Text: Charles W. Kent, “Introduction,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. VII: Poems (1902), pp. ix-xxxiii


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[page ix:]

INTRODUCTION.

[[I.]] THE POET.

THE sensitive man — and what poet was ever free from sensitiveness — shrinks from the minute examination of his life and protests that he will be judged by his work, not by himself. But no poetry of subjective character can be rightly estimated without consideration of the poet’s life, This is true even when the relation between the life and its expression is neither intimate nor obvious. Indeed in poetry of allegorical interpretation or of indistinct meaning, where the element borrowed from experience or personal observation seems insignificant, it may be all the more important to find in the poet’s surroundings the background against which his writings become clearer, or in his own life, presumably his inner life of thought and emotion, the key to the puzzling hints and suggestions. It is not meant for an instant that knowledge of the poet’s life will explain all the mysteries of his poetry, but that not knowing his life prevents its full explanation. With all our investigation of the poet’s life our ascertained information will be incomplete and we may yet miss the true interpretation of his work, but if we do not know his life at all we shall certainly fail to approach the proper understanding of his real purpose. This has its direct application to Foe. While his poetry may be “out of space out of time,” it must of necessity have some points of contact with the transitory and [page x:] mundane. That Poe more than most poets was free from strong local attachments is true, but, nevertheless, the fancy that leads some of his critics to postulate of him a whole catalogue of negatives such as “he has nothing to do with country, time, morality, etc., etc.,” has led them astray. It will be shown as we proceed that Poe’s poetry may at times be associated with both places and people. Flowers do not grow without soil, and even orchids require a locality and fitting conditions. With all the indistinctness, elusive uncertainty, faint meaning or want of it all, there is much of it that may be translated in terms of his own life. Or, stated differently, the poet’s moods and sentiments, his deep and continual broodings or his faint and fleeting aspirations find their expression in full or in suggestion in his verse.

The story of his life has been told in the first volume of this edition, and there is no reason to fear that those who are fascinated by his letters will neglect his romantic biography with its added charms of unsolved problems and unexplained mysteries. In the tangled web of events that give the skeleton of his life, neglecting all else, we seek now his preparation for the poet’s office and his pursuit of his passion for poetry. It is true that there is nothing in American letters prior to him from which the orbit of his literary career can be forecast and nothing in his environment that will fully account for it, but in his own antecedents and in the development of his own life the peculiar character of his poetry may be found. For example, it was inherent in his life that he should be a romanticist, and, in spite of his admiration for Byron, that he should belong to the art school dominated by Tennyson rather than to the poets of energy of whom Byron was chief. [page xi:]

The very beginnings of his life are romantic. His mother recalls a line of fascinating actresses with all the glamour and glint of the stage; his father in yielding to her charms exhibits rather a chivalrous regard for beauty than the patriotic self-control displayed by one of his Revolutionary ancestors. Converging lines of romantic tendencies met in this child of strolling players. Unfortunately there was not then or now enough sobriety and self-control in this profession, and it is not improbable that the unregulated and intemperate lives of his forebears may have given both direction and color to his life. Yet his first memories were not of stage settings and the trappings of the theatre, but of spoiling and petting in the home of a childless pair. The opportunities afforded him by the Allans were superior to those offered most precocious children, But his life here lacked just that control which his inherited characteristics made so necessary for him. This romantic boy needed most of all the commonplace training of the average boy to save him from the vagaries and eccentricities into which he was born. It would have been well for him if he could have acquired the steadiness and submissive self-surrender which he had not inherited. Instead, the nature of his adoption and the enervating luxuries of his new life emphasized his unusual and peculiar traits.

