Remington Co, 1930). The program was held in the Westminster Church.


[S:1 - PBLS, 1932] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe Backgrounds (L. Stockett, 1931)