Text: William T. Bandy, “The Influence and Reputation of Edgar Allan Poe in Europe,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1962


­ [page 1:]

The Influence and Reputation of
Edgar Allan Poe in Europe


I SHOULD LIKE TO SAY, first of all, that I am grateful to you for having given me the opportunity to revisit Baltimore, one of the few American cities with a truly distinctive personality and one of which I have long been extremely fond. I must admit that, among the many pleasant hours I have spent here, many were devoted to browsing through dusty old bookshops and exploring the treasures of your magnificent libraries — an occupational weakness — but I have also ventured out of doors on occasion and so I have some realization of the other attractions your city affords.

But I am pleased, above all, at the real honor you have done me, by inviting me to speak to you on this very special occasion, marking the sesqui-centennial anniversary of the birth of one of our greatest writers, Edgar Allan Poe. In all frankness, I must confess that I am not an authority on American literature or on Poe; indeed, I very much doubt that I should be able to tell you anything about either that you do not already know. My professional interest lies in quite a different field, modern French literature. But, as you know, the more intensively one pursues a specialty, the broader one’s interest becomes, for one thing leads to another; and a seemingly restricted interest, if followed deeply, will often prove to have multiple attachments. And so, while engaged in studying certain French authors of the past century, I soon found it necessary to take into account the decisive effect of Poe’s influence or example. Indeed, it became obvious that Poe’s contribution to the development of the Symbolist movement or to the theory of “pure poetry” was nothing less than decisive. Since these literary manifestations were by no means limited to France ­[page 2:] but made their appearance in several other countries, in analogous movements with an apparently common origin, I found myself attracted more and more by the idea of embarking on a general study of Poe’s reputation and influence abroad.

The subject has of course had the attention of a considerable number of scholars in the past; the books and articles they have written about it would form a fair-sized library. Even if I had time to do so, I should not like simply to pass in review what they have said, valuable as their findings have been. Instead, with your kind permission, I intend to speak to you almost exclusively of my own investigations, with which I daresay you are not so familiar. I offer this explanation in advance, so that you will not make the mistake of thinking that I regard my own work as more important than that of my predecessors. They labored faithfully and well. If I have succeeded in throwing light on some of the questions still at issue and in opening up one or two new avenues of further study, I shall be happy and I hope you will not be disappointed.

We sometimes hear — especially from European critics — that Edgar Allan Poe was completely ignored by those who, by all rights, should have appreciated him most — his own fellow-countrymen. This is utter nonsense, of course. One of our most competent Poe scholars, Professor Killis Campbell, once demonstrated, by means of a wealth of documentary evidence, that even Poe’s contemporaries were quite aware of his existence and, with certain notable exceptions, had a very high regard for his literary talent. His enemies, though bitter and sometimes influential, were decidedly in the minority and were activated usually by personal, rather than artistic, motives. Nor has there been any eclipse of Poe’s general reputation in America since his death. He is today one of our most popular, as well as one of our most intensively studied authors, if we may judge by the frequency with which his works are reprinted and by the stream of dissertations and scholarly articles that they inspire year after year. ­[page 3:]

It is only when we consider the really extraordinary success that Poe has long enjoyed in Europe that he seems, by comparison, to have been under-estimated at home. On that continent, he has been more widely read over the years than any other author born in the Western Hemisphere. What is of even deeper significance is the fact that he has made a profound impression and had a decisive influence on some of the sharpest minds in Europe, whereas his direct effect on the course of American literature — though by no means negligible, has been relatively unimportant. Some ten or eleven years ago, Mr. T. S. Eliot, who could hardly be classed among the blind worshipers of Poe, declared that his study of this foreign influence proved to him that Poe made a vital contribution to human civilization. It stands to reason that to judge Poe solely on the basis of his reputation and influence in the land of his birth would be to neglect a very large part of what constitutes his true greatness.

