Text: Anonymous, “Edgar Allan Poe,” The Biographical Magazine (London), vol. VII, no. 5, May 1855, pp. 211-220


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THE wreck of genius, especially poetic genius, by the intemperance of passion, is a spectacle the world has often seen and lamented. Nor is there anything of mystery in such a catastrophe. The connexion between poetry and passion is one of the common-places of philosophy. The emotional nature, roused from its depths, will generally find vent in the tropes, and hurried metaphors, and vivid personifications of poetic speech. And conversely, the soul in its higher poetic flights needs to be uplifted on the wing of strong and sustained emotion. The man of science, pushing his “patient entrance into nature’s deep resources,” may be cold as the substances he analyses, and methodical as the laws he discovers; the philosopher may probe into thought and feeling as impassively as the anatomist into the muscles and veins; but the poet cannot thus be all head and no heart; he cannot rise “to the height of” his “great argument” by the slow, calm steps of a merely logical process. His eye must roll in its “fine frenzy,” and his heart glow with its eager pulsations, before he can utter “the thoughts that breathe and words that burn.” Truth requires of her followers the quick, keen eye — the clear, active, patient intellect — and that is all; but poesy exacts of such as would wear her garland, the ready sympathy — the tender, tremulous sensibility — the warm, fleshly, passionate heart.

Yet it by no means follows of necessity that such excess of the emotional element should take the gross and degrading direction of animal indulgence. The poet need not be a beast in his gratifications, because his nerves are more delicately strung, and his passions more quickly and hotly kindled than those of ordinary humanity. Wordsworth walked the world with throbbing sensibilities, discovering in “the meanest flower that blows” “thoughts too deep for tears,” yet was pure as the snows upon his own Helvellyn; Cowper, whose life was a perpetual martyrdom to his diseased sensitiveness, sought relief from his sorrows in meek submission, not in delirious excess. Nevertheless, too often poetic sensibility has been a fatal endowment. The wine-cup has [column 2:] been resorted to, either for the elation or stupefaction it affords — either to string up morbid nerves, or to drown misery in forgetfulness[[.]] Wit and fancy enough to make ordinary men immortal have been poured forth amidst the coarse plaudits of drunken revellers — Apollo lending his lyre to the orgies of Bacchus. Or other stimulants have been sought, equally deleterious, if less criminal. And the unnatural cravings thus awakened have grown more imperious by indulgence. Byron, out Venice-ing Venice by his nightly debauches — Burns, degrading his genius to the companionship of vulgar sensualists for the sake of their potations long and deep — Coleridge, lazily revelling in opium visions, — are but specimens of a class. And to these we may now add another, whose career in misery and degradation outstripped them all — the half-lunatic, half-inspired American, EDGAR ALLAN POE.

We cannot couple Poe’s name with those of Burns and Byron without being reminded of one coincidence, too remarkable to be merely a coincidence — that, viz., of the age at which in each case intemperate passion wrought the destruction of its victim. Byron was thirty-six when exertion and exposure completed the wreck of a shattered constitution; Burns was thirty-seven when criminal excesses brought him to the grave; and Poe was thirty-eight when he was picked up drunk and raving in the streets of Baltimore, to die in a hospital. In the prime of life, when other men are girding up their powers for a mature essay of their strength, these unhappy geniuses finished their wayward course. Their “sun went down while it was yet day .”

Edgar Allan Poe was born at Baltimore, in January, 1811 [[1809]]. His father and mother were both employed on the stage. They died within a few months of each other, when Edgar was a child of six years old. Thus the key-note of his melancholy history was early struck. Yet no relentless destiny hung over him from the outset. The young orphan was not cast destitute on the cold charities of the world. He had, like others, his time of probation, and lost it by his own folly and guilt. A Mr. John Allan, ­[page 212:] a wealthy and generous merchant, who had been familiar with the parents, took charge of the forsaken child, and having no family of his own, proposed to adopt him.

Young Edgar is described as being at this early age “of remarkable beauty and precocious wit” — both perilous endowments, even under the severe discipline of a parent, much more so under the lax tutelage of a patron. Extraordinary precocity is itself often a morbid symptom, needing repression rather than encouragement, and foreboding either a premature end or a wayward passionate life.

