Text: William Minto, “Edgar Allan Poe,” Fortnightly Review (London, UK), vol. 28 ns, whole no. 164, July 1, 1880, pp. 69-82


[page 69:]


“A DISSOLUTE fantastic writer, died at Baltimore in consequence of fits of intoxication.” Such is the summary of Poe's character and career in a popularAmerican encyclopaedia, and it represents very fairly the general conception of the man which has been current since his death on both sides of the Atlantic. Alongside of this conception there has been from the first another and a more accurate conception, vehemently insisted upon by high authority long before Mr. Ingram systematically set himself to free Poe's memory from certain personal slanders, but the truth has not had a chance in the competition for popular favour. The unfortunate American poet has been seized upon in popular fancy as a type of the moody, idle, discontented worker by fits and starts; the perfect example of the kind of artist whom George Eliot satirised as a foil to the patient, laborious, contented, and prosperous Stradiuarius. The few who had looked at his work critically knew otherwise; but the many who read The Raven, or The Mystery of Marie Roget, believed them to be the weird fancies of a brain distempered by wild fits of drinking, thrown out in semidelirious intervals; and supposed, if they gave a thought to the author's literary principles, that they were those enunciated by the Bohemian Naldo —

“Higher arts

Subsist on freedom — eccentricity —

Uncounted inspirations — influence

That comes with drinking, gambling, talk turned wild,

Then moody misery and lack of food —

With every dithyrambic fine excess.

These make at last a storm which flashes out

In lightning revolatious. Steady work

Turns genius to a loom; the soul must lie,

Like grapes beneath the sun, till ripeness comes

And mellow vintage.”

Now, seeing that Poe was at immense pains to explain his literary method; seeing that no man of his time set up a more exacting standard of excellence or laboured harder to fulfil its exigencies; seeing that it is much more true that he worked himself to death than that he drank himself to death; seeing that even Baudelaire's charitable assumption that he drank to stimulate his working power and bring back marvellous or awful visions which would not come when his imagination was in its normal state, has been again and again since his death denied by those who knew him intimately — seeing this, it is not a little strange that Poe should have been fixed upon as a type of the irregular, impulsive artist; his name quoted by moralists as a warning, and as a justification by ambitious but [page 70:] self-indulgent youths, waiting for the inspiration which shall enable them to turn out masterpieces without conscious effort. We all know how the mistake about Poe's character is supposed to have originated — in the malice of a biographer who had suffered from the poet's criticism, and who obtained possession of his papers after his death from a confiding relative for the deliberate purpose of taking revenge. But why did the mistake take so deep a root? It is true that Griswold's slanders, which were at once contradicted, had the start, and they had also the advantage of being prefixed to an edition of the poet's works. But this alone would not account for the enduring hold of the misrepresentation upon the public mind.

Another principle of explanation has to be called in. There can be no doubt that a simple theory of a man's character, or any other complicated phenomenon, has an enormous advantage over a theory which tries to take account of all the facts. Griswold's picture of Poe was not only strongly coloured, but it was simple and consistent. The facts of his life as given by this biographer were not only consistent with themselves and with the gloomy despairing tones of his most famous poems, but they followed naturally upon the circumstances of his birth and his boyhood. His father, a roan of good family, had married an actress, and left his home to go upon the stage with her. The pair died young, and their orphan boy was adopted by a childless wealthy merchant, whose wife indulged him in every caprice, and stimulated his vanity by making him exhibit his precocious talents before her friends. A child thus born and nurtured seemed predestined to an irregular and profligate manhood; and, according to Griswold, he lost no time in fulfilling his destiny. He was sent to the University of Charlottesville, but “a reckless course of dissipation led to his expulsion.” He quarrelled with his adopted father, Mr. Allan, because he would not pay his gambling debts. A reconciliation was effected, and he was entered as a cadet at West Point, but “his wayward and reckless habits and impracticable mind were so much at war with the institution that he was compelled to retire from it within a year.” He was received again at Mr. Allan's house, but “doubtless from gross misconduct on his part, was soon compelled to leave it for ever.” Then he tried to make a living by literature, but his connection with various magazines and newspapers, one after another, was “severed by his irregularities.” He married a cousin, a girl of fourteen, and it is hinted that her death was caused by his irregularities. Much pity was felt for him, and many efforts were made to lift him out of the mire into which he sank deeper and deeper; but his evil habits were confirmed, and he waywardly threw away every chance. The Boston Lyceum invited him to lecture; he went in a state of intoxication, stuttered through one of his juvenile poems, and afterwards insulted his entertainers by saying that it was good enough for the [page 71:] literati of Boston, abusing them as “Frog-pondians.” In spite of all his excesses, an amiable lady of good position and a poetess was willing to marry him, and their wedding day was fixed, but a few days before he presented himself at her house in a state of violent intoxication, and made a disturbance, and the match was broken off. It was a fitting conclusion to such a life that one day in Baltimore, the city of his birth, the poet should have “fallen into one of his frequently recurring fits of intoxication, been carried from the street to the hospital, and there died on Sunday morning.”

