Text: Mrs. Euphemia Vale Smith (?), [“Review of The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe],” North American Review (Boston, MA), vol. 83, whole no. 173, October 1856, pp. 427-455


[page 427:]

ART. VIII. — 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 vols. New York: Redfield. 1856.

THE late Edgar A. Poe achieved a certain position in three distinct branches of literature, — in poetry, criticism, and fiction. His reputation as a writer, up to the present time, may be sectionally or geographically apportioned. In the South, it is almost altogether grounded upon his skill as a writer of fiction; in the commercial metropolis of the country, it was his critical acumen which attracted most attention; in the Eastern States, his personal qualities, carried into his literary productions, have hitherto limited the number both of his friends and his admirers. In France and England, what fame he has was earned by a series of literary impositions. But wherever his works are read, perhaps we might justly say wherever the English language is spoken, he is best known, and will be longest remembered, as the author of two brief, but exquisitely beautiful poems, “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” — the only productions of his pen that have met with that unanimous appreciation of the learned and unlearned, which at once and forever establishes an author’s claim to genius.

But though his popular reputation is that of a poet, it was in poetry that he accomplished least. Of the contents of the four volumes before us, only one hundred pages out of more than two thousand consist of poetical compositions, and in these are included all his juvenile poems and some dramatic fragments. Only one poem of his, in addition to those already named, has attained any remarkable celebrity; while, in our opinion, several of his prose tales fully equal in imaginative power, in vividness of description, and in thorough artistic finish, anything that he ever produced in a metrical form. Among several in the highest style of art, we would instance “Ligeia,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Mr. Poe’s earliest appearance as an author was in the publication of a small volume of poems when he was in his eighteenth [page 428:] year. In a note in the present edition of his works, it is stated that they are here reprinted, without addition or correction, as they originally appeared in 1829. We believe this; for only by recasting most of them — re-writing them entirely — could any essential emendation have been effected. No mere revision could make “Al Aaraaf” coherent, or establish to our recognition a mental succession to the juvenile author of “Tamerlane” in the matured artist who afterwards chimed forth his soul’s turbulence to the wild music of “The Bells.” In some half-dozen of his minor poems Mr. Poe has fully displayed his poetic capacity, in the opulence of imagination, the power of production and skilful combination, and especially in that delicate perception of the true harmonies of thought and expression, which is the soul of physical aesthetics. Yet is there something wanting to his poetry which we cannot express by any better phrase than the lack of spontaneity. It does not bear so much the impress of soul-utterings (we except only “Annabel Lee”) as of word-manœuvring. His poems do not grow up in his mind; but the theme is carefully and mathematically adjusted, and the words, being marshalled out in order to a thorough inspection, are then successively dragooned into the especial service required. When completed, his work appears a rich and elaborately finished piece of art, but it lacks the vis vita which alone can make of words living things. Hence in but few of his efforts has he succeeded in enlisting the sympathy of his readers. They become admirers only, not lovers.

His theory of the legitimate purpose and end of poetry was so exceedingly limited, as to necessitate a great reliance for effect upon a skilful adjustment of the parts; and to this theory, which he claimed not only as original, but as subversive of all others, he was enthusiastically attached, and with but slight deviations, and a few exceptions, which probably he would not admit to be such, adhered to it in his own writings. Far from agreeing with Ben Jonson, “that the principal end of Poesy is to inform men in the best reason of living,” he peremptorily determines that Beauty, including in that term Sublimity, is the only legitimate theme for a poem, and that “The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” is [page 429:] the poet’s sole vocation; that Poesy has no connection with truth, morals, or spiritualities, unless incidentally. Indeed, he rigorously excludes these as an end, — with all didacticism, wit, reasoning, satire, and even passionate love. He pronounces all long poems a contradiction in terms, scouting epics as poems (though allowing them other merits), and denying the very existence of such a thing as a humorous poem. The only element of humor which his theory admitted was archness. His objection to long poems was founded on what he was pleased to consider as a “psychal necessity,” namely, that an elevated mental excitement, which he deemed the true effect of poetry, could not be maintained above half an hour. This is the utmost tension of the soul which he could imagine. Any so-called poem, therefore, to be truly such, must be brief enough to admit of its perusal within thirty minutes. He even insists upon it that readers do not really enjoy such works as the “Divina Commedia,” or “Paradise Lost,” though they may seriously profess to do so. He might have avoided all circumlocution, and been equally modest, had he put his general proposition in regard to epics thus: “I, Edgar A. Poe, am incapable of keeping on the wing more than half an hour at any one time; ergo, no one else ever did, or ever can.” Unity of effect he considered an essential in every work of art, and this he deemed impossible in a literary production which could not be read without fatigue at one sitting.

To be convinced of the inherent unsoundness of his theory, we need only observe that his limitation of the proper themes and uses of poetry would exclude all the noblest productions of the best poets of all times and of every tongue. Should we acquiesce in the correctness of his contracted definition, we should be compelled to go through the centuries, culling out the Homers and Virgils, the Terences and Shakespeares, the Herberts and Hebers, the Byrons and Shelleys, the Juvenals and Popes, the Scotts and Campbells, the Hoods and Holmeses; — whole scores of world-renowned bards would be driven pell-mell from the Parnassian heights, on whose summit would remain solus Edgar A. Poe, attended, not by the noble bird of Jove, or even Minerva’s symbolic favorite, but [page 430:] by that “ghastly, grim, and ancient raven,” which has almost become a synonymous appellation of him who first evoked “this ominous bird” from the dark realms of Pluto, to harass a poor love-lorn poet with its melancholy plaint of “Nevermore.” None of those who rank highest in the world’s esteem as poets, could escape his condemnation. The ages contradict him.

The first purpose to which poetry was applied was that of adoration, or ascriptions of praise to the Supreme Ruler of the universe. Its next earliest use was the preservation of historical events, and heroic deeds of single heroes, as the legendary epics and earliest ballads of all nations testify; and these were “set to words in metrical array,” and rehearsed to the people, for the express purpose of stimulating others to imitate the glorious deeds of their ancestors. The first tragedies taught the people to avoid crimes, as the later comedies held up the follies and vices of the times to ridicule. The simple creation of Beauty never has been the whole of poetry; it never will be more than a single element in it. To deny to it a moral or spiritual use, is to steal Promethean fire with which to kindle a mimic feu de joie.