How Mr. Allan fulfilled his assumed relation to the beautiful orphan we are not informed — probably neither better nor worse than guardians are wont to do. Four or five years of his boyhood young Edgar spent in England, at the school of a Dr. Bransby, in Stoke Newington. If during all this period he was left among strangers, exposed only to the ordinary influences of such an establishment, here was ample opportunity for the contraction of those vices which afterwards bore such bitter fruit. An indolent lad of genius at a public school is in a perilous position. He learns to despise the plodding application which he does not need, and becomes impulsive and irregular. The rapidity of his mental operations leaves him long hours of vacancy; and, as good Dr. Watts says truly,

“Satan finds some mischief still,

For idle hands to do.”

Returning to the United States, he entered the University of Charlottesville. Here profligacy was the fashion, and young Poe soon became the most profligate of his class. He plunged into intemperance, and yet grosser sins. He gambled wildly, exhausted the liberal allowance of his patron, and ran deeply into debt. Yet, by the extraordinary vigour and rapidity of his intellect, he maintained as conspicuous a position in the ranks of scholarship as he did in the career of vice, and would have graduated with the highest honours, had not his extreme dissoluteness led to his expulsion.

Mr. Allan having refused to pay some of his debts of “honour,” Poe abused him, left his house, and started for Europe, with the professed intention of joining the Greeks, in their struggle with the Turks. Strange, indeed, it would [column 2:] have been, if the resuscitation of that ancient nation had attracted to their ranks two such erratic geniuses as the authors of “Don Juan” and the “Raven.” Poe’s fantastic idea, however, was never carried out. For twelve months he wandered over Europe. Whither he went, what he did, and how he subsisted, we know not. At length he reappears at St. Petersburg; and, very characteristically, is soon involved in trouble, by outrages committed in a drunken debauch. By the interference of the American Minister, he is set at liberty and enabled to return to his native land.

By Mr. Allan’s influence, who had not yet wholly discarded his scapegrace favourite, Poe was next placed at the Military Academy at West Point. For awhile he studied hard. His vivacity and brilliant conversational power secured him general favour; and his friends began to hope that perhaps his troubles were working his reformation. But the old temptation recurred — his reformed habits and better aspirations were weak as imbecility itself before it; duties were neglected, and orders disobeyed, and ten months had hardly elapsed before the young cadet was cashiered.

His next misfortune was more serious still; whether more criminal or not remains uncertain. Mr. Allan had married a second time. Poe affirms that he had a personal quarrel with the lady, who was many years her husband’s junior, that he ridiculed her, and that this occasioned a breach between himself and his patron. Bad enough this; but Mr. Allan’s friends circulated a darker story, upon which it is well, for the ray of reputation Poe has left behind, that some ambiguity rests. Be this as it may, Mr. Allan now closed his door on the young reprobate, and never again gave him the slightest help or assistance.

Poe was now for awhile reduced to great wretchedness. He first attempted to gain a livelihood by contributions to popular journals, but his productions were not sufficiently ad captandum. This resource failing, he enlisted as a private soldier, for his vices and misfortunes had made him reckless of character. He hated and defied mankind, and cared little at what gradation of the social scale he stood. Some of the officers, however, were old acquaintances from the Academy at West Point, and made efforts to secure him a commission — but ­[page 213:] he prevented their kindness by deserting. It was impossible to help a being whose vagaries were so capricious.

In 1838 two prizes were offered by the proprietor of the Baltimore Saturday Visitor for the best tale and poem adapted to the magazine. One contribution was sent in which immediately arrested the attention of the adjudicators, by the clearness and beauty of the handwriting. The contents were found to be as remarkable as the caligraphy. Not another MS. was opened. The Premium was unanimously awarded to “the first of geniuses who had written legibly.” The successful candidate was Poe; the prize tale, The MS. Found in a Bottle. The next day Poe was invited to the office of a Mr. Kennedy, one of the adjudicators, a literary lawyer. He went just as he was. “Thin and pale, even to ghastliness, his whole appearance indicated sickness and the utmost destitution. A well-worn frock-coat concealed the absence of a shirt, and imperfect boots disclosed the want of hose. But the eyes of the young man were luminous with intelligence and feeling, and his voice, conversation, and manners all won upon the lawyer’s regard.”*

Through the active kindness of Mr. Kennedy and other friends, Poe was established as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, a magazine published at Richmond, Virginia, For awhile all went well. He married his cousin, a gentle girl, and lived frugally on his income of a hundred a year. He contributed several papers to the magazine; and won, by his fascinating manner, the friendship of his employer. But the evil spirit was laid only, not exorcised. Temptations again assailed him, and again he fell. Remorse, resolves, promises, the responsibilities of his new relations, all were scattered, like reeds in the hurricane, before the frenzy of passion. He would spend a whole week together in a state of beastly intoxication. His generous employer bore long with him; dismissed, and again forgave him; but severity and kindness were alike thrown away on the unhappy inebriate. At length his irregularities wearied the forbearance of friendship, and in January, 1837, his connexion with the magazine ceased.