It seems likely that the first person to display an active interest in the foreign reception of Poe’s works was none other than Poe himself. He referred rather frequently, in his private letters and in his published writings, to the fact that certain of his tales had just been reprinted in England or translated in France, naturally without his authorization, for the international copyright laws were as yet non-existent. He does not appear to have been annoyed at these unethical, if not illegal, practices, although he was often extremely touchy, as you know, on the matter of plagiarism. One actually has the impression that he was more pleased than otherwise at the attention his tales were receiving abroad, at a time when American publishers were afraid to risk their capital on them.

Despite his curiosity on the subject, Poe knew very little of the attention his tales were arousing in various parts of Europe and the scanty information he had was sometimes quite inaccurate. Countless hours have been wasted by scholars, laboriously and vainly scanning the pages of Le Charivari for a translation of “The ­[page 4:] Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which, according to Poe, had appeared in that periodical a few months after its original publication in this country. As one who has been through the mill, I can tell you here and now that Poe was mistaken — and I suspect that this was not the only time he was in error in similar statements.

But the scholars have kept plugging away, not discouraged by such setbacks, so that today we are far better informed than Poe himself was on the subject of the first translations of his tales. We still do not know all there is to know, however. Oddly enough, we have not even been able to determine with certainty in which country Poe’s works were first translated. According to a recently published Literary History of the United States, edited by a group of eminent professors, the Russians were the first to translate Poe. Although the editors do not cite any authority for this statement, I am perfectly sure that it had its origin in a popular article on “The Russian View of American Literature,” which was printed in The Bookman as long ago as 1916. The author of the article, Mr. Abraham Yarmolinsky, informed the world that “Casual translations from Poe began to appear in the leading Russian periodicals as early as the late [eighteen] thirties.” In other words, if this were true, Russian readers were acquainted with Poe’s tales several years before they were published in book form in the United States.

Despite the implausibility of this assertion and the absence of any evidence to substantiate it, a number of later writers on Poe apparently accepted it as gospel truth. Thus, in 1920, a little book by C. Alphonso Smith contained the remark that “It was Russia, not France, that took the initiative of Europeanizing Poe’s fame.” It should be added that Professor Smith cited the Bookman article as his authority. A few years later, in 1926, Miss Mary Phillips quoted both Professor Smith and Mr. Yarmolinsky, as if their combined views which in reality were one and the same and only constituted one unsupported assertion, settled the matter once and for all. It is surprising to find even a French writer in ­[page 5:] agreement. Monsieur Emile Lauvrierè, generously laying aside all chauvinism, conceded in 1935 that “In reality, it was in Russia, as early as 1842 or even 1840, that certain of Poe’s tales were translated for the first time.” The alteration of the dates, probably made in the interest of verisimilitude, does not conceal the fact that Monsieur Lauvrierè was an attentive reader of Miss Phillips or Professor Smith, if not of Mr. Yarmolinsky himself. No great harm was done, perhaps, by these unverified repetitions of an unproven allegation, since they appeared in books of a more or less popular nature, with no pretensions to scholarly accuracy. But the situation is a bit disturbing when they turn up in a serious work like the Literary History of the United States.

Since it was obvious that the Bookman article had started this whole chain reaction, it occurred to me that one way of arriving at the truth was to write to the author directly, asking him to identify the source of his statement. With obliging promptness, Mr. Yarmolinsky replied, saying that his information had come from a certain Russian encyclopedia, which gave the titles of two translations from Poe that appeared in the magazine Sovremennik, in 1838 and 1839 respectively. He added that unfortunately he had not been able to verify these references, not having access to a file of the Russian periodical.

There is no complete set of Sovremennik in America, so far as I have been able to determine, but the Library of Congress happened to have the 1839 volume and kindly furnished me with a microfilm of one of the stories. Locating the volume for 1838 was far more difficult, but eventually a copy turned up behind the Iron Curtain and arrangements were made to photograph the story it contained. To make a long story a little less long, I shall tell you at once that neither of the stories listed in the Russian encyclopedia had any earthly connection — or any unearthly one, for that matter — with the known work of Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, they were not even attributed to him by the editors of Sovremennik and the later one was labeled “Translated from the ­[page 6:] Ukrainian.” This, so far as I am concerned, completely explodes the myth of Russian priority — at least in the realm of Poe translations.