In justifying his strict limitation of the proper themes of poetry, Mr. Poe says, “What may be better handled in prose is no subject for the Muse.” This probably no one will be inclined to deny; but his inference from it is, that no truth can be so well taught through the medium of verse as of prose; in opposition to which opinion, it is not difficult to show that didacticisms in a poetical form very frequently procure a general favor and reception unattainable in any other way. Recognizing this fact, all successful teachers of young children have employed verse as a potent instrumentality in instilling truths, inculcating moral duties, and exciting devotional feeling. Nor is it successful with the young alone: the most mature minds are as easily reached and influenced by it. Reduce, for instance, Mr. Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life” to prose, and who would read it? Not one for every thousand that now know it by heart. Mr. Poe seems, indeed, to have been led into the error of excluding moral and spiritual themes from poetry, by a lack of susceptibility in his nature, [page 431:] which blinded him to their intrinsic beauty. Indeed, his theory is a severe satire upon his own moral constitution; for even admitting his main proposition, that the creation of novel forms of beauty is the poet’s sole vocation, how could one of his otherwise acute perception, had not his moral nature been fearfully warped, have overlooked the very obvious fact, that in moral and spiritual ideas may be found the very highest types of beauty? In his definition of poetry, Poe nearly agrees with Francis Jeffrey, who describes it as “a metrical composition productive of pleasure.” But both err, in fact and in theory; for some of the finest specimens of poetry extant — Poe’s “Conqueror Worm” is sufficiently good for an illustration — are compounded of horrible, shadowy things, which excite only a sad, wild terror in the mind, far enough removed from any pleasurable sensation.

For the purpose of giving as clear a view as possible of the range of Poe’s imaginative powers and constructive ability, we shall divide his Prose Tales into four classes, — the simply horrible, the grotesque, the illusive, and the semi-scientific or philosophical. He would have added another class, the humorous; but of this we shall speak hereafter. Of course this arbitary [[arbitrary]] classification only approximates to correctness; for the distinctive features of each class are occasionally all combined in one; while a few, which we have placed in a particular division, might, from possessing a nearly equal proportion of various qualities, have appeared indifferently and with perfect justice in either. In several, the grotesque and the horrible strive for a grim pre-eminence. Of the threescore and ten tales to be found in these volumes, more than half are based upon the sentiment of horror, ranging from the actual and tangible dangers of real life to the utmost refinement of intense but unreal terrors, the offspring of weird phantasms or fancies; while but a small fraction of the whole are free from terrific, sorrowful, or melancholy imaginings. Of the thirty-one tales in the first volume, twenty-two describe death in some unusual and appalling shape; while for abnormal crimes and premature burials he has a revolting and ghastly penchant. The general characteristics are [page 432:]

“Much of crime, and more of sin,

And horror the soul of the plot.”

Yet in this class must be placed his most finished works of art. He found the most genial employment for his pen in picturing painful idiosyncrasies of temperament, monomania, and madness, — the anomalies and deformities of humanity. And not finding horrors enough in the explored arcana of sin and suffering, he invents new crimes, and novel and terrible penalties. Metempsychosis is one of his favorite themes; of which “Ligeia” and “Morella” are thrilling illustrations. To his mind the existence of entozoa in the brain was an ever-present fact, and the actual horrors of posthumous physical decay seem to have been his while living. In his “Colloquy of Monos and Una” he has anticipated all the phases and possibilities of sentient life after death, and during the decomposition of the body in the grave. In perusing his most powerful tales, the reader feels himself surrounded by hitherto unapprehended dangers; he grows suspicious of his best friends; all good angels appear turning to demons; God seems dead; and on closing the book, the first impulse istc shake off the frightful incubus by rushing out into the glad sunshine, and freely inhaling the pure fresh air of heaven, to assure himself that he is still among the living, and that nature has not been transformed, while he read, into something soulsickening and horrible.

In his purely grotesque stories, as “The Angel of the Odd,’‘ Mr. Poe is less powerful; in most of them he has attempted to blend the ludicrous or humorous, and every attempt at humor is with him a miserable failure. His smiles are such grimaces as we should expect from some ill-starred wretch who was forced to play the part of Harlequin under sentence of hanging for the morrow. Yet in the preface to the fourth volume, we are informed that these abortions were, in the author’s opinion, the most perfect and successful of his works. Elsewhere Mr. Poe distinctly disowns such an opinion. In one of his letters, he writes: —

“Omitting one or two of my first efforts, I do not consider any one of my stories better than another. There is a vast variety of kinds, and, in degree of value, these kinds vary, — but each tale is equally good of its [page 433:] kind. The loftiest kind is that of the highest imagination, — and for this reason only ‘Ligeia’ may be called my best tale.”

One of our author’s most decided tastes was for all forms of mystification; to solve enigmas was to him an agreeable pastime, and to mislead and bewilder others, a strong motive to exertion. It was not enough for him to write fiction, to write it well, and to let it pass as fiction: he frequently indulged his inclination for deception in the elaboration of tales, published with the express purpose of imposing on the public credulity, which he believed to be boundless. Of his few pleasures, it was one to see his readers seizing with avidity on his wildest imaginings as facts. His first essay in this line was the story of “Hans Pfaall,” commenced in 1835, and brought to a premature conclusion by the almost simultaneous appearance of the celebrated “Moon Hoax,” by Richard Adams Locke, with which “Hans Pfaall” had too many points of resemblance to admit of both being pecuniarily profitable. Poe, finding that Mr. Locke had superseded him in attracting all the floating enthusiasm for lunar discoveries then recently excited by the publication of Sir John Herschel’s latest work, left the field, and, after having set his hero fairly afloat in the upper ether, abandoned him to his fate, with all his elaborate scientific paraphernalia. He subsequently published his “Balloon Hoax,” which was originally foisted upon the Northern press, under the form of “Express News” for a daily paper in New York, purporting to have been received from Norfolk, Va., and was in substance the pretended account of an aerial voyage across the Atlantic. But the public had become more wary since the exposure of the “Moon Hoax,” and this excited comparatively little attention.

He was more successful with “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” published in 1838. Under this fictitious name he narrates the incidents of a voyage to the South Pacific; the pretended discovery of new land in the extreme Antarctic regions; the appearance of its inhabitants, as differing from all other known races of men; the peculiarities of the climate, atmosphere, and water; the singular formation of the rocks; the novelty of the plants, and strangeness of the animals; all [page 434:] of which are minutely described, and in such language as would be most natural to an eyewitness. Such scenes and incidents as are familiar to seamen are related with scrupulous correctness, as are also all known scientific facts which he has occasion to introduce; exhibiting, where merely technical matters are concerned, a surprising apcuracy of detail, which forms the most remarkable feature of his prose writings. Had this “Narrative” been brought to a conclusion satisfactory, or even plausible, “Arthur Gordon Pym” would have been the most perfect specimen of his imaginative and constructive powers; but whether the peculiar dilemma of his hero finally baffled him, and extrication demanded a mental effort beyond his power, or whether, by announcing the death of the alleged author (as was done through the public press of Kichmond), and with this untimely event the loss of the concluding pages of the manuscript, he designed to add another proof of the authenticity of the narrative, remains, for any word of his, undecided. We incline to the latter supposition, especially as this course precluded the necessity for his naming the vessel in which the adventurer returned: and thus a certain means of detecting the imposture was cut off. That he judged correctly, appears from the fact that at the time of its publication it was generally received as a true narrative: and a publishing house in London had actually commenced arrangements for reprinting the work as a bona fide history, which a discovery of its real character alone prevented.