Then followed a year and a half of vague wanderings and precarious subsistence. [column 2:] At length he settled at Philadelphia, again in the capacity of Editor. The magazine whose supervision he now undertook was the Maga, which Mr. Barton [[Burton]], a comedian, had recently established. Here the often-told story has to be repeated — a few months of steady application and self-control followed by impetuous outbursts of old, irrepressible cravings, and the revived tyranny of inveterate and unconquerable habits. For weeks together, before the summer of 1840 closed, he seemed possessed by a drunken and unclean devil. Meanwhile the concerns of the magazine were shamefully neglected. Sometimes the day of publication would arrive, and no copy for the printer. Mr. Burton was kind and lenient, and rather pitied than resented excesses which seemed to have as much insanity in them as sin. But Poe’s wild folly made him an outcast from the offices of friendship; it was impossible for the most determined affection to do him lasting good. It would have been as easy to tame by kindness some tiger of the jungle, for perpetual alcohol had fired his nature with the fury of a wild beast; and in the blindness of his paroxysms he distinguished neither friend nor foe. His rupture with Burton is a sad exhibition of his character. The comedian had been called from town by a professional engagement, leaving material for the publication of the magazine in four days. Returning in a fortnight, he found the whole concern suspended, not a page of copy having been sent to the press. But this was not the worst. His quondam editor had prepared the prospectus of a rival monthly, even transcribing the subscription-list of his generous employer with the design of supplanting him. The astonished actor sought out Poe, found him in some low haunt of vice, and demanded back his “copy” with language of honest indignation. The wretched inebriate interrupted him with — “Who are you that presume to address me in this manner? Burton, I am — the Editor of the Penn Magazine — and you are — hiccup — a fool.” Thus, after a little more than a year, closed his connexion with the Maga.

He remained four years yet in Philadelphia, his increasing celebrity as a magazinist furnishing him with the means of subsistence. For a year and a half he edited a periodical, named ­[page 214:] after its proprietor, a Mr. Graham. When his unconquerable habits of dissipation had thrown him out of this post, he attempted to establish a magazine of his own, to he called the Stylus — but no publisher would embark in the venture with a being so wayward.

During his connexion with Graham’s magazine, he wrote some of his most caustic criticisms, and most popular tales. Indeed, it was now that his own peculiar vein of genius, that of curious and subtle analysis, maturely developed itself. He took possession of a domain of thought in which he stands unequalled — indeed, almost without competitor. The tales that he wrote at this time were such as the “Gold Beetle [[Bug]],” and the “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” where with such wonderful ingenuity the woof of human conduct is unravelled to its primary threads. We may remark, though in anticipation of some coming criticisms, that the Dupin of the latter of these tales is evidently the Poe of this period. Imaginative and whimsical, living isolated in his own thoughts — “enamoured” of darkness “for her own sake” — dreaming or reading by day, and by night sallying forth to seek excitement “amid the wild lights and shadows of the populous city” — perpetually thinking, eagerly delighted, and wondrously successful to following the thoughts of others through their hidden and wayward trains of associations — solving all enigmas with the air of intuition, yet in reality “by the very soul and essence of method” — tracking results to causes, and then again from causes predicting results with keenest sagacity — and discoursing at such times with “frigid and abstract” manner, and eyes dilating vacantly, while his voice rises “to a treble, which would have sounded petulantly, but for the deliberateness and entire distinctness of the enunciation” — such has Poe depicted his unique and mysterious Frenchman; and he found the original of the delineation, even to many of its minuter details, in his own self-analysis. It was the same veils of genius which displayed itself in his papers on autobiography [[autography]] and cyphers, both contributed at this period of his career. In the former, he attempted to discover character from handwriting; and in the latter he laid down the principle, that all secret writing was resolvab1e by methodical analysis.

