Text: Phillip Pendleton Cooke, “Edgar A. Poe,” Southern Literary Messenger, January 1848, pp. 34-38


[page 34, column 1, continued:]



[The following paper is a sequel to Mr. Lowel’s [[Lowell’s]] memoir, (so called,) of Mr. Poe, published two or three years since in Graham’s Magazine. Mr. P. edited the Messenger for several years, and the pages of that Magazine would seem therefore a proper place for the few hurried observations which I have here made upon his writings and genius.

P. P. C.]

Since the memoir of Mr. Poe, written by James Russel Lowel [[James Russell Lowell]], appeared, Mr. P. has written some of his best things; amongst them The Raven, and Dreamland — poems — and M. Valdemar’s case — a prose narrative.

“The Raven” is a singularly beautiful poem. Many readers who prefer sunshine to the weird lights with which Mr. Poe fills his sky, may be dull [column 2:] to its beauty, but it is none the less a great triumph of imagination and art. Notwithstanding the extended publication of this remarkable poem, I will quote it almost entire — as the best means of justifying the praise I have bestowed upon it.

The opening stanza rapidly and clearly arranges time, place, etc. for the mysteries that follow.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door,

‘ ’Tis some visiter,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door

Only this, and nothing more.’ ”

Observe how artistically the poet has arranged the circumstances of this opening — how congruous all are. This congruity extends to the phraseology; every word is admirably selected and placed with reference to the whole. Even the word “napping” is well chosen, as bestowing a touch of the fantastic, which is subsequently introduced as an important component of the poem. Stanza 2d increases the distinctness and effect of the picture as already presented to us. The “Midnight Dreary” is a midnight “in the bleak December” and the “dying embers” are assuming strange and fantastic shapes upon the student’s hearth. We now pass these externals and some words of exquisite melody let us into the secret of the rooted sorrow which has led to the lonely night-watching and fruitless study.

“Vainly I had sought to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore

For the rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore

Nameless here forever more.

A death was never more poetically told than in the italicised words.

The “tapping” is renewed —

“And the silken, sad, uncertain, rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me, filled me, with fantastic terrors never felt before,

So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating

‘ ’Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door,

Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door,

Only this and nothing more.’ ”

After some stanzas, quaint and highly artistical, the raven is found at the window; I quote now continuously to the end.

“Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,

Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he; [page 35:]

But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my door

Perched upon a bust of Pallas, just above my door

Perched, and sat, and nothing more


“Then this ebon bird beguiling my sad fancy into

By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance

‘Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,’ I said, art sure no craven,

Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering, from the nightly shore

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!’

Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’


“Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,

Though its answer little meaning, little relevancy bore;

For we cannot help agreeing that no living human

Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door —

Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,

With such name as ‘Nevermore.’


“But the raven sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour,

Nothing farther then he uttered — not a feather then he fluttered —

Till I scarcely more than muttered ‘Other friends have flown before —

On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before

Then the bird said ‘Nevermore.’


“Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,

‘Doubtless,’ said I, ‘what it utters is its only stock and store,

Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster

Followed fast and followed faster, till his songs one burden bore —

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore

Of ‘Nevermore’ — of ‘Nevermore.’


“But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,

Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust, and door;

Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking

Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore —

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of your

Meant in croaking ‘Nevermore.’


“This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing

To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;

This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining

On the cushion’s velvet lining, that the lamp-light gloated o’er,

But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,

She shall press, ah, nevermore!


“Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by angels, whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor. [column 2:]

‘Wretch,’ I cried,’ thy God hath lent thee — by these angels he hath sent thee

Respite — respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore

Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’


“ ‘Prophet!’ said I, ‘thing of evil! — prophet still, if bird or devil!

Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,

Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted

On this home by Horror haunted — tell me truly, I implore —

Is there — is there balm in Gilead? — tell me — tell me, I implore!’

Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’


“ ‘ Prophet!’ said I,’ thing of evil! prophet still, if bird or devil!

By that heaven that bends above us — by that God we both adore,

Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aideinn,

It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.’

Quoth the raven,’ Nevermore.’


