Text: Francis Gerry Fairfield, “Poe as an Imaginative Writer,” Home Journal (New York, NY), series for 1866, no. 11, March 14, 1866, p. 1, cols. 4-7


[page 1, column 4:]

For the Home Journal.






“As the eye seeth not the main,” says an ancient philosopher, alluding vaguely to the poetic impulse, “As the eye seeth not the sun, except it be soliform, so a soul not beautiful hath not the vision,” and, if we are not mistaken, in this single gnomic apothegm, the utterance of one who could dream as well as think, is embodied the complete rationale of all that critics vaguely term “imagination,” invention, or, lastly, genius in poesy. And this subject, although slimed over with a variety of semi-mystical nonsense, misnamed criticism, is, nevertheless, just as lucidly susceptible of exact and definitive analysis, as the commonest proposition of mathematics. The fact that men — that critics are wont to grope blindly through the highways and by-ways of absurd speculation, seeking in vain after a certain something they have agreed to call “truth,” is only another proof of the fact that she is most frequently sought where she is not — most often lost by exploring caverns of mysticism, instead of found by knocking at the doors of the palpable palace where she really dwells. Truth is never dark or mysterious. It is not her province to be so. The palace in which she dwells is palpable as the sunshine, and we only miss seeing her, by gazing afar off at her shadow, while her real presence is immediate. And here, in connection with some remarks upon the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, we propose to set forth, briefly, the simplest ratiocination possible in analysis of genius in general, and of that of Mr. Poe in particular.

The principle of imagination is to be sought in the cognition of beauty. And this we propose to demonstrate by a brief collation of the historical manifestation of that faculty through the medium of the beautiful in poesy. The passion of genius for the supernatural — we use the term in its largest sense — has always been a noticeable idiosyncrasy of its manifestation through the medium of rhythm and rhyme — has been found to form the principle element of all those compositions which men, as if by common instinct, have agreed to term imaginative. We shall here allude to a few only of the most widely-known of these compositions, among which may be mentioned: “The David” of Coetlogon; the “Undine” of Motte Fouque; the “Minstrel’s Curse,” and “Castle by the Sea,” by Uhland; “The Erl King” of Goethe; the “Dikter von Euphresyne” of Nyberg; the “Nightingale” of Keats; and the “Sensitive Plant” and “Queen Mab,” of Shelley; the “Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” of Coleridge; the “Legend of Brittany,” by Lowell; and especially the “Ligeia” and “Morella;” the “Haunted Palace;” “Ulalume;” “Raven,” and “Annabel Lee,” of Poe.

All these are compositions which the popular head and the popular heart united have agreed to designate as imaginative; and, in all these, the supernatural sense predominates, and is the vitalizing soul of which the common decora of composition are but the visible body. The fact, as a fact, finds abundant confirmation in any exegesis drawn from the history of artistic creation or of poesy. There is no excellent genius, no lofty ideality unaccompanied by a certain vague superstition, and it is from this principle of genius, the degree of which is in general ratio to the sublimity of the genius itself, that all creations of weird and august magnificence spring. It is this ideality which forever exhausts itself in vain struggles to apprehend, abjectify, and hold forever to the beating heart of the poet, the absolute in beauty — in beauty that so thrills and enthrals him. It is this which, like the dreamy cosmogony of Phythagoras, assimilates all things unto the beautiful; it is this that reveals with lightning flashes of intuition unto the intellect, like the shooting of a sun athwart the heavens at midnight; it is this which revels in more than Egyptian mystery; in short, it is this which is the creative impulse of all that human intellect creates. The grasp and comprehension of the supernatural is, therefore, the sublimest phase of the imaginative; and that Poe possessed power within this region of the fantastic will be denied by no one who has ever read the compositions of his which we specified at the outset. This disposes, therefore, of one phase of the objection persistently urged by several critics against his claims to the highest poetic excellence; viz., his alleged want of imagination.

But, if we consider imagination from a merely creative point of view, the fecundity of his mind was equally wonderful.