Fast upon these home experiences came the travel and schooling abroad. The impressionable boy is next found in Kilmarnock, whither the Allans went to see Mr. Allan’s sister. Some years before, this Scotch city was made famous by a single small volume, which kept Burns from going to America and made him instead the hero of Scotland. America had now sent to this poet’s home a boy whose poems in time should [page xii:] be almost as well known in the whole realm of Great Britain as were the more inspired songs of the Scottish bard. From this town, where his trim figure was well known in the streets, he probably went with the Allans on their extended tour on the Continent. It was on this trip that he made that poetic acquaintance with Continental localities which he turns to such good account in his tales. Could he have found in Scotland some tarn that gave him his picture of the solitary lake surrounded by a wall of black rock, or did he find this in Switzerland or elsewhere? There are no close poetic associations with these localities, but these wanderings were adding to the romantic training of this dreamy poet. Neither travel nor study abroad now confer any particular distinction, for the Old World and America are so close together; but in the days of Washington Irving the “grand tour” made a man notable, and in the boyhood days of Poe to be educated at an English school was far rarer for a Virginia boy than to attend an English or Scotch University. To be trained at home for a foreign university was not an unusual course, but to be trained abroad for an American University was then a curious reversal of ordinary experience. And thus these profitable school days at Stoke Newington were adding to the singular and extraordinary experience that was fitting him less and less for the routine and prosaic duties of humdrum riving.

Thus far all of his experiences had been unusual and so romantic as to develop his sense of art without materially increasing his common sense. His return to practical America did not supply the corrective, for, by no fault of his own or of his foster parents, his position was false. His supremacy in intellectual training and his [page xiii:] easy physical prowess made him the most illustrious school boy in Richmond, but he was not allowed to derive pleasure from this high eminence. His playmates, too well trained in genealogy and taught an extravagant pride of ancestry, did not let him forget that his mother was an actress and that the privileges he enjoyed and they envied were owed to the beneficence of a Scotch merchant. These reminders of his inheritance and environment forced him into an unnatural moodiness and deprived him in large part of that frank and friendly companionship based upon a sense of total equality.

No doubt where much was said far more was understood. The sensitive boy felt himself tolerated rather than desired, suffered rather than sought. It is very probable that he exaggerated both their ill will and his own loneliness, but in this matter of sensitiveness fancy is as serious as fact. In such a mood the unselfish and frank kindness of a cordial friend deeply impressed him. All of his powers of appreciation — and they were not slight — were concentrated on this mother of one of his school friends. The sudden and sad death of this lady, whose courtesy he had magnified into affection, whose person his idolatrous adoration had transmuted into queenliness, hurled him from perilous heights into the abysmal depths of an artificial but intense despondency. He had known “the loveliness of loving well” and had read in her death the “symbol and token” of all misery. With her burial was introduced into his life and later into his poetry the element of grave-yard brooding. Reflections upon death, not with forebodings of its terrors, but with reminiscences of its deprivation, filled his mind and permanently changed his temperament. There is [page xiv:] no one event in his life to which so much of his poetry may be referred as the death of a beautiful young woman, and the two foci of the elliptical orbit of his poetic career are first the death of Jane Stith Stanard and, later, that of Virginia Poe.

From Richmond with its memories and its occasions of poetic expression Poe went to the University of Virginia, carrying with him his love of solitude and his moody seriousness, but coveting the solace of companionship. Escape from himself might be found in serious studies or rollicking fellowship; escape from these, when ill-suited to his mood, in long, solitary rambles in The Ragged Mountains. The new institution with its illustrious father and only less illustrious godfathers, with its novelties of feature and plan, its reminders of the Old World in architectural structure and in imported professors, must have appealed strongly to the tastes and temper of this remarkable student.

The crass contrast which was inevitable between his romantic training and the matter of fact obligations of this every-day world came when Poe was placed in Mr. Allan’s counting room. The experiment and its result might both have been predicted. If Poe had not had the gift of poetry, perhaps he might have been a successful business man. Had he been less a genius, he might at least have compromised with his ideal and become part maker of verse, part maker of money. But for him there was no compromise nor could he face about at command. His training and his taste alike were averse to this occupation, and he took refuge in flight. From his Richmond imprisonment he turned naturally to the freedom symbolized by his birth. At Boston, which his mother had loved, he entered upon the career of a soldier. But before this he [page xv:] had published his first volume of poetry. It was a small booklet of forty pages, entitled “Tamerlane and other Poems. By a Bostonian, Boston: Calvin F. S. Thomas, Printer, 1827.”