“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!’ I shrieked, upstarting

‘Get thee back into the tempest, and the Night’s Plutonian shore!

Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!’

Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’


“And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my clamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,

And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow, that lies floating on the floor,

Shall be lifted — nevermore!”

The rhythm of this poem is exquisite, its phraseology is in the highest degree musical and apt, the tone of the whole is wonderfully sustained and appropriate to the subject, which, full as it is of a bosom’s wild and tender melancholy, is admirably well chosen. This is my honest judgment; I am fortified in it by high authority. Mr. Willis says: — “It is the most effective single example of fugitive poet gloated try ever published in this country and unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity, of versification, and consistent sustaining of imaginative lift. It is one of those dainties which we feed on. It will stick to the memory of every one who reads it.”

Miss Barrett says: — “This vivid writing! — this power which is felt! ‘The Raven’ has produced [page 36:] a sensation — a ‘fit horror’ here in England. Some I of my friends are taken by the fear of it, and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the Nevermore, and one acquaintance of mine, who has the misfortune of possessing a ‘bust of Pallas,’ never can bear to look at it in the twilight. Our great poet, Mr. Browning, author of Paracelsus, etc., is enthusiastic in his admiration of the rhythm. * * * Then there is a tale of his which I do not find in this volume, but which is going the rounds of the newspapers, about mesmerism, throwing us all into most admired disorder, or dreadful doubts as to whether it can be true, as the children say of ghost stories. The certain thing in the tale in question is the power of the writer, and the faculty he has of making horrible improbabilities seem near and familiar.”

The prose narrative, “M. Valdemar’s case” the story of which Miss Barrett speaks — is the most truth-like representation of the impossible ever written. M. Valdernar is mesmerized in articulo mortis. Months pass away, during which he appears to be in mesmeric sleep; the mesmeric influence is withdrawn, and instantly his body becomes putrid and loathsome — he has been many months dead. Will the reader believe that men were found to credit this wild story? and yet some very respectable people believed in its truth firmly. The editor of the Baltimore Visiter republished it as a statement of facts, and was at the pains to vouch for Mr. Poe’s veracity. If the letter of a Mr. Collier, published just after the original appearance of the story, was not a quiz, he also fell into the same trap. I understand that some foreign mesmeric journals, German and French, reprinted it as being what it purported to be a true account of mesmeric phenomena. That many others were deceived in like manner by this strange tale, in which, as Miss Barrett says, “the wonder and question are, can it be true,” is very probable.

With Mr. Poe’s more recent productions I am not at all acquainted — excepting a review of Miss Barrett’s works, and an essay on the philosophy of composition. The first of these contains a great deal of noble writing and excellent criticism; the last is an admirable specimen of analysis. I believe Mr. P. has been for some time ill — has recently sustained a heavy domestic bereavement and is only now returning to his literary labors. The public will doubtless welcome the return of so favorite an author to pursuits in which heretofore he has done so much and so well.

Unnecessary as the labor may be, I will not conclude this postscript to Mr. Lowel’s [[Lowell’s]] memoir, without making some remarks upon Mr. Poe’s genius and writings generally.

Mr. P’s most distinguishing power is that which made the extravagant fiction of M. Valdemar’s case sound like truth. He has De Foe’s peculiar talent for filling up his pictures with minute life-like [column 2:] touches — for giving an air of remarkable naturalness and truth to whatever he paints. Some of his stories, written many years ago, are wonderful in this fidelity and distinctness of portraiture; “Hans Phaal,” “a descent into the Maelstrom,” and “MS. found in a bottle,” shew it in an eminent degree. In the first of these a journey to the moon is described with the fullness and particularity of an ordinary traveller’s journal; entries, astronomical and thertnical. and, on reaching the moon, botanical, and zoological, are made with an inimitable matter-of-fact air. In a descent into the Maelstrom you are made fairly to feel yourself on the descending round of the vortex, convoying fleets of drift timber, and fragments of wrecks: the terrible whirl makes you giddy as youth read. In the MS. found in a bottle we have a story as wild as the mind of man ever conceived, and yet made to sound like the most matter-of-fact veracious narrative of a seaman.