But Poe’s most masterly deception still remained unperpetrated. It was subsequently to his removal to New York, u 1844, that there broke upon the disciples of Mesmer a new and startling revelation of the possible uses of his discovery. Poe had paved the way for the reception of his “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” by a previous paper on “Mesmeric Revelation,” in which he had announced some remarkable communications on the nature of spirit and matter, made a! he averred through a person who was dangerously ill, and who died while under the influence of mesmerism, the answers of the patient being given, as the reader is required to believe, on the very verge of death, with a final doubt expressed by the writer whether the last sentences were not from the spirit-land. [page 435:] In the succeeding case, that of “M. Valdemar,” the subject is carried a step farther, being, by his own consent previously obtained, mesmerized in articulo mortis; the result of which is, that the operator succeeds in imprisoning a voice, if not a soul, for seven months, in a body on which all the ordinary signs of death have supervened except putrescence. At the end of this time, it was determined to attempt his revivification, no visible change having occurred in his state since death. After a few of the ordinary passes, some indications of vitality were observed about the eyes, when the question was put: —

“‘M. Valdemar, can you explain to us what are your feelings or wishes now?’

“There was an instant return of the hectic circles on the cheeks; the tongue quivered, or rather rolled violently in the mouth, (although the jaws and lips remained rigid as before,) and at length the same hideous voice which I have before described broke forth, —

“‘For God’s sake ! — quick! — quick! — put me to sleep — or, quick! — waken me! — quick! — I say to you that I am dead!

“I was thoroughly unnerved, and for an instant remained undecided what to do. At first I made an endeavor to recompose the patient; but, failing in this through total abeyance of the will, I retraced my steps and as earnestly struggled to awaken him. In this attempt I soon saw that I should be successful — or at least I soon fancied that my success would be complete — and I am sure that all in the room were prepared to see the patient awaken.

“For what really occurred, however, it is quite impossible that any human being could have been prepared.

“As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes, amid ejaculations of ‘Dead! dead!’ actually bursting from the tongue and not from the lips of the sufferer, his whole frame, at once — within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk, crumbled — absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putrescence.” — Vol. L p. 130.

The great skill here displayed consists in that appearance, which the narrator so well maintains, of writing what he does from a desire to set the public right in regard to the facts in the case, in opposition to those exaggerated rumors which he states to be afloat, and which make it necessary for him to [page 436:] tell “what actually did occur.” This straightforward style, so utterly devoid of all appearance of art, carried with it almost universal conviction that the writer was telling the truth simply for the truth’s sake. This case of “M. Valdemar” acquired an extensive circulation, both in this country and in Europe, and in some quarters as ready credence as celebrity.

Most of the tales and other prose articles of Mr. Poe which we should place in the semi-scientific or philosophical class, depend for their interest chiefly upon the solution of some mystery or enigma, or the untangling of a web of unusual incidents, demanding the exercise of the highest powers of reasoning, an intimate knowledge of the motives which actuate, not only common, but uncommon and peculiar minds, and the ability to apply this reasoning to novel plots and circumstances. But in judging of the merits of these tales, we must remember that in all but two the writer is the Sphyni as well as the Œdipus of his riddles, and therefore his success in their solution is by no means so marvellous as at first sight it appears. In a few papers, similar in tone to that entitled “The Power of Words,” this love of the intricate and mysterious has led him to the discussion of the hidden powers of nature, and the inexplicable influence of mind over matter, in such a sweet and melancholy tone as to elicit more of the reader’s sympathy for the evident unrest of the author, than could have followed any direct appeal.

The most celebrated of his writings having a philosophical substratum (except “Eureka,” to which we give a separate and higher place) are “The Gold-Bug,” “Maelzel’s Chessplayer,” “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” “Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter.” In the first-named of these, the interest is concentrated on the translation of a cipher, which is supposed to contain precise information as to the place of deposit of the pirate Kidd’s treasures. In the “Chess-Player” the sole object is to harmonize the apparent impossibility of effectually concealing a person within a very small compartment with the free exposure of every portion of it to hundreds of acute observers. We believe Mr. Poe’s hypothesis in regard to this extraordinary machine is generally conceded to [page 437:] be the most plausible of any yet given. The scenes of the three other tales are professedly laid in Paris, though “Marie Rogêt” is in fact a minute transcript, and we believe a correct analysis, of an actual occurrence in New York. Through these fabrications, and the “Case of M. Valdemar,” Poe’s name became familiar to the savans, the courts of law, and the periodical press of Paris. Two journals translated and published his “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” one, however, under a disguised title. The publisher of La Commerce prosecuted the publisher of La Quotidienne for stealing his literary wares, when, as was shown on the trial, the former had no exclusive right, he having been simply the first to appropriate the story, without acknowledgment, from the American author. This trial drew considerable attention to Poe’s writings, and a translation of his principal works soon followed.

Moral uses Mr. Poe repudiated in his prose fiction as rigorously as he demanded their divorce from poetry, insisting that the only effect sought in either should be pleasure. If any reader, therefore, finds moral or spiritual truths inculcated in his fictitious writings, they must be regarded as estrays, which have accidentally got into the author’s enclosure, without his permission or knowledge. Unless by some precious secret of alchemy, known only to the reader, he can convert forbidden things to holy uses, let one never look into Poe’s fictions for instruction in matters pertaining to the interior or higher life. ‘His genius appears to have been kindled from subterranean, rather than ethereal fires. We find but one tale which evinces any recognition of moral responsibility; and this is so fantastically draped, as effectually to conceal its moral from those unaware of the idiosyncrasies of the author. Under the name of “William Wilson,” Mr. Poe has sketched some early passages in his own life, terminating with a scene which we would fain believe overstates, but which we cannot help suspecting dimly shadows forth the cause of his final quarrel with his guardian; the remainder of the story keeping too close a parallel with what we know of his career, to leave us the satisfaction of believing that the close was altogether fiction. This “William Wilson” he describes as possessing [page 438:] not only the same name, but almost the same external appearance with himself. He first met him as a schoolmate in England, and for some years was followed and haunted by him as by a shadow. This second self he ascertained was also of his own age, and, though at one time there seemed a possibility of their becoming friends, all prospect of this was soon terminated, and, though he inwardly respected him, they quarrelled continually. Wilson’s affectionate advice appeared impertinent, his friendly interference with his dissipations and vices became intolerably annoying, and the finale is, that on one occasion, when this unwelcome mentor essayed to prevent him from engaging in a disgraceful intrigue, provoked beyond endurance, he challenged him to an immediate passage of arms, and, after a sharp but brief struggle, slew him on the spot, from which moment he declares that he also was “dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope.” Was not this second self his own thwarted and stifled conscience!