In the autumn of 1844, Poe removed [column 2:] from Philadelphia to New York, and shortly afterwards published the best known of all his productions, that wierd and dirge-like poem, “The Raven.” His fame was now established; the first literary society of the American capital was open to him; and either as a magazinist or an independent author, he might have secure a respectable livelihood. But his old miserable habits still adhered to him. No change of place or condition could shake these off. Many discreditable stories are told of him at this time, of which the only palliation — if palliation it be — is, that intemperate passion had driven him mad, and remorse and conscious degradation had made him desperate. He was soon in the lowest state of destitution. The dangerous illness of his wife added to his misfortunes, and his own energies were emasculated by dissipation and paralysed by self-inflicted misery. At length his pitiable condition was made known in the public journals, and relief flowed in. But it came too late to save his gentle-hearted wife, who, with the unwearying love which belongs only to woman, had adhered to him through long years of sorrow, insanity, and sin. Yet he was not even now deserted. His mother-in-law, who through her daughter’s protracted illness had been the guardian genius of the household, still continued her devotion to her unhappy son. She lived with him, made the squalid home of want look bright and cheerful, withdrew him from temptation, watched over the frenzy or stupor of his drunken paroxysms, shielded him from exposure, bore meekly and pityingly with his maniacal petulance and ingratitude, carried his productions to the press, begged for him, with a love and self-abandonment to which we know no parallel. Mr. N. P. Willis writes of this noble-hearted woman: —

“The countenance of this lady, made beautiful and saintly with an evidently complete giving-up of her life to privation and sorrowful tenderness, her gentle and mournful voice urging its plea, her long-forgotten but habitual1y and unconsciously-refined manners, and her appealing and yet appreciative mention of the claims and abilities of her son, disclosed at once the presence of one of those angels upon earth that women in adversity can be. Winter after winter, for years, the most touching ­[page 215:] sight to us, in this whole city, has been that tireless minister to genius, thinly and insufficiently clad, going from office to office with a poem, or an article on some literary subject, to sell — sometimes pleading in a broken voice that he was ill, and begging for him — mentioning nothing but that ‘he was ill,’ whatever might be the reason for his writing nothing — and never, amid all her tears and recitals of distress, suffering one syllable to escape her lips that could convey a doubt of him, or a complaint, or a lessening of pride in his genius and good intentions.”

Mr. Willis was at this time editing a daily paper in New York, and for some few months Poe was employed by him as critic and sub-editor. It appears to have been one of his intervals of sobriety — a lull in the tempest of passion that agitated his life. At all events, Mr. Willis saw but the better phase of his character, for be writes: —

“He resided with his wife and mother, at Fordham, a few miles out of town, but was at his desk, in the office, from nine in the morning till the evening paper went to press. With the highest admiration for his genius, and a willingness to let it atone for more than ordinary irregularity, we were led by common report to expect a very capricious attention to his duties, and occasionally a scene of violence and difficulty. Time went on, and he was invariably punctual and industrious. With his pale, beautiful, and intellectual face, as a reminder of what genius was in him, it was impossible, of course, not to treat him always with a deferential courtesy, and to our occasional request that he would not probe too deep in a criticism, or that he would erase a passage coloured too highly with his resentment against society and mankind, he readily and courteously assented, far more yielding than most men, we thought, on points so excusably sensitive. With a prospect of taking the lead in another periodical, he, at last, voluntarily gave up his employment with us; and through all this considerable period, we had seen but one presentment of the man — a quiet, patient, industrious, and most gentlemanly person, commanding the utmost respect and good feeling by his unvarying deportment and ability. Residing, as he did, in the country, we never met Mr. [column 2:] Poe in hours of leisure; but he frequently called on us afterwards in our pace of business, and we met him often in the street — invariably the same sad-mannered, winning and refined gentleman — such as we had always known him. It was by rumour only, up to the day of his death, that we knew of any other development of manner or character.”

It was during his residence in New York, early in 1848, that Poe delivered a lecture on the “Cosmogony of the Universe,” which he afterwards published under the ambitious title of “Eureka, a Prose-poem.” It is a production full of genius and enthusiasm — yet, withal, merely gorgeous hypothesis, and thus commanding no one’s faith but the projector’s. It rejects alike the authoritative disclosures of revelation, and the slow and cautious deductions of sound philosophy, to plunge, like the Pythagorases and Platos of former days, into the cloud-land of speculation, and there to build up theories vast, and beautiful, and evanescent as the vapour domes and palaces painted by the setting sun upon the western sky. Yet Poe himself had the strongest faith in his own hypothesis. He was persuaded that to him had been discovered the secret of the universe. He talked incessantly of his glorious dreams, with fire flashing from his large and variable eyes, and a more than mortal eloquence rushing in the exquisitely modulated tones of his wonderful voice. And in his preface he wrote — “What I here propound is true, therefore it cannot die; or if, by any means, it be now trodden down so that it die, it will rise again to the life everlasting.”

