Text: Charles Lombard, “Review: Recent Findings in Poe,” Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:50-52


[page 50, column 2:]

Recent Findings in Poe

Burton R. Pollin. Discoveries in Poe. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970. 303 pp. $12.50. 

Burton R. Pollin’s Discoveries in Poe covers a wide range of topics heretofore either unnoticed or given little attention. In twelve separate essays Pollin evokes a picture, based upon the reading Poe did, of his artistic consciousness. Chapters are devoted to such diverse subjects as “The Role of Byron and Mary Shelley in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’” “Poe and the ‘Magic Tale’ of Ellen Wareham,” “Poe and the River,” “Godwin and Poe,” and “Poe as ‘Miserrimus.’” On the whole, the book is informative and makes traditional source studies very lively. Not satisfied with merely identifying a source, Pollin pinpoints Poe’s precise use of it. Moreover, Pollin’s style [page 51:] reflects Poe’s own fun-loving approach as seen particularly in the chapter on Kempelen and His Discovery.’”

One of the major contributions of Pollin’s book is his extensive inquiry into Poe’s debt to French Romantic writers; these essays comprise one-half of the book, and it is upon them that I wish to focus and to offer a few cautionary remarks. It should be noted first that Pollin curiously tends to underestimate the size of the audience French Romanticism enjoyed in America. French was the second language of many educated people, and graduates of Eastern and Southern universities and fashionable seminaries for young ladies were well-acquainted with the French Romantics, as attested to by numerous critical articles, book reviews, and translations of poems and excerpts from novels and plays. With no international copyright law, translations of French novels flooded the American bookmarket. Practically all of the New York literati read the French Romantics, and many had written reviews of individual writers. In New York, as well as other cities, French Romantic drama enjoyed wide popularity. Thus Poe, an active figure on the American literary scene, would have had ready sources of information about French Romanticism other than the principal one proposed by Pollin, R. M. Walsh’s Sketches of Conspicuous Living Characters of France (c. 1841), a translation of Louis Leonard de Lomenie’s Galerie populaire des Contemporains. Although Pollin thinks Poe knew little French, Poe did have surprising insights into French writers, as Pollin himself proceeds to show.

Pollin’s first two chapters concern Poe’s indebtedness to Victor Hugo and borrowings from Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), with close analyses of Poe’s use of various episodes in his own works. Poe described Hugo’s novel as “a fine example of the force which can be gained by concentration, or unity of place.” In this connection, however, Pollin might have mentioned that Poe could have had in mind Esmeralda, a staged version of the novel, which was shown successfully in America. Incidents from Notre-Dame de Paris which Pollin associates with episodes in Poe’s short stories also strongly suggest the atmosphere of the Romantic stage, as Pollin suggests. “The Cask of Amontillado” had a mise en scene, complicated, perhaps, but not too complicated for a stage director accustomed to arranging a setting for a sequence from Sue’s Mysteries of Paris. Poe’s interest in dramaturgy and unified action with a complicated plot frequently brings to mind the preface to Cromwell. Again Pollin hesitates to assert the nature of Poe’s acquaintance with the preface, though Poe could have read at least an analysis of it in an American or British journal, as Pollin documents.

In addition to Notre-Dame de Paris, it is probable that Poe knew two other Hugo novels available in America in the 1830’s, Bug-Jargal and Han d’lslande. Although Pollin doubts their profusion, he points out that they are listed in literary reviews and library catalogues. Concerning the influence of these novels on Poe, Pollin could have strengthened his case by noting how Poe combined the features of Hugo’s misshapen creatures in his own dwarf in “Hop-Frog.” Hop-Frog recalls Quasimodo in the rescue scene that ends Notre-Dame. Pollin’s detailed study of resemblances in “The Masque of the Red Death” [column 2:] to the last act of Hugo’s Hernani is rewarding. His most pertinent observation again calls our attention to details closely associated with stage setting in matters of background, costume, and dramatic effect.

Thus a major strength of Pollin’s book is the considerable light thrown on Poe’s knowledge of Hugo. I wish he had given this relationship even greater focus. It would be good to have Pollin’s examination of similarities in both poets’ use of hallucinatory imagery. The French writer, after all, was concerned with sensory impressions and mental images derived from dreams and nightmares. Moreover, when considering the tendency of both Poe and Hugo to play with the effects of light and shadow. one is tempted to compare them to Charles Nodier, in whom there has been a recent revival of interest. Nodier clearly influenced Hugo, though any direct connection with Poe is probably out of the question, since Nodier was practically unknown here in the past century. One is struck, nonetheless, by the extent to which Poe penetrated the realm of dreams and the preternatural much in the manner of Nodier, and Pollin’s obvious familiarity with French Romantic literature would make him eminently qualified to pursue such lines in quest of further discoveries.

His discussion of Beranger affords an example. Pollin is on very solid ground when he calls Beranger a celebrity of the period who certainly influenced Poe. On the matter of Elizabeth Fries Ellet’s translations of Beranger, however, some attention might have been paid to Poe’s personal reasons for avenging himself on Mrs. Ellet, one of the leading gossips of the New York literati. In addition to resenting her interference in his love affairs, Poe may have crossed swords with her in Anne Lynch’s parlors on the subject of French authors — in particular, perhaps, on translations of Beranger and Lamartine. Although forgotten today, Mrs. Ellet was no mean student of French Romanticism and one of the first commentators on continental literature in American periodicals. As one of the swarming sisterhood of poetesses in the Lynch coterie who extolled Lamartine’s poetry, she would have infuriated Poe.

Poe reacted adversely to Chateaubriand’s cloying sentimentalism much as he did to Lamartine’s. Yet he was too much a Romantic to reject them altogether. As usual, Pollin’s remarks on Poe’s borrowings from Chateaubriand’s Itineraire de Paris a Jerusalem in the “Sonnet to Zante” are appropriate and revealing, though he might have indicated the extent to which the Itineraire was read (Poe no doubt knew of it at the University of Virginia, where it enjoyed wide popularity). Pollin also neglects what seems an obvious association Chateaubriand’s role in encouraging Poe’s sensitivity to the grandeur of nature. Passages in “Ragged Mountains” and “Julius Rodman” capture the flavor of the Genie du Christianisme.

There is much to disagree with in Pollin’s book — for example, his attributing certain review articles in the Broadway Journal and Graham’s Magazine to Poe. I find nothing distinctively Poesque about either review; both are written in the critical jargon which any “magazinist” of the period would have used. The matter of attribution of unsigned articles in nineteenth-century journals is at best highly problematical. But such criticisms [page 52:] strike me as minor, for Discoveries in Poe is a lively and valuable collection of studies that Pollin obviously enjoyed writing. And it is this very quality of joyful discovery that makes me look forward to his making further discoveries in Poe.

Charles Lombard, University of Illinois at Chicago Circle


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]