Text: Eugene Benson, “Poe and Hawthorne,” Galaxy, vol. VI, no. 6, December 1868, pp. 742-748


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[page 748:]

POE AND HAWTHORNE.

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POE and Hawthorne are two brilliant exceptions in American literature. Among Americans, they are the only two literary men who have had the sense of beauty and the artist’s conscience in a supreme degree. They belonged to the haughty and reserved aristocracy of letters. Hawthorne was like a magician, hidden from the world, creating his beautiful phantasms; Poe was like a banished spirit, abased among men, exercising an intellect, and drawing upon a memory that implied a clearer and higher state of being than that of material and common life. His mental perspicacity and unerringness suggest a super-mortal quality, and make the simple narrative of “The Gold Bug” appalling; for you will remark that the sentiment of strangeness and terror which it begets is excited without any of Poe’s usual resources — that is, of death or murder in any form. One is appalled by the precision of the intellect revealed, which is unmatched by any English story-writer.

But it is because of the beauty that Poe created, because of his knowledge of its harmonious conditions, because of his admirable style, the pure and strange elements of his nature, his general and minute method, rather than because of his puzzles, or curious intellectual inventions that he is a type of exquisite and brilliant genius. The interest of his inventions would be exhausted at the first reading, if they were not contained in a beautiful literary form — if they were not set before us with a fine literary art, that charms even while it is the medium of the exceptional, and often of the repugnant!

Poe was dominated by intellectual conscience; Hawthorne was dominated by moral conscience. For the proper objects of intellect, Poe had an intellectual passion. Hawthorne’s passion, on the contrary, spent itself upon moral subjects; you will notice that the texture of his stories is woven about a question of moral responsibility and the transmission of traits. The problem of sin engaged Hawthorne; the processes of crime — that is, pure intellect in action — engaged Poe.

Very few persons have a definite idea of the difference between the unique and unrivalled genius of these two men, who still had positive, if hidden, bonds of sympathy with each other. They were radically, though not obviously different in their work and in the spring of their being. Both had an exquisite sense of the music of thought; both loved the mysterious and bizarre; both labored to paint the exceptional and dominate our intellects with an intimate sense of the spiritual and unseen.

Poe began his work in a natural but emphatic tone. He was direct. He took his reader from particular to particular, exercising a power like that of the Ancient Mariner upon the wedding guest. He arrested his reader upon a particular word. The emphasis with which he pronounces it, gives a foretaste of the lurking dénouement. With particular words he struck the key-tone of his tale; [page 743:] with particular words he rapidly and ominously indicated the unaccustomed road upon which he urged your mind.

Hawthorne works in a different fashion. He deepens the tone of his stories by flowing and unnoticeable phrases. He avoids emphasis; by gentle speech he lures you on and on into the depressing labyrinth of human motives and human character, touching with exquisite grace, elaborating a trait, at all times letting you but faintly see the connection of events, but always establishing the fact of the subtle relationships of his characters, and making you feel that his subject has its roots deep in the fluid depths of the ancient, unseen, and baffling world of the past, which the intellect cannot sound, but only dive into, and come forth to tell strange tales of its shadowy experience. To Poe, nothing was shadowy. On the contrary, everything was fearfully distinct and real and positive to his tenacious and penetrating intellect. In Hawthorne, moral conscience was abnormal in its development. In Poe, it did not even exist. Hawthorne, in his method, was an idealist; Poe, in his method, was a realist. But Poe realized the unreal, and Hawthorne idealized the real. But for Poe’s poetic sense, he would have been as prosaic and literal, at all times, as De Foe. But for Hawthorne’s poetic sense, he would have been a droning moralist. Poe confronted the mind with the appalling; Hawthorne begot in it a sense of the unstableness and ungraspableness of human experience. He aimed to give us glimpses of the moral ramifications and far-reaching influence of human actions.