Against a malignant myth like this, so naturally impressive, so simple and complete in its explanation of the poet's life, so harmonious in its details, the complicated truth fights at a hopeless disadvantage. The truth, unfortunately, is complicated. Poe's defenders cannot give the lie direct to all the malicious misrepresentations and insinuations of his biographer; they have to admit ugly facts, and then palliate them or explain them away. A great part of their defence consists in pleading extenuating circumstances — a plea upon which the general mind very properly looks with suspicion. The vindicatory testimony which Mr. Ingram has collected shows conclusively that Griswold's memoir gave a grossly distorted view of Poe's life as a whole, but it cannot be denied that there was an element of truth in many of the alleged incidents. It is not true that Poe was expelled from the University of Charlottesville. It is as far as possible from the truth that he began even then to undermine his constitution by riotous excesses. Mr. Ingram has collected the testimony of Poe's schoolfellows, classfellows, and Professors, and they all agree in describing him as a quiet, orderly, studious youth, successful in carrying off college distinctions. The feature which seems most to have struck his classfellows was a certain melancholy pride and reserve, which Mr. Ingram accounts for as partly constitutional, and partly due to his position as an adopted orphan. That he did not indulge in riotous excesses is sufficiently proved by the fact that he excelled as an athlete, and performed feats of leaping, running, and swimming, with which such excesses are physically incompatible. But it seems to be true that he indulged in gambling; that his gambling debts reached the considerable total of 2,000 dollars, that Mr. Allan refused to pay them, and that he quarrelled with Mr. Allan, and did not return to the University. Further, the records of West Point show that he was expelled from that institution. As against this fact, Mr. Ingram can only argue from internal evidence, which certainly favours his supposition, that for some reason Poe was tired of the institution and the prospect of a military career, and deliberately brought about his expulsion by absenting himself from parades and roll-calls. There is abundant evidence that there was nothing else conspicuously irregular in his conduct, and that all the time he was a great reader of books. When, after this, he quarrelled [page 72:] with Mr. Allan, in consequence apparently of no misconduct more gross than wayward pride, and threw himself upon literature as a profession, there is still no evidence of extraordinary irregularities, and there is abundant evidence of hard work. That prolonged fits of debauchery or negligent execution of duties had anything to do with his giving up editorial work on the Richmond Southern Literary Messenger, or the Philadelphia Gentleman's magazine, or Graham's Magazine, was conclusively refuted, as soon as the charge was made, by the proprietors with whom he had co-operated. There remains the fact that he did frequently change his employment, and that he did, after some eight years of laborious struggle in his profession, begin to yield to the temptation to drink, which gained such a hold upon him in the later years of his life, when he was the mere wreck of what he had been, when his home was broken up by the death of his wife, and his dreams of ambition were threatened with the same doom as his dreams of domestic happiness. But for the fact that Griswold's insinuation that Poe's habits of dissipation were the cause of his misfortunes has been so often repeated since the truth was made known, one could not have believed it possible that such a slander once established, could have survived the exposure of its falsehood by Mr. Graham, the proprietor of the magazine with which the poet was connected: —