This volume contained ten poems, Tamerlane, To — , Dreams, Visit of the Dead, Evening Star, Imitation, “In Youth have I Known one,” &c.; “A wilder’d being from my birth,” The Happiest Day, and The Lake. These poems, which Poe says were written in 1821-1822, were obviously rewritten or revised at a later day. It is true that Poe began to write while a school boy in Richmond and equally true that he was a versifier while at the University of Virginia in 1826. The poems show maturity of powers almost inconsistent with the earlier date and surprising even for a collegian of seventeen. Obviously the latest date possible for the composition of these poems is the most probable. The poems went to press in the spring of 1827. Poe left the University of Virginia after Dec. 20th, 1826. It is not likely that these poems were written during the short period he was chained to a desk in Richmond and even less probable that they were prepared during his wanderings from Richmond to Baltimore or Boston. If then they were not made ready for the press during these unsettled months it is very probable that he was busy with them while at the University in 1826. This view is substantiated in part by the fact that these poems show in many ways the influence of Byron, and Byron was one of Poe’s college enthusiasms. But these poems have no particular reference to his Alma Mater. On the contrary the author, who always writes in the first person, assumes the rôle of a blasé man of the world and deplores the passing of his happiness and his consequent woe. The brightness of his past life [page xvi:] was a joyous dream, the misery of his present living due to the rude awakening. No explanation of his happiness or loss is clearly vouchsafed, but it is obvious that it associates itself with a grave around which even the Spirits of the Dead hover. “Pride and power” mingle in all his youthful dreams, but Tamerlane tells with deep regret how ambition for these killed love. In The Lake there is the only hint to be found in Poe’s poems of voluntary death as a coveted and legitimate exit from these earthly worries. In spite of the pathetic sadness of these unnatural meditations of a premature youth, “the luxury of grief,” the interest he has in “wearing his own deep feeling as a crown,” lessen our sympathy for his suffering. It all seems “but a dream within a dream.” Yet Poe incidentally gives us the key to his own failure, for he “trusted to the fire within for light” and missed the clearer and steadier light of the world’s best experience.

Enlisted as a private in the United States army, he enjoyed at least the diversions of removal from fort to fort. His duties may have been irksome but they were so faithfully performed as to merit the commendation of his commanding officer. He must have seen his superiority in mental ability and culture to his comrades in arms and it was no doubt this more than military ambition that led him to desire to be ranked among the oflicers. To this end he wished to enter West Point and therefore withdrew from the army in January, 1829. While waiting impatiently for the slow and, in his case, halting processes of appointment, he issued through Hatch & Dunning, Baltimore, a volume of seventy-one pages, entitled “Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, by Edgar A. Poe.”

The chief addition in this volume is “Al Aaraaf.” [page xvii:] This poem is peculiarly puzzling. Its musical phrases, particularly its euphonious collocations of almost meaningless

words, its ready and reasonless improvisations, mark its author as surpassingly skilful. But what does it mean, what is its purpose? Are those right who think it a mere exercise in metrical manipulation, with no higher purpose than beauty of sound? Was Poe deliberately perpetrating a huge hoax, challenging the wits to vain attempts at solving that which has no solution? Or, are we to take the poem more seriously? Fruit,(1) in his very valuable study of Poe’s poetry thinks Poe here intends to teach, if he ever intended to teach anything, that Beauty is to be ranked above Love. Poe was hardly inferior to Keats in his love of the beautiful and this may be construed as “his championship of objective Beauty.” For this volume he entirely revised “Tamerlane,” in which he is the champion of Love as against Power.

Besides the revisions of earlier poems there are a few new ones, but these add little either in variety of theme or treatment.

West Point with its wearying routine, its unending round of compulsory details grew far more tiresome than the daily demands upon a private or non-commissioned officer in the regular army. His neglect of the technical regulations and his inattention to strict requirements led in a short while to his dismissal. There was nothing in this brief experience in a Military Academy to cultivate the art of poetry, but, nevertheless, the volume of 1831 furnished several things new and effective. These novelties were not the lines of sarcasm and scorn directed in rude jest against his instructors and betraying rather his rebellious mood than [page xviii:] any true ground of grievance. It was for these that his fellow cadets had subscribed, but they received instead most of the poems of 1829, with To Helen, The Sleeper, The [[A]] Pæan, The Valley of Unrest, The City in the Sea and Israfel. In these poems the gifted author sacrifices nothing in beauty of form while gaining in clearness and beauty of poetic conception. We have to remind ourselves that this third volume was published when Poe was but twenty-two years old and that some of its defects may still fairly be attributed to youth. These poems are considered in general in connection with the volume of 1845 and specifically in the separate annotations to each Poem.

