Text: William Weidemeyer, “Edgar A. Poe and His Poetry,” Phrenological Journal and Science of Health, ns. Vol. XXII, no. 3, September 1880, pp. 132-140


[page 132:]


[column 1:]

WE have in our possession an old newspaper that contains the following announcement:


For the Benefit of Master Payne.


Hamlet ..... Master Payne.

Laertes, ..... Mr. Poe.

Grave-digger ..... Mr. Bernard.

Ophelia ..... Mrs. Poe.

Queen, ..... Mrs. Powell.

After which a Musical Entertainment, entitled:




Mrs. Poe respectfully informs her friends and the publick that her Benefit will be on Wednesday evening next.

This brief record indicates the parentage and standing of the immediate ancestors [column 2:] of our poet. We marvel that the son, with his imaginative temperament, during his many trials of want and disappointment, should not have followed the adventurous footsteps of his parents.

The depreciative memoir of Poe that precedes his volume of poems in the edition of 1876 is libelous. His publisher can not be excused for having permitted it to go forth attache to Poe's writings. In this scurrilous proem our author is depicted, full-length, as a vagabond, villain, drunkard, gambler, and libertine. No doubt Poe had grave faults of character, and was of a badly-balanced organization. Boot-blacking denotes a thrifty pursuit — but, alas, magazine writing begets only a precarious livelihood. Always [page 133:] restive, elated or depressed as circumstances affected him, under provocation, Poe became moody, reckless, and quarrelsome, and readily made enemies among his compeers — some of whom remained life-long adversaries.

For years Poe was a needy borrower of small sums of money, and resorted to shifts and subterfuges to keep his head sheltered, and his hearth-fire ablaze. Magazine publishers paid him at the rate of four dollars per two-column page. In his dealings our author was not always conscientious and, when hard pressed by needs, differing versions of his poems were sold, under varying names, to several publications.

Of his portrait, issued in Graham's Magazine for 1845, he says, in the Broadway Journal, of the same year, that “it bears no resemblance, and is a gross wrong.” The picture in Redfield's edition his friends pronounce “idealized;” but those recently published in “Gill's Life” and Miss Rice's “Memorial Volume” are said to be authentic likenesses. The former, however, being merely a woodcut, is all too smooth and rotund to be distinctly characteristic.

In person Poe was of medium height, erect and well formed. His motions were nervous, his manners prepossessing, his conversation earnest and eloquent. Although his predilections were always those of a Southron, it is now known that he was born in Boston during a brief visit [page 134:] of his parents in that city. Himself says in one of his letters: “We like Boston; we were born there. The Bostonians are very well in their way. Their pumpkin-pies are delicious; their poetry is not so good.” Let us forgive Poe's literary judgment of his fellow-townsmen; our many anthologies indicate that he certainly must have been in error. The very distinguished English “philosopher,” Mr. Tupper, once wrote from London to a literary friend in America: “Shall we make Edgar A. Poe famous by a notice in The Literary Gazette?” This would-be Warwick, however, lost his opportunity for crowning a king. Poe became self-crowned, and to-day ranks an autocrat in three departments of letters — criticism, romance, and poetry.

We do not altogether accept as genuine the modesty assumed by our author in the preface to his poems, where he says: “I think nothing in this volume of much value,” etc.; “Events, etc., have prevented me from making at any time any serious efforts,” etc. Poe had much unemployed time; and if the poetic impulse had oftener haunted him, he would irresistibly have been compelled to do its bidding. Our author's entire collection of verses, including the dramatic “ Scenes from Politian,” numbers only forty-three pieces, many of them brief, some “album-y,” others occasional. His best versions were composed slowly. Every sound and expression must have been carefully weighed and balanced. Their form was primarily considered, and, lastly, their substance evolved and compressed to fit his form-limitations.