“I shall never forget,” Mr. Graham wrote in 1850, soon after Griswold's Memoir appeared, “how solicitous of the happiness of his wife and mother-in-law he was, whilst one of the editors of Graham's Magazine; his whole efforts seemed to be to procure the comfort and welfare of his home. Except for their happiness, and the natural ambition of having a magazine of his own, I never heard him deplore the want of wealth. The truth is, he cared little for money, and knew less of its value, for he seemed to have no personal expenses. What he received from me in regular monthly instalments went directly into the hands of his mother-in-law for family comforts; and twice only I remember his purchasing some rather expensive luxuries for his house, and then he was nervous to the degree of misery until ho had, by extra articles, covered what he considered an imprudent indebtedness. His love for his wife was a sort of rapturous worship of the spirit of beauty, which he felt was lading before his eyes. I have seen him hovering around her when she was ill, with all the fond fear and tender anxiety of a mother for her first-born — her slightest cough causing in him a shudder and heart-chill that was visible. I rode out one summer evening with them, and the remembrance of his watchful eyes, eagerly bent upon the slightest change of hue in that loved face, haunts me yet as the memory of a sad strain!”

This was the wife whom Poe's biographer, with unspeakable malignity, accused him of neglecting and ill-treating. Mr. Ingram has done well to put on record the poet's own confession and explanation of the “irregularities” into which he fell during his wife's protracted illness.

“Six years ago,” Poe wrote to a friend in 1848, “a wife whom I loved as no man ever loved before, ruptured a blood-vessel in singing. Her life was [page 73:] despaired of. I took leave of her for ever, and underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially, and I again hoped. At the end of a year the vessel broke again. I went through precisely the same scene Then again — again — and even once again, at varying intervals. Each time I felt all the agonies of her death, and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly, and clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During those fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank — God knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink, rather than the drink to the insanity. I had, indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure, when I found one in the death of my wife. This I can and do endure as becomes a man. It was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope and despair, which I could not longer have endured without total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I received a new, but — O God! — how melancholy an existence.”

This explanation, wrung from the heart of a proud, high-spirited man, to whom such explanation must have been torture, is a sufficient answer to the degrading charges of vulgar profligacy and dissipation which have been affixed to his name, and the knowledge of the truth ought to consign his traducer to everlasting infamy. No one who has inquired into the painful story of Poe's latter days can doubt for a moment that his irregularities were the result and not the cause of his misfortunes. More than this: no one can help feeling that squabbling or hair-splitting over the question of his indulgence in strong drink is unworthy of the dignity of his figure in literature, and pitifully out of keeping with the tragic interest of his career. Still, the question of his personal habits having been raised, it may be doubted whether the poet's defenders have not been betrayed into a line of defence which is in itself unfortunate and misleading. In pleading the unhappy circumstances of his life as an explanation of the malady to which he succumbed, they find themselves face to face with the question why his circumstances were so unhappy; why with all his genius and unremitting labour, his writings were so unremunerative, that when his powers were in their prime, he fought a losing battle with poverty. The answer which Mr. Ingram suggests to this question — that Poe made so many enemies by his critical onslaughts on writers of whom the American people were proud, that the doors of the market were closed against him — is not satisfactory. But the truth is, that the question may be answered fully and completely without supposing Poe to have been the victim of spite and resentment, and without supposing that the American public were too stupid to understand him till after his death, and that they were much to blame in allowing ono of their most extra- ordinary men of genius to starve during his lifetime. The main cause of Poe's failure to maintain himself was not the malice of aggrieved mediocrities; and it is putting him altogether into too vulgar a category to class him among misappreciated and underrated men of genius. The original fault lay as little with rivals, with the [page 74:] public, or with the publishers, as with the poet's alleged habits of intemperance. The causes of his failure are to be found in his mental habits and methods of work, and without attempting anything like a complete analysis of his genius, it may be worth while to consider some of his more salient peculiarities, and to show how they inevitably limited the amount of his literary production.

In the first place, then, Poe was an intellectual voluptuary, though the exercises of mind in which he sought pleasure are as far removed as possible from the ordinary idea of enjoyment. Analysis, which to most minds is a synonym for all that is dry and repugnant, was his master passion. Not a little of the misapprehension which has darkened his memory has arisen, as in the case of Byron, from confounding him with his own fictitious characters. Griswold's calumnies would probably have been much more easily dispossessed if they had not found support in the narrative of the profligate youth of William Wilson, who has been generally identified with the author himself. We should therefore be cautious about identifying him with any of the personages in his stories, every trait in whose characters was skilfully fashioned to support an artistic aim. But there can be little doubt that in the emphasis which he constantly laid upon the pleasure to be derived from analysis, he spoke from personal experience, and that the youth who took delight in the German moralists, “not from any ill-advised admiration of their eloquent madness, but from the ease with which his habits of thought enabled him to detect their falsities,” was an adumbration of himself.

