Text: Francis Gerry Fairfield, “A Mad Man of Letters,” Scribner’s Monthly (New York, NY), vol. X, no. 6, October 1875, pp. 690-699


[page 690:]


[column 1:]

THERE are many now living who will remember the hero of this story. He was an elegantly molded and rather athletic gentleman, of five feet six, somewhat slender, lithe as a panther, with blue eyes that darkened or lightened as passion or fancy was uppermost, and a head that might have been set on the shoulders of Apollo: a poem in human form, with the exception of his nose, which was abnormally long and lynx-like, and the index of that wondrous keenness of analysis that answered him in place of the deeper philosophical insight generally associated with the critical faculty. He was a poet, too, though poems in human form are not always such, who sang in strange alliterative strains when the passion beset him. But he generally wreaked his soul on weird prose creations, that, when once the reading was begun, intoxicated the reader like opium, and led him through perplexing mazes of the impossibly beautiful to perplexing conclusions of the impossible; yet, so subtly, and with such rapid and logical progression, that, though the impossibility was apparent from the first, the reader accepted it in the same manner, and for the same reason, that he accepts the disordered fantasies of an opium reverie. On Broadway he was a kind of dandy; in literature, an egotist.

One receives different impressions from the poetry of different men. For Byron, my fancy paints a mocking devil laughing at the world in rhyme. In reading Shelley, it is as if I saw lightning fall from the clouds, mingled with the incessant rush of rain. His “Lines to an Indian Girl” have, with all this, a tropical luxury of landscape, amid which, here and there, by dark and sluggish streams, I see strange serpents writhing uneasily through the tall, rank grass. With Coleridge, it is as if I stood on the top of a mountain about to break into a volcano. The ear hearkens attentively to the rumble beneath; vapors, seething hot, come up in volumes from long irregular fissures; here and there spouts up into the dark a tall and lurid jet of flame, mixed with red-hot bowlders; then there is lull. Reading Tennyson is to me like walking all alone by the side of a broad river of molten gold. Longfellow takes me to walk on hazy moonlit eves, through which trembles the music of far-off lutes. The ear strains to hear, yet cannot [column 2:] hear distinctly; the melody is like something listened to in a dream. These different impressions — and they vary indefinitely, depending upon the associations habitual to the reader — are only so many reflections from the intellectual aura of the poet; and that they exist in the mind of every impressible reader is only another way of saying that every great poet has his prevalent intellectual aura, which constitutes the subtler and more intangible part of his originality — the soul of his poem. This mad man of letters had his own intellectual aura, and has described its two eras — the one when the June of life was fresh upon him, the other when madness had converted it into a bleak and terrible December — in an allegorical poem of singular power, sobbing with an undercurrent of pathetic despair. Two contrasting stanzas of the poem portray these two contrasting eras. In green valleys, tenanted by good angels, once stood a palace;

“Wanderers in that happy valley

Through two luminous windows saw

Spirits moving musically

To a lute’s well-tunèd law,

Roundabout a throne where sitting —

Porphyrogene! —

In state his glory well befitting,

The ruler of the realm was seen.”

Unearthly beautiful as this is, preserving the rhythm, and with slight alteration of terms, rather than of imagery, it is converted into something fantastically terrible. The palace is still there;

“And travelers 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.”

Critics have described the aura of this poem as weird. The fancy that comes to my mind as I read it is that of a man who, like Anacreon’s Cupid, wanders alone under a moonless night, muttering to himself, now with eyes introverted, and scanning his own soul — a dark tarn of Auber in a misty mid-region of Weir; now with lips moving uneasily, as if the recollection of what might have been, but, alas, can never be, passionately haunted him. The lone night-wind, [page 691:] that talks to him in the strange way of night-winds, is full of harrowing voices; ghouls grin from every thicket as he threads the desolate tract through which his journey lies. To him, alas, a life journey! His own face, reflected from the tarn, is ghastly, ashen, haggard, and distorted. Yet, through all run strange refrains of rhythm and rhyme, till the vapors about him thrill and tremble with a music they distort, but cannot wholly suppress. He wanders on, muttering incoherently, till, as in his own ballad of “Ulalume,” he has passed to the end of a strange vista, and is stopped by the door of a tomb. Here he enters, and lies down to rest, or to toss uneasily in a kind of disturbed slumber. Such to me is the impression created by the prevalent aura of the poems and prose tales of Edgar A. Poe, with the exceptions of “Annabel Lee,” which has a sweet unearthliness peculiar to itself; of “The Valley of the Many-colored Grass,” which is a prose version of the ballad, and of several of the tales dependent upon the analytic faculty for their point and effect, and having, therefore, no special psychical significance. The latter are clever, but — as in the living with M. Dupin in a room forever darkened — betray only glimpses of the psychical traits that rendered Poe what he was, and determined his career, not only in its poetic and literary, but also in its moral aspects.