On the strength of the evidence now at hand — and there is a great deal of it — it seems fairly certain that France, not Russia, was the first European country to become cognizant of Poe’s writings — which is just what most people have thought all along. It is comforting to find now and then that what we have long held to be really true is true, after all.

The date of Poe’s first connection with France is a bit earlier than is generally supposed. In December, 1844, a daily newspaper in Paris, La Quotidienne, printed a story entitled “James Dixon, or The Fatal Resemblance.” (The title was in French, of course.) Ostensibly, this was an original composition by one of the paper’s regular contributors, who always signed his work with his initials, which were “G.B.” Actually, as you may have guessed, the story was far from original, being based on Poe’s “William Wilson.” It was not, properly speaking, a translation, but rather an adaptation, or imitation, of Poe’s tale. Reversing the roles of the protagonists, “G.B.” chose for his hero an honest, upright Englishman, with a mischievous double, whose sole purpose in life seemed to playing meaningless practical jokes on poor, innocent James Dixon. The lack of any motivation on the part of the double robs the story of the symbolic meaning which Poe intended and makes it pretty pointless. Nevertheless, it cannot be doubted that “G.B.” had read “William Wilson” and that he consciously imitated in his own story. Thus, “James Dixon” offers the first sign of any acquaintance with Poe’s work on the continent and, as a result, we may regard “G.B.” as the first European to have been touched by Poe’s influence and the first to publish a foreign-language version — however remote from the original — of one of Poe’s tales.

“G.B.” is no stranger to those who have studied the early history of Poe’s translators. In 1846, he published a very free adaptation ­[page 7:] of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which was also signed “G.B.” and printed in La Quotidienne. The publication of this story led to a legal squabble in the Paris courts of law, repercussions of which reached Poe’s ear in far-away New York. But we know at present that “G.B.” was not merely one of the early translators of Poe and that he actually preceded all the others. As a pioneer, “G.B.” takes on a new importance in the history of Franco-American literary relations. Just who was this first admirer of Poe, who was so careful to hide his identity behind a pair of initials? Ordinary reference works, such as the dictionaries of anonymous and pseudonymous literature, were of no help; they contained a long list of writers who used the initials “G.B.,” but they gave no indication that any of these writers was the least bit interested in Edgar Allan Poe. Léon Lemonnier, one of many who tried to solve the mystery but had to give up, simply refers to “G.B.” as a typical Paris journalist of 1846, with no special talent except a knowledge of English.

This kind of puzzle sooner or later begins to prey on the literary historian’s mind. He knows that he will not rest easy until he has solved it, even at the cost of more time and effort than the result would seem to warrant. And that is why, one fine day, I decided that I would go to the National Library in Paris and, if necessary, plow through the bound volumes of La Quotidienne, reading all the contributions that were signed “G.B.,” in the hope that some of them would contain enough personal references to give me some kind of clue to the author’s identity. Thank heaven, I was spared the ordeal of having to examine the full eight years of this daily newspaper. After looking through the first two or three volumes, I came across an article which I felt sure would lead me to my man. (As you can see, the methods and even the expressions used by the literary historian are very similar to those of an FBI agent.)

The article that I found had nothing whatever to do with Edgar Allan Poe. It described a remarkable copy of Montaigne’s ­[page 8:] Essays, containing unpublished marginal notes, which had just been discovered in the public library of Bordeaux. Surely, I said to myself, an article of this unusual interest would be known to every Montaigne scholar worthy of the name. I therefore consulted the catalogue of the famous collection assembled by Dr. Payen and was happy to see that the learned doctor did possess a copy of the article and that it was one which had been sent to him by “G.B.” himself, with a suitable inscription and — you can well imagine my delight at this detail — the author’s name written out in full.