“The analytical faculties,” he says in his description of the character of Bupin, the amateur detective in The Murders of the Rue Morgue, “are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that mental activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solution of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension preternatural. His results brought about by the very soul and essence of method have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.”

In this passage Poe described his own besetting pleasure, the pleasure which drew him irresistibly after it whenever opportunity offered, and which is mainly responsible for the unprofitable dissipation of his energies. In the strength of this intellectual propensity and not in any loose hankering after vulgar vice, we have probably the true explanation, or a large part of the explanation, of his gambling fit at the University. One of his favourite theories was, that by close observation of an opponent in any game of cards, and searching analysis of the meaning of his looks, it was possible to tell his hand as accurately as if one saw it. The reduction of [page 75:] chance to a working mathematical formula was another problem which forcibly challenged his intellect. But while it is possible that it was by these intellectual provocations to gamble that the young student was led astray, it must also be admitted as possible that such an apology is as wide of the mark as it would be in the case of any other scapegrace, and that Poe gambled, as other young men have gambled, from mere love of excitement. In using his ungovernable delight and pride in feats of analysis, his inability to leave any problem which accident threw in his way till he had sifted it to the bottom, as an explanation of his difficulty in making a living by literature, we stand upon surer ground. Every admirer cf Poe's genius must have marvelled and sorrowed over the time which he gave to the solution of cryptographs. In an article on Cryptography he had committed himself to the theory that the human intellect was incapable of devising any cipher which the human intellect could not unravel. Immediately the magazine in which the article appeared was besieged by crowds of correspondents, each of whom believed himself to be in possession of a cipher which no human being could read without the key. Although Poe's proposition did not imply that his was the human intellect which could solve any cipher, he at once took up the challenge, and triumphantly solved every cipher that was sent in — a feat which was neither in his day's work nor in his day's wages.

And this is only a type of the habit by which Poe squandered his intellectual force. Much of his work for the Southern Messenger and Graham's Magazine consisted in reviewing books. Mr. Ingram deplores this, not only because he thereby made enemies — a belief with which reviewers of books often console themselves when their own productions are ill-treated — but also because he ought to have been employed in work more worthy of his genius. He does not, however, it seems to me, bring out with sufficient emphasis how much of his force Poe wasted in this labour, viewed simply as a means of livelihood. Poe did his work too thoroughly, both for the amount paid and for the purposes of the periodical. The feat which he performed in reviewing the first number of Barnaby Rudge shows the spirit in which he approached his duties. He gave in that review a speculative account of the course that the plot ought to follow, and solved in advance the mystery of Haredale's murder with such exactitude that Dickens wrote in astonishment to ask whether his reviewer had dealings with the Devil. If Poe had examined only masterpieces with the microscopic completeness with which he analyzed Barnaby Rudge, the labour might have paid him in furnishing hints for his own creative work. But every book that was submitted to him underwent the same process of exhaustive scrutiny. Every book presented itself to his analytic faculty as a problem to be attacked and solved; he analyzed the writer's aims [page 76:] and his method, and set himself to consider how the subject ought to have been treated. The reviewer who can supply five lines on a book in five minutes is the reviewer who can hope to make reviewing a profitable trade. Poe could not or would not do this; every book, good or bad, was a challenge to his powers of analysis, and he could not part with it till he had dissected it out. Perhaps we may ask whether work of this kind ought not to have been better paid and more highly appreciated. Poe's employers would probably have answered this question by saying that the public, whom they were trying to induce to buy their periodicals, did not care for this kind of thoroughness. They were not catering for an audience of artists who might have found profit as well as pleasure in a masterly analysis of the mechanism of a book. Their audience only cared to know whether a book was interesting, worth reading, or worth buying; how it might have been made more interesting, and whether it satisfied exacting canons of construction, were matters in which they had a languid concern or no concern at all. What chiefly struck Poe's employers about his reviews was that they were “classical and scholarlike,” and they were aware also that he wrote with “fastidious difficulty.” Into the secret of his difficulty they did not inquire. They probably considered it a defect in him that he was not a more ready writer. And they measured the value of his articles on the sound commercial principle that, except when he chanced to make a sensation by exposing the weak points of celebrities, they could get reviews equally, or perhaps more, suited to the requirements of the general reader at the same price.