There was no taint of the mere drollery and niaiserie of fancy about his writings, evincing, as he did, at all times, the same singular weirdness of imagery and the same impulsive, imaginative energy — an energy, the pulsations of which you felt, now as if the fiery throbbings of a volcano were heaving beneath your feet, and anon drugging the reason, as if one had been gnaffing the hookah with its soul of hasheesh, until it yielded implicit assent to the wildest impossibilities of incident. And here, before going further, it may be well to define what we mean by imagination in contradistiction from fancy. “The Fancy,” says Coleridge — the most profoundly intuitive of English critics — “the fancy combines; the imagination creates,” and, although Coleridge has not seen fit to unveil the ratiocination upon which such a conclusion depends, nevertheless we cannot but agree with the shadowy intuition of the “Ancient Mariner.” Regretting, therefore, that the genius of Coleridge has left unrecorded the processes of so profound a ratiocination, we can, meantime, however, from hints he has elsewhere furnished, guess, with a tolerable degree of accuracy, what the several steps of these processes might have been. We can fancy the author of “Genevieve” reasoning somewhat as follows:

1. The struggle of the soul for self-expression is the motive principle of Art and Poesy. Corollary: Poesy is the self-expression [column 5:] of the soul, and answers unto man’s seeking for beauty.

2. Imagination is the active principle of Art and Poesy — a simple historical fact about which there is no dispute.

3. Man is the highest self-expression of Deity in creation. Corollary: Man possesses, by virtue of this relation, the faculty of self-expression within certain limits.

4. The power of self-expression (imagination) is the creative faculty — the repetition, within certain limits, of the creative energy of Deity, and this power of self-expression limited to the region of the beautiful, is the sole element of that which critics term, and vaguely term, “the imagination.” Thus it is that the imagination creates.

The agreement between this ratiocination (if ratiocination it may be called) and the conclusions of Coleridge is easily seen, when we remember that profound critics’ definition of the faculty we are discussing. He says — somewhere in the “Biographia Literaria,” we think — that “imagination is divisible into two kinds, the primary and the secondary,” and defines the former kind as follows —

“The primary imagination is, of course, higher and more creative than the secondary. It is, in fact, a repetition in the thing created of the divine act of creation — of the creative energy of the Logos.”

The creation of beauty is, therefore, the sole aim of the poetic principle. The soul of the poet worships beauty, and beauty is the Egeria of his dreams. Nor has truth any business within the domain of poetic or artistic creation. Truth, in essence, is sublime; but its loftiest sublimity, appealing only, to the reason, is lifeless, is pulseless, is utterly ineffective when brought into comparison with the divine emotion of beauty. Besides, truth, when made the pervading element of poesy or art at all, always terminates in fable and exaggerated allegory, of which the “Voyage of Life,” and the “Haunted Palace” are about the only specimens which are not (and ought not to be) intolerable, both to gods and men. The fact is the impulse to write a poem for the poem’s sake, and because it is beautiful, although held by some matter-of-fact people to be something silly, is the sublimest impulse which ever moves humanity. And this we hold to be true, although poems with morals will, without question, be in vogue among some people until the end of time. The sole aim of poesy, therefore, is to create something beautiful; and, if too often poesy has fallen short of its high destiny, yet amid its

“Ten thousand broken lights and shapes,”

are many glimpses and gleams of its transmission, now and then a note of music not altogether earthly, and not a few spirit-lifting dreams of the imagination, which foreshadow dimly the measureless vistas of beauty that radiate from the glory of God. And it is this fact which proves that the poet can never cease to be a poet — that, however he may be imbued with false principles of criticism, beauty is, and forever must be, the inspiration of his song.

In this connection it is worth the while to consider the opinions of poets themselves. Coleridge somewhere expresses his belief that the moral element, with which he imbued the final stanzas of “The Ancient Mariner,” was altogether unpoetic and a blemish to the poem; and, perhaps, no man battled more fiercely against the false notions in vogue upon this point than did Poe, the most imaginative, in our opinion, of American poets. “Con tal las cotumbras de un autor puras yu castas, importo muy poco qui ne sean igualmente severas sus ubras,” says the rascally Don Tomas de la Torres, prefacing his “Amatory poems;” but these poets of moral sentiment have reversed the apothegm of the Don, and insist upon putting their morals in their books rather than take the Don’s advice and practice them in person.