Both Poe and Hawthorne were alike and splendidly endowed with imagination; but Poe had more invention — in fact, a most marvellous faculty of invention — and he was the more purely intellectual of the two. Hawthorne was a man of delicate sentiment, of mystical imagination; Poe was a man of little sentiment, but great delicacy of intellectual perception, and had a realistic imagination. Hawthorne incessantly lures the mind from the visible and concrete to the invisible and spiritual. To him, matter was transparent; in his stories he paints material bodies, and gradually resolves them into abstractions; they become allegorical, typical — uncertain incarnations of certain affinities, traits, qualities. Poe never is vague, never indefinite. His most weird and arbitrary imagination is made palpable and positive to the reader. The predominating sentiment of Hawthorne is sad and depressing; that of Poe is melancholy and ominous.

Poe’s intellect was direct, inevitable, and unerring; Hawthorne’s was indirect, easily turned from its object, and seemed purposeless; Poe’s always seemed instinct with intense purpose. Hawthorne would have preferred to hide all his processes of creation; he shunned observation; he was isolated; happy in evoking beautiful figures, but having no desire to let you see how he did it. But Poe, like all inventors, took pains to let you see the whole process of his mind; he laid bare his mechanism; he took his listener step by step with him, well aware that he must admire a skill and ingenuity so superior to all he had known.

The action of Hawthorne’s mind was like a limpid stream that, fed from hidden springs, glints and glides through sunshine, darkens in shadow, loses itself only to surprise you again with the same placid and dark-flowing waters. In point of style Hawthorne is serene and elusive. Poe is nervous, and terse, and positive. Hawthorne’s style is characterized by exquisite sequence of thought and imperceptible gradations of tone and sentiment. Poe’s is more salient, has a more rapid and impassioned, and always tense expression.

We are to understand Poe by his stories of “The Gold Bug,” “Légeia,” [page 744:]   “Eleanora,” “The Oblong Box,” “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Black Cat;” we are to understand Hawthorne by “The House of the Seven Gables,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and “Mosses from an Old Manse.”

Poe’s “House of Usher,” “Légeia” and “Eleanora” are the most beautiful examples of his prose, and show the positive influence of De Quincey’s “Opium Eater.” They have great beauty of diction, as well as great precision of expression, which is the chief characteristic of the style of “The Gold Bug.” His word-palette seems to he full and rich, and he uses it to produce sombre and beautiful pictures. He produces all the effects of poetry, save that of flowing and musical sounds.

Poe was unquestionably under the first impression of De Quincey’s magazine writings when he wrote his most imaginative stories. They have the same full and impressive diction — long and mournful breathings of an over-burdened memory, associated with a wish to define, to explain, to analyze. In “The Gold Bug,” in “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” and in “The Black Cat,” Poe attained an original expression, and his own mind, pure from all foreign influence, seems to be in full action. It is in them that he narrates and analyzes, but gives no room for the reverie and the dream which add so much to the haunting beauty of his “House of Usher” and “Légeia.”

De Quincey and Poe had a remarkable tendency to reverie, which was, in both cases, always checked by a passion for analysis. De Quincey, who is the subtlest of all English critics, often broke out of his finest dreams, and interrupted his most perfect analyses, to indulge a trivial and colloquial habit of his mind. Poe never made the same mistake. He never was trivial or garrulous in a story designed to produce a particular impression. In a few words, Poe’s intellectual moods were always in keeping. But I believe that De Quincey first put in full play Poe’s expressional faculties, and first subjected him to the fascination, and showed him the novelty of subtle and sustained analysis as a literary process at the command of the story writer.

But if Poe, by intellectual sympathy, derived his first style from De Quincey, he did not make himself guilty of De Quincey’s defects; and, later, his final and original style, which attained its perfection in “The Gold Bug,” has no relation to any writer, but is the result of his peculiar mental endowments.

In his earlier stories, Poe was brilliant and exuberant. Miss Prescott is not more extravagant than he is in “The Assignation.” But if he was extravagant, he was also charmingly and beautifully romantic; and in “Légeia,” and in “The House of Usher,” intense and pervading thought satisfies the understanding, while the imagination is impressed by splendid descriptive phrases.