Was Edgar A. Poe mad? This is the main question that (with occasional critical comments by the way) I propose to discuss in this paper. In other and more exact terms, was he the victim of what Dr. Leblois, of the Asylum of Saint Yon, France, very happily styles cerebral epilepsy, and Morel describes as larvated or masked epilepsy? Its main traits consist of sudden attacks of maniacal type, without contemporaneous convulsions such as distinguish the two commoner forms, termed respectively grand mal and petit mal. Dr. Leblois, in his thesis on the subject, Paris, 1862, uses the phrase mania périodique (periodic mania) as synonymous with the larvated form of this very common nervous disorder. It is invariably accompanied by a state of unconscious cerebration — the natural product of a masked or cerebral fit — and, generally, by singular hallucinations, such as seem to form the basis of stories like “The Black Cat,” “Ligeia,” “Morella,” “William Wilson,” and the later products of Poe’s pen almost without exception. When Mr. Lowell styled the prevalent quality of these productions fantastic invention, that eminent [column 2:] writer by no means covered the ground. As instances of fantastic invention, they are too methodical and too distinctly determined by a single idea. There is method in their madness, and method is as inconsistent with fantasy as it is with humor, fantasy’s twin-sister. It seems to me that there is also madness in their method, and such madness as accords exactly with the intellectual aura that proverbially accompanies larvated epilepsy, and is one of its distinctive symptoms.

In some cases, for example, the same idea, the same recollection, or the same hallucination springs up spontaneously just before the fit. The patient sees flames, fiery circles, red or purple objects, a ghost or a phantom; he hears the sound of bells, or a determined voice always repeating the same word. These ideas and recollections, or these false sensations, variable as they are as to individuals, reproduce themselves with singular uniformity, and are the habitual exponents of the malady. They are generally of an alarming and sinister nature. Fantastic figures address the epileptic in words, or mysterious voices of airy origin command him to commit some insane act; so that, says the eminent M. Boismont, “It is probable that many of the misdeeds committed by these unfortunate creatures are but the results of hallucinations of hearing or sight.” In cerebral epilepsy the fit is mainly represented by a mental aura of this kind, no paroxysm supervening, and may or may not beget morbid impulses, thus exposing itself in the external form of insanity. To apprehend the nature of the disorder it is only necessary to state the principle long since insisted upon by Marshall Hall, that epileptic paroxysms, like all reflex actions, must always be due to peripheral incitations. This has been demonstrated by physiological experiment. Brain epilepsy is, therefore, a reflex excitability of the brain, kindred to somnambulism, to dreaming, and to the various morbid phenomena now constituting a sort of dreamland to writers of so-called psychological fiction. Its aura, usually involving the sensorial nerves, accounts, no doubt, for many of the morbid phases of imagination that occur in literature. Dr. Maudsley, the eminent English alienist, for example, attributes the visions of Swedenborg — his trances — to periodical attacks of this malady; and several eminent scientific writers regard the trances of Spiritualism and the well-known phenomenon of clairvoyance as kindred to the sensorial impressions of [page 692:] what physicians style artificial epilepsy — that is to say, as epileptic fits induced by artificial means, at the will of the medium.

The same learned gentleman is also very positive in his opinion that the world is indebted for a great part of its originality, and for certain special forms of intellect, to individuals who themselves, directly or indirectly, have sprung from families in which there is some predisposition to epileptic insanity. That which was inspiration to the ancients (even as late as Plato’s time) thus appears in medical phraseology as an intellectual aura more or less allied to madness. Aristotle was, perhaps, the first to put the idea (which Maudsley scientifically paraphrases) in the form incident to modern literature, in the well-known apothegm: “Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementæ” which Dryden draws out in verse in his famous couplet.

So many times has the maxim of Aristotle reverberated “down the corridors of time,” that almost every eminent writer has given it voice in some form or other — Madame de Staël, in her ébranlement, to which she refers all that is beautiful in poetry and the arts; Hawthorne, in the remark that the world owes most of its onward impulses to men ill at ease; lastly, Poe, the typical mad man of letters, in the venturesome but acute observation, occurring somewhere in his “Marginalia,” that one must look for the most wonderful intellects of the past, not among the traditionally great, but among those who dragged out their lives in madhouses or died at the stake as sorcerers. Moreau de Tours, one of the first alienists in France, elucidates this subject very fully amid the masses of evidence he has collected in reference to epileptic mania, during his long service as an alienist physician at Bicetre. His testimony is coincident with that of Dr. Maudsley, both holding that the mental aura of poetry and of the more original orders of fiction is near akin to that of madness — under which view of the subject the critic must look for the physiological basis of poetic inspiration in a reflex excitability of the brain, distinguished from other forms of periodic excitability by a tendency to rhythmical expression. A poem, then, according to modern psychology, is a cerebral fit of more or less intensity, having little or nothing to distinguish it from masked epilepsy of a mild type, except the single trait or impulse of musical utterance: the outward exponent of a periodical frenzy engendered [column 2:] by constitutional irritability or sensitiveness of nervous organization.

