Text: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Short Studies of American Authors, II — Poe,” Literary World (Boston, MA), vol. X, no. 6, March 15, 1879, pp. 89-90


[page 89:]

Short Subjects of American Authors.


II. — POE.

IT happens to us but few times in our lives to come consciously into the presence of that extraordinary miracle we call genius. Among the many literary persons whom I have happened to meet, at home or abroad, there are not half a dozen who have left an irresistible sense of this rare quality; and, among these few, Poe stands next to Hawthorne in the vividness of personal impression he produced. I saw him but once, and it was on that celebrated occasion, in 1845, when he startled Boston by substituting his boyish production, “Al Aaraaf,” for the more serious poem which he was to have delivered before the Lyceum. There was much curiosity to see him, for his prose-writings had been eagerly read, at least among college students, and his poems were just beginning to excite still greater attention. After a father solid and very partisan address by Caleb Cushing, then just returned from his Chinese embassy, the poet was introduced. I distinctly recall his face, with its ample forehead, brilliant eyes, and narrowness of nose and chin; an essentially ideal face, not noble, yet anything but coarse; with the look of oversensitiveness which when uncontrolled may prove more debasing than coarseness. It was a face to rivet one's attention in any crowd; yet a face that no one would feel safe in loving. It is not perhaps strange that I find or fancy in the portrait of Charles Baudelaire, Poe's French admirer and translator, something of the traits that are indelibly associated with that one glimpse of Poe.

I remember that when introduced he stood with a sort of shrinking before the audience and then began in a thin, tremulous, hardly musical voice, an apology for his poem, and a deprecation of the expected criticism of a Boston audience; reiterating this in a sort of persistent, querulous way, which did not seem like satire, but impressed me at the time as nauseous flattery. It was not then known, nor was it established for long after — even when he had himself asserted it — that the poet was himself born in Boston; and no one can ever tell, perhaps, what was the real feeling behind the apparently sycophantic attitude. When, at the end, he abruptly began the recitation of his rather perplexing poem, the audience looked thoroughly mystified. The verses had long since been printed in his youthful volume, and had re-appeared within a few days, if I mistake not, in Wiley & Putnam's edition of his poems; and they produced no very distinct impression on the audience until Poe began to read the maiden's song in the second part. Already his tones had been softening to a finer [column 2:] melody than at first, and when he came to the verse:

“Ligeia! Ligeia,

My beautiful one!

Whose harshest idea

Will to melody run,

O! is it thy will

On the breezes to toss?

Or capriciously still

Like the lone albatross

Incumbent on night

(As she on the air)

To keep watch with delight

On the harmony there?”

his voice seemed attenuated to the finest golden thread; the audience became hushed, and, as it were, breathless; there seemed no life in the hall but his; and every syllable was accentuated with such delicacy, and sustained with such sweetness as I never heard equaled by other lips. When the lyric ended, it was like the ceasing of the gipsy's chant in Browning's “Flight of the Duchess;” and I remember nothing more, except that in walking back to Cambridge my comrades and I felt that we had been under the spell of some wizard. Indeed, I feel much the same in the retrospect to this day.

The melody did not belong, in this case, to the poet's voice alone; it was already in the words. His verse, when he was willing to give it natural utterance, was like that of Coleridge in rich sweetness, and like that was often impaired by theories of structure and systematic experiments in meter. Never in American literature, I think, was such a fountain of melody flung into the air as when “Lenore” first appeared in the Pioneer; and never did fountain so drop downward as when Poe re-arranged it in its present form. The irregular measure had a beauty as original as that of “Christabel,” and the lines had an ever-varying, ever-lyrical cadence of their own until their author himself took them and cramped them into couplets. What a change from


But rave not thus!

And let the solemn song

Go up to God so mournfully that she may feel no wrong!”

to the amended version, portioned off in regular lengths, thus:

“Peccavimus! but rave not thus! and let a Sabbath song

Go up to God so solemnly, the dead may feel no wrong.”

Or worse yet, when he introduced that tedious jingle of slightly varied repetition which reached its climax in lines like these:

“Till the fair and gentle Eulalie became my blushing bride.

Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.”

This trick, caught from Poe, still survives in our literature; made more permanent, perhaps, by the success of his “Raven.” This poem, which made him popular, seems to me far inferior to some of his earlier and slighter effusions; as those exquisite verses “To Helen” which are among our American classics, and have made

“The glory that was Greece

And the grandeur that was Rome,”

a permanent phrase in our language.