Lemonnier was about as far off the mark as one could be; “G.B.” was no mere Parisian journalist — in fact he was no Parisian at all, but a native and resident of Bordeaux. His name, in case you are interested, was Gustave Brunet, a name which will be recognized by a few who have had occasion to dabble in French bibliography, but not by anyone who has led a normal, well-regulated life. Brunet was one of the most indefatigable writers of his century; a mere list of his publications — and that probably not a complete one — takes up sixteen pages in the catalogue of the Bibliothèque Nationale. It later turned out that he was the person who was chosen to do the article on Poe in a nineteenth century French encyclopedia — whether by design or accident, I have not been able to determine; in any event, he refrained from any mention of the part he had played in introducing Poe’s works to the French reading public

Prior to 1849, the year of Poe’s death, his work had attracted the attention of no less than five French translators, the most notable being Charles Baudelaire, who devoted a major part of his literary career to the task of making Poe famous in France. Baudelaire’s essay on Poe’s life and works, published in 1852, was the first general study of Poe to appear in any foreign language. Revised in 1856, it was used as the preface to the first volume of Baudelaire’s translations of Poe’s tales. In its revised form, it has been read by more people in more different countries than ­[page 9:] anything else ever written on Poe, including the notorious memoir by Griswold, which spread its poison mainly through the English-speaking world but had little effect elsewhere. The European attitude toward Poe, which differs so markedly from the one which has prevailed in this country and in England, is one which Baudelaire created almost single-handedly. Baudelaire also translated five volumes of Poe’s prose works, choosing the best of them with well-nigh impeccable taste. One sometimes reads that Baudelaire’s version is vastly superior to the original. Mr. T. S. Eliot is of the opinion that he “transformed what is often a slipshod and a shoddy English prose into admirable French.” I do not agree with Mr. Eliot on this point and I regard his judgment as highly impressionistic, but the fact remains that Baudelaire’s translation is a genuine masterpiece of its kind, a masterpiece of sympathetic intuition. As Arthur Ransome once wrote, “The translation of Poe meant more to Baudelaire than the rendering of a good foreign writer into his own language. His feeling was not far different from that of an impassioned believer translating the New Testament.”

That Baudelaire’s own work was affected by his reading of Poe cannot be disputed, but the extent of that influence has often been exaggerated. It has been shown that by far the major portion of Baudelaire’s poetry was written before he became acquainted with Poe’s work. In his later poems, and in the revision of his earlier ones, a definite influence is perceptible, as it is in the critical views he expressed after 1852. But admiration does not always denote influence, and we might do well to recall Baudelaire’s letter to Manet, in which he said: “People accuse me of imitating Edgar Poe! Do you know why I translated Poe so patiently? Because he resembled me.”

This resemblance, which has been referred to as an affinity, should not blind us to the essential differences between the two writers, differences which exist between their lives as well as their writings. But their two names have become so intimately ­[page 10:] linked, at least in Europe, that mention of one inevitably recalls the other. And as Baudelaire’s star of fame began to rise in the latter half of the nineteenth century and now shines brilliantly from the zenith, so has Poe’s, and I do not believe that this is mere coincidence. When a critic like Dr. John W. Robertson declares that Poe’s “chief exponent, Baudelaire, has seriously injured his standing among the greater French writers,” he is only displaying his own abysmal ignorance. While I should not wish to depreciate the intrinsic merit of Poe’s works or to imply that they could not have made their way unaided, I am convinced that a large part of the success they have enjoyed in Europe over the past hundred years is due to Baudelaire’s sponsorship.

It was through Baudelaire that another great French poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, became acquainted with Poe’s works. Baudelaire had left Poe’s verse untranslated, except for an occasional poem. Mallarmé undertook this difficult task and succeeded remarkably well. His version of the poems, couched in rhythmic prose, is worthy of being placed alongside Baudelaire’s translations of the tales. But Mallarmé’s outstanding contribution to Poe’s fame was in the form of a sonnet, “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe,” which, as you know, was written at the invitation of Miss Sara Rice of this city and first published here, in the Memorial Volume of 1877. It was not read at the ceremony inaugurating Poe’s tomb, despite Mallarmé’s own statement to the contrary, having been composed months after the event. This sonnet is undoubtedly one of the poet’s finest and most popular compositions and its opening line:

Tel qu’en lui-même l’éternité le change

with its classical simplicity, is one of the most beautiful in modern literature. I am sure that some of you have seen the original manuscript of this poem, which now graces the collection of the Johns Hopkins University.

