Text: Edmund W. Gosse, “Edgar Allen [[Allan]] Poe,” The Examiner (London, UK), whole no. 3,490, December 19, 1874, pp. 1384-1385


[page 1384:]


The Works of Edgar Allen [[Allan]] Poe. Edited by John H. Ingram. Vol. I. Memoir — Tales of the Grotesque. A. and C. Black.

The curious have never ceased, since the death of Edgar Poe, to speculate on the causes of the extraordinary dissimilarity that existed between the seraphic and virginal chastity of his writings and the confirmed depravity of his life. “That which I would not, that I do,” has been supposed to be the key-word of his character, and it has been lightly taken for granted that his was one of those easy and molluscous natures that collapse and almost dissolve under the pressure of temptation, possessing no back-bone of principle, and yet never so abject as not to long for better things. In this way Poe has been used as a kind of beacon of immorality, a Helot to our Spartan youth of genius, a shining example of the bad end loose poets come to. For just a quarter of a century the civilised world has taken for granted that the author of the ‘Raven’ was one of the most degraded of debauchees, a fine brain and an exalted imagination given over to the charge of a weak and shameless body. “Il buvait,” says Théophile Gautier, the very gentlest of moralists, “pour en finir avec une vie intolérable en évitant le scandale d’un suicide formel.” Mr. Ingram tells us that in America this theory of Poe's life has long been felt to be unsound ; but certainly in England and France, in both which countries his literary popularity exceeds what America has given him, this opinion has remained almost unshaken. Mr. Ingram knocks it all about our ears like a house of cards, and calls upon us to form an entirely new estimate of the poet's private career. In support of his view he brings to light an enormous amount of evidence which he has patiently spent years in collecting. Of course the literary world has been taken by surprise; of course it has asked, to whom do we owe the estimate we are called upon to abandon? The answer gives back the obscure name of Rufus Griswold.

It is some years since Griswold's ‘Memoir of E. A. Poe’ — a tedious and long-spun piece of invective — passed through our hands; and, were it not for Mr. Ingram's quotations, we should not be able to recollect in detail the nature of the charges brought against the poet. We re- member, however, that the intense malignity of the biographer against his subject or victim struck us throughout, although, in our ignorance of facts, we put it down to such a feeling of moral indignation as makes Mr. Elwin torture so exquisitely the memory of Pope. It did not occur to our innocent mind that the world could produce an insect so ingeniously wicked that it could dedicate a large portion of its life to the formation of a libel on a dead man on so enormous a scale. Hardly had Poe been dead two days, when Griswold, under a feigned name, and quoting from a book of his own as from a strange author, published a short biography of one whose death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” This was the first step ; it was fol- lowed by many others. With a persistence wholly devilish, this infamous person left no stone unturned till he, as he fondly supposed, had succeeded in thoroughly blackening the fame of the unfortunate poet. There is hardly such another case on the records of literary history. The shame- less accusations of Mrs. Stowe become venial by the side of this vaster atrocity, and they were not successful as this has been. We leave the particulars of Mr. Griswold's life to those painstaking naturalists that make the hemiptera the subject of their special study. If he has a grave, may the toad pour out her poison there; if he lives, may he live long yet to enjoy the execration of all well-disposed persons. [page 1385:]

Every one will read Mr. Ingram's fascinating memoir, and will be of opinion that he has understated rather than overstated his case. He goes very patiently into all Griswold's accusations and suggestions. Some of the latter, such as that Poe at one time committed a crime which the pure Griswold found it impossible even to name, are discovered to rest on no scandal whatever, but to be the undiluted invention of the biographer. Others are perversions of facts handled so ingeniously as to suggest that if Griswold had only been an honest man he might have secured himself a small competence in one of the obscurer branches of the law. Others, again, are simply ridiculous. Griswold, speaking of the months Poe spent at the “university” of Charlottesville in 1822, says “his gambling, intemperance, and other vices, induced his expulsion from the university.” He must indeed have been a Heliogabalus, for he had not then completed his thirteenth year! However, careful inquiries were set ‘on foot by Mr. Ingram, which resulted in the discovery that when Poe (in 1826, not 1822) was at Charlottesville, not only did he never fall under the censure of the Faculty, but was in the highest degree regular and satisfactory in his life. As a cadet at West Point, in 1830, it is true that he fell under official displeasure ; he had travelled in Europe, and become too much his own master, and too much addicted to scholarly habits to endure military discipline, but here also there is no trace found of the scarlet sins that are such an abomination. to the soul of Griswold. As he began, so the malignant biographer proceeded; we have not space to go into all his lies with minuteness. The facts are that in the life of his victim he discovered weaknesses, — as far as we can perceive, they were confined to drunkenness and ill-temper, both gigantically exaggerated, — and he made these the starting- point for an implacable attack upon every phase of Poe's private life. He accused him of violent and impure manners, of dishonesty, of plagiarism, of having murdered his wife that he might compose beautiful elegies on her death, of having behaved in so bestial a manner before the lady who was afterwards engaged to him that she could never see him again, and lastly, of having expired in the midst of a prolonged bout of drunkenness. Every one of these accusations has been patiently and perseveringly sifted by Mr. Ingram, and every one of them proves to be the absolute invention of the detestable Griswold.