Hawthorne’s earlier style shows no positive foreign influence. He was always subdued and restrained; he was pervaded by a fine thoughtfulness. The action of his thought was not intense and incessant, like Poe’s, but gentle and diffused. Hawthorne indicated himself at the beginning as a man of intellectual sentiment; Poe as a man of intellectual passion. The distinction to be made between the effect of the literary expression of the two minds is, that Hawthorne charms, and Poe enchains the reader. That Hawthorne has left us a larger quantity of perfect artistic work than Poe, we must attribute to the happier conditions of his life. Hawthorne may have been a little chilled by the want of the pleasant sun of popularity; but Poe was embittered by the success of others, and preeminently unfortunate in his destiny. Nothing that he ever wrote begot a sentiment [page 745:] of love; but the gentle and friendly genius of Hawthorne awakens a responsive spirit in the reader.

Hawthorne never seems to feel or think very deeply; he thought comprehensively. Compared with hearty writers like Dickens or Irving, or with impassioned writers like De Quincey or George Sand, he is the chilliest, the most elusive of spirits, and his only merit seems to be that of a graceful habit of thinking, and of a temperate illustration and expression of his subject. His delicate humor oftenest is like the fantasy of an invalid; the merriment is pathetically contrasted with a sad and time-stricken face.

Hawthorne was not closely related to his contemporaries. The vivid and near, and all that characterizes the social life of New England to -day, seem as remote from him as the ghost of a memory. He is our American type of the “Dreamer” — a being who could have no place in our thoughts of American life but for Hawthorne.

While Theodore Parker was accumulating facts, and fulminating against a people swayed hither and thither by conscience and selfishness; while Emerson was affronting the formalists and the literalists, Hawthorne was dreaming. He brooded over his thoughts; he spent season after season in reverie — reverie which is foreign to our idea of the American man. Out of his loneliness, out of his reveries, out of his dreams, he wove the matchless web of a style which shows what Lowell calls the rarest creative intellect, in some respects, since Shakespeare.

The “Passages from Hawthorne’s Note Books” let us see how he perfected his art, and taught himself to use, with such inimitable clearness and delicacy, his means of expression. They are the answer to the question why we never discover shallow or dry or meagre places in his perfectly sustained, evenly flowing, harmoniously and exquisitely toned style. Hawthorne seems to have had but one activity, and that activity was the activity of the artist. He used his mind to mirror nature. To see, to feel, to reflect, was his whole life — all of which is contained in the single word reverie. The observations of nature which enrich his literary work are not the observations of an active, restless, or acquisitive mind; in his work they seem accidental; they lend themselves, without any effort on his part, to accent his work, to break the monotony of his mood. Many of his pages show great sweetness of temper, an almost feminine feeling toward nature and life.

The alembic of his genius gave forth the material consigned to it colored and mellowed, and oftened saddened in hue, by his unique and pervading personality.

Hawthorne, a descendant of the Puritans, living in a Puritan state, in a Puritan town, without making himself the historian of Puritanism, rendered it with force, gave the spirit and sentiment of its life, in an intense and powerful story which contains the very soul of its faith. Hawthorne, in “The Scarlet Letter,” has made the work of the historian and judge superfluous as an examination and decision upon Puritanism as a social fact. The most intense work of our greatest romancer, without a word of indignation, without an aggressive phrase, embodies Puritanism in a story, and leaves it with a stigma more terrible than the scarlet letter it seared upon the heart of the wretched Dimmesdale, and fixed upon the black robe of the heroic martyr, Hester Prynne. With what fine and beautiful art he lets you see the monstrous pretensions of the legal spirit, which was the soul of Puritanism, and its brutal blunder in intruding itself [page 746:] between a woman’s heart and its most sacred need — “sacred even in its pollution.” In the treatment of his theme, how fine, how elevated, how comprehensive is Hawthorne! With what indulgence and sympathy, with what reverence does he consider the mournful and mute woman, blank-eyed and helpless before her judges, who seek to unmask the secret of her heart. Poor Hester Prynne! how different her treatment from the treatment of the Syrian Magdalen! Noble and outraged, much suffering, silent woman! victim of legal, obtuse, and mechanical minds, she shall forever exist as the type of her sex wronged by bigotry, victim of a harsh, unelastic social faith!

