Text: Maurice Levy, “Poe’s French Critics,” Poe Studies, December 1974, Vol. VII, No. 2, 7:54-55


[page 54:]

Poe’s French Critics

Jean Alexander. Affidavits of Genius: Edgar Allan Poe and the French Critics, 1847-1924. Port Washington, N. Y.: Kennikat Press, 1971. 246 pp. $12.50.

This book is an interesting and useful collection of articles on Poe written by French critics and men of letters in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Some of them, like Baudelaire’s “Edgar Allan Poe, his life and works” or Mallarme’s “Notes to the poems of Poe,” are of course well known. Other essays, like those by Louis Etienne, Forgues, Charles de Mouy, Armand Renaud, are more obscure pieces of criticism. All of them, however, are interesting, even though not all of them are as brilliant as Valery’s comments on Eureka. All of them betray common attitudes among the French critics of the time towards the American poet and reveal marked common interests. Let us add that they are not so easy to find in their original French versions. The author must be congratulated for having taken the initiative of collecting them and translating them into English. In a long (76 pp.) introductory dissertation, she discusses the essays considered as a comprehensive whole and tries to bring the common issues into light. Her pertinent remarks are grouped under three main headings: Poe the Outlaw, Poe the American, Poe the Poet. True it was that Baudelaire recast the destiny of Edgar Allan Poe and saw him not as a failure, but as an outlaw. He himself being very much on the same terms with the French society of the time, he quite conceivably saw his American “double” as a superior individual betrayed by the literary circles, a lone spirit who [column 2:] lived in misery and fought a terrible vice, a dandy who preserved his elegance even in the midst of sickness and persecution. France of course — at least literary France — had been long prepared for such a definition of the poet as the perpetual martyr of society, ever since Viguy’s Chatterton. This probably accounts for the tremendous influence of Baudelaire’s evaluation of Poe among his contemporaries.

Critics diverged, however, on Poe’s American identity. The French image of the United States was, on the whole, caricatural: America was viewed as the land of individualism and materialism, even associated (by Barbey d’Aurevilly) with “spiritual and intellectual charlatanry,” a country in which there was no room for European traditional values. Some critics, as a matter of fact, found no evidence in Poe of his American genius. They rather charged him with imitating the Germans or viewed his work as a pastiche of European thought. The majority of them, however, believed him to be a genuine American, essentially because of his sensationalism and materialism. “Valdemar” and “Mesmeric Revelation” were considered as impious attempts at reducing spirit to matter, and Poe’s insistence on rational analysis was from the start examined in the light of the Naturalist credo. Some of his tales probably benefitted by the fact that similar tendencies to the factual, the pseudo-scientific, and the materialistic existed (and were eagerly discussed) in the French literature of the time. But Poe’s aesthetic principles may have been misunderstood by Zola’s supporters who claimed that “the metaphysical man was dead” and tried to read their new doctrines into his tales. A scientific method applied to literature was in any case bound to have a very widespread interest for the French writers of the time.

In a similar way, it was the vogue and influence of the Symbolists that ensured Poe’s recognition as a poet. In fact, the Symbolist doctrine, as defined by Moreas in 1885 (seeking “the pure concept and the eternal symbol”) borrowed much from Poe’s “Poetic Principle.” But again it is not quite certain that Poe’s remarks were well understood. His rejection of Morality and Truth as the specific or exclusive concerns of the poet greatly influenced the Symbolists’ insistence on Poetry for its own sake: but did they talk of the same things?

On the whole, Alexander’s book is a remarkably well done synthesis of the major ideas expounded by the critics. The essays are of unequal merit, some of them very poor indeed, others supremely intelligent. But all of them have an obvious historical interest. Perhaps a few illustrations, taken from those with which modern readers are not very familiar, will help to prove this point. Forgues, like many French people of the time, is chiefly responsive to the predominance of reason in Poe’s works: “Logic dominates everything; it is queen and mistress. Its function is no longer to shore up, like unseen carpentry, a monument with a rich exterior, it is that monument, borrowing nothing or almost nothing from the other resources of art” (p. 81) . After a long dissertation on the subject, showing among many other things Poe’s indebtedness to Laplace and his Philosophic Essay on Probabilities, Forgues pays homage to Poe’s “surprising perspicacity,” to his “marvelous instinct,” and to his “almost superhuman alertness of mind” (p. 89). [page 55:]

Armand de Pontmartin, on the other hand, disagrees with Baudelaire who “sees Edgar Poe as a victim of the American spirit and points out . . . the painful contrast between the beauty loving spirit who launches into the infinite spaces of the ideal and dream, and the country which is both giant and child, immense cog-wheel, implacable machine which grinds and pulverizes all the flowers of poetry under its wheels” (pp. 126-127). The situation of the poet, he says, is very much the same in Europe: “it is not necessary to cross the seas in order to find a constant series of Chattertons and Hegesippe Moreaus.” And he adds: “Over there as here, it is the eternal struggle between the actual and the chimeric, between imagination and good sense” (p. 127). In fact, according to him, “neither the America of Edgar Poe nor the France of Gerard de Nerval is responsible for the grain of madness which, mixed with superior faculties in some men, mixed with mediocre faculties in many men, explains the disorder of some, the pretensions of others and the misfortunes of all” (p. 128).

For Barbey d’Aurevilly, probably the most venomously anti-American of all the French critics quoted here, Poe’s American identity is — even though a contrario — an obvious fact: “Born in that whirlpool of dust that is called by a mockery of history, the United States; returned, after having left it, to that inn of nations which will be a cut-throat to-morrow, and where 500,000 riff-raff alight year-in year-out, characters more or less bastard, more or less evicted from the countries that they have endangered or disturbed: Edgar Poe is certainly the finest literary product of that cream of the scum of the world” (p. 145). Poe’s Americanness seems to have been a left-motif with the critics of the time. Charles de Mouy, for one, paid homage to Poe’s origins: “He faithfully reflected an entire aspect of the American character in his writings: the passion for hypotheses, the bold pursuit of the impossible, the aspiration toward the unknown: isn’t that the genius of Edgar Poe, and the genius of the young America? “ (p. 159). Or, as Armand de Pontmartin put it, “Gerard de Nerval is French intelligence, Hoffman is German reverie, Edgar Poe is American arithmetic” (p. 129). Some of these essays are very long, like Arthur Arnould’s long disquisition inspired by Taine’s theories concerning race, milieu, and moment: they are not necessarily among the best. Others, like the excerpt from J. K. Huysmans’ A Rebours entitled “The Pathology of Will,” are very brief but illuminating. I thought the remarks made by Albert Samain in his Carnets Intimes on the “vertiginous beyond” found in Poe’s tales remarkably penetrating. So, of course, are Mallarme’s “Notes to the Poems of Poe” and Valery’s essay on Eureka; but these magnificent pieces of criticism are too well known to need quotation here.

To conclude: this is a well written, useful book. The translations are carefully done and, as far as I can judge, faithful to the originals. I only have one question, and one regret: my question is why did the author stop in 1924? And my regret is that she did not include in her collection what I consider as the most intelligent — though perhaps the most difficult — essay on Poe ever written by a Frenchman, Lacan’s “Seminaire sur la Lettre Volee.”

Maurice Levy, Universite de Toulouse


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[S:0 - PS, 1974]