But, it may be asked, why did Poe's employers allow him to waste his time in analytic criticisms, stipulating only for the introduction of “spice” into his analysis, a requirement which he fulfilled by a not very happy imitation of the humour of De Quincey? Why, instead of keeping him drudging at book-reviewing, did they not urge him to supply them with tales and poems? Surely this implied a certain dulness of appreciation. It may be doubted, however, whether in this matter either the publishers were to blame. They could not have been unaware of the value — the commercial value — of Poe's tales; for chiefly by means of them the circulation of Graham's Magazine was raised in one year from two or three thousand to twenty-five thousand. Mr. Graham, we may be sure, would have been glad of a supply of such talcs as the Murders in the Rue Morgue, though it appears that he was not prepared to pay more than fifty dollars for The Gold Bug. But the truth is that the supply was not forthcoming in plentiful quantity. In writing tales, as in writing reviews, Poe composed with “fastidious difficulty,” and the secret of the difficulty is again to be found in his passion for scrupulous, exhaustive analysis. The exacting scrutiny of artistic [page 77:] aims and artistic mechanism which he applied to the productions of others, he applied with even greater rigour to his own.

Poe let the world into the secret of his Philosophy of Composition in what purported to be a frank confession of the various steps by which his poem of The Raven attained its ultimate point of completion. The revelation, as we shall see, left much to be revealed; but, as far as it went, it was such a shock to received notions that there is an all but universal consent to regard Poe's Philosophy of Composition as a joke. Mr. Ingram speaks of it as a “half-hoaxing, half-serious” essay, and apparently numbers it among the evidences of the poet's love of mystification. There is, indeed, a ghastly attempt at humour in one passage, that in which he dismisses as irrelevant to the poem per se “the circumstances — or say the necessity” — of composing a poem which should suit at once the popular and the critical taste. But as regards the substance of Poe's revelation, he was no more jesting about this than Newton was when he propounded his theory of gravitation. Whether Poe was right in supposing that all poems ought to be composed in the same way, is another question; but that the basis of The Raven was laid after the method which he describes, there is not the least occasion to doubt. Not only so, but any one who looks analytically at Poe's tales will sec that all the best of them, from the MS. Found in a Bottle downwards, bear every mark of having been constructed on the same plan. And the wearing, worrying labour imposed upon his imagination by the stringent subjection of its activity to analytic fetters, goes far to explain the premature breakdown of his powers.

Let us see what tho process was that Poe described. His essay on the Philosophy of Composition starts from a question asked him by Dickens, “Are you aware that Godwin wrote his Caleb Williams backwards?” In answer to this Poe maintains that “every plot worth the name must be elaborated to its denouement before anything is attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence or causation by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to tho development of the intention.” The dullest person may be defied to sec anything humorous in this. Poe took Dickens to task for having — indefatigable artist though he was — written Barnaby Rudge without a fixed determination as to where the plot was to lead him, and detected unmistakable signs of wandering intention, details here and there impressively introduced as for a purpose, and left stranded, as it were, in the tale, having no purpose to fulfil, because the purpose for which they had been introduced had been abandoned. It was Poe's theory that in order to secure the highest possible effect, no detail should be irrelevant, every incident, however trivial, should be in harmony with the impression designed to be left at the end by the completed [page 78:] work. The theory is by no means peculiar to him, but it may be doubted whether anybody ever strove with such indomitable effort to make his invention comply with this hard condition. In order to the perfect realisation of such an ideal, it was not necessary — as he said — that the artist should work backwards; there would, indeed, be no obvious advantage in such a mode of proceeding; but it was necessary that the artist should have in his eye from the first the goal of his endeavour, and that he should settle upon this before starting. Nobody, it may safely be presumed, would deny that this was not merely Poe's philosophy, but his actual method of composition in the case of his tales. “I prefer,” he says in his essay, “instead of taking a theme from historical or contemporary incident, commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily obtainable a source of interest — I say to myself, in the first place, ‘ Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?’ Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone — whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone — afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.”