From West Point he went into a world holding in store for the brilliant young man strange happenings. Fortune smiled upon him more than once, but he averted his face. But of these happenings and the tides of fortune it is unnecessary to speak; we will trace him not by these but by his poems printed now from year to year.

“The Coliseum,” supplementing the thought in the beautiful lines “To Helen,” was the best poem offered for a prize in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter of 1833. In 1835 appeared in Morella the “Hymn,” which is his best formulated expression of a religious desire, and “To Mary,” afterwards reprinted as “To F.” In 1835-36 he contributed to the Southern Literary Messenger the scenes from a Drama, “politian.” This essay in a new form and with a new intent can be classed as a successful attempt, but as it was never completed no final estimate of it is of value. His second Shakespeare — Sonnet “To Zante” was marked by the recurrence of the words no more. This appeared in 1837. In the same year he published the “Bridal [page xix:] Ballad.” It is natural to wish to identify this in some fashion with his marriage in the previous year, but no connection can be found. “The Haunted Palace” (1839) was embodied in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and is aided in interpretation by its setting. The echoing phrase no more occurs as the corporate “Silence” in the unclear poem of 1840. “To One Departed” in 1842 is another form of “To Mary,” published in 1835, while “To One in Paradise,” printed separately in 1843, had occurred in The Visionary, and the “Conqueror Worm” of the same year was taken from the tale Ligeia. “Dreamland” of 1844 seems a fantastic foreshadowing of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Prior to the collection of these and other poems in a single volume several poems were printed in 1845. “Eulalie,” “To F,” “ To Mary,” “F—s S. O.” written originally for Eliza White, and “The Raven” published in the Evening Mirror in January, 1845. At the very end of this year (I 845) “The Raven and Other Poems “ was published in New York. Besides the poems already mentioned this volume contained “The Pæan” entirely changed and now called “Lenore.”

It may be noticed that a number of these poems relate to the death of a fair woman. It is more or less customary to make these refer to the death of Helen (Jane Stith Stanard), That Poe’s memory may have tenaciously held this experience is not at all impossible, but it seems more likely that this experience had been vividly recalled, or that some reminder of such a disaster had revived his wonted mood. Poe was devotedly attached to his wife and watched her with the constant anxiety of a single-minded love. His whole happiness [page xx:] was in his home, and in 1841 Virginia’s alarming illness had made her bed the centre of that simple home. With his natural fear of evils to come he evidently brooded over the imminent death of this adored girl, though he allowed no one else to mention even its possibility. He went not once but several times through the agony of her death and saw so vividly his impending woe that for his poetic soul the death that was to be had been. All of these later poems that present the death of a beautiful young woman, although written and published before Virginia’s death, have to do with her and with Poe’s sense of loss. It is this fact that leads him to mystify the origin of “The Raven” and to leave the meaning of other poems in doubt. There are no poems after this until 1847.

“You are my greatest and only stimulus now, to battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory, and ungrateful life,” he wrote to Virginia, in June, 1846, and death removed her on January 30, 1847. For several years he had followed her to the very verge of death and then back to life again. His passionate devotion wavered between deepest despair and buoyant elation. The strain was fearful and there was no heartlessness in the relief and peace that came with her death. But this was not the relief of sanity, nor the peace of an assured hope. The strain would have been great for a mind undiseased, a body well nourished and strong, a soul with set purpose; but for a weakwilled man lacking sufficient food and with uncontrolled mind it was too great, and there is much in the few remaining years that hints of derangement. His first poem of 1847 was “ To M. L. S.,” an unpoetic and extravagant act of misplaced worship. [page xxi:] “Ulalume” of the same year is a fantastic description with vague allusions “to an October death.” It is a triumph of metrical skill, but lacking in sanity of conception. The poems of 1848 are tributes to three of his numerous attachments. “To —— “ is another gushing tribute to Mrs. Shew; “To Helen” is an overstrained eulogy of Mrs. Whitman; and “An Enigma” contains in its irregular sonnet form the name of Sarah Anna Lewis.(1)