I have crowded these conclusions of modern scientific investigation into a few preliminary paragraphs, by way of showing that there is nothing specially unusual or specially absurd in the propositions to follow, and that the only just test of them is to be sought in the works and life of the unfortunate man to whom they are applied. They are, that Edgar A. Poe was the victim of cerebral epilepsy, and that the majority of his later tales are based upon the hallucinations incident to that malady; furthermore, that he was always aware, in his later years, of impending dementia, and lived and wrote on amid the impenetrable gloom occasioned by his condition: tortured in soul by the imminence of a doom that no medical skill could hope to avert or materially to mitigate, yet exulting at intervals in the strange power thereby imparted to his creations. The events of his singular biography are explainable upon no other hypothesis. The mental aura of all his later productions partakes of the hallucination and delusion of cerebral epilepsy, and has the peculiar cast of morbid sensorial impression medically associated with that disease. In other words, such tales as “The Black Cat,” “William Wilson,” “Ligeia,” and “Morella,” not to mention as many more of the same type, appeal to the critic as the frenzied imaginings of a cerebral fit, recollected and wrought out in artistic form at lucid intervals.

The facts of his life, so far as they are accessible, have been thoroughly sifted by his biographers, Mr. Griswold, who knew him well, and Mr. Stoddard, who has tried to find the clue to his irregular perversity in the study of his life and works. So far from having been an habitual drunkard, as is popularly supposed, at the period when he was in the height of his fame a single glass of wine was enough to render him a madman, unconscious of what he did, and hence irresponsible; and it seems to me more than probable that, in many instances, when to the non-medical eye he appeared to be deliriously intoxicated, he was simply laboring under the effects of a mental aberration incident to such a malady.

The conflicting testimony in his case can only be adjusted in this way. Says a gentleman now resident in Brooklyn, who knew him well, and whose testimony corroborates this view of his delinquencies: “He would often drop in at my house along in the evening, [page 693:] muttering to himself and taking no notice of anybody, and curl himself down on the sofa in the comer of the room, where he would sit for hours sometimes, muttering incoherently. Sometimes he would get up and leave the house without saying a word to me; sometimes, after sitting an hour or two in that way, he would come out of his mood and talk away another hour or two as cozily as possible, then take his leave, like the gentleman he was when the mood wasn’t on him.” In opposition to this testimony, Willis, who employed him for several months on the “Mirror,” soon after his advent in New York, describes him as of habitually quiet and courteous manners and of pleasant and flexible temper. This was during the earlier part of his career. On the other hand, according to Griswold, who knew him later and corroborates the story of his Brooklyn admirer, he was of excitable temper, and in conversation his eloquence was at times superhuman, eye answering to emotion with lurid flashes. Griswold represents him, after the death of Mrs. Poe, as calling at the house of a lady to whom he was engaged to be married, and conducting himself in a manner so gross as to occasion his expulsion from the parlor. The inference is that he was in a state of brutal intoxication. This is possible, but not likely. On the contrary, Mr. C. C. Burr, who was intimate with him at that date, assures me as the result of one of Poe’s bursts of confidence, that he accepted the idea of a second wife only for the sake of his mother-in-law and guardian-angel, Mrs. Clemm. The lady in question had some property; and although he could always earn enough with his pen to keep him from want, he was willing and anxious, in order to soften the declining years of one who clung to him through good and evil report, to give another the place of the lamented Virginia, the Annabel Lee of his most beautiful ballad. To this end he visited his affianced on that fatal evening when his malady once more overtook him and pulled down the new castle of life he had erected upon the ruins of the old.

Thus, as the malady made progress, his temper became moodier and moodier, more and more uncertain, until at times it was terrible. In the fall of 1864, William C. Prime, author of “Boat Life in Egypt,” and then editor of the “Journal of Commerce,” in this city, related to me an incident illustrative of his irascibility during the last years of his life. Soon after the publication of [column 2:] “The Raven,” some clever metropolitan critic wrote an article for one of the newspapers of the day, in which he professed to test the poem by the author’s own standard — that of the verisimilitude imparted to the supernatural by introducing nothing scientifically improbable. The poem turns, it will be remembered, upon the introduction of a raven through the open window; the bird, after many a flirt and flutter, taking its stand upon the pallid bust of Pallas, just over the door in the poet’s room, which is presumed to be on the second or third story, and replying, at proper intervals, to the remarks of the lonesome student, with an ever-repeated “Nevermore,”

“Caught from some unhappy master, whom unmerciful disaster

Followed fast and followed faster, till his songs one burden bore” —

that burden being the sonorous trisyllable since so familiar with readers and elocutionists. Thus far it was well enough. It was very natural, too, that the raven’s solemn repetition of the refrain should finally recall the poet to saddened reminiscences of his lost Lenore, and startle from the nooks and corners they occupy in every human soul a train of superstitious associations. In this mood — half one of fantastic humor, half one of self-torment — the poet begins to question his sable visitor, and ends by requesting it to leave the room, to take its beak from out his heart, also to take its form from off his door; to which multiplied objurgation the raven rejoins, with the same doleful trisyllable, that it will not. The end is that the bird has its way, and continues to occupy the bust of Pallas just above the door;

“And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming;

And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor.”