But in Mr. Poe, the peculiar talent to which we are indebted for Robinson Crusoe, and the memoirs of Captain Monroe, has an addition. Truthlike as Nature itself, his strange fictions show constantly the presence of a singularly adventurous, very wild, and thoroughly poetic imagination. Some sentences from them, which always impressed me deeply, will give full evidence of the success with which this rare imaginative power is made to adorn and ennoble his truthlike pictures. Take this passage from Ligeia, a wonderful story, written to show the triumph of the human will even over death. Ligeia, in whom the struggle between the will to live, and the power of death, has seemed to terminate in a defeat of the passionate will, is consigned to the tomb. Her husband marries a second wife, “the fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena.” By the sick bed of this second wife, who is dying from some mysterious cause, he sits.

“I sat by the side of her ebony bed, upon one of the ottomans of India. She partly arose, and spoke, in an earnest low whisper, of sounds which she then heard, but which I could not hear, of motions which she then saw, but which I could not perceive. The wind was rushing hurriedly behind the tapestries, and I wished to show her (what, let me confess it, I could not all believe) that those faint, almost inarticulate breathings and the very gentle variations of the figures upon the wall were hut the natural effects of that customary rushing of the wind. But, a deadly pallor, overspreading her face, had proved to me that my exertions to reassure her would be fruitless. She appeared to be fainting, and no attendants were within call. I remembered where was deposited a decanter of some light wine which had been ordered by her physicians, and hastened across the chamber to procure it. But as I stepped beneath the light of the censer, two circumstances of a startling nature attracted my attention. I had felt that some palpable object had passed lightly by my person; and I saw that there lay a faint, indefinite shadow upon [page 37:] the golden carpet, in the very middle of the rich lustre thrown from the censer. * * * Finding the wine, I recrossed the chamber and poured out a goblet-full, which I held to the lips of the fainting lady. She had now, however, partially recovered, and took, herself, the vessel, while I sank upon the ottoman near me. with my eyes rivetted upon her person. It was then that I became distinctly aware of a gentle foot-fall upon the carpet, and( near the couch; and in a second thereafter, as Rowena was in the act of raising the wine to her lips, I saw, or may have dreamed that I saw, fall within the goblet, as from some invisible spring in the atmosphere of the room, three or four large drops of a brilliant and ruby-colored fluid.”

Again take this passage from the Fall of the House of Usher

“From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued — for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure of which I have before spoken, as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction to the base.”

These quoted passages — the “white and ghastly spectrum of the teeth” in “ Berenice” — the visible vulture eye, and audible heart-beat in the “Telltale Heart” — the resemblance in “Morella” of the living child to the dead mother, becoming gradually fearful, until the haunting eyes gleam out a terrible identity, and prove as in Ligeia the final conquest of the will over death — these and a thousand such clinging ideas, which Mr. P.’s writings abound in, prove indisputably that the fires of a great poet are seething under those analytic and narrative powers in which no living writer equals him.

This added gift of a daring and wild imagination is the source of much of the difference between our author and De Foe. De Foe loves and deals always with the homely. Mr. Poe is nervously afraid of the homely — has a creed that Beauty is the goddess of the Poet: — not Beauty with swelling bust, and lascivious carriage, exciting passions of the blood, but Beauty sublimated and cherished by the soul — the beauty of the Uranian, not Dionean Venus. De Foe gives us in the cheerful and delightful story of his colonist of the desert isles, (which has as sure a locality in a million minds as any genuine island has upon the maps,) a clear, plain, true-sounding narrative of matters that might occur any day. His love for the real makes him do so. The “real” of such a picture has not strangeness enough in its proportions for Mr. Poe’s imagination; and, with the same talent for truthlike narrative, to what different results of creation does not this imagination, scornful of the soberly [column 2:] real, lead him! Led by it he loves to adventure into what in one of his poems he calls —

“a wild weird clime

Out of space, out of time;

deals in mysteries of “life in death,” dissects monomanias, exhibits convulsions of soul-in a word, wholly leaves beneath and behind him the wide and happy realm of the common cheerful life of man.