Such conduct requires a motive. The bewildered reader asks why ? The answer is that the biographer was also a maker of books, of very trumpery books, that Poe was a trenchant and fearless reviewer, and that he had had occasion to show Griswold up as an impostor. Poe's criticisms had been very unsparing in the later years of his life; highly- cultured as he was, and living in the centre of a population seething with pseudo-intellectual activity, but scarcely producing one tolerable writer but himself, there seemed no course before him but to break the butterflies upon the wheel. The insects did not forget, however, and, when he was dead, whatever remained of them unbroken danced a danse macabre on his grave. The severity and intolerance of his judgments does not strike us at this distance of time and on this side the Atlantic as having been excessive. He found plenty of generous praise for writers whom we hardly could endure, for N. P. Willis, for instance, and for Mrs. Osgood; and if he found their productions praiseworthy, at what a depth of fatuity must have lain the Osbornes and Dunn Browns that he found heart to revile. Mr. Dunn Brown, be it observed, was the delightfully-suggestive name of a gentleman who defamed the poet in his lifetime, and who was obliged in consequence to relieve his purse of several hundred dollars.

The real nature of Edgar Poe seems to have been a typically literary one. We find him revealed in this memoir as sensitive, generous, petulant, and inconsistent in his manner to the world; affectionate and gentle to the point of weakness in his private relations; given up to long fits of depression, unable to order his life by mechanical rules, full of craving for love and sympathy, but not always ready to reciprocate it. There is not a trace of wickedness about him, but plenty of weakness. He is not recorded to have done one cruel or ignoble action, but many fretful and1 mutating ones. He had the misfortune to be the child of [column 2:] consumptive parents, and, with phthisis gradually destroying his own constitution, he was forced to watch the rapid decay by consumption of a wife on whom he doted. He had no support but literature ; and whenever weak health brought his powers of production to a temporary standstill, he fell at once into abject poverty. It was to escape from mental misery that, as Coleridge did to escape from physical agony, he took to the use of stimulants, and, as is so often the case with imaginative people, he was maddened with an amount of alcohol which would only stimulate pleasurably an ordinary organisation. “I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have perilled life and reputation and reason. It has been in the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories — memories of wrong and injustice, and imputed dishonour — from a sense of insupportable loneliness, and a dread of some strange impending doom.” Those who are familiar enough with the self-torturings of a sensitive and world-worn nature to feel the intense sincerity of this cry out the deep waters, will not be inclined to judge this poet with the same severity as our intensely moral cousins in America do.

The present volume contains the most fascinating of Poe's prose writings. Here is the “Gold Bug,” with all its cryptogrammic ingenuity; “ The Pit and the Pendulum,” with its suffocating sense of terror; the famous “Murders of [[in]] the Rue Morgue;” the vaporous studies of phantom-women, so pure, so delicate, so transparent, of Ligeia, of Madeleine, of Eleonora; the faith-compelling hoaxes of “Hans Pfaal” and “Van Kempelan [[Kempelen]].” Best of all, there is the melancholy and morbid story of the “Fall of the House of Usher,” perhaps the most delicate and most genuinely imaginative piece of work that Poe has left behind him, comprising, as it does, the most perfect of his lyrical poems, “The Haunted Palace.” The verses of this piece contain an intentional commentary on the poet's own condition: —

In the greenest of our valleys

By good angels tenanted,

Once a fair and stately palace —

Radiant palace — reared its bead.

In the monarch Thought's dominion

It stood there.

Never seraph spread a pinion

Over fabric half so fair!

But sorrow assails the monarch, and poverty and dissipation ruin the 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 rapid ghastly river,

Through the pale door

A hideous throng rush out for ever,

And laugh — but smile no more.

Read by the light of what we now know of the author's career, these beautiful verses possess a pathetic and even tragical importance.






[S:0 - LEX, 1874] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allen [[Allan]] Poe (E. W. Gosse, 1874)