The calm before the stormy close, the brightness before the deepening dark, the flare before the flame extinguished may be found in his brief visit to Richmond, with his renewed interest in life, his new purpose and his altered plans. They may be found, too, in the poems of this year. Following “For Annie,” written for some unknown lady of Lowell, and “A Valentine “ to Mrs. Osgood, came the sonnet “To My Mother,” worth in sincerity and sanity all the sentimental tributes combined. Just two days after his death appeared “Annabel Lee,” a poem which it is well-nigh sacrilege to connect with any one but his lost Virginia. “The Bells “ his last onomatopmic poem shows his powers in metrical effects at their very highest, and the “Eldorado “ is a fitting close for a life of disappointed endeavor. He had pursued ideals and they had eluded him, but in their pursuit he had left a mazy path at times dark and gloomy, at times of dazzling brilliancy.

On Oct. 7, 1849, he was gathered to his fathers in Baltimore, the ancestral city of the Poes, and he was buried without pomp or ceremony. This sketchy account of his life, in so far as it is expressed in his poetry, has been written that the poems may not be read without true pity for the pathos of it all. Poetry [page xxii:] is not good because the poet’s life demands pity. True enough, pathos is no substitute for power. But no true appreciation of this poet can be had, and no true interpretation of his poems, save by seeing life from his point of view, entering into his mood, and learning his manner. Surely, if one would not do this, then for him the poems themselves, even the volume, should remain a sealed book.

II. THE POET; THE POETRY.

There are certain conclusions reached by the careful students of Poe’s poetry to which the arrangement of the poems in this volume most surely leads. In the case of Bryant, for example, it might well be questioned whether the poems written near the end of his long life show any marked increase in poetical power over those written in his youth. Certainly there are not wanting those who would defend his “Thanatopsis” against the superior claims of any other of his poems. In the case of Poe, however, even though his life was so brief, there is a marked difference between his later and his earlier poems. This difference does not indicate any change of powers, but only a greater power, a fuller command of his own resources, a greater skill in his own peculiar manner. No one could select any one of the youthful poems and maintain its superiority to his later poems. The comparison is the more readily made because so many of these poems show the various stages through which they passed. Poe rarely published a poem once and then left it to its fate without modification or revision; on the contrary, in each new volume he generally reprinted in revised form his previous poems. These revisions make it [page xxiii:] clear that our poet was no chance artist hitting off by some inexplicable intuition a good effect, which he was unable to reproduce or intensify. His revisions and emendations show him a painstaking and practised artist, never satisfied with his first work, and never losing an opportunity to improve upon it. Perhaps this revision may at times be explained in a fashion more simple, if less complimentary.

There is indisputably a poverty of poetic themes evident in this volume. In contrast with the great poets whose hearts throb in verse and who seek no other expression for their thoughts, this poet leaves us under the impression that poetry was for him the vehicle for certain restricted thoughts and emotions. Looking back upon life, his vision reaches no further than his own narrow experience, and the reflections and meditations to which these experiences give direct birth. Of the wide range of history with its lessons and its lore, of the rich deliveries of poetic traditions he has received little or nothing. His past is at all times in his short life brief and meagre. Moreover, poetry is not his only means of portraying this limited past, and only the dominant moods pe portrayed at all. Frequently with other poets the greatest sweep of vision has been toward the horizon of the future, but Poe’s horizon in this direction is very near. With the future of his unearthly life, with its aspirations and hopes, its purposes in some lives so powerful, its plans in other lives so clear, this poetry has little to do. It is true that many of these poems portraying a happiness lost raise the question, often hopelessly answered, of a possible return of this transient joy, but there is no large or liberal conception of an opening and expanding future with immortal possibilities. Immortality, [page xxiv:] of course, is presented, for this is a religious conception that the poetic sense always demands, but this large theme is handled with a vagueness beyond even that required by his theory of poetry.