There are but two other tales which appear to have any useful design, and in these our author has not risen above the sense of mere physical loveliness. In “The Domain of Arnheim,” and “Landor’s Cottage,” the attention of the wealthy is directed to landscape gardening, as a legitimate mode of expressing the poetic sentiment; with the advantage that, while affording the utmost latitude for the display of taste and luxurious expenditure, it offers not the lure to ambition which is usually involved in a devotion to literature, music, painting, or any other of the sister arts. All natural landscapes, says the writer, in “Arnheim,” may be improved in their composition, to the human eye; and the suggestion is thrown out, that our earth-scenery may have been arranged with a view to the gratification of those spiritualized ex-residents of earth who can take in the whole world-view at a glance, deriving thence the idea of perfect beauty and harmony of effect, which we cannot attain on account of our limited range of vision. He contends, too, that no purely natural beauty is as attractive as that which shows a human care, — that nature can always be improved by art. In this story it is also shown how a person possessing a poetical nature, and means adequate to his conceptions, might not only add to an extensive [page 439:] domain the ordinary agreeable effect of art, but, laying out his plans on a magnificent and gorgeous scale, might be enabled to convey to the beholder the impression of a constant supervision of angelic, instead of human beings; blending actual design with the absence of all the usual technicalities of art. In such an employment as this, he imagines “the possibility of exemption from the ordinary cares of humanity.” In execution, “The Domain of Arnheim” falls far short of the real magnificence of the central idea. His description in detail affects us plaintively rather than pleasurably. While we accompany his solitary voyager on a visit to this model estate, we feel a sigh of splendid desolation floating upon the breeze; a hue of selfish, solitary grandeur tinges all the magnificent scenery; and within the very portals which admit us to the inner wonders of this crystalline palace, we hear a futile demand for that very human sympathy which is merely shown to the eye, — not felt in the “scrupulous, even fastidious neatness” which characterizes all the approaches to Arnheim. We cannot be persuaded that any healthy-souled guest travels thitherward; no joy-inspiring host dwells there, nor do voices of merry children venture to startle the oppressive quietude of this splendid prison-house with young nature’s unrestrained and mirthful glee.

Besides these classified stories, — all of which are very brief, except “Gordon Pym,” — Mr. Poe wrote a few satirical semifictions; the best of which are, “How to write a Blackwood Article,” and “A Predicament,” which is its sequel. There are also in these volumes several nondescript papers, as obscure in phraseology as in purpose; while some better worth preserving have been omitted. Of the excluded are his papers on Autography, Cryptology, and Ciphers, on all of which he prided himself, and which certainly ought to have been included in an edition purporting to “embrace everything written by him which he himself would have wished thus to preserve”; especially as these papers exhibit a peculiar trait of mind which is not adequately represented by “The Gold-Bug,” — the only article of this kind which the compiler has given us.

The central idea of Mr. Poe’s philosophy was that a universal [page 440:] ether fills all space and permeates all matter; that this ether is in essence what is commonly understood by the term spirit, and is manifested in those subtile and inexplicable principles recognized as magnetism, light, vitality, consciousness, and thought, and that to serve the purposes of this sentient ether — the only Godhead which he acknowledged — matter was created.

In that ingenious and remarkable production, “Eureka,” this philosophy is the most fully developed. This is the most interesting to us of all Poe’s works, not only on account of the intrinsic attraction of the subject, which is the cosmogony of the universe, but because it is the only one of which we have any external evidence that he believed in it himself. In this, which is claimed to be only an hypothesis, but supported, in his opinion, by incontrovertible reasoning, he pronounces that the Divine Unity or Godhead has exerted but one creative volition, when, in the beginning of all things, he willed matter into existence from nihility, and that this original matter was in the simplest form, — a single unrelated particle. To account for the variety of material forms now existent, we must admit that other and less energetic volitions divided this original uniform particle, and, in place of unity, produced separation, diffusion, multiplicity. Again, this divided matter was irradiated from a centre, within a limited sphere; not, however, in continuous rays, like rays of light, but in a series of strata, the particles of which were of different forms and sizes, and at unequal distances from one another, though not differing in their essence or nature. Here, then, we have matter in a state of diffusion; yet unity or oneness being its normal state, there is an inherent tendency m each atom of this diffused matter to return to unity. But if this were immediately permitted, the design of creation would of course be frustrated. To prevent this, an antagonistic force, heterogeneity, is introduced. Of this essence or principle (the repulsion of science), he professes himself too much in awe to discuss it. This force, manifested as electricity, seems to have held in his theory the place which Spinoza assigned to his “one proper substance.” But considering oneness or unity as the normal or proper state of matter, and diffusion, [page 441:] or multiplicity, as abnormal or wrong, Poe argues that the normal must eventually prove the strongest force; that hence attraction, which is but another name for unity, will in the end conquer repulsion, or heterogeneity, and that thus matter will finally return to its original unity, and thence into that nihility from which it was evoked, from which, however, a new and totally different cosmogony may be spoken by the Divine volition.

“A novel universe swelling into existence, and then subsiding into nothingness, at every throb of the Heart Divine. And this heart, what is it? It is our own. In man, the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness The general sum of the separate sensations of created things is precisely the amount of happiness which appertains by right to the Divine Being, when concentrated within Himself.” — Vol. II. p. 214.

This part of his theory — the universal diffusion of Deity in and through all things, and man’s final absorption into the Divine Essence — is identical in idea with the Brahminical faith, as explained in the “Bagvat-Geeta.”