“But,” asks the caviler, “how shall we know when a poem is imaginative, and how shall we distinguish imagination from fancy?” The answer is easy. The presence of this faculty in composition, either artistic or poetic, may be detected in a two-fold manner. The first is well exemplified in reading “The Ancient Mariner.” We allude to the shadow-like suggestiveness of that poem — to the dimly-seen and ethereal vistas of beauty beyond the mere upper current of its imagery — to those Naiad voices which haunt the spirit so long after reading it — to those weird impulses of mysticism with which it is imbued, and which are, and forever will be, the surest tests of the highest order of imaginative excellence in a poem. Of the second order a hundred examples might be adduced. The test of its presence, in distinction from fancy, is found in that peculiar aureola of romance — that halo of something which can only be compared to the effects produced by moonlight amid hills and forests, which, at all times, envelopes compositions of this order. The proem to Longfellow’s “Waif” is one of the best examples we, at present, recollect. As examples of the highest order, we shall quote a stanza or two from the poet whose name forms a part of our caption. This, from “Annabel Lee,” will illustrate our meaning: —

“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.

Or this, from the “Haunted Palace:” —

“And travellers, now, within that valley,

Through the red-litten windows see

Vast forms, that move fantastically

To a discordant melody,

While, like a ghastly rapid river,

Through the pale door

A hideous throng rush out forever

And laugh — but smile no more.

Another example of the highest order of imaginative excellence, is found in the “Erl King” of Goethe, of which we here present our readers with a new translation: —

“Who rideth so late through the night wind lone?

It is a father with his son.


“He foldeth him fast; he foldeth him warm;

He prayeth the angles to keep from him harm.


“ ‘My son, why hidest thy face so shy?’

“ ‘Seest thou not, father, the Erl King nigh?


“ ‘The Erlen King with his train, I wist?’

“ ‘My son, it is only the fog and mist.’


“ ‘Come, beautiful one, come away with me.

And merry plays will I play with thee!

“ ‘Ah, gay are the blossoms that blow by the shore,

And my mother hath many a plaything in store.’


“ ‘My father, my father, and dost thou not hear

What the Erlen King doth say in my ear?’


“ ‘Be still, my darling, be still, my son,

Through the withered leaves the winds howl lone.’


“ ‘Come, beautiful one, come away with me,

My daughters are fair, they shall wait on thee!


“ ‘My daughters their nightly revellings keep,

They shall sing, they shall dance,they shall rock tee to sleep.’


“ ‘My son, my son, I see, I wist,

It is the gray willow down there in the mist.’


“ ‘I woo thee; thy beauty delighteth my sense,

And, willing or not, shall I carry thee hence.’


“ ‘O father rideth, he rideth fast,

And faster rideth through the blast.


“ ‘He spurreth wild, through the night wind lone,

And dead, in his arms, he holdeth his son.”

Of the second order of imagination, here is an exact example. It is from Moore’s “Alcipheron,” the only “imaginative” poem ever composed by that popular bard: —

“The pyramid shadows lengthening from the light,

Seem like the first colossal steps of Night,

Stalking across the valleys to invade

The distant hills of porphyry with their shade.”

And here is a second, uttered in a strange Arabesquerie of rhythm, which expresses the sense in the sound. It is from Longfellow’s “Midnight Mass:” —

“And the clouds, like hooded friars,

Tell their beads in drops of rain,

And patter their doleful prayers,

But their prayers are all in vain —

All in vain!


“Then, too, the old year dieth,

And the forests utter a moan,

Like the voice of one who crieth

In the wilderness alone.

Vex not his ghost!”

But why adduce examples, says the critic, when you establish no scientific basis for the faculty of imagination? Why? Simply to show that poesy is the immediate offspring of the soul’s toiling after the phantom of beauty — beauty, the will-o’-the-wisp which lures, yet forever eludes us — beauty, the one sole, central idea of the universe, after which philosophy has so long sought, and, seeking, been baffled, because seeking not the right direction; and, furthermore, to show that imagination answers directly to this toiling, and is limited to the region of the beautiful.

We have now to fix the scientific limit of the imagination — to define it as a faculty. And here we may as well look at the subject from a new stand-point, without reference or deference to the vague metaphysical dogmas extent, all of which have their several profound advocates — and that, too, malgre their utter and irretrievable absurdity. Dismissing, therefore, all irrelevant considerations from the discussion we have, first, the rational intellect, and, secondly, the sensitive intellect, as the two-fold manifestation of our mentality. The gradations from perception to ratiocination in the rational intellect are:

1. Perception of object as object.

2. Rational cognition, or cognition of object as subject — understanding.

3. Rational discursion or reason — eventuating in philosophy.

The gradations of the sensitive intellect from perception to imagination are:

1. Perception of object as object.

2. Sensitive cognition, or cognition of object as subject — taste.

3. Sensitive discursion or imagination — eventuating in art and poesy.

This analysis of the subject, although we have here no space to amplify, will be found to bear the severest test of criticism, and is, in fact, little more than a scientific statement of what every critic tacitly acknowledges. For our part, we are willing to admit that we call an object beautiful, simply because we fell it to be so, and for no other reason — simply because it appeals to the sensitive cognition (cognitio sensitiva,) to appeal to which is the sole ground of poetic effect and the sole test of poetic genius. This subtle sense (the cognition of beauty) — hearing the music of God alike in the laughter of the rills and in the symphony of a thousand handlers, which heralds to awe-stricken souls the bursting of the volcano; seeing the beauty of God alike in the blossoms which the fays of a night have coronetted with dewdrops, and in the manifold overwhelming glories of a Niagara — extracts from all things the divine impulsion. And this the imagination embodies in forms that breathe and pulsate with beauty — in forms which re-awaken that psychal delight which true poesy or art always awakens — a delight on earth indicial of the heavenly.

But, if authorities be necessary in making so daring an innovation as that of thus fixing the definition and scientific basis of the term imagination, we may adduce two or three, by way of showing that our hypothesis is not only tenable, but a legitimate deduction from principles clearly enunciated by the “nobelest Romans” among all who have speculated upon the subject:

1. Kant, the author of the “Kritik der reinen Vernunft,” says: “Beauty is that which is the source of pure unmixed delight.”

2. Baumgarten says: “Beauty is that which appeals to the sensitive cognition “cognitio sensitiva.”)

3. Lord Jeffries says: “He who has most imagination will always see most beauty.”

Poesy, therefore, is a response; vague it may be as the music of Memnon; unsatisfactory as the fatuous fire of the will-o’-the-wisp; but a response, nevertheless, to the psychal ideal — to the soul’s struggle to embody the absolute in beauty. Man being what he is, the time can never have been when poesy was not; and, if we mistake not, man never ceasing to be man will, in eternity, find his highest delight in fabrication of forms of poetic loveliness. But here is the vain struggle — ah, how vain! — to interweave with the beautiful, we see some hues of the beautiful whereof we dream; the restless energy of the imagination fabrication for itself only an ideal Eden — a world of visionary palaces —

“Banners yellow, glorious, golden,

From whose turrets float and flow.”

In the restless shiver and rustle of the leaves; in the fantasias of the wind among reeds; in the muffled footsteps of the rain [column 6:] upon waters; in the tinkling laughter of the trills; and, above all, in the motion of woman — the lovely, the beloved — the imagination seeks rhythm for her own shadowy ideals — those ideals which possibly no collocation of physical forms could fully satisfy.

Now, it may be all very proper and very commendable to sneer at these noblest impulses of the soul, and to laugh at the poet’s inspiration as fare il santo. It is the habit of some people, and habit is omnipotent. It may be all very commendable to talk flippantly about that of which one knows nothing; and this, furthe3rmore, is a habit of some people who really have about the same reason for believing in the poet’s inspiration which Talleyrand had, or professed to have, for believing in the Bible. “I believe in it” (the Bible,) said that frivolous wit, “first because I am Bishop of Autun; and, secondly because I know nothing about it.”

Mais a nos moutons, however. We have been thus explicit in defining our principles of criticism, in order that, in what we are about to say, we might not be misunderstood. We are now prepared to claim for Edgar Allan Poe the first rank as an American poet; and we ask the recognition of that claim upon three grounds, the first of which will, from our stand-point, be readily conceded:

1. He possessed imagination of the very highest order — that far-sighted vision of soul which kens the vistas of the unseen — which is only the gift of the rarest genius.

2. His artistic skill in the management of all the accessories of poetry — rhythm, rhyme, and simile — has never been exceeded by any poet, American or English. This is conceded.

3. In rare poetic impulses he was inferior to none; except, possibly, Shelley, who sang rhapsodically, (as a bird sings,) because it was in him to sing, and sing he must.

Three things are essential to a great poet: first, the sublimest order of imagination; secondly, the minutest skill in the management of rhythm; and, thirdly, lyrical impulse — that impulse which compels him to write poetry whether he will or not. And here we shall take Poe at his word when he says: “Poetry with me has been a passion, not a study” — since in this the poet bespeaks the poet. It is an impulse of the poetic imagination (in distinction from the artistic) to express itself in music — an impulse which few posts have left unrecorded Longfellow thus alludes to it, in speaking of the poet as one

“Who, through long days of labor,

And nights devoid of ease,

Still heard, in his soul, the music

Of wonderful melodies.”