Note then again that Poe’s themes are limited because he allows himself no wide excursions into an unknown future, no remote journeys into a profitable past. More than this, he is not a poet to whom the present makes strong appeal, who is content to live for his day and to die when the song of his own people and his own time had been fitly sung. He makes no effort to become a country’s laureate, or the mouth-piece of a nation. What songs he sings, what poems he writes are the personal expression of his own single and sometimes singular experience. Thus his themes in poetry are few, his treatment of them without great variety.

In poetry of this reflective personal caste we expect a more or less religious coloring. Frequently, indeed, it is possible to discover a poet’s creed, or at least the great underlying truths upon which he builds his whole philosophy of life. Poe’s belief in immortality has been mentioned; it is noticeable that the name of the Deity is everywhere present in his poetry, now in thoughtless ejaculation, now in reverent appeal, now in matchless attributes. From this it may safely be concluded that the poet, perhaps with no clear conception of His powers or person, believed in a creating and controlling God. His bare allusions to the Christ, and his deliberate erasure of the name Jesus from one of his poems in a later revision, as well as his entire omission of the Holy Spirit, would seem to indicate that he was not a Trinitarian. But speculation as to his religious views is hardly more profitable than the attempts to explain the entire absence of [page xxv:] patriotic sentiments and the weakness of his local attachments. His poetry has to do with persons, mainly with a single person, himself as in some wise related to others, and is the expression in musical form of his own mood.

III. THE ART FORM.

Waiving any analysis of Poe’s own theory of verse, we need only recall that his sole purpose in poetry was pleasure. He is a worshipper of the Beautiful, and this Beauty must be vague and indistinct. He does not wish to inculcate a moral, for he is no preacher; he is not anxious to leave a lesson, for he is no teacher. His music may not suggest definite sentiments or present distinct pictures. It is of the essence of Poe’s poetry that its hints should be indefinite and its impressions vague. But one thing it was intended to do, and that one thing it does without fail, give pleasure to the attuned ear. Its music is mainly in its melody, which is entrancingly complex, never severely simple, but there is no lack of harmony between the matter and manner of his poetry, for these beautifully aid each other. The merit of his poetry, and this fulfils his conception of verse, is in its manifold coördinations, or, as he would probably put it, its various kinds of equality.

The only measures that Poe recognizes in poetry are the iambic, anapæstic, trochaic, and dactylic, and these are in the order in which he used them, save that he made no use of the dactylic measure except for burlesque. He began with the iambic, and in the poems of 1827 and 1829 rarely uses any other form except occasionally the anapæstic. Later his fondness [page xxvi:] for the anapæstic movement increased and finally he used with skill the trochaic form. That much of Poe’s poetry seems to have a new swing, a movement with which we are not familiar, is due not to the choice of new measure, but his new use of old ones. His theory of poetry so suggestively expounded in “The Rationale of Verse” makes ample room for the variation of the line by the use of substituted feet. That is, in an iambic line what he terms a bastard anapæst, an anapæest of no greater length than an iambus, may be admitted, and as time equalities of the feet must on the whole be preserved and not any fixed regularity of accents, a single syllable may be prolonged until equal to a foot of two syllables, or four syllables be pronounced so rapidly as to be no longer than two. In general, variety of effect is easily possible when there is allowed full liberty in the use of substituted feet, resolution of feet into many syllables, prolonged syllables, or compensating pauses. More striking, however, than these purely metrical effects are the stylistic effects of parallelism and repetition. These differ in this respect, that parallelism is the repetition of constructions, while the technical term, repetition, is used to designate repeated words, phrases, clauses, and even sentences. These cannot be considered as original with Poe, but it is questionable whether before him they had ever been used so deftly or varied with such surety of purpose and certainty of success.

In much of Poe’s poetry there is little progress of action, but rather an eddying of thought around a fixed idea. This central point, so to speak, is designated by some aptly chosen word, and by its frequent repetition the mind is kept closely tethered. This haunting, lingering effect is enhanced when the repetend [page xxvii:] is not a single word but a poetic phrase or a

dynamic clause. These repeated forms are frequently given an added force by standing in rime either within the line or at the end. This identical rime is rendered artistic by the skill with which the emphasis is transferred from one word to another in this repeated group.