That he would be a greater favorite with the majority of readers if he brought his singular capacity for vivid and truthlike narrative to bear on subjects nearer ordinary life, and of a more cheerful and happy character, does not I think admit of a doubt. But whether with the few he is not all the more appreciable from the difficult nature of the fields which he has principally chosen, is questionable. For what he has done, many of the best minds of America, England and France, have awarded him praise; labors of a tamer nature might not have won it from such sources. For my individual part, having the seventy or more tales, analytic, mystic, grotesque, arabesque, always wonderful, often great, which his industry and fertility have already given us, I would like to read one cheerful book made by his invention, with little or no aid from its twin brother imagination — a book in his admirable style of full, minute, never tedious narrative — a book full of homely doings, of successful toils, of ingenious shifts and contrivances, of ruddy firesides — a book healthy and happy throughout, and with no poetry in it at all anywhere, except a good old English “poetic justice” in the end. Such a book, such as Mr. Poe could make it, would be a book for the million, and if it did nothing to exalt him with the few, would yet certainly endear him to them.

Mr. Lowell has gone deeply and discriminatingly into Mr. Poe’s merits as a poet. Any elaborate remarks of mine on the same subject would be out of place here. I will not, however, lose this opportunity of expressing an admiration which I have long entertained of the singular mastery of certain externals of his art which he everywhere exhibits in his verse. His rhythm, and his vocabulary, or phraseology, are perhaps perfect. The reader has perceived the beauty of the rhythm in The Raven.

Some other verses from poems to which Mr. Lowell has referred, are quite as remarkable for this beauty. Read these verses from Lenore —

* * * *

“Come let the burial rite be read — the funeral song be sung! —

An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young

A dirge for her the doubly dead, in that she died so young.

* * * *

“The sweet Lenore bath gone before, with hope that flew beside, [page 38:]

Leaving thee wild, for the dear child, that should have been thy bride

For her the fair, and debonair, that now so lowly lies,

The life upon her yellow hair, but not within her eyes

The life still there upon her hair, — the death upon her eyes.

* * * *

Avaunt! to-night my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise,

But waft the angel on her flight with a Paean of old days!

* * * *

And take these, in the most graceful of all measures — they are from “To one in Paradise.”

And all my days are trances

And all my nightly dreams

Are where thy dark eye glances,

And where thy footstep gleams —

In what ethereal dances,

By what eternal streams.”

Along with wonderful beauty of rhythm, these verses show the exquisite taste in phraseology, the nice sense of melody and aptness in words, of which I spoke. We have direct evidence of this nice sense of verbal melody in some quotations which are introduced into the dramatic fragment “Politian.” Lalage reads from a volume of our elder English Dramatists:

Lal. “It in another climate, so he said,

Bore a bright golden flower, but not i’ this soil?

(pauses — turns over some leaves and resumes.)

No lingering winters there, nor snow, nor shower

But ocean ever to refresh mankind

Breathes the shrill spirit of the western wind.”

Again a similar tale (turning the leaves)

Told of a beauteous dame beyond the sea!

Thus speaketh one Ferdinand in the words of the play —

She died full young” — our Bossola answers him —

I think not so — her infelicity

Seemed to have years too many.”

I must conclude these insufficient remarks upon a writer worthy of high and honorable place amongst the leading creative minds of the age.

As regards the Wiley & Putnam publication of Mr. Poe’s tales — a volume by which his rare literary claims have been most recently presented to the public — I think the book in some respects does him injustice. It contains twelve tales out of more than seventy; and it is made up almost wholly of what may be called his analytic tales. This is not representing the author’s mind in its various phases. A reader gathering his knowledge of Mr. Poe from this Wiley & Putnam issue would perceive nothing of the diversity and variety for which his writings are in fact remarkable. Only the publication of all his stories, at one issue, in one book, would show this diversity and variety in their full force; but much more might have been done to represent his mind by a judicious and not wholly one-toned selection.




This article was originally intended for Poe’s book The Living Writers of America, proposed after the “Literati” series in Godey’s, but abandoned by the end of 1848.



[S:0 - SLM, 1848] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Edgar A. Poe (P. P. Cooke, 1848)