Among Hawthorne’s creations, it seems to me that Clifford in “The House of Seven Gables,” and Donatello in “The Marble Faun,” are the most remarkable. Clifford is an example of portrait art; Donatello is a beautiful and palpable creation. They illustrate the two phases of his genius. The portrait of Clifford in the chapter entitled “The Guest,” is in every particular an uncommon and impressive piece of work. Poe never did anything so subtle, so floating and vague, and at the same time vivid and sure, as the description and analysis of Clifford. You shall judge.

The expression of his countenance — while, notwithstanding it had the light of reason in it — seemed to waver and glimmer, and nearly to die away, and feebly to recover itself again. It was like a flame which we see twinkling among half-extinguished embers; we gaze at it more intently than if it were a positive blaze, gushing vividly upward — more intently, but with a certain impatience, as if it ought either to kindle itself into satisfactory splendor, or be at once extinguished. . . . Continually, as we may express it, he faded away out of his place; or, in other words, his mind and consciousness took their departure, leaving his wasted, grey, and melancholy figure — a substantial emptiness, a material ghost — to occupy his seat at table. Again, after a blank moment, there would be a flickering taper-gleam in his eye-balls. It betokened that his spiritual part had returned, and was doing its best to kindle the heart’s household fire, and light up intellectual lamps in the dark and ruinous mansion, where it was doomed to be a forlorn inhabitant. . . . His old faded garment, with all its pristine brilliancy extinct, seemed, in some indescribable way, to translate the wearer’s untold misfortune, and make it perceptible to the beholder’s eye. It was the better to be discerned, by this exterior type, how worn and old were the soul’s more immediate garments; that form and countenance, the beauty and grace of which had almost transcended the skill of the most exquisite of artists. It could the more adequately be known that the soul of the man must have suffered some miserable wrong from its earthly experience. There he seemed to sit, with a dim veil of decay and ruin between him and the world, but through which, at flitting intervals, might be caught the same expression, so refined, so softly imaginative, which Malbone, venturing a happy touch with suspended breath — had imparted to the miniature! There had been something so innately characteristic in this look, that all the dusky years, and the burden of unfit calamity which had fallen upon him, did not suffice utterly to destroy it.

After this matchless rendering of traits, Hawthorne gives a matchless analysis of Clifford’s nature — than which I know of nothing more finely distilled in expression, more discriminating in thought. It is Hawthorne’s masterpiece, with which his Faun only is comparable.

You will observe that in all of Hawthorne’s works the remarkable and characteristic thing is the incessant action of the moral faculty, exquisitely toned by the artistic sentiment! The moral sense and the artistic sense make of him a channel of issue, and it is their incessant play of expression which begets the distrust and doubt of the reader upon all the old, creed-closed questions of life. [page 747:] He is the finest distillation of the New England mind, and he has idealized all that is local in New England life. No marble can be too white or too exquisitely sculptured to symbolize his pure and beautiful genius, and suggest the gratitude which his countrymen owe to him.

Edgar A. Poe, the gift of the South to American literature, was more selfish, and more unfortunate in his life than Hawthorne. In him the moral faculty had no play — everything was concentrated to feed his sense of beauty and strangeness. He was no shifting questioner and elusive thinker, but ardent, intense and his mind was the intellectual centre of the anomalous! But what an imperial imagination, and how august and music-voiced was his memory! “The Raven” and the prose poem, “Légeia,” are magical in their influence. All that there is of beauty and regret and strangeness to be employed by the literary artist was employed by Poe in “Légeia.” He awakens the imagination, touches the profoundest emotions of an impassioned lover, and by associating his creation with the idea of death, produces that wild melancholy, that rebellious and protesting sentiment of regret, which possesses us at the memory of a beautiful, beloved, but vanished object!

Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, who has given the best literary portrait and the briefest and best analysis of Poe’s genius with which I am acquainted, remarks that, in none of his works did he express the sanguine and sensual side of love. “To Poe the divine passion of love appeared magnificent, star-like, and always veiled with melancholy. His portraits of women are aureoled; they shine in the midst of a supernatural vapor, and are painted in the emphatic manner of an adorer. . . . His women, luminous and sick, dying of strange ailments, and speaking with a voice that resembles music, correspond with the nature of their Creator — by their strange aspirations, by their knowledge, by their incurable melancholy, they participate in his being, and resemble him.”