As a poet Poe represents more of wizard than seer; has more of manner than matter; is more ingenious than emotional; more mystic than philosophic; more amatory than heroic. Although a good story-teller in prose, he relates no incident or narrative in verse. His subjects partake of the bizarre, fantastic, and extravagant. As Mrs. Whitman says: “He could never write an occasional poem, nor adapt himself to the taste of a popular audience.” [column 2:]

Never was poet more fond of refrain. Excessive iteration was another of his hobbies. Again may be noticed all too frequent recourse to parenthesis — resorted to as a measure of art, to produce variety, or to acquire a rhyme-word where none readily offered. On general principles parenthesis is only a blemish that interrupts continuity and directness of purpose. Poe had a large vocabulary. He compels uncommon words and word-compounds into difficult rhymes and metres. Expressions like these are forcible and original: “On the night's Plutonian shore” (The Raven); “Quaff, oh quaff the kind Nepenthe” (The Raven); “The naphtaline river” (For Annie);

“The ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir” (Ulalume); “The scorias river” (Ulalume); “Peccavimus, but rave not thus” (Lenore); “Flapping their condor wings, Invisible woe,” etc. (Conqueror Worm).

At times we encounter mannered expressions, such as: “The lolling lily;” “the monarch lolls;” “the world lay lolling;” and also not an over-fondness for posing for rhyme on the word “heaven.”

The sonorous sounds “ore” and “ more” were favorites with poets long before the days of Poe. But no one succeeded like him in making them perform effective service. Thus we quote from “To One in Paradise,” “No more — no more — no more ;” from “The Raven,” its “Nevermore ;” from “ Lenore,” “The sweet Lenore hath gone before;” “his name's ‘No More;’” from “To Zante,” “Thy charms shall please no more;” “Thy memory no more;” from “The Haunted Palace,” “And laugh, but smile no more.”

Among others, we notice these obscure and archaic expressions: “ Red litten windows” (Haunted Palace); “The mists of the Taglay” (Tamerlane); “The red levin” (Israfel); “Halidone” (at the close of Politian).

Again there are frequent allusions to all too remote localities and objects, as: “Distant Aiden” (The Raven); “Porphyrogene” (Haunted Palace); “Eblis” (Tamerlane); “Videlicet a tent” (Fairy [page 135:] Land); “Old Alberto's daughter” (To the River).

Allusions to the heavenly bodies, mythology, and ancient history are frequent. Occasionally “ heaven “ is spoken of; but more frequently we have displays of pandemonium and its inmates. Things grim, ghastly, horrible, sheeted and shrouded, entombed and weird, in the forms of ghosts, ghouls, demons, fiends, phantoms, shadows, and spectres, are oftenest made to appear. Rare is any reference made to animated nature. Neither lion nor lamb, wolf nor hind, horse nor hound, are mentioned; T)ut in their stead we have the toad, newt, bat, lizard, and worm — a sorcerer's stock in business. Of things ornithological — dove, swan, humming-bird, and songster are all ignored; and only taloned birds-of-prey and carrion-feeders — the albatross, eagle, condor, vulture, and raven — glorified. Of trees the poet makes no mention.

As a literary reviewer, Poe is entitled to distinction for the independence and analysis of his criticisms. Before his day the judgment of American reviewers was oftenest expressed in vague generalities. Condemnation or praise was given without reason to justify it. Flourishes of fine writing, long quotations, and repetition of English opinion were the reviewer's capital. The convenient adjective “exquisite” stood, as now, among lettered drivelers for a multitude of merits. Himself a master of euphony and expression, Poe had a clear understanding of the proprieties of language and the demands of art. Recklessly did he fling his critical firebands among the dry haystacks of literary shams and authorlings. It must, however, in fairness be said, that at times he was biased, and habitually dealt too considerately with the productions of charming lady writers and influential members of the press. On other occasions, jealousy or fancied wrongs warped his judgment.