There is something repugnant in this dry analytic way of expressing an artist's designs upon his readers. We should not refuse our credence to such a confession from an actor, a stage artist, because we go to a theatre resigned to the knowledge that illusions are to be practised on our feelings. But we have a deep-rooted belief in the novelist as being more a creature of impulse. Still, whether Poe is to be called theatrical or not for his pains, few persons who have examined the mechanism of his tales will refuse to believe that they were conceived and constructed in this way, that the themes did not rise in his mind incidentally or accidentally, but were deliberately sought for and chosen for their suitability to the production of certain preconceived impressions. But when we come to a poem so weird, so fantastic, so overcharged apparently with personal spontaneous impulse, as The Raven, the poet's cold-blooded retrospective analysis of the stages through which it took shape in his brain is so paradoxical that there is much excuse for receiving it with incredulous laughter. After telling us how he decided that the poem must be short — it was one of his theories that a long poem is a contradiction in terms, no mind being capable of sustaining itself in the exaltation proper to poetry through a long poem — and that its effect must be sad — the tone of sadness belonging to the highest manifestation of beauty, Poe proceeds to say — [page 79:]

“The length, the province, and the tone being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a keynote in the construction of the poem — some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects — or, more properly, points in the theatrical sense — I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, tho refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone — both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity — of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten, the effect, by adhering, in general, to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain — the refrain itself remaining, for the most part, unvaried.

“These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied, it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence, would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.

“The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was, of course, a corollary: the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.

“The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had predetermined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word ‘Nevermore.’ In fact, it was the very first which presented itself.

“The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word ‘ nevermore.’ In observing the difficulty which I at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the pre-assumption that the word was to bo so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being — I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in tho reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in tho first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.

“I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill-omen — monotonously repeating the one word, ‘Nevermore,’ at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself — ‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death — was tho obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?’ From what I have already explained at some length, tho answer, here also, is obvious — ‘When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world — and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.’ [page 80:]

“I had now to combine tho two ideas, of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating tho word ‘Nevermore.’ — I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying, at every turn, the application of the word repeated; but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to tho queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending — that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could mako the first query propounded by the lover — the first query to which the Raven should reply ‘Nevermore ‘ — that I could make this first query a commonplace one — the second less so — the third still less, and so on — until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself — by its frequent repetition — and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it — is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character — queries whose solution he has passionately at heart — propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture — propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which, reason assures him, is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his question as to receive from the expected ‘Nevermore’ the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me — or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction — I first established in my mind the climax, or concluding query — that query to which ‘Nevermore’ should be in the last place an answer — that query in reply to which this word ‘Nevermore’ should involve tho utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.

“Here, then, the poem may be said to have had its beginning — at the end, where all works of art should begin — for it was here, at this point of my preconsiderations, that I first put pen to paper.”

There is something irresistibly ludicrous in this matter-of-fact statement about combining the two ideas of the despairing Lover and the monotonous Raven, and the fun seems to get more fast and furious as the poet proceeds to tell how he discussed with himself various ways of bringing the Lover and the Raven together, and for what reasons, founded on profound analysis of emotional effect, he resolved to bring them together as he did. The poem has impressed us as a cry from a stricken heart, and it is disenchanting to be told that it was a deliberately planned assault, step by step, upon our feelings. We feel as if we had been deceived, and we naturally prefer to believe that the poet is only in jest, that he is making an attempt, which we can easily see through, to mystify us. Yet that Poe should have laid the groundwork of his poem in this way, and sifted and tested every plank in the structure as he explains, is in thorough accordance with the critical theories which we find perpetually recurring in his writings, theories propounded and argued with a uniform persistency which leaves no room for the suspicion of a jest.