Says the perplexed poet in conclusion:

“And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted — nevermore.”

The question put by the critic was this: How could the raven’s shadow be thrown on the floor and lie floating there, when it was sitting on a bust of Pallas above the door? The lamplight in the room would certainly throw it back and upward against the wall, provided the lamp was situated at any point at which, for practical purposes, lamps are ordinarily placed. That this was [page 694:] intended to be the case in the room occupied by lost Lenore’s lover is proved by the fact that, at the moment the tapping of the raven was heard, he was engaged in pondering

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.”

Nor is there any record that the lamp was moved during the interview. It is possible, of course, to suppose a window over the door, and a lamp in the hall at such an angle as to throw the raven’s shadow on the floor; but, besides the fact that upper rooms are not usually arranged in that way, if there was light enough in the poet’s room to enable him to read, then there was light enough to render the hall-light neutral and the bird shadowless. Again, the poem provides for no such light; and it was part of Poe’s theory of criticism that every poem should provide for its own understanding; though poets cannot be expected to furnish the brains to write poems, and the brains to comprehend them also.

“I called on Poe, who then had an obscure office in Ann street,” said Mr. Prime, after relating the facts, “on the afternoon of the day that the criticism appeared, and never in my life before had I heard such swearing. It was simply appalling — terrible. Such reckless profanity was never listened to outside of a mad-house.”

Now, it was not pleasant to be caught in his own trap, as Poe really was in this case; but “The Raven” had been received by almost universal consent of the literary world as a signal hit, and the author could amply afford to laugh at the clever squib of his anonymous assailant. Men had acclaimed the poem one of those rare exotics, which, when life presses hard upon him at some sad crisis, are wrung from the poet’s soul, rather than written by him. His fame was henceforth a fixed fact, and yet this puny sting had the power to put him in such a very insanity of passion that his oaths were shocking.

Another fact that seems to witness to his epileptic condition is constituted by the habitual lying that marked the later and best-known part of his career. One instance must illustrate the many. I shall take it for granted that the general reader is familiar with that remarkable analytic paper in which he describes the composition of “The Raven,” and the plan upon which it was constructed. American literature contains nothing cleverer in its way, and its cleverness is manifold enhanced [column 2:] when it is understood that it is simply and unequivocally fiction, as the actual circumstances under which the poem was written conclusively show.

Poe then occupied a cottage at Fordham — a kind of poet’s nook just out of hearing of the busy hum of the city. He had walked all the way from New York that afternoon, and, having taken a cup of tea, went out in the evening and wandered about for an hour or more. His beloved Virginia was sick almost unto death; he was without money to procure the necessary medicines. He was out until about ten o’clock. When he went in he sat down at his writing table and dashed off “The Raven.” He submitted it to Mrs. Clemm for her consideration on the same night, and it was printed substantially as it was written.

This account of the origin of the poem was communicated to me in the fall of 1865 by a gentleman who professed to be indebted to Mrs. Clemm for the facts as he stated them; and in the course of a saunter in the South in the summer of 1867, I took occasion to verify his story by an interview with that aged lady. Let me now drop Mrs. Clemm’s version for a paragraph to consider another, resting upon the testimony of Colonel du Solle, who was intimate with Poe at this period, and concurred in by other literary contemporaries who used to meet him of a midday for a budget of gossip and a glass of ale at Sandy Welsh’s cellar in Ann street.

Du Solle says that the poem was produced stanza by stanza at small intervals, and submitted by Poe piecemeal to the criticism and emendation of his intimates, who suggested various alterations and substitutions. Poe adopted many of them. Du Solle quotes particular instances of phrase that were incorporated at his suggestion, and thus “The Raven” was a kind of joint-stock affair in which many minds held small shares of intellectual capital. At length, when the last stone had been placed in position and passed upon, the structure was voted complete.

The reconciliation of these conflicting versions lies, possibly, in the hypothesis that he wrote the poem substantially, as stated by Mrs. Clemm, and afterward, with the shrewd idea of stimulating expectation a little, or by way of subtle and delicate flattery, submitted it to his friends stanza by stanza, adopting such emendations and substitutions of phrase as tickled his ear or suited his fancy. Such alterations would scarcely affect the general tenor of the text, as Mrs. Clemm first heard [page 695:] it, and, considering the length of the poem, appear to have been very few and of small importance, granting all that Colonel du Solle claims. Besides, it was like him to amuse himself in this way, hoaxing his friends, and then laughing in his sleeve at them.