But the most interesting repetition is that of letters, specifically of consonant sounds, furnishing examples of alliteration. This is a common and well known device easily overused and frequently degenerating into a bald artifice. It is to the credit of Poe that alliteration though surprisingly frequent is rarely unpleasant or even noticeable in its obtrusion. A mere artistic variation of repeated consonant sounds is their use in the body of words rather than at the beginning. By the preservation of a significant consonant sound throughout consecutive lines the parts of the poem are held together and a pleasing continuity of sound is maintained. Frequently in poetry this verges on monotony, but in preventing this lies Poe’s skill.

In giving, however, a fixed and determined tone to poems the art-poets pay more attention to vowels than to consonants. The difference, for instance, in tone quality between the low vowels such as a and a (ah) and the high vowels such as e and i is clearly recognized. It comes within the power of the skilful poet to vary this tone-color of his. poem by changing from one class of vowels to another. The deeper vowels are the more musical and, hence, are more used in such poetry as is here considered.

Such arbitrary limitations of sound and especially [page xxviii:] such free use of repetition have led some to suppose that Poe’s vocabulary is meagre. Upon close examination this does not prove to be the case. No one has ever charged that his vocabulary in his Tales was inadequate, and his metrical licenses and his unusual verbal fluency leave no reason to think him hampered in verse. A minute scrutiny of his vocabulary shows that in seventeen youthful poems he used about 1,400 words, not taking into account the ordinary particles. These poems compared with the later ones established the fact that many of his youthful words were not used again, while a very large number of words were used in the later poems that are not found in the earlier. The richness of his vocabulary is materially increased by his very free use of figures of speech, which add to the beauty of language rather than to the concreteness or clearness of the thought. In many cases these figures are purely fanciful, but in some they do credit to his powers of observation.

In his earlier poems reds, greens, and yellows with various shades of each were the prevailing colors. Of these red seems to have been his favorite. In his later poems there is a preference for sombre hues. In nearly every poem it is possible to make out the entire color scheme: and the scheme suggests that his eye was almost as well trained as his ear. The sounds to which he was most sensitive seem to have been verse sounds. Poetry gave him more pleasure than music, though poetry set to music as interpreted by his girl wife most nearly met his ideal. In poetry he showed a fondness for such words as in their sounds recalled sounds in nature or suggested the thoughts expressed. His sensitiveness to odors, judging by his use of these sense epithets, was keener than to tastes, but far more [page xxix:] than either of these he makes use of allusions to touch and to sensations of heat and cold.

It is noteworthy that the poet makes little use of flowers. Occasionally he gives to some flower a name created for its sound or mentions the poetic name of some well known flower, but in general his reference to flowers and trees is conventional, exhibiting no particular observation and certainly no minute and peculiar knowledge. In his earlier poems there are three kinds of scenery for which he shows especial fondness: the summit of the mountain, the depth of the woods, and the rock-bound lake. It is not fanciful to suppose that The Ragged lLlountains may have revealed to him the first two, but no prototype of his lake is distinctly known. He rarely lingers in the description of scenery. A stroke, an impression, a hurried outline give the faint hint from which only a reader with poetic imagination can complete the picture. That these pictures are frequently confused and puzzling is only saying that Poe was never at pains to render his fancies vivid to the general reader.

IV. AN ANALOGY.

Several years ago in striving to fix in the American chorus the place of this sr sad singer,” the writer called attention to the obvious analogy between Poe and Chopin. This analogy suggests itself because of the fact that they were both born in 1809 and both died in 1849. But this coincidence is not as striking as the correspondence in their artistic aspirations, efforts, and achievements. The analogy, of course, is not perfect, but on the other hand it is not entirely fanciful and it is certainly suggestive. Chopin was an exile from home [page xxx:] with all the sadness that this denotes. No matter that his adopted home was gay and distracting Paris, his longing was for the home of his youth and his ancestors, and his life bore in it the sadness of this enforced absence. Perhaps his memories clustered about this home with its transient happiness, certainly his fancies gathered around an idyllic conception of a lost estate. His music has in it this haunting sense of a something lost. The melody with its plaintiveness, the variations with their lingering and recurring themes, suggest far more than they express. Here more is meant than meets the ear, and listeners of varying talents and aptitudes will perceive in these melodies different meanings. In these respects Poe’s poems resemble Chopin’s music. If there is complaint that thought is lacking, it is well to ask what kind of thought we are expecting. Poe is no man of mere talent putting his close and logical thinking in carefully elaborated verse. He is no prophet in a wilderness — no leader of a school with an avowed doctrine of life. He is no preacher proclaiming a new code or emphasizing the lessons of the old. He is not even the spokesman of a people uttering coherently but incompletely the incoherent longings and moods of his fellows. At most he suggests thought, and is a theorist in form. He is a musician of the Chopin order with gifts divine and entrancing graces.