That puissant knight-templar, Bois Guilbert, says Sir Walter Scott, “bore on his new shield a raven, in full flight, holding in its claws a skull, and bearing the motto, Gare le Corbeau.” This would have been a most fit escutcheon for Mr. Poe to assume when he entered the lists as critic-general of the American forces of authorship. In the department of criticism he essayed a revolutionary movement, protesting against the whole tone of American reviewing, and substituting, theoretically at least, an entirely new system. Critical reviews, he declared, should aim solely at the detection of faults, — a reference to the “beauties” of a work, in his opinion, really derogating from its merit; because all literary productions, especially poetry and production, ought to be so harmoniously perfected, that to single out special beauties is in effect to suggest the idea that the remaining portions are not equal parts of a perfect whole, but that there are gems of value misplaced in a setting of base and worthless metal, betraying a bad taste and a discordant mind. Another prevalent fault against which he inveighed, and which he assumed to correct, was that of generalization, — in [page 442:] opposition to his own style, that of minute and precise analysis, the detailed specification of what is wrong, why it is wrong, and how the fault might have been amended. This, he insisted, is the only style of criticism which can improve authors, by compelling them to see their own defects. Another charge, brought against all his American contemporaries in criticism, was that of pioneer-worship, — the lauding of those who first gave a name to American letters abroad, irrespectively of their positive merits, and simply because they happened to be first. And lastly, cliquism was the citadel of wrong against which he brought to bear all the power of his editorial battery whenever he could command the use of a press. Cliquism was the one thing which he hated more intensely than he could express (he never happened to be one of a powerful clique); and the suspicion that certain literary circles looked upon him with disfavor or contempt so embittered his feelings and distorted his vision, as to make him no less unjust to them, than he fancied they were disposed to be towards him.

Entertaining these opinions and feelings, he was, lite other revolutionists, desirous mainly of decapitating the sovereign, and debasing all of the blood royal. Hence the pertinacity of his endeavors to bring down in the public esteem the acknowledged chiefs of poetry and fiction in the United States. From his first successful appearance as a critic in 1846, until his death, the American Parnassus was approached with all the enginery he could command or invent, — by sapping, mining, blasting, bombardment, stratagem, and storm; his shafts being ever the most keen and swift when aimed at the highest heads. The intensity of his prejudice against all literature emanating from New England imbued his pen with a virulence quite unessential even to a rigorously just criticism. Yet in the maintenance of his opinions on the aims of poetry, which were most frequently violated by Northern productions, we believe he was not only honest, but deeply penetrated with a conviction of their truth, and their importance to literature as an art; for these opinions are reiterated directly and incidentally throughout the whole of his works. But it cannot be denied — there is both internal and external evidence of the fact — that very many of his severest [page 443:] criticisms were written for the express purpose of “creating a sensation,” and an antagonism was always far more tolerable to him, than a peace which threatened to keep him in the background.

His general style of criticism, when his private feelings were in abeyance, was acute, but not comprehensive. It treated of words, rather than of thoughts. He was a masterly analyst, and could readily reduce a literary performance into its original elements; but he did not always discern its animating principle. He was a close logician, and could assume the guise of a subtle reasoner; he had a thorough acquaintance with the resources and capabilities of language; and in the niceties of grammatical construction, and a keen perception of the harmonies and proprieties of diction, he had probably no superior and few equals. Himself unerring in precision of purpose, he had a microscopic eye for the faulty arrangement of a theme, and an equally nice ear for a false quantity in rhythm. He excelled in seizing and holding up to ridicule obscurities and affectations in language, feebleness of thought or expression, wavering of purpose, or inconsistency between aim and execution. But with all his discriminative talent, he was not a safe leader in critical literature. In his determination to be precise and to avoid generalizations, he frequently failed to grasp the spirit and the total effect of a work, while diligently engaged in hunting to the death some awkward expression, or carping at some ill-chosen word. He saw all the faults a writer had, and many which he had not. Thus, in his frequent forays against those whom he especially labelled “plagiarists,” he detects proofs undiscernible to all other eyes, — including many of those who were well enough disposed to see all that he saw if they could. This charge of plagiarism was his favorite weapon, and one which he wielded with no very strict regard to the rules of honorable warfare, for he was constantly in the habit of insinuating the charge, instead of proving it. Thus he says of a very young and precocious writer: “Of course no one at all read in Eastern fable will give her credit for originality of conception.” Of a female dramatist he says: “The idea in the concluding quatrain is so well put, [page 444:] as to have the air of originality. Indeed, I am not sure that the thought of the last two lines is not original.” Again, of a popular novelist: “The critic (unacquainted with Tieck) who reads a single tale or essay may be justified in thinking him original.” Of another he writes: “The thought in the finale is, as far as I know anything about it, original.” And, finally, he says of one of our most popular song-writers: “He has an excellent memory for good hits. To those who meddle little with books, some of his satirical papers must appear brilliant.” Scarcely one of his subjects escapes the charge direct, or the more provoking innuendo. This is the more audacious, when it is well known that, far from being immaculate himself in this respect, he was a most bold and unscrupulous plagiarist, — if plagiarism is not too mild a word for the appropriation, in one instance, of a whole book, which he pirated from a Scotch author, and to which he merely wrote a preface, signed by himself, in which he thanks certain (nameless) gentlemen for their assistance, without giving the slightest intimation that it had ever seen the light before, The work was a text-book on Conchology, by Captain T. Brown, originally printed in Glasgow in 1833. For other plagiarisms on a less extensive scale, we would refer to the Memoir by Mr. Griswold.