But, leaving both versions to the reader for what they are respectively worth, there are other considerations fatally destructive to Poe’s analytic account of how “The Raven” came to be written; and they are the facts of its intellectual history, happily not dependent on his own testimony. That, either consciously or unconsciously, he was indebted for the thesis of the poem to the raven in “Barnaby Rudge,” the publication of which was then recent, is evident from a single passage in his review of that strange novel, in which he suggests that between the raven and the fantastic Barnaby, its master, might have been wrought out an analogical resemblance that would have vastly heightened the effect intended by Mr. Dickens. This analogical resemblance, which he denies to exist in the novel, but which exists there, nevertheless, constitutes the thesis of Poe’s great literary hit.

Thus far the thesis of “The Raven.” It will be remembered perhaps that “Lenore,” which precedes it in his collected works, was written in his youth. “The Raven,” appears, then, as its sequel. It was, therefore, the sonorous flow of the dissyllabic “Lenore” that suggested the refrain of “Nevermore,” if the ordinary laws of association are to be regarded as of any avail in determining the structure and evolution of a poem.* What [column 2:] then becomes of the long train of ratiocination by which he represents himself as fixing upon the word nevermore for the basis of his refrain, and finally upon the raven as the vehicle of its repetition?

To associate any special moral turpitude with acts such as the foregoing would be, if he was epileptic, quite unjust to the memory of one of the most unfortunate beings that ever figured in American literature; for, as any alienist will bear witness, habitual lying is almost invariably a marked symptom of mental aberration, and follows naturally in the train of hallucinations and delusions constituting the intellectual aura of epileptic madness, being sometimes but the direct result of the morbid sensorial phenomena that generally accompany the fit, and sometimes the exponent of a morbid impulse, which the epileptic distinguishes as such, but is unable to deny or to repress.

His audacious plagiarisms deserve a separate paper as so many examples of his mental habit. His “Colloquy of Monos and Una” was taken almost word for word from an obscure German mystic. His “Dreamland,” commencing

“By a route obscure and lonely,

Haunted by ill angels only,

Where an Eidolon named Night,”

palpably paraphrases Lucian’s “Island of Sleep.” Mr. Prime tells me that for the rhythmical form of “The Raven,” which he professes to have evolved by an elaborate process of ratiocination, he was indebted to a medieval ballad. Aside from the mental aura that colors them, the reader has [page 696:] only to make a study of the literature of Mesmerism to identify the thesis and anatomical structure of many a strange, hallucinative tale. His “Eureka” — regarded by Willis as a masterly philosophical creation — contains scarcely an original thought from egotistic exordium to pantheistic finis. He did not think. He was merely a dreamer, having a singular faculty for the coherent organization of his dreams.

An egotist to the core, his fatalism was (as generally occurs in such cases) the moral exponent of his egotism — that is to say, of the deficiency in ethical emotion that egotism always implies. Again, the aesthetic deficiency noticed by Mr. Lowell in his brief but admirable article on Poe, was but the psychical exponent of the same unfortunate deficiency. By an intimate law of our organization (it would require a volume to show how and why) the moral faculty is the realizing faculty, and perversion of the moral nature fatally perverts our perception of reality. Hence it came to pass that Poe’s idea of the beautiful was spectacular and unreal. Hence, also, it came to pass that to him beauty was synonymous with a kind of sensuous insincerity, and poetry a wild word-music to lull the ear with — a farrago of sweet sounds to tickle the auditory nerve.

Judging from these phenomena, as exhibited in his life and works, he habitually lived in a state bordering upon somnambulism — a disorder that cerebral epilepsy closely resembles. He was a denizen of two worlds and the remark of Dr. Maudsley, that the hereditary madman often gives the idea of a double being, rational and underanged when his consciousness is appealed to, and mastered by his unconscious life when left to his own devices, might have been written after a study of him. He lived and died a riddle to his friends. Those who had never seen him in a paroxysm (among them Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood) could not believe that he was the perverse and vicious person painted in the circulated tales of his erratic doings. To those who had, he was two men — the one an abnormally wicked and profane reprobate, the other a quiet and dignified gentleman. The special, moral, and mental condition incident to cerebral epilepsy explains these apparent contradictions as felicitously as it elucidates the intellectual and psychical traits of his literature. Its mental phenomena supervene after a stage of incubation more or less prolonged, and the fit generally lasts two or three days. Its supervention is evinced by extreme susceptibility [column 2:] and impulsiveness. Tendency to repeat the same phrase over and over witnesses to the perversion of the will. Distressing delusions and hallucinations prompt to eccentric and impulsive acts. The face is livid, and the eyes have the expression of drunkenness. Monomania may supervene, or dipsomania, or erotomania — as when Poe was expelled from the house of Mr. Allan, his friend and benefactor. Finally, the sufferer falls into a prolonged sleep, easily mistaken for that of drunkenness, and wakes up with re-established sanity.