It was now publicly announced that Poe was to be married a second time — the bride-elect being “one of the most brilliant women of New England.” He has celebrated her beauty, and the incident of his first seeing her, in his lines “To Helen.” But the engagement was ruptured by Poe himself; and that, according to the published recital, by an act of such deliberate and incomprehensible baseness, as to raise a suspicion of some exaggeration. We give his biographer’s own words, and leave the reader to judge for himself: “He said to an acquaintance in New York, who congratulated him upon the prospect of his union with a person of so much genius and so many virtues — ‘It is a mistake, I am not going to he married,’ ­[page 216:] ‘Why, Mr. Poe, I understand that the banns have been published.’ ‘I cannot help what you have heard, my dear Madam; but, mark me, I shall not marry her.’ He left town the same evening, and the next day was reeling through the streets of the city which was the lady’s home, and in the evening — that should have been the evening before the bridal — in his drunkenness he committed at her house such outrages as made necessary a summons of the police.” We hesitate to adopt so strange an anecdote; for we know of no less trustworthy materials for the biographer than rumored conversations.

But the end was now approaching. In the autumn of 1849, Poe left New York for Virginia. After a relapse at Philadelphia on the road, he reached Richmond in a mood of sobriety. It was the home of his early days, and better feelings came over him. He joined a Temperance Society, and wrestled hard, and for a time successfully, with his old besetments. He renewed a long-suspended connexion with a lady he had known and loved in his youth, and preparations were made for a speedy marriage. But business called him to New York. He took Baltimore in his way; and, having to wait for an hour or two, went to a tavern for refreshment. Some old acquaintances invited him to drink; he had no strength to resist the fatal seduction; and the demon revived within him. The night was spent in insanity and exposure; and in the morning, his condition was such that it was deemed necessary to convey him to a hospital. Here on Sunday, the 7th of October, at the age of thirty-eight, he died.

Such was the tragical termination of a career, which throughout leaves us uncertain whether to pity or condemn. It is the fashion, we know, to speak of Poe as a being of unmitigated depravity — in whose composition all sweet and generous virtues, and even conscience itself, were omitted. We have no faith in such moral monstrosities — no more than in mermaid, and centaurs, and gorgons, and such-like deformities. These stern censors do not allow sufficiently for the terrible bondage under which Poe lived to the most furious of appetites. To the confirmed drunkard the thirst for drink becomes a species of mania; the slightest seduction — the [column 2:] mere fumes of the intoxicating beverage — will set it raging; and his will has been so frequently over-ridden by passion, that resistance is now simply impossible. All his resolves and vows, his forebodings of shame, and disease, and beggary — all that in his sober moments it drives him frantic to think of — all are forgotten, or swept away like the webs of the gossamer in the tempest. That such was the case with the unhappy subject of our sketch, we have on the authority of an intimate acquaintance. “We heard,” writes Mr. Willis, “from one who knew him well (what should be stated in all mention of his lamentable irregularities), that with a single glass of wine his whole nature was reversed, the demon became uppermost: and though none of the usual signs of intoxication were visible, his will was palpably insane. Possessing his reasoning faculties in excited activity at such times, and seeking his acquaintance with his wonted look and memory, he easily seemed personating only another phase of his natural character, and was accused, accordingly, of insulting arrogance and bad-heartedness. In this reversed character, we repeat, it was never our chance to see him. We know it from hearsay, and we mention it in connexion with this sad infirmity of physical constitution, which puts it upon very nearly the ground of a temporary and irresponsible insanity.”

Let the words we have italicized be remarked well. Poe retained the intellect and outward appearance of a sane man, while his will was in abeyance, and he was consequently passive to the wild fancies and wayward impulses of inebriety. Hence, we have little doubt but that many of his actions, which passed for sane and premeditated baseness, were in reality the irrational caprices of drunkenness. True there yet remains — making all deductions — the fact of his voluntary subjection to these fearful passions. That they grew into tyrannous habits, that they threw prostrate his emasculated will, was his own fault. He had his time of probation like other men. He was under no dark and uncontrollable destiny. He must voluntarily have obscured his reason, and seared his conscience, and surrendered his freedom, before the demon fairly took possession of his soul. For this we have no apology, unless, indeed, his early orphanage, his precocious ­[page 217:] infancy, and homeless boyhood, be admitted in palliation.

