Text: Anonymous, “The Late Edgar Allan Poe,” United States Magazine and Democratic Review (New York, NY), vol. VI, no. 4, ns, April 1856, pp. 334-338


[page 334:]



TO say that the great mass of readers have never done justice, or any thing approaching justice, to the genius of the late Edgar Allan Poe, is to cast no reflection upon the honesty of their critical neglect. We do not blame the purblind man for his inability to appreciate the beauty of some minutely elaborate design. We do not say that he is wilfully unjust to Turner or Church, because he witlessly prefers the glaring daub of some provincial sign-post painter, to those exquisite combinations of light and shade which form. the charm — to those who understand them — of those masters’ landscapes. Why should he hanker after the chased goblets or cameos of Gellini, if the pinchbeck jewelry and plated pewter-ware of “the original Jacobs” be just as pleasing to the eye? Let us remember that it cost the world at least two hundred years of patient cultivation and refinement, before it was enabled to raise itself into any thing like a proper light for the examination of Shakespeare’s works; and — while we are willing to admit that the interval is immense which lies between the powers of the great dramatist and Mr. Poe — still, a consideration of this circumstance may aid us in accounting for the otherwise incomprehensible stupidity which has hitherto confined the appreciation of the genius evinced in the works of the latter to a select and cultivated few.

We have now before us — thanks to the enterprise of Mr. Redfield — a complete collection of all the works that Poe could possibly have wished preserved, had he himself been alive and superintending their publication. Indeed we rather think that his reputation would have profited by the omission of very many of the sketches and critiques which his literary executor — the Rev. Rufus W. Griswold — has seen fit to embrace in his collection. But of the manner in which the book is edited, we shall take occasion to speak hereafter; at present let us briefly note the characteristics of the author’s genius.

That Poe was entirely original, both in his conceptions and [page 335:] style, his most relentless enemies (and they are those least justified in being so) are ashamed or incapable of denying. We see, it is true, from his earlier productions — from the pages of “Arthur Gordon Pym” more especially — that he had read the writings of Defoe with care, and properly appreciated the verisimilitude which minute details of fact confer upon the most extravagant romance. He had also studied Godwin with attention; and to a frequent perusal of his “Caleb Williams” may, not improbably, have been indebted for that total independence of external adjuncts, which is observable in all his finest tales. But to neither did he sacrifice the promptings of his individual genius. Of neither did he borrow more than some hints that were afterwards made serviceable in the execution of his ideas. The plan of every fabric is essentially his own, although the workmanship presents some trifling traces of Defoe’s and Godwin’s tutelage.

What we mean by “independence of external adjuncts,” is briefly this: the heroes of his tales are only mentally introduced to us; we have no descriptions of their appearance, dress or carriage; there are no verbal landscapes of the localities in which his plots are laid — if we except those purely allegorical productions in which a one-line notice of the scenery is required for a fitting background to the strange and preternatural characters. He adds no moral to his tale: indeed it is, perhaps, the most remarkable and striking feature of his works, that not the faintest shadow of the moral element can possibly be found in them. Whether by design or accident, he has utterly ignored all discriminations of right and wrong: there is not the remotest allusion to religion; there are no sympathies expressed either for vice or virtue — nor could there be! for to neither is the least allusion made. His whole attention seems devoted to the introspective analysis of the intellect and passions; to the most subtle operations of the mind, and the obscurest workings of the heart. His world is in himself: a glowing world, but full of fascinating terror. We shudder as we read, but we are spell-bound by his pages. Like the “Ancient Marineere” — who perhaps should be included with “Robinson Crusoe” and “Caleb Williams,” as having some influence in the formation of his style — “he holds us with his glittering eye” until his wild, weird tale of horrible suspense is ended.

The attractiveness of terror is the staple principle of the interest which, both in his prose and poetry, he has endeavored so successfully to rivet, His tales — and many of them surpass [page 336:] in thrilling horror and breathless anxiety the wildest supernatural creations of German mysticism — are all founded upon, at least, a possibility, of fact. He scorns the clumsy machinery of ghosts and demoniacal interference, well assured that the intimate workings of the human heart can furnish images as fearful and more appalling in proportion to their greater semblance of actuality. He does not deal with crime; he is free from the felon sympathies of modern French romance; the agonies that he invokes are not the fruit of guilt, but, on the contrary, the result of a toe sensitive and finely-strung imagination; and the whole of his most startling effects are brought about by an artistic combination of events in themselves most trivial, but invested with a mysterious and wholly irresistible alive by the varied and cumulative repetitions with which they are presented to the mind.