Shelley thus beautifully, although somewhat allegorically, typifies uniquely the lyrical impulse in his “Lines to a Skylark:” —

“Hail to thee, blithe spirit,

Bird thou never wert —

That from heaven or near it

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.


“Higher still and higher

From the earth thou springest,

Like a cloud of fire;

The blue deep thou wingest,

And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.


“The pale purple even

Melts around thy flight;

Like a star of heaven,

In the broad daylight

Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight.


“All the earth and air

With thy voice is loud,

As when night is bare,

From one lonely cloud

The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is overflowed.


“What thou art we know not;

What is most like thee?

From rainbow clouds there flow not

Drops so bright to see,

As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.


“Sound of vernal showers

On the twinkling grass,

Rain-awakened flowers —

All that ever was

Joyous and clear and fresh — thy music doth surpass.

And now, has Poe borne witness to the existence of this lyrical impulse — this imp of music which forever impels the poet to seek rhythm and rhyme as the instinctive expression of his imaginings? A few quotations must suffice to settle this point in his favor. Here is something from the ballad of “Israfel” which embodies his longing for a wilder music than any mere collocation of earthly sounds can supply:

“If I could dwell, where Israfel

Hath dwelt, and he where I,

He might not sing so wildly well

A mortal melody,

While a bolder note than this might swell

From my lyre within the sky.

Again, the “Haunted Palace,” which typifies the mind of the poet, is full of the same passionate impulse. A couple of stanzas in point have been quoted in our remarks upon the imagination. We present a third:

“And all with pearl and ruby glowing

Was the fair palace door,

Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,

And sparkling evermore,

A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty

Was but to sing,

In voices of surpassing beauty,

The wit and wisdom of their king.”

We have been thus explicit in demonstrating this point, because many critics have been betrayed, by the perfect structure and finish of Poe’s verse, into the fancy that he was wanting in poetic impulses; and this fancy — for it cannot have been a deliberate opinion — has been incidentally strengthened by such articles of his as the “Philosophy of Composition,” the “Rationale of Verse,” and others of that ilk — in which we are persuaded that Poe misrepresents himself, and endeavors to ascribe that to analysis which cannot be legitimately so ascribed. His remark, in the essay on the “Poetic Principle,” in fact, represents him far more truthfully. With him poesy was a thing of passionate impulse, and not a thing of study; and a great part of that delicacy and perfection of rhythm, which have formed the ground for accusing him of artificiality, was due to a subtle instinct for music, and, not to studied analytic combination. To use a phrase from the Arabic, his musical sense was so nice and subtle that he seemed to “see and feel with his ear.”

Edgar Allen [[Allan]] Poe, then, was possessed of the three essentials of a great poet, viz. — sublimity of imagination, artistic skill in the management of rhythm and rhyme, and lyrical impulse of the rarest order. And, as a great poet, he was the pioneer of a new school of poetry. As a prose writer, he was [page 2, column 1:] unparalleled in his field — that of tale writing and criticism — at least in America. It was here, especially in criticism, that he found fall scope for his wonderful powers of analysis and his peculiar subtlety of ratiocination. In mere prosodial and syntactical criticism, he was unerring; while in his appreciation of the beautiful he was inferior to none, the names of whom at present occur to us.

In the line of tale writing, many of his efforts were certainly masterpieces. These tales may be conveniently classified into tales of ratiocination; tales of analysis; tales of imaginative creation, and tales of verisimilitude. In the region of imaginative stories of the wildest order he has certainly never been rivalled, either in England or America.

Having thus briefly alluded to his prose, (it having been the principal part of our on purpose to settle his claims to poetic recognition,) we shall proceed to note, in a future article, the strange fact that no volume of his masterpieces has ever been published And [[and]] the publication of such a volume we then propose to agitate.




This copy of the article as recorded on the microfilm of the Ingram Collection is missing the last 1/4 column of the text, which appears on the back of the last column, but was not filmed.

The “future article” mentioned near the end of the article is “Poe’s Masterpieces.”



[S:0 - HJ, 1866] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe as an Imaginative Writer (Francis Gerry Fairfield, 1866)