The fact was, that on this matter of plagiarism his personal feelings were early involved, and became so interwoven with his critical opinions, that he was necessarily inconsistent; and many of his charges were frivolous, while others were absolutely void of meaning. In referring, for instance, to Mr. Longfellow’s “Midnight Mass for the Dying Year,” and “The Beleaguered City,” he must have meant to say, thai these poems, with all that he alleges against them, either were or were not justifiable productions. If he would concede that they were so, why did he condemn their author? But if he implied that they ought never to have been written: then we are free to confess that we hold him the only man a Christendom who could have entertained that opinion. Indeed, all the poems which Mr. Poe has selected for especial animadversion on this account, are exactly those which of all others the lovers of the true and beautiful would be least [page 445:] willing to lose. Doubtless our Zoilus did good service to some of the emerging literati who came within the circle of his influence, by exciting in them, for the time at least, a wholesome circumspection, lest their platitudes and shortcomings should fall under the dissecting-knife of this unflinching operator. But his influence in criticism may almost be said to have died with him, so far as the direction of the public taste is concerned. His recorded opinions were not of a nature to interest general readers. What he says of an author does not modify our predilections. He compels us, indeed, to see a writer’s faults, and perhaps to perceive that he might have done better than he has done; but his strictures being chiefly directed to verbalisms and syntax, — to the mechanical portion of a work, — we retain our several fancies, our likings and our dislikes, despite of all the artistic sins which he detects in our favorites, or the mathematical correctness which he demonstrates in another with whose tone of thought we have no sympathy. The secret of his impotency over the public taste lies in the fact that his critical reviews, like all that he wrote, were destitute of moral sentiment. He stood on narrow, almost technical ground; not on the broad plane of human hopes and interests. It was not on the total effect, or the probable influence of an author’s works on the civil, social, or religious condition of humanity, that he adjudicated, but on those minor points of constructive ability, in which the mass even of intelligent readers take no very deep interest. Through this lack of breadth in his views of the critic’s office, his writings have been limited in usefulness, being valuable chiefly to students in belles lettres, and to amateur authors, — not to mere readers, who care much less about the misuse of a dactyl or anapest, than they do about the general drift of a poem, and who are frequently quite oblivious of the atrocities perpetrated on spondees and trochees if the versification is smooth to the ear. It is the sentiment in poetry or prose, the imagery, the fidelity of description, the perfection of plot, the vividness of character displayed, — the general effect of a work of art, — upon which the ultimate decision of independent readers rests. Yet it is these elements, that make not only the popularity, [page 446:] but the immortality, of authors, which Mr. Poe subordinates, or entirely overlooks. Skill is never accepted by the people as a substitute for soul, nor absolute accuracy in composition for a generous devotion to principle and truth. Through this same contraction of spirit, our critic was eminently unable to discern the “coming man,” — the creators of great thoughts, — the discoverers and heralds of great principles, — the poets, who not only translate, but transfigure, our highest and holiest ideals, — those who live in the hearts of their own, and will live in succeeding ages, — those who, in prose or verse, most adequately express the spirit of their time, and who will consequently stand as the representatives of that time to the hereafter. Not on such qualities as these did Mr. Poe base his prophetic opinions of the future fame of the literati whom he discussed; and thus most of his oracular judgments upon particular individuals remain, and ever will remain, unfulfilled.

From Poe’s critical writings to his personal character, the transition is easy and natural; for in him they were inseparable. He was born in Baltimore in 1811, was left an orphan at an early age, and adopted into the family of Mr. Allan, a wealthy merchant of Richmond, Va. As a child, he was mentally precocious, and of a proud and irritable disposition; his sensitive and imperious temper being aggravated by the injudicious indulgence of his guardian. In his sixth year he accompanied his adopted parents to England, and was there placed at school, where he remained until 1822, when he returned to the United States. After a brief term at a preparatory academy, he entered the University of Maryland, and from this time forward he appears to have been a constant cause of anxiety to Mr. Allan. Being liberally supplied with funds, he was contracting habits of dissipation, which eventually led to his expulsion. While in the University he maintained a high rank as a scholar, and was noted for feats of athletic skill, one of which, well authenticated, was that of swimming seven miles and a half against the tide, and immediately walking back the same distance, without apparent fatigue; which shows his physical constitution to have been at this time unimpaired. His first serious quarrel with Mr. Allan occurred shortly after his expulsion from the University, [page 447:] upon that gentleman’s refusing to pay some of his debts of honor. He now talked of joining the Greeks, then in the midst of their struggle for independence, and he did spend the next year in Europe, though he never reached the Morea. How he employed this period we are not informed, until we hear of him at St. Petersburg, where he was rescued from the legal penalties of a drunken debauch only through the kindly interference of the American consul, who also provided him with funds to return home. On his arrival at Richmond, he found Mr. Allan still disposed to aid him, and on his expressing a desire to enter the Military Academy at West Point, his guardian, through influential friends, procured him an appointment in that institution. But here his old habits of dissipation were renewed, or probably continued, for we cannot learn that they were ever abandoned; at the end of ten months, he was cashiered; and with this additional disgrace he returned to Richmond, where Mr. Allan again received him into his family, but where he so conducted himself, that the doors of the only home he had ever known were now closed against him for ever. In his Memoir, Mr. Griswold, (Vol. I. p. 27,) quoting from a writer in the Southern Literary Messenger, indirectly insinuates the cause of this final separation, without stating distinctly what charge was alleged against him. Poe himself says that he ridiculed the second marriage of his guardian, which had taken place while he was at West Point. But this youthful indiscretion, after the great forbearance Mr. Allan appears uniformly to have exercised towards him, seems hardly sufficient to account for the serious light in which the offence, whatever it was, was viewed by Mr. Allan. It was shortly after his leaving West Point that Poe’s Juvenile Poems were published. He also occasionally wrote for the press, but with no marked success; and discouraged and reduced in means, in a moment of despair he enlisted in the army of the United States as a private soldier. In this situation he was recognized by some of the officers who had known him at West Point, and they applied for a commission for him, when to their great mortification it was found he had deserted.

We next hear of him, at the age of twenty-two, as a successful [page 448:] competitor for prizes offered by the publishers of the Baltimore Saturday Visitor for poetical compositions and prose tales. The successful tale was that entitled “A Mannscript found in a Bottle.” It is right to add, that the prize was not given on account of the superiority of the tale to all others offered in competition, for none of the others were read, — the committee voting to give the prize “to the first of geniuses who had written legibly”! It was the excellence of his chirography alone which fixed the attention of the committee upon his manuscript. This incident, otherwise unimportant, was the means of introducing the young author, then in extremely necessitous circumstances, to several gentlemen connected with the periodical press; and from this time forward. Mr. Poe need never have been without friends, or permanent literary employment. In 1835 he took charge of the editorial department of the Southern Literary Messenger, of which Mr. T. W. White was the proprietor. This connection continued for nearly two years, during all which time Mr. White’s patience was severely tested by frequent irregularities and neglect of duty on the part of his erratic editor. During this period, while on a salary of only five hundred dollars per annum, Mr. Poe married his cousin, Miss Virginia Clemm; and in 1838 removed to Philadelphia, without any prospect of permanent employment. Six months later he was engaged by Mr. Burton (now of Burton’s Theatre, New York) to edit for him “The Gentleman’s Magazine.” It was to him that Poe proposed to make a pecuniarily profitable “sensation,” by unusual causticity in reviewing; exciting attention to the Magazine by spreading “havoc” among the literary stars ot the country. Mr. Burton, however, did not acquiesce in the suggestion, declaring that he was more anxious that the sentiments expressed in “The Gentleman’s Magazine” should be “just” than “exciting.” Poe’s connection with BurtonW terminated in even a more dishonorable manner than that with Mr. White. Burton had left the city for a few days on business, leaving Poe to get out a number of the Magazine. On his return he found that nothing had been done in the office, and that Poe had taken his subscription list, and, with a prospectus out for a new magazine, was endeavoring to [page 448:] supplant him and the “Gentleman’s.” The recreant editor did not succeed in his project. Of course he could do no more for Burton, and was again without employment.