In his poem of “The Raven” we have a very palpable instance of this art. The words which form the burden of the song, fall at first with comparatively little power upon the ear; but as they are repeated, stanza after stanza, and every time with a more vague and dismal meaning, they accumulate into a gradual horror on the mind, until the final cry of “Nevermore” rings through the soul like the sound of a snapped heartstring. And in all his more careful works, we find upon analysis, that their power depends upon the iterated and reiterated production of the one leading or central idea, in as many different forms as he may have occasion to use it. This is particularly noticeable in the “Fall of the House of Usher,” the “Gold Bug,” and the “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” How carefully, how stealthily in the last mentioned tale, does he hint to us in a thousand shapeless ways the utterly inhuman characteristics of the facts; their variance with all known or logical possibilities; their more than even human madness could accomplish, before he finally proceeds by analytic reasoning alone to find a safe and probable conclusion!

But our space forbids any extended notice of Poe’s separate works; and their own intense concentration and unity defy the scissors of the critic to make any extract that would convey even a faint conception of the splendid and elaborate interest.

With a recommendation to the reader to add to his library, if he have them not, the works of the greatest of America’s writers of fiction — Nathaniel Hawthorne alone excepted — we must now turn to the causes of the very limited popularity which Poe enjoys, and to the manner in which the Rev. R. W. Griswold has executed the sacred trust, which the confidence of a dying man reposed in his sagacity and honor. [page 337:]

We are no apologists for the irregularities which, at fitful intervals, Mr. Poe permitted to deface the natural splendor of his acquirements; if his works had been popular, and were of a tendency to seduce others into the vice or vices he himself was guilty of, we admit that it might properly have become the painful duty of the critic to expose the foulness of the fountain from which the bright but contaminating poison flowed. But such was not the case — exactly the reverse of it! for, though directly he made no allusion either to morality or its opposite, his works are stainless as the new-fallen snow; and by the lesson of self-examination which they so powerfully and attractively teach, cannot fail to purify and elevate the mind of every one who roads them. Was it kind then, was it honest, was it Christian of Mr. Griswold to teas aside the sheltering veil of death from the poor, pauper grave of him who, whatever his unhappy appetites, had paid for there the extremest penalty of a miserable death and burial in the Patter’s held of Baltimore; was it a fit execution of the trust which a dying man had reposed in him, to rip open the silence of the tomb and dram the frailties and errors of the dead to light, without the introduction of one redeeming feature?

It was not. It was a base, a barbarous and cowardly attack upon the memory of one whose shoe latchets (with all his failings) R. W. Griswold was not worthy to unloose. It was a wanton as well as wicked act — for the charity of silence might have covered all; and, if he found that he had nothing good to say of his dead friend, he, at least, of all created beings, should have been the last to proclaim Poe’s errors — or rather his one error of intemperance, (since it must be said,) from which all others flowed — with loud and somewhat exulting trumpet note. To whom will Griswold trust his own biography — if his vanity should ever lead him to suppose that such a work would be desirable after his death? Or will he leave it to the records of the Courts to say how ——— ?

De morluis nil, nisi Lonum, is the only favor that the erring dead can properly expect; but of Poe’s many noble and attractive qualities not one single word is said in mitigation of his admitted faults. Well might that fierce and indiscriminate Gilfillan — who was, nevertheless, critic enough to pay the profoundest homage to the genius of the man whose frailties he reviled with profusest Billingsgate — well might Gilfillan, we say, proclaim English ears that Poe was a combination of the angel and the, fiend — the fiend predominant however; and [page 338:] base his sweeping charge upon the fact that his self-chosen executor — a clergyman, no less! a reverend? — was called on by a sense of duty to state the demoniacal nature of the man before permitting the pages of his writings to be read.

We have, no wish to strike the fallen; and so we shall conclude this brief, but earnest article, by wishing Mr. Griswold a more charitable and gentle biographer than he has proved himself to be.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 334:]

*  The Works of the late Edgar Allan Poe. With a Memoir by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, and Notices of his Life and Genius, by N. P. Willis and J. R. Lowell. In 4 volumes (4th just issued). Redfield. New-York.





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