The third great French poet to come under the spell of Edgar Allan Poe was the late Paul Valéry. Although one may look in ­[page 11:] vain for verbal reminiscences of Poe in his poetry, an influence did exist — perhaps an even deeper one than on Baudelaire or Mallarmé — but its effect is more apparent in Valéry’s critical writings and in his whole conception of artistic creativity. “The Philosophy of Composition,” which some critics on this side of the Atlantic insist was just another of Poe’s hoaxes supplied the basis of Valéry’s poetic theory, one of the most significant in the literature of our century.

Time does not permit me to mention the scores of other French writers who were indebted in one way or another to Edgar Allan Poe. I shall bring up the name of only one other, to show that Poe’s influence could operate in a less rarefied atmosphere than that of Symbolism or Post-Symbolism. The breadth of Poe’s genius was such that he was able to win the admiration of both the highly intellectual Valéry and the popular and unpretentious Jules Verne. As a young man, before he had published any of his famous novels, Verne wrote a very curious critical essay on Poe, in which he praised the tales, but, at the same time, pointed out what seemed to him certain weaknesses. Critics are usually adept in spotting authors’ shortcomings, but Verne is one of the rare ones who have proved they are right by putting their theory into practice. Verne owed his success as a writer to his imitation of Poe. Many of his best known works are simply elaborations of ideas that he found in Poe. Around the World in Eighty Days, to mention only one, was inspired by one of Poe’s minor tales, “Three Sundays in a Week.” To Verne’s credit, it must be said that he freely acknowledged what he owed to Poe, dedicating to him his “Sphinx of the Ice Fields,” a sequel to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

While France was the first country in Europe to recognize Poe and the one where his influence was deepest and most enduring, many others have shown deep appreciation of his genius. I can only deal with them very briefly, however, in the time I have left. Proceeding in chronological order, after France comes ­[page 12:] the turn of Russia. The authority on this aspect of Poe’s foreign reception is Mrs. Keefer, of Johns Hopkins, whose paper on the subject, presented at a meeting of this Society in 1941, is still our most reliable guide. The first sign of Russian interest in Poe, according to Mrs. Keefer, was a “barely recognizable paraphrase of The Gold-Bug,” published in 1848. I have not examined this adaptation, but I suspect that it was based on an earlier French translation. Indeed, as Mrs. Keefer pointed out, a number of the earlier Russian versions were really translations of translations. This is certainly true of the badly mangled Arthur Gordon Pym that Dostojevsky published in his magazine, Time, in 1861. Later on, the Russian Symbolists shared with their Gallic brethren a common interest in Baudelaire and Poe. Some years ago, I happened to buy in a Paris bookshop a copy of Sarah Helen Whitman’s little book on Edgar Poe and his Critics. What was my surprise to discover on its fly-leaf a signature put there by its former owner: Konstantin Balmont, one of the outstanding Russian poets of his day, who devoted many years of his life to the study and glorification of Edgar Allan Poe. The great favor that Poe enjoyed in Russia suffered greatly with the advent of Soviet theories concerning social realism, but it has not disappeared completely, as I once thought to be the case. A bibliography of Russian translations of Poe, which was prepared at my request by the Library of Foreign Literature in Moscow and which has just reached me, reveals that new editions of Poe continue to appear in the U.S.S.R., though less frequently than formerly.

In Germany, Poe’s works became known quite early, and several volumes of his tales were included in the collections of popular literature during the middle eighteen-fifties. Germany was one of the few countries which was independent of the French vogue for Poe; her translators, who knew English well, had no need of an intermediary language. Still, it would appear that the main course of German literature was affected ­[page 13:] but little, if at all, by Poe; none of the really great writers could be regarded as his disciples, although many, like Rilke, read and admired his works.

The Danes published a translation of Poe’s tales in 1855, followed by another in 1868. Like Germany, the Scandinavian countries were less subject to the literary domination of Paris and their translations of Poe, so far as I have been able to ascertain, were made directly from the English text. A Swedish translation of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” came out in 1860, but the first Norwegian version of Poe of which I have a record has a much later date, 1884.