The victim, after coming to himself, remembers these morbid sensorial phenomena as things that happened in a dream, but seldom talks of them; and thus, as (when its symptoms are not strongly marked) only an experienced observer can detect the inception of the fit, and as it always passes off in sleep, a man may be subject to cerebral epilepsy perhaps for years, and impress his friends as merely capricious and eccentric. Edgar A. Poe was just the man to conceal the malady, and convert its mental phenomena to the purposes of fiction. His sleepless and almost abnormal analytic activity took note, even in the exacerbations of his madness, of each distorted fancy and each morbid impulse as it occurred, instinctively tracing out its relations and linking it to its proper and attendant physical and nervous secousses. Not a fluctuating shade of his mania eluded him. He studied the writhing of his lips, flecked with foam, and dissected with critical exactness the disordered associations that flitted through his disturbed brain. With apparent deliberation, and with microscopic fidelity, he transferred the morbid delusions of his fit to his store of recollections, and thus established a tremendous warehouse of weird imaginings and fantastic sensations, to be worked in his serener moods into literary form. In almost any organization, except his, these maniac sensorial impressions would have overwhelmed and swamped the analytic faculty; but, in his case, so abnormally was it developed, and so fixed the habit of analyzing, that it could not be unseated. Thus it constituted the only part of him that was never mad, and rendered him in the throes of the cerebral attack, not only a double being when his consciousness was appealed to, but a double being to himself — conscious analytically of the unconscious life that had mastered his brain and nervous system. Hence results the fact that at first reading, and until subjected to critical tests, his creations [page 697:] impress the reader like those of a person addicted to the opium habit, and have an affinity with those of Baudelaire and De Quincey. That is to say, he writes like a dreamer rational in his dreams. With this superficial trait, however, the resemblance ceases.

From this source seems to have arisen the wonderful power in painting a monomania that distinguishes his later reveries, and is particularly illustrated by such productions as “The Imp of the Perverse” and “The Masque of the Red Death,” and in that singular narrative in which he kills an old man because the old man’s eye vexes him. It was the ground of his marvelous minuteness of psychological analysis, of the peculiar facility with which he traced a morbid impulse to its root, and of the terrible felicity of imagination that enabled him to follow out, step by step, link by link, the hideous trains of associations set in motion by madness. In fiction spun from his own consciousness, as Poe spun his, no man can outpass the limits of his own subjective experiences. They bind him to himself on every hand; he can only project what he finds within him. In observational fiction, on the contrary, the case is different; a man may study madness for the purpose of painting it, as the greatest actress of this age studied death agonies in the hospitals of Paris, that her stage throes might be true to nature. There exists no evidence, save the absurd story of “Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” that Poe ever observed madness from life with a view to artistic perfection of detail. He seems, on the other hand, to have found it in him and to have pursued it through all its hideous windings, as an element of his own consciousness.

His most powerful tale, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which he traces the subjective and objective phenomena of epilepsy from origin to final catastrophe, symptom by symptom, sensation by sensation, delusion by delusion, introduces the psychological series; and is such as could have been written by no man with whom the physiological and psychological traits of the malady had not become personal matters of fact — not even by an alienist who had made them subjects of life-study; certainly, by no litterateur who had not observed and traced them, day by day, in his own person. There existed at that date no ponderous tomes of the literature of epilepsy, such as have been developed during the last thirty years by Delasiauve, Boileau de Castelnau, [column 2:] Falret, Morel, Legrand du Saulle, Trousseau, Leblois, Dumesnil, Marshall Hall, Van Swieten, Moreau de Tours, Dr. Maudsley, and many others. What is now styled medical psychology then consisted of crude metaphysical speculations, while madness was a metaphysical dreamland, and the unconscious cerebration of epilepsy — with its trances — was dimly supposed to have a supernatural origin. The conclusion from these premises is obvious. With all the materials at hand, which thirty years of careful observation have supplied, no man living, not subject to the malady it paints, could write a “Fall of the House of Usher;” and if critics are to suppose that Poe elaborated his story without facts upon which to proceed, then they must accept the miracle that, by a simple process of analytic ratiocination, he anticipated all the discoveries and observations of the last quarter of a century. If, on the other hand, he was subject to the malady, the story explains itself and furnishes the clue to the fantastic invention incident to all his tales of monomania, through every one of which, thinly draped and enveloped in impenetrable gloom, stalks his own personality — a madman muttering to himself of his own morbid imaginings. This haunting consciousness becomes, with the progress of the malady, an awful doppelgänger, as in “William Wilson;” an imp of the perverse, as in the story of that name; a second soul after the loss of his true poetic soul, Ligeia, as in the story of “Ligeia,” yet a second soul from whence at fitful intervals rises the image of the first; or a second Morella, as in the tale of that title, drawing her nutrition from the dead corpse of the first, and developing into womanhood with strange suddenness — living, yet the image of the dead — dead, yet identical with the living. Or, again, as in the “Valley of the Many-colored Grass,” he lives in happy solitude with his true soul, Eleonora, upon whose bosom is written ephemera. She dies and is buried from sight in the valley; and the scene shifts, and he finds himself in a new world of bustle and tumult, with the haunting memory of the dead pursuing him amid mazes of the living. It is the black cat he cannot kill — the raven that croaks a Nevermore in answer to all his yearnings for the beautiful that once might have been, but is now a lost opportunity.