His next editorial engagement was with Mr. Graham; but the same neglect of duty, growing out of his habitual intemperance, after a brief term also closed his connection with Graham’s Magazine. Having no further prospect of success in Philadelphia, in 1844 he removed to New York, where he was shortly afterwards engaged as assistant editor and critic, by General Morris and N. P. Willis, then publishers of the Mirror. This was the only business engagement of his which proved satisfactory to his employers, and was terminated in a friendly manner. It lasted, however, for six months only. He was next associated with Mr. Briggs in the publication of “The Broadway Journal,” of which he subsequently became sole editor and proprietor. It had for years been the prime object of his desire to have the entire control of a literary periodical; but his success was not commensurate with his anticipations, and in four months after the Journal passed into his hands its publication was suspended. We next find him writing his critical notices of the New York literati for Godey’s Lady’s Book, and these were brought to a premature conclusion by his taking offence at Mr. Godey for refusing to have a personal controversy which had arisen between Poe and one of the subjects of his criticism carried on in the columns of the Lady’s Book. He was thus once more thrown entirely upon the chance of transient employment for an income.

Previously to 1840 he had published his “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” and two volumes of prose tales, entitled “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque,” from which we cannot learn that he derived any considerable profit. He was now (in the winter of 1846-47) failing in health, his wife, who had long been ill of consumption, died, and his pecuniary difficulties were aggravated into actual suffering by want of the very necessaries of life. From this sad condition he was partially relieved by an appeal to the public, through the press; but this exposure of his affairs he so far resented as to deny the fact of his destitution, in a letter prepared for publication [page 450:] and addressed to N. P. Willis, though he freely acknowledged his extreme need to the individuals who came forward to his aid. Rallying from this, the darkest period of his life, he applied himself earnestly to the work of procuring funds sufficient to establish a literary journal, to be called “The Stylus.” For this purpose he delivered “Eureka” as a lecture, which was well received, but was not sufficiently productive to be of much avail at this juncture in his affairs. He was now engaged to be married to a lady residing in one of the Eastern States ; but for some reason — or without reason, for he gave none — he determined to break the contract, and left New York for that express purpose, intending to exhibit himself before her family in such a condition as to insure the result He went there in a state of brutal intoxication, and his conduct precluded, as he had anticipated, any necessity for a repetition of the experiment.

In a brief but very beautiful prose poem of his, called “Eleanora,” he has, it appears to us, sketched himself and his wife, idealized to be sure, but with likeness enough for recognition; and in this story he represents himself as having solemnly sworn never to wed again, after his Eleanora’s death. As the story runs, he broke his vow; the sin of perjury ever after weighed upon him like an incubus, and his second marriage was devoid of all happiness. This idea reappears in several other stories of his. It is just possible that some such feeling induced the breaking of his second engagement, and also led him into that last fatal debauch which occurred a few months later. Immediately after his return to New York from this degrading episode at the East, he went to Virginia, and there, renewing an early acquaintance, entered into another marriage engagement. On his leaving Virginia to settle some business and prepare for his marriage, he stopped at Baltimore to take some refreshment; in the tavern were some of his old companions; he drank deeply, became insanely intoxicated, remained exposed without shelter during the whole night, and in the morning was carried to the public hospital; where he died, October 7th, 1849, at the age of thirty-eight.

In vain do we look in his case for any unusual temptations or peculiarity of position, which might extenuate, if they could [page 451:] not justify, his gross immoralities, his ingratitude to his guardian, and the Ishmaelitish position which he so long held with the world. But we do the world that surrounded him wrong in this latter phrase. His hand was “against every man’s,” but the converse was not true. Particularly in the early part of his literary career, he had every opportunity of securing firm and able friends, whom his own misconduct alone alienated. For many of his follies we are quite unable to account, on any of the ordinary principles applicable to human nature; and we feel compelled to refer them to that “spirit of perverseness” which he affirmed was inherent in humanity. Of this he says: —

“Of thi [[this]] spirit of perverseness philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primary impulses of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?” — Vol. I. p. 283.

In his evident persuasion that this was an ordinary and universal experience, instead of the monstrosity that it is, he painfully demonstrates the intenseness of his own perversity. Elsewhere he speaks of this disposition “as this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself, — of this longing to do a wrong simply because it is a wrong.” Two of his tales are based upon this idea, namely, “The Black Cat,” and “The Imp of the Perverse.” But though he might harbor such opinions of himself and others, we think that a great portion of his misunderstanding with the world, and continual unrest of spirit, arose from his mistaking his own comparative position and importance. The universe to him was divided, like that of Fichte, into the “Me” and the “Not Me,” and, like that abstruse metaphysician, he seemed to hold that the “Not Me” owed its existence solely to the “Me,”“ — or, in other words, that the “Me” was the only important actor, and that of which the “Not Me” was the mere creature. But here the analogy fails, for Fichte’s “Me” was bounded or limited by the idea of duty, which was never admitted into Poe’s philosophy. In his criticism on Anne C. Lynch, he deliberately fleers at her for “making a hobby of duty.” [page 452:]

From this persuasion of his own mental superiority, and his uniform refusal to acknowledge any moral dictation, also sprang that feeling of contempt for others, which he never “unlearned,” as did Byron. Of course he had no sympathy with the people, and could not even understand the noble devotion of Genius to the welfare of others. Speaking of Charles Dickens, to whom he grants the highest rank as a literary artist, he says: —

“Mr. Dickens has no more business with the rabble than a seraph with a chapeau de bras. The electric spark of genius is the medium of intercourse between the noble and more noble mind, — and not for low communion with low, or even with ordinary intellect. . . . . . What is he to Jacques Bonhomme or Jacques Bonhomme to him?”Vol. III. p. 450.

In this superciliousness of spirit, we find the reason why a man who has written so much and so well as Mr. Poe has, should, after all, have produced so slight an impression upon his own times. The people were nothing to him, and he is considerably less to them than he would have been had his sympathies run in a broader and more genial channel. He not only failed to make friends of his readers, as all earnest, true-hearted writers, with any measure of talent approximate ing to his, do; but he deliberately provoked the animosity of many of his literary peers and superiors by the bantering tone of his criticisms, — the most offensive, and not the most useful, style of reviewing. Whether this was a weakness on their part, or an unjustifiable presumption on his, each person will probably decide according to his direct or incidental interest in the question. But his frequent disagreements and quarrels in his business relations arose out of no such equivocal position.