We only seek to rescue him from the charge of unmitigated wickedness. With this view, we have referred many of his worst exhibitions of character to the sheer insanity of domineering passion. But is this all that can be said for him? Had he no redeeming qualities, no positive tendencies towards the good and generous, though checked and reversed when the furies that possessed him were aroused? We believe that he had. Our very faith in human nature would lead us to such belief, if we had no other ground to rest it on. The devoted affection which he excited in his wife and mother-in-law, who knew him best, stands in proof — though we know that woman’s love has strange tenacity, and to her pitying heart sorrow, and misfortune cover a multitude of sins. Then, again, it is hard judging to suppose the courtesy and winning gentleness remarked by Willis, to have been merely the glossy skin, and noiseless step, and graceful movements of the tiger. His very sadness too is significant. “He seemed,” says his biographer, “except when some fitful pursuit subjugated his will and engrossed his faculties, always to bear the memory of some controlling sorrow.” Now, your true Bacchanalian reprobate, in whose heart the fires of passion have scorched up all sweet and fragrant humanities, is never sad. Fretted with ennui, depressed by morbid physical reaction, stung by such morbid physical reaction, stung by such unholy remorse as preys on the lost in hell — this he may be; but true sorrow, the anguish of wounded sensibility, the bitter wailings of memory over lost innocence, this is reserved for those who, amidst all the devastations of sin, retain some loving and loveable qualities to link them with their kind.

We deny that there are no traces of heart in Poe’s writings. True, he has written nothing that moves us to tears, but this is not a fair criterion. The surcharged heart does not always vents itself in tears. There is a sorrow to which this relief is denied — a dark, morbid, aching sorrow — felt not in pangs, but in perpetual gloom and heaviness; and displaying itself in the abstracted mien, the introverted gaze —

Lips busy and eyes fixed, feet falling slow,

Arms handing idly down, hands clasped below.

Such sorrow, like the “beak” of his own Raven, was ever gnawing at the [column 2:] heart of Poe. He did not weep — that melancholy luxury was denied him; but he walked the streets all night, with anguish seated on his countenance, muttering curses, or breathing passionate prayers — prayers not for himself, whose doom he believed fixed, but for those he loved; calling aloud on dear departed ones, as if in his words there was a spell which could evoke them from the tomb; beating the winds and rains with furious arms, heedless of the storm without in the more dreadful rage of the storm within. And such a sorrow pervades many of his writings. We read them, not with quivering lips and choking voice, but with a melancholy gathering on our hearts which has the more of the intensity, that it lacks the tenderness, of sorrow.

Whether Poe possessed original genius or not has been much debated. We shall not pause on such a controversy, which generally resolves itself into a mere quibbling about words, depending on what is understood by originality; but shall proceed to specify what appear to us the conspicuous features of his genius.

The most obvious, by universal consent, is his subtle and singular power of analysis. His tales of ratiocination, as they are generally called, though written evidently with the intention of displaying this peculiar faculty, are scarcely its most remarkable exemplifications. In them it is a plot of his own weaving that he unravels. He first constructs, and knowing the secret of construction, makes no very extraordinary display of his skill in taking it to pieces again. It would not be much to be wondered at if the man who had first arranged the machinery of the stage, should afterwards be able to explain the shifting of the scenes, as it appears to the spectators. Thus, for instance, in the murders in the Rue Morgue, having previously fixed on an Ourang-Outang as the murderer, and arranged accordingly the accidents of the catastrophe, he displays surely no very singular sagacity in starting with those accidents, and eliminating from them who was the perpetrator; though from the extreme verisimilitude of his narration, the reader forgets for awhile that the problem never was wrought out in the mode in which it is presented to him — that no Dupin ever did thus track the monster from his bloody handiwork — ­[page 218:] and is therefore filled with a fallacious astonishment. In these tales, then, it is rather the constructive than the analytic power that is displayed; and this, according to Poe himself, is a very inferior faculty, being “frequently seen in those whose intellect borders otherwise upon idiocy.”