Were it possible to ascertain the exact order of their production, it would, I think, be no very difficult task to construct from Poe’s tales a kind of psychological biography [page 698:] illustrating the progress of his mental alienation, beginning with the formation of that morbid habit of introspective analysis which grew upon him with years, and finally ended in cerebral disease. A map of the general order presents three well-marked eras of literary production, having distinctive traits, but merging gradually the one into the other:

First. A period during which he seems to depend for artistic effect upon minuteness of detail. To this type belong “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” “The Gold Bug,” “The Adventures of one Hans Pfaall” (imitated from the “Moon Hoax”), the “Narrative of A. Gordon Pym,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and some others of less importance. The prevalent motive running through them is that incident to the literary hoax. The egotist glories in his capacity for deception.

Secondly. A period during which minute analysis takes the place of mere minuteness of detail. “Marie Roget” and kindred productions appertain to this period, which gradually merges into the third and last. The egotist now exults in his capacity for intellectual prestidigitation.

Thirdly. A period marked by tales of morbid introspection, which commences with “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which “The Haunted Palace” occurs as a ballad sung by the epileptic hero, and proceeds with the series I have elsewhere named. They are distinguished from the rest by the use of the first person singular and by the prevalence of a mental aura of the type so familiar to physicians with whom madness is a specialty. True to himself to the end, he now takes pleasure in startling the world with his own hallucinations.

His last poem, the ballad of “Ulalume,” first printed in 1846, and shorn of its final stanza in the existing edition of his poems, appears to embody in an allegorical form the terrible truth that rendered his later years years of secret and gnawing sorrow. It commences:

“The skies, they were ashen and sober,

The leaves they were crispèd and sere —

The leaves they were withering and sere;

It was night in the lonesome October

Of my most immemorial year;

It was down by the dim lake of Auber,

In the misty mid-region of Weir —

It was down by the dark tarn of Auber

In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

It is here through a Titanic valley that the poet wanders all night with Psyche (his [column 2:] soul), amid silent and moody trees, himself silent and moody. The moon rises with liquescent and nebulous luster. The poet and his Psyche — the latter stricken with a strange tremor and imploring him not to linger — toil on by moonlight, he pacifying her by expatiating upon the beauty of Astarte’s bediamonded crescent, she alternately listening and sobbing with an agony of dread. It is near morning — that is to say, the night is senescent, and the star-dials point to the morn — when the two find themselves at the end of the vista of the valley, adown which gloats the low-hanging and duplicate-homed moon, and are stopped by the door of a tomb. He asks: “What is written, sweet sister, on the door of this legended tomb?” Psyche answers: “Ulalume, Ulalume; ’tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume.” Then he remembers that it is the anniversary of her burial, and the poem leaves him at her grave.

Muffled in an unusual number of thicknesses of elaborate rigmarole in rhyme, this is the pith of a ballad, which borrows interest from its position as the last exponent of the perpetual despair that enshrouded Poe’s manhood, and the last visit of his tortured soul to the tomb of his lost beautiful, typified by the dead Ulalume. The geist of the ballad — that which transfuses it with meaning, and redeems it from the criticism so often passed upon it, that it is mere words — lies solely in the fact of its interpenetration with a kind of psychological significance. Thus sang he, then died. It is also the exponent of that passion for refrain and repetition which, itself symptomatic of madness, grew upon him with the progress of his malady, and thus appears as one of its morbid results. The same passion infects his later prose, and renders it in many instances a wearisome series of dashes.

“Had Poe but lived,” say many. Believing that intellectual decay had already laid its hand on him when he died, and that he was despairingly aware of it, I am not sorry he went so early. This last poem — a vagary of mere words — seems to me, in its elaborate emptiness, very lucidly to evince growing mental decrepitude.

The causes that led to his madness demand a brief consideration. Did he inherit an epileptic predisposition? This question naturally occurs first. His father was a man of irregular habits, who married an obscure actress and dropped into his grave, leaving to the tender mercies of the world at large a bright, sensitive boy. Of what malady he died it is now impossible to ascertain; [page 699:] but that the habitual use of alcoholic stimulants prevailed with the elder Poe or his actress wife, is evident from the fact that the son was a dipsomaniac of the type having paroxysms of drunkenness, though not habitual drinkers. Now, according to Dr. Anstie (“Hereditary Connections between Nervous Diseases”), “Of all depressing agencies alcohol has the most decided power to impress the nervous centers of a progenitor with a neurotic type, which will necessarily be transmitted under various forms, and with increasing fatality, to his descendants.” This learned master in psychological medicine utters the foregoing as the result of personal observation, expressing the opinion that alcohol is capable, in a generation or two, of fatally perverting the organization of the nervous system.