The fact that he had at the time of his death so few friends, naturally led to the inquiry, among those who had been interested in his literary career, whether he had, or had not, any of those social qualities on which permanent friendships are based. The general response was, that he had not, — that he was irascible, cynical, suspicious, supercilious, envious, and untruthful. Whereupon Mr. N. P. Willis, appearing as his champion, magnanimously affirmed that “there was goodness [page 453:] in Edgar A. Poe,” which affirmation, thus elicited, bears in it, unintentionally we have no doubt, (for Willis is not given to sarcasm,) the bitterest irony. Mr. Poe’s goodness, it seems, had escaped ordinary observation, and to establish a belief in its existence it became necessary to authenticate it by a similar process to that by which other men’s crimes are substantiated. And so it befell, that writs of curiosity (with some from a better motive) were issued, and instructions were given to all volunteers in the cause of justice and humanity to “attach” this said “goodness” of Mr. Poe’s, wherever it might be found, and to bring it before the court of public opinion for adjudication. For some time the returns constantly were non est, but a hue and cry being raised, and more joining in the search, it was finally discovered, and two witnesses were summoned to testify to the genuineness of the thing. These were the late Mrs. Frances S. Osgood, and Mrs. Clemm, his wife’s mother, who was also his own aunt. Mr. Willis we may consider as his attorney, and Mr. Griswold as the prosecuting officer. The list of witnesses called by the latter is long, and some of the names are weighty; among them is Mr. Allan, his guardian, who charges him with wanton insult and ingratitude; the Faculty of Maryland University; the President of the Military Academy at West Point; the officers of the regiment from which he deserted; the publishers, White, Burton, Graham, and Godey, whose business he had injured or neglected, with others, who, being superfluous, are excluded. But one we must not omit, — the state’s evidence, — himself; for none have accused Poe of more numerous indefensible motives and actions than he admitted to be . true. He accuses himself of deliberate falsehood, for the sake of sustaining appearances; of insulting a respectful audience, and a respectable literary association, solely in order to avenge himself upon a small clique, who he fancied had slighted him; of making public, unjust, and untrue allegations against an individual, without any evidence, satisfactory to himself, of their truth; and of experiencing a “superior relish for a row over all sublunary pleasures.” Here the prosecutor may be content to rest the case, though but a small fraction of the evidence is in; and we are glad to hear [page 454:] his counsel call for the rebutting testimony. Mis. Osgood , testifies to his “chivalric, graceful, and almost tender reverence for all women who won his respect, and of his playful, witty, and affectionate behavior at home, both to his wife and visitors.” Mrs. Clemm, who speaks with a more intimate knowledge than any mere acquaintance could, says: “He was more than a son to myself, in his long-continued and affectionate observance of every duty to me.”

Here we have reached the one oasis in his checkered and unhappy life; and most cheerfully do we accede to the plea of Mr. Willis, and agree with him “that there was goointss in Edgar A. Poe.” Indeed, this gentle home-character, which we cannot doubt, redeems his memory from many of the darker shadows that seem to rest upon it. It is pleasant to know; that, however irascible abroad and with strangers, he was always as kind to his delicate and gentle wife as the sin of habitual intemperance ever permits a man to be. Yet must we confess that this favorable testimony, coming from the persons who render it, impresses us more deeply with tkii charming character than with his, when we remember that those who saw this “goodness” most clearly were both as usually lovely and gentle women, who probably never hit his self-esteem, never thwarted, never disputed him. Tie only other person who coincides with their view of his character is Mr. Willis, himself remarkable for general urbanity of manner, and who expressly says, in his notice of Poe, that he always treated him with “deferential courtesy,” — exactly the manner to suit this sensitive and wayward child of genius. And thus we are forced to the conclusion, that it was only in a few exceptional cases, and where the sacrifice ol dignity and pretension was all on the side of the other party that Mr. Poe presented that winning and gentlemanly demeanor described by Mrs. Osgood.

That Poe had genius of a high order, both analytic and creative, no one thoroughly acquainted with his writings will deny. But he had also, to its fullest extent, and in its most virulent form, the cant of genius; we mean that disposition exhibited by many of the erratic stars of literature to clam exemption, on account of their peculiarly fine temperament [page 455:] from the ordinary rales of morality, ever begging the indulgence and tender judgment of their fellows on the very score of superiority, — a kind of perpetual plea for “benefit of clergy” in the realm of letters, which ought to have been proscribed there when it was disowned by the law-courts of the fatherland. This cant, learned from the chronicles of Grub Street, and wholly unwarranted, either by the times in which Mr. Poe lived, or the circumstances under which he made his literary début, we regard as the weakest point in his character. It is a plea which any man should be ashamed to make. In the name of virtue, let it be for ever banished from the domain of letters in this Western World.

The impression which is made by Poe’s writings, as a whole, is decidedly painful, the contrast is forced so perpetually upon us of what he was, and how he used his talents, with what he might have been, and might have accomplished, had he applied his energies to any one noble purpose. We find in him great mental power, but no mental health. His force was the preternatural activity of a strong imagination, which, curbless and uncontrolled, bore him whithersoever it would. Even his ambition had nothing ennobling in it. He “struggled, labored, created, not,” as he tells us himself, “because excellence is desirable, but because to be excelled, where there exists a power to excel, is unendurable.” If the human brain is indeed a palimpsest, as the author of “Suspiria de Profundis” suggests, and if all the inscriptions once written there are liable to be reproduced, then most assuredly should we pray for some more potent chemistry to blot out from our brain-roll for ever, beyond the power of future resurrection, the greater part of what has been inscribed upon it by the ghastly and charnel-hued pen of Edgar Allan Poe. Rather than remember all, we would choose to forget all that he has ever written.



The biographical aspects of this article are chiefly derrived from Griswold’s memoir of Poe, and thus full of errors, to which the author even adds a few. For example, Poe never attended the University of Maryland. Instead, he attended the University of Virginia, from which he was not expelled.

In a letter of Jan. 28, 1874, to Mrs. S. H. Whitman, John H. Ingram suggests that the author of this article was Reverend Alvan Lamson, although no explanation is offered. In her reply of Feb. 11, 1874, Mrs. Whitman says that the author was Mrs. Vale Smith, also without explanation. J. C. Miller, the editor of the collection of their correspondence, attributes the article to Mrs. E. V. Smith. Perhaps ironically, Mrs. E. Vale Smith wrote for the Christian Examiner as well as the North American Review. E. Vale Smith was a pen name for Euphemia Vale Blake (1817-1904). (She was married to Mayo Gerrish Smith in 1842-1857. Divorced, she married Daniel S. Blake in 1863.)


[S:0 - NAR, 1856] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Review of The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe (Anonymous, 1856)