One may safely say that the belief that Poe was serious in the Philosophy of Composition which he illustrated from his own construction of The Raven would commend itself generally more to his detractors than to his admirers. To take it seriously seems at first [page 81:] sight to deny all his claims to genius and imagination, to represent him as a cold, mechanical, artificial worker by rule and compass, building up by slow, calculating effort what the man of genius does by easy, unconscious instinct. We should, indeed, have reached a glaringly absurd conclusion if we had involved ourselves by following any theory in the denial of Poe's possession of creative power. Patent facts would confute us. But the truth is that the poet in what he calls his reconstruction of The Raven, his recollection of the processes followed in the original construction, does not let us so deep into the secret of the composition as we might suppose if we did not pause and reflect. An inconsiderate reader might jump to the conclusion that Poe had here laid bare the whole process of the making of the poem, that he had given as it were a recipe by observing which any man of ordinary intellect might produce such another poem. Some such conclusion as this does perhaps lie in the minds of those who cannot bring themselves to believe that he was in earnest. But what he really does in this essay is to show the limits which he voluntarily imposed upon his imagination, the course which, by previous analytic effort, he marked out for it, and within which he constrained it to run. He explains that he began by resolving to produce certain effects; but we are not brought by this explanation any the nearer to the imaginative process by which he produced them. He shows us how he tested by analytic processes the materials which his imagination brought at the summons of his will; it does not follow that anybody who can understand the justness of the tests, could order their imagination to bring them similar materials with any likelihood of being obeyed. If Poe was serious in his Philosophy of Composition, and if he did construct his poems after the method which he describes, the fact is not a proof of poverty of imagination; on the contrary, no higher proof could be afforded of the fertility of his imagination than that it should have been able to bring him from its stores what he wanted to satisfy his exacting critical standard.

Among other circumstances which may have favoured the idea that Poe's account of his method of construction was a jest or a satire on plodding rhymesters, we may reckon the idea that this is not the way in which great poems generally are composed. Poe fully recognised this; his pride lay in being an artist, working consciously with all his powers of analysis, imagination, and will for the realisation of definitely conceived aims. Other poets have not taken the world so much into their confidence, whether in jest or in earnest; but the outsider's conception of the ordinary genesis of a poem is that it is produced rather by a process of growth than of deliberately motived construction; that it develops in the poet's mind, by gradual expansion of which he is imperfectly conscious, by steps which he [page 82:] could not recall if he tried, from germ to complete creation. The outside critic may be permitted to believe that except in peculiarly happy cases the imagination cannot safely be left unchecked, if its luxuriance is to be brought within the limits of art, and that the happiest genius is compelled sometimes to practise the chilling process of self-criticism. In one of his numerous discourses on the analytic faculty, Poe laid down the paradox that the constructive faculty is much less rare than is commonly supposed, and that it is nowhere found more active than in idiots. That is to say, any fool can construct; the test of wisdom, of sanity, of genius lies in being able to adapt construction to definite ends, whether in practical invention or in poetry. Whatever amount of truth there may be in this paradox — there is generally a solid substratum of truth in Poe's paradoxes — whether or not it be true, as he maintained, that the analytic faculty is so far from being incompatible with the imaginative faculty that neither can exist in their highest development apart — we can all easily understand what happens when, as in his case, the analytic faculty is paramount and imperious, and insists that the imaginative faculty shall not stir a step except in obedience to its behests. If Poe had possessed less powers of analysis and a more easily satisfied judgment, there can be no doubt that he would have been a much more joyous and prosperous worker. He may have been right or he may have been wrong in his assumption that most writers, and especially poets, would shudder at the idea of telling the secrets of their art — if he had been alive now, the reception of his own confessions might have convinced him that revelations of the kind are as distasteful to the readers of poets as to the poets themselves — but it is readily intelligible that an imaginative artist, working under such conditions as he imposed on himself, must have suffered tortures in the act of composition from the impediments to an easy flow of matter which he specifies — “elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought, true purposes seized only at the last moment, innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view, fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable, cautious selections and rejections, painful evasions and interpolations.” The torture must have been all the more keen and exasperating in proportion to the fiery impatience, the eager, far-reaching ambition, of his temperament; confinement is more deadly to an animal raging under impulses for freedom than to an animal with a torpid predisposition to contentment. To understand Poe's method of work is to understand the reason why he produced so little, why he did not produce enough to furnish himself with a means of living, and why, circumstanced as he was, his restless, sensitive mind was chafed and fretted into insanity. He broke himself on a wheel of his own making.




William Minto (1845-1893) was a Scottish educator, critic, and author. He wrote a large number of essays on various literary topics. This is his only essay on Poe. It was reprinted in several periodicals in the United States. From 1880 until his death, he was the Regius Professor of Logic and English Literature at Aberdeen, Scotland.

Although the issue is dated as July 1, 1880, the magazine was published once a month, and all of the issues are given as the first day of the relevant month.


[S:0 - FR, 1880] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (W. Minto, 1880)