Poe's place in purely imaginative prose-writing is as unquestionable as Hawthorne's. He even succeeded, which Hawthorne did not, in penetrating the artistic indifference of the French mind; and it was a substantial triumph, when we consider that Baudelaire put himself or his friends to the trouble of translating even the prolonged platitudes of “ Eureka,” and the wearisome narrative of “Arthur Gordon Pym.” Neither Poe nor Hawthorne has ever been fully recognized in England; and yet no Englishman of our time, [column 3:] except possibly De Quincey, has done any prose imaginative work to be named with theirs. But in comparing Poe with Hawthorne, we see that the genius of the latter has hands and feet as well as wings, so that all his work is solid as masonry, while Poe's is broken and disfigured by all sorts of inequalities and imitation and stucco; he not disdaining, for want of true integrity, to disguise and falsify, to claim knowledge that he did not possess, to invent quotations and references, and even, as Griswold showed, to manipulate and exaggerate puffs of himself. I remember the chagrin with which I looked through Tieck, in my student-days, to find the “Journey into the Blue Distance “ to which Poe refers in the “House of Usher;” and how one of the poet's intimates laughed me to scorn for being deceived by any of Poe's citations; saying that he hardly knew a word of German.

But making all possible deductions, how wonderful remains the power of Poe's imaginative tales, and how immense is the ingenuity of his puzzles and disentanglements. The conundrums of Wilkie Collins never renew their interest after the answer is known; but Poe's can be read again and again. It is where spiritual depths are to be touched that he shows his weakness; where he attempts it, as in “William Wilson,” it seems exceptional; where there is the greatest display of philosophic form he is often most trivial, whereas Hawthorne is often profoundest when he has disarmed you by his simplicity. The truth is that Poe lavished on things comparatively superficial those great intellectual resources which Hawthorne reverently husbanded and used. That there is something behind even genius to make or mar it, this is the lesson of the two lives.

Poe makes one of his heroes define another as “that monstrum horrendum, an unprincipled man of genius.” It is in the malice and fury of his own critical work that his low moral tone post betrays itself. No atmosphere can be more belittling than that of his “New York Literati;” it is a mass of vehement dogmatism and petty personalities; opinions warped by private feeling, and varying from page to page. He seemed to have absolutely no standard of critical judgment, though it is true that there was very little anywhere in America, during those acrimonious days, when the most honorable head might be covered with insult or neglect, while any young poetess who smiled sweetly on Poe or Griswold or Willis might find herself placed among the muses. Poe complimented and rather patronized Hawthorne; but found him only “peculiar and not original;” saying of him, “He has not half the material for the exclusiveness of literature that he has for its universality,” whatever that may mean; and finally he tried to make it appear that Hawthorne had plagiarized from himself. He returned again and again to the attack on Longfellow as a willful plagiarist, denouncing the trivial resemblance between his “Midnight Mass for the Dying Year” and Tennyson's “Death of the Old Year,” as “belonging to the most barbarous class of literary piracy” (Works, ed. 1853, III, 325). To make this attack was “to throttle the guilty” (III, 300); and while dealing thus ferociously with Longfellow, thus condescendingly with Hawthorne, he was claiming a foremost rank among American authors for obscurities now forgotten, such as Mrs. Amelia B. Welby and Estelle Anne Lewis. No one ever did [page 90:] more than Poe to lower the tone of literary criticism in this country; and the greater his talent, the greater the mischief.

As a poet he held for a time the place earlier occupied by Byron, and later by Swinburne, as the patron saint of all willful boys suspected of genius, and convicted at least of its infirmities. He belonged to the melancholy class of wasted men, like the German Hoffman, whom perhaps of all men of genius he most resembled. No doubt, if we are to apply any standard of moral weight or sanity to literary men — a proposal which Poe would doubtless have ridiculed — it can only be in a very large and generous way. If a career has only a manly ring to it we can for- give many errors — as in reading, for instance, the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, carrying always his life in his hand amid a brilliant and reckless society. But the existence of a poor Bohemian, besotted when he has money, angry and vindictive when the money is spent, this is a dismal tragedy, for which genius only makes the footlights burn with more luster. There is a passage in Keats's letters, written from the haunts of Burns, in which he expresses himself as filled with pity for the poet's life; “he drank with blackguards, he was miserable; we can see horribly clear in the works of such a man his life, as if we were God's spies.” Yet Burns's sins and miseries left his heart unspoiled, and this cannot be said of Poe. After all, the austere virtues — the virtues of Emerson, Hawthorne, Whittier — are the best soil for genius.

I like best to think of Poe as associated with his gifted betrothed, Sarah Helen Whitman, whom I saw sometimes in her later years. She had outlived her early friends and loves and hopes, and perhaps her literary fame, such as it was; she had certainly outlived her recognized ties with Poe, and all but his memory. There she dwelt in her little suite of rooms, bearing youth still in her heart and in her voice, and on her hair also, and in her dress. Her dimly-lighted parlor was always decked, here and there, with scarlet; and she sat, robed in white, her back always to the light, with a discreetly-tinted shadow over her still thoughtful and noble face. She seemed a person embalmed while still alive; it was as if she might dwell forever there, prolonging into an indefinite future the tradition of a poet's love; and when we remembered that she had been Poe's betrothed, that his kisses had touched her lips, that she still believed in him and was his defender, all criticism might well, for her sake, be disarmed, and her saintly life atone for his stormy and sad career.





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