Poe’s reception in Spain and Latin America was one of the most enthusiastic he was to enjoy anywhere. On this subject we are fortunate to have an excellent study by Professor John Englekirk, entitled Edgar Allan Poe in Hispanic Literature. I have nothing to add to the material contained in this work, which once more emphasizes the role that Paris had in the dissemination of Poe’s ideas and works throughout the rest of the world. Baudelaire’s versions, according to Professor Englekirk, were the principal source of the Spanish translations of Poe, the first of which in book form was dated 1858. The distinguished poet, Pedro Salinas, whom many of you knew personally when he was associated with the Johns Hopkins University and whose loss the world of poetry still deplores, also spoke to you at the 1941 symposium on “Poe in Foreign Lands and Tongues.” I shall not do his memory the injustice of trying to summarize his remarks, but you will pardon me if I quote one sentence from his talk: “Spain,” he said, “has shown an almost exclusive preference for the narrative works of Poe, especially for his stories, while Spanish America, not without knowledge of the tales and narratives of this American poet, has shown a particular interest in his poems.” I may be completely wrong, but it seems to me that this difference is due, in part at least, to the fact that the mother country was affected primarily by the ­[page 14:] great popularity enjoyed by Baudelaire’s translations of the tales, while Latin America, where the Modernist poets were not active until the latter part of the century, were more sensitive to the French Symbolists, and consequently to Mallarmé and his translation of Poe’s verse.

In countries like Rumania and Italy, where every educated person has at least a reading knowledge of French, it was scarcely necessary at first to provide translations into the vernacular, since Baudelaire’s versions were so easily accessible. Some Rumanian translations did begin to appear, however, around 1862, but only in periodicals. The first Italian translation of Poe, probably based on Baudelaire’s text, dates from 1869, and many others have come out since, right up to the present time, giving evidence of a lively and continuing interest in Poe.

My information on translations into other languages, such as Hungarian, Czech, Polish and modern Greek, is still too sketchy for me to speak of them today. Earlier this year, seeing that no adequate bibliography of translations of Poe’s works was available, I drew up a tentative check list of those that had come to my attention and sent copies of it to Poe specialists in various parts of the world. The replies have been most gratifying. They are still coming in and will soon provide material for a fairly complete report on the spread of Poe’s writing to the four corners of the earth. I have been informed by an officer of the National Academy of Letters in New Delhi that Poe struck a responsive chord in India, where a certain kinship was recognized between some of his ideas and the ancient philosophies of that country. From Japan, I hear that Poe is widely read, in English as well as in Japanese, and that one of the leading writers of detective stories there uses the pen name of Edgar Poe.

Even from the rapid and necessarily superficial view that I have given you, you may have gotten a little better idea of the universal appeal that Poe’s works have had for people of many races and cultures. Indeed, his works are read in every country ­[page 15:] with a literary tradition of its own. There is nothing novel in referring to Poe as a “world-author,” for the title was bestowed on him as long ago as 1902, by the late Professor Charles F. Richardson, on the basis of less impressive evidence than we now have. Seven years later, when the centennial of his birth was being celebrated in many cities, there was much debate in the American press over Poe’s right to a place in the Hall of Fame, beside such poets as Whittier and Bryant. Today, perhaps the “ugly duckling” of American literature is not quite so exposed to what Mallarmé called “les noirs vols du Blasphème,” for it cannot be denied, whatever one’s opinion of his writings might be, that he was one of the great seminal forces in modern poetry.

It is good and eminently proper that we should meet here today to commemorate this anniversary. I hope that I have shown that, in so doing, we are joined in spirit by countless thousands of other admirers, most of whom would be quite incapable of reading a line of his works in the original, but who have nonetheless been charmed, as we have, by the irresistible magic of Edgar Allan Poe.



This lecture was delivered by Dr. William T. Bandy at the Thirty-Seventh Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society in October, 1959.

© 1962 and 1998, by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.

In the originial printing, the resumption of the paragraph near the end of page 10, following the line quoted from Mallarmé’s “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe,” is improperly indented as if it were a new paragraph. This typographical error has been corrected here.


[S:1 - IREAPE, 1962] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - The Influence and Reputation of Edgar Allan Poe in Europe (W. T. Bandy, 1962)