Like Chopin Poe also was an exile, not in citizenship but in spirit. He belongs to the realm where Beauty reigns but is forced to exist in a world of crass ugliness, of clashing contrasts, of disastrous discords. Amid these surroundings he yearns for the service of his queen, and his poetic fancies are hut the faint and inadequate murmurs of her lost home. The sadness of [page xxxii:] it all is in the necessity that constrains him to love one life and live another. The lingering pathos, the inherent sadness, the perpetual incompleteness, the failure in finality of his poetry as of Chopin’s music is thus explained.

Moreover, neither Chopin nor Poe ever fully expressed themselves in their music or in the thought it conveyed. It is necessarily true that all expression merely approximates completeness. Perfect artistic reproduction of an artistic conception is impossible. All representations fall short of that which is presented. But this is particularly true of these two artists. Both were artists by nature and by training. Each was dealing with an instrument imperfect in itself and rendered the more deficient because those who would use these instruments were humanly inartistic and frail. Let us make this plain. Chopin wrote music for the piano. The instrument is limited in its capabilities and is far from perfect. In variety of tone, in richness and melodiousness of volume, in flexibility and in lingering sweetness it leaves much to be desired. The violin can utter its unsatisfied yearning; through the flute the artist’s soul may breathe: the mighty roll is of organ tones, and these are reed instruments that may emulate the human voice. But these and other effects it is impossible for the piano to simulate. Again the defects of the instruments will be aggravated by the deficiencies of the performer. The composer then in writing down his musical conceptions must have regard to the imperfections of the instrument and the inefficiency of the interpreter. Beethoven not infrequently wrote for song what no man or woman could sing. What more natural than that Chopin should have conceived in music what no pianist could render? [page xxxii:] His music had to be adjusted to existing conditions. This I believe to be true: that Chopin the musician was far greater than his music, independent of instrument and performer conceived that which he himself could not write. There are bird songs that can be reduced to no musical score; there was in Chopin’s soul music that could not be incarnated.

This thought, if followed out, may explain something of Poe’s true worth. His conceptions were at times far beyond his own powers of expression and often unsuited for the ordinary vehicle of verse imperfect in itself and depending for its best interpretation upon a sympathetic reading. No doubt many of his conceptions were simplified to suit available language and conventional reading. Yet, much that was written is not understood, since with ears we do not hear, and with eyes we do not see, for both music and vision are for those of poetic temperament and artistic gift. If Poe is not always understood, it may at times be because we expect him to say in explicit terms what he is satisfied to suggest but faintly; if we do not catch the meaning of his language it may be that we are closely watching the denotation of each separate word unmindful that with Poe the sense as often depends upon the sequence of sounds and the movement itself. If the pictures are not clear, grant that the painter may be striving for impressiveness of whole effects rather than vividness of contributing details.

It is admitted that this is apologetic and that the necessity for apology is a confession of certain limitations and defects. If a poet’s matter and manner require explanation and defence the poet cannot belong to that small number of the world’s greatest poets whose every word is fatal and inevitable, whose thoughts are only [page xxxiii:] then obscure when they are transcendently profound, whose purpose is as obvious as their charms, though both may pass our understanding, and whose mastery of method and manner is sane and sure.

Poe’s genius is acknowledged and therefore neither its essence nor its phenomena can be fully explained; but this may be said — his is the genius not of mental power but of melody. He remains a Chopin, not even a Mendelssohn, much less a Beethoven, still less a Wagner.

CHARLES W. KENT.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page xvii:]

1. “The Mind and Art of Poe.” — John Phelps Fruit.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page xxi:]

1. Anna Estelle Lewis, see Vols. I. & XIII.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Introduction)