As a critic, Poe was illiberal and perverse, burning incense before second-rate writers, and stinging the author he professed to admire. His article on Hawthorne, like Antony’s oration, with its blasting phrase, “Yet Brutus was an honorable man,” leaves an impression contrary and fatal to the frequent professions of high appreciation which make the refrain of his article. As a critic, Poe spent himself upon questions of detail, and, in all cases, belittled his subject. He did not exercise the most engaging faculties of his mind. He is brilliant, caustic, stinging, personal without geniality, expressing an irritated mind. Reading his criticisms, we think his literary being might be said to resemble a bush that blossoms into a few perfect flowers, but always has its thorns in thickest profusion. Poe was what may be called a technical critic. He delighted to involve his reader in the mechanism of poetry, and convict his victim of ignorance, while he used his knowledge as a means to be exquisitely insolent. He was like an art critic stuffed with the jargon of studios, talking an unknown language; careless about the elements of the subject which, properly, are the chief and only concern of the public. That Poe was acute, that he was exact, that he was original, no one can question; but he was not stimulating, and comprehensive, and generous, like the more sympathetic critics, as, for example, Diderot or Carlyle. It was his misfortune to have been called to pronounce upon the ephemera of literature, conscious that he was expected to think them fixed stars. His critical notices of American men of letters show the incessant struggle of a supreme scorn muffled and quieted from time to time in the [page 748:] acknowledgment of mitigating circumstances to excuse the literary criminals that he had assembled. When he wishes to he indulgent and generous, it is the indulgence and generosity of a cat stroking a mouse — the claw is felt by the breathless victim. He probably tore his subject more than any critic that ever lived. In his criticisms, the sentences are sharp, stinging, pointed, and sparkling; they are like so many surgical knives — they lay open the living subject, quivering and fainting, to the bone. Poe had no indulgence for literary offenders. He had the instincts of a mole slaking its thirst over its prey. Poe scratched almost every one of his literary contemporaries, and, in nine cases out of ten, he was right in his destructive work. But he was virulent, mocking, incensing, seeming to be animated with a personal animosity for his subject; he was like a literary pirate, sparing neither friend nor foe, always accusing other people of stealing, while his own hands were not pure. There is no question but that Poe had a monomania upon the subject of plagiarism. He was so skilful in hiding his own literary thefts that he seems to have been impelled to accuse others, and talk incessantly of a vice known best to himself — it was an example of his perverseness of nature. Although the arrogant and incensing elements of Poe’s nature had full play in his remarks on American writers; they were only the accidental expression of his literary genius, and should not determine our critical conclusions. Poe had what I may call, preeminently, a beautiful mind — all its highest and characteristic manifestations were harmonious and enchaining. His combination of the strange or the unusual with the lovely or symmetrical, is his claim to be considered original. No writer ever reached a more personal expression of the beautiful than Poe. He was modern in all his traits, romantic as no other American writer, delighting in the horrible as the natural antithesis of his radiant and mournful ideal beauty. The women that live in his stories, the ideal women of a modern epoch, pale, sick, luminous, wide-eyed, preyed upon by “incurable melancholy,” versed in the most recondite knowledge, vibrative, and “speaking with a voice that resembles music,” and as from profound depths, have no existence outside of Poe’s beautiful and strange imagination. He created them as Eugene Delacroix created his women, who are remarkable, impassioned, profound, and make you think. Poe’s “Lenore[[”]], “Légeia” and “Morella,” are the creations of a poet — ideal and natural as the Venus of Milo is ideal and natural, but in no sense realistic, and having no relation to the photographic and literal portraits of women such as we find in modern novels. It is for them that Poe has drawn upon his poetical nature; they are the issue of his sense of beauty, which in him was more imperative in its needs, and more creative in its energy than the same sense in Hawthorne. Among Americans, I repeat, Poe and Hawthorne are the only two literary men who have had the sense of beauty and the artist’s conscience in a supreme degree; and in Poe it was more isolated, or unalloyed, than in Hawthorne.

EUGENE BENSON.

 


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Notes:

In this article, Poe’s tale “Ligeia” is consistently misspelled as “Légeia.”

 

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[S:0 - Galaxy, 1868] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe and Hawthorne (E. Benson, 1868)