Poe’s analytic ability is rather diffused throughout his writings, than manifested in any one with peculiar prominence. It is perpetually obtruding itself upon us. He is never content with telling us simply what his characters thought and felt, but must always explain how they came thus to think and feel. Scarcely ever does he depict a scene without showing its reflection in the soul — without, in other words, describing the emotions it excites and the thoughts it suggests. Every now and then he will take up an emotion — the more rare or morbid the better — and trace its development, step by step, from the first faint breathing to the paroxysm. He concentrates almost all the interest of his pieces on the processes of thought and feeling that transpire within the breasts of his principal figures; all the mere incidents being as subordinate as the scenery or drapery of the stage to the performance of the actors. He surprises us with little stray bits of metaphysics in the most out-of-the-way places; often, indeed, carrying this to excess, and breaking the effect of his narratives by distracting the interest of his readers with episodical disquisitions. He says of one of his characters, that he had “a habit of intense and continual thought, pervading even his most trivial actions, intruding upon his moments of dalliance, and interweaving itself with his very flashes of merriment, like adders which writhe from out of the eyes of the grinning masks in the cornices around the temple of Persepolis.” Such was Poe himself. Indeed, the principal figure of all his sketches is himself — a sort of spiritual chemist, resolving his own thoughts and actions, and those of all others, in the crucible of his keen metaphysics.

But perhaps the chief feature about Poe’s analytic faculty is the eccentricity of its application. It is peculiarly the morbid, or fantastic, or impassioned moods of mind that he delights in subjecting to his scrutiny. Frenzies, and phantasies, and terrors, — swoons, half-memories, mesmeric-trances, and living [column 2:] deaths, are the conditions of the soul — some possible, others impossible — all rendered plausible by his wonderful skill — which he dissects evidently with singular gusto. Especially is he familiar with that strange border-land between sanity and madness, where shadowy spectres flit to and fro, dimly seen in the misty light of waning reason. One of his characters is haunted by a perpetual fear of being buried alive, till “fancy grows charnel,” and his talk is “of worms, of tombs, and epitaphs.” Another, yet more strangely, is possessed by a fear of fear — a dread lest some sudden terror should completely precipitate his already tottering reason. Another describes the progressive stages of a swoon, from the “burring” sounds and swimming sights that give the first intimation of its approach — through the gross darkness of unconsciousness to the sense of motion and sound — then of “sound, motion, and touch” — then “bare consciousness of existence without thought” — then uncertain thought — then “a rushing revival of soul” and full distinct memory of the past. One of his sketches, again, is an illustration of the rise and culmination of a sentiment, of which “philosophers take no account” — yet belonging to the “indivisible primary sentiments which give direction to the character of man “the spirit of perverseness; or, as he afterwards denominates it, “the unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself.” And another — one of his short poems — is actually put into the mouth of a corpse, and begins —

Thank Heaven! the crisis —

The danger is past,

And the lingering illness

Is over at last —

And the fever called “Living”

Is conquered at last.

Equally characteristic of Poe’s genius with his wonderful analytic power, is the vigour of his imagination. This faculty, too, is of a peculiar cast. The same morbid tendencies which impelled him to select for dissection all fantastic and gloomy conditions of mind, also led his imagination to prefer the scenery of mystery and horror. The beautiful and the sublime — the dews and flowers of the earth, the stars and hues of the sky, he seldom deals with; but he is at home in haunted palaces, and “dark and lurid” tarns, and “ghost-haunted” lakes, and bleak, solitary mansions ­[page 219:] with “vacant, eye-like windows,” and the

Wild wierd clime, that lieth sublime,

Out of space — out of time.

He possesses in an eminent degree the art of filling up the background of his pieces with appropriate imagery. Every incident and every object is congruous with the one effect he seeks to produce; and thus the whole force of association contributes to heighten the general result. Most artistically, for instance, has he accomplished this in the “Raven.” From beginning to end, in incident, in language, in scenery, in rhythm, there is no incongruity; one melancholy hue tinges all. The December midnight, the raging storm, the dying embers, the musing student, “the volumes of forgotten lore,” the richly-furnished chamber haunted by memories of the dead, the uncertain tapping, the suspense, the raven —— “gaunt and ominous bird of yore;” its one dirge-like utterance, — all are in keeping, both reciprocally and with the significance of the whole. In the “Fall of the House of Usher,” too, what a harmony of mystery and honor is preserved throughout!