Under such auspices Edgar A. Poe was ushered into the world. Inheriting an impulsive and undisciplined nature, his brain life as a boy constantly exposes a preponderance of emotion over steady intellectual work. His first volume of poems, written how early it is impossible to know except from his own witness, evinces this fact very conclusively. With a passion for the beautiful in its sensuous forms, they are the exponents of a vague, mystic, and oppressive unrest; of matured passions with immature intellect; of an emotional activity seizing with mad hand upon the problems of life, while yet the mind was incapable of apprehending, still less of comprehending, them. He dreams well, beautifully, though his numbers halt a little now and then; but his work is only dream work. Great room for impulses to grow and wax ungovernable in a boyhood such as this.

As he grew older, this want of intellectual training seems to have forced itself upon his attention. Sent to college, he had found his work interfering with his dreams. Hence he ran away. Once matriculated in the great college of life, he tried to atone with cunning [column 2:] devices for lack of mental culture. His dreams now interfered with his work: rather, he had dreamed so long that he was incapable of honest work. Hence mentally he never grew up. For the altitude and sincerity of intellectual manhood were, on the other hand, substituted puppet-show cleverness and analytic feats of the solve-a-puzzle kind. Thus equipped he came upon the stage, scarcely caring what his words meant, so that they sounded well: not as a man, but as an extremely clever actor of manhood. Without insight, to him the only thing real in life was the stage scenery. Years of vagabond life and privation followed: of alternate work and wassail. The inherited devil of dipsomania, dormant only for a little while, asserted itself. Now and then in a tussle he threw it; generally it threw him. But, with whatsoever result the wrestle ended, it contributed its quantum to the fatal perversion of a nervous system hereditarily determined in the direction of epilepsy. The late J. R. Thompson, among his reminiscences of Poe, witnesses to the fact that at this period he could take an extraordinary dose of brandy without being at all affected by it; but as the nervous degeneration went on, and the epileptic tendency developed, he became (as is generally the case) so sensitive to alcoholic stimulants that a thimbleful of sherry transformed him into a madman, with the unconscious cerebration and the morbidly vicious impulses, the sullenness alternating with fury, associated with epileptic insanity. This was about the date of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and of that singular allegory of madness, “The Haunted Palace.” He now abstained, except at fitful intervals. But the malady, accelerated by the habit of morbid introspection which was its exponent, and gathering force from somewhat at least of hereditary predisposition, went on eating into his brain until sanity was only a recollection, and in the gutter he fell and died.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 695, column 1, running to the bottom of column 2:]

*  “The London “Athenaeum” has very recently started the theory that Poe borrowed the germ of “The Raven” from two poems published by Mr. Tennyson in the “Gem” (annual) for 1831, and not included in the laureate’s works. The first of these poems, entitled “No More,” is supposed to have suggested the refrain of Nevermore that occurs so regularly in Poe’s production:

“Oh sad No more! Oh sweet No More!

Oh strange No More!

By a mossy brook-bank on a stone,

I smelt a wild-weed flower alone;

There was a ringing in my ears,

And both my eyes gushed out with tears.

Surely all pleasant things had gone before,

Low buried fathom deep beneath with thee, No More.”

The second poem is entitled “Anacreontic,” and has the same droll mixture of puerility and music. It runs:

“With roses musky breathed,

And drooping daffodilly,

And silver-leaved lily,

And ivy darkly-wreathed, [column 2:]

I wove a crown before her

For her I love so dearly,

A garland for Lenora.

With a silken cord I bound it,

Lenora laughing clearly

A light and thrilling laughter,

About her forehead wound it,

And loved me ever after.”

It is perhaps in vain to remind the “Athenaeum” that the “Lenore” which precedes “The Raven” in Poe’s collected works was written when he was a mere boy, and, therefore, long previous to 1831, and that it is the most unlikely thing in the world that the “Gem” was ever reproduced in this country, or that Poe ever saw a copy of it; while, again, there is no affinity between Tennyson’s fragment and the American poet’s most elaborate production — not even enough to have suggested the structure into which that weird Mesmeric piece of rhyming fell. Indeed, this view is as untenable as that started in 1864 by English journals, that Poe imitated “The Raven from Mrs. Browning’s “Lady Geraldine,” when the fact is the very reverse, the former being the model and the latter the imitation.




This article received a two very hostile replies in the New York Tribune one by Sarah Helen Whitman for October 13, 1875 and another by “F. R. M.,” for October 18, 1875. Among other things, both articles took Fairfield to task for conflating epilepsy and insanity. Time and further consideration have not come to the aid of Mr. Fairfield.


[S:0 - SM, 1875] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - A Mad Man of Letters (F. G. Fairfield, 1875)