One other feature of Poe’s genius, too conspicuous to be passed over, is his marvellous facility of expression. We do not, indeed, think him to have been merely a word-artist. That is, his productions are not a mere skilful putting together of language with a view to a certain effect. We have not summed up the whole of his genius, in allowing him wondrous dexterity in using the Queen’s English. He did possess the true inspiration; he did receive from his Maker “the art, unteachable, untaught;” he was a poet born, not made. We think he has wronged himself in this respect. In his eager love of analytic feats, he has tried to make us believe — perhaps tried to believe himself — that his “Raven” was coolly put together by artistic skill; that it is the production, not of a poet, but of a metaphysician conversant with the canons of taste and the laws of emotion; that he sat down to it as he would have sat down to the solution of a problem in Euclid, or the manufacture of a steam-engine. Now this we simply disbelieve. There is the true afflatus breathing in every stanza of that magical poem. And no mere mechanist of verses could have originally constructed it; though the keen eye of the analyst, reviewing it afterwards, might be able to account, [column 2:] on the principles of true criticism, for its wierd-like power. And this we suspect to be the true history of the affair.

Yet was Poe a great word-artist, though he was something more. The copiousness and flexibility of his vocabulary, both in prose and verse, is astounding. In the former he seizes upon the most indefinable processes of thought, the most delicate shades of feeling, and clothes them in language of sharp, outstanding distinctness. Most writers who have treated of such vague and subtle themes, have been compelled to cover their lack of clear apprehension, or accurate expression, under vague and mystical forms of speech. Not so Poe; however misty the region of thought he may penetrate, he is himself never misty — however grotesque and out-of-the-way his theme, he never has to coin a new phraseology; an expedient by which not a few of his countrymen have sadly adulterated their vernacular Saxon. Nay, he never betrays even a spare or feeble vocabulary, but will not unfrequently lavish on the most delicate and airy ideas a style of expression even vividly picturesque.

In his verse the same masterly command of language is equally manifest, and here is guided and controlled by an ear exquisitely musical. The effect of some of his metres is marvellous. We verily believe that if he had written the most arrant nonsense, and clothed it as he was capable of clothing it, it would have been read with pleasure. We need scarcely refer to his “Raven,” the stanza of which — that is, the combination of metres — is entirely original. To quote briefly from one or two poems less generally known, how exquisitely musical is this! —

Thou wast that all to me, love,

For which my soul doth pine,

A green isle in the sea, love,

A fountain and a shrine,

All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers;

And all the flowers were mine.

. . . . . . .

Now all my hours are trances:

And all my nightly dreams

Are where thy dark eye glances,

And where thy footstep gleams,

In what ethereal dances,

By what Italian streams.


Alas! for that accursed time

They bore thee o’er the billow,

From Love to titled age and crime,

And an unholy pillow! —

From me, and from our misty clime,

Where weeps she silver willow. ­[page 220:]

How light and fairy-like the trip of the following! —

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

And so all the night-tide, I lie down by the side,

Of my darling — my darling, my life and my bride,

In her sepulchre there by the sea,

In her tomb by the sounding sea.

One more notation, and it shall answer the double purpose of exemplifying Poe’s exquisite flow of rhythm and the remarks made above upon the sombre melancholy that broods over his writings: —

Ah, broken is the golden bowl! the spirit down for ever!

Let the bell toll! a saintly-soul floats on the Stygian river;

And Guy de Vere, but thou no tear? — weep now, or never more!

See! on yon drear and rigid bier low lies thy love, 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; [column 2:]

. . . . . . .

Peccavimus! but rave not thus! and let a Sabbath song,

Go up to God so solemnly, the dead may feel no wrong!

The sweet Lenore hath “gone before,” with hope that flew beside,

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

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

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

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

We have not exhausted our theme. The genius of Poe was unique, and a thoroughly satisfactory analysis would demand more space than our limits will allow. We have suggested what we have thought its most characteristic features; but all who delight in studying the human intellect — that theme ever-varying and yet ever the same — varying in its individual diversities, the same in its universal laws and primary powers — will read and judge for themselves.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 213, column 1:]

*  Griswold’s Life.



The title page of the issue gives the magazine name as The Lives of the Illustrious: The Biographical Magazine, but the name on issue in the original wrappers, which survives in the Ingram collection (item 523), clearly indicates that the name of the journal was more properly just the Biographical Magazine.

The copy of this article in Google books lacks pages 216-217.


[S:0 - LIBM, 1855] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (Anonymous, 1855)