Poe delighted in good workmanship. In his. opinion musical expression and technical ingenuity made ample amends for poverty of conception. All too often [column 2:] he paraded the elementary rules of composition, and occupied himself with the yard-stick for rhetorical measurement; or prated, in learned formulæ, of dactyl, iambus, and anapæst, while the spirit of

the composition under review escaped his notice. And now, returning to “the poet,” let us proceed to examine the characteristics of some of his versions.


justly gives its name to our author's volume. Taken “for all in all” we are disposed to consider “ The Raven “ foremost among American poems. However this may be, some acute and thoughtful reviewers, among whom, as we write, eminent names come to our mind, “can see nothing in it.” According to their manner of thinking, the poem lacks substance, point, and purpose; it embodies no philosophy, it teaches no moral. The gnarled tree, the nest-building robin, the grave-digger's spade, the background landscape, all are wanting. Cui bono? is the logical inquiry. And yet, “most potent, grave, and reverend seigniors,” apply this same interrogatory to Coleridge's “Ancient Mariner” or Shakespeare's “ Hamlet,” and the reply shall be the same.

To us “The Raven” is simply a sombre, controlling phase of its author's feelings, allegorically interpreted. Analytically considered, we discover therein wording that is forcible and novel; rhythm original and peculiar; a refrain euphonious and impressive; a subject weird and mysterious; and a composition, in its nicety, strikingly grand and unique. No poem within the wide range of English literature is more phenomenal. Its technical achievements are immense. Few versions so long, devoid of action and narrative, are equally effective and well-sustained. We doubt that the author could anew have produced its equal, unless he had repeated himself largely in manner and sentiment.

Poe must have pondered long and lovingly, and dreamed and watched wearily to bring to bear upon the many lines all his resources of skill in the art of versification. [page 136:] First was the strong conception, then the novel framing of both metre and refrain; and lastly came the consideration of sound and detail. He may have derived hints from Cresset's French poem “Ver Vert,” or Dickens’ “Barnaby Rudge;” but such common property as talking parrots and croaking ravens was never placed in the custody of any one or two authors. Our poet certainly is indebted to neither foreign celebrity for the ethereal substance and masterly technique of his composition.

Mr. John H. Ingram, who has written of Poe learnedly in books and magazines, surmises that “The Raven,” in form and manner, had a forerunner in some verses entitled “Isadore,” which were contributed by Mr. Albert Pike to the New York Mirror of October 18, 1843. For comparison it may be instructive to extract two of the stanzas:

“Thou art lost to me forever — I have lost thee, Isadore —

Thy hand will never rest upon my loyal bosom more,

Thy tender eyes will never more gaze fondly into mine,

Nor thine arms around me lovingly and trustingly entwine.

Thou art Inst to me forever, Isadore!”

‘My footsteps through the room resound, all sadly and forlore;

The garish sun a incs flauntingly upon the unswept floor;

The mocking-bird still sits and sings a melancholy strain,

For my heart is like a heavy cloud that overflows with rain.

Thou art lost to me forever, Isadore!”

And yet all this, with its dust and cob-webs, its silent, singing mocking-bird and dropsical heart — its jumbled imagery, excruciating pathos, feeble expletives, and forced rhyme — how very unlike Poe!

In the edition of our author's work of 1876, the form of “The Raven” is distorted by subdivision of the stanzas into eleven lines; whereas Poe himself measured his version in six-line stanzas. In the author's name we would respectfully protest against this mutilation. The third line of the second stanza, which now reads:

“—— vainly I had sought to borrow,” etc.,

originally stood,

“—— vainly I had tried to borrow,” etc. [column 2:]

Years ago one of the British Quarterly Reviews made this erroneous statement: “The metre (of ‘ The Raven’) is a modification of that used in the conclusion of Miss Barrett's ‘ Lady Geraldine.’” It is well known that soon after the publication of Poe's “Raven” Miss Barrett wrote to one of her friends in America: “Our great poet, Mr. Browning, the author of ‘Paracelsus,’ and ‘Bells and Pomegranates.’ was struck much by the rhythm of the poem.” In “Lady Geraldine's Courtship” she afterward adopted the form of “The Raven.” Her version was published subsequent to that of our author. “The Raven” first appeared in the American Whig Review for 1845, preceded by an editorial complimentary heading. The publisher's honorarium paid was exactly ten dollars.

“Lenore “ was originally named “The Paean.” In the early version, published in Russell's Magazine, we find the name “Helen” in place of “Lenore.” The poem is a kind of dirge — musical — and in the main carefully wrought.

“To Helen” (No. I). First published in the Baltimore volume of 1829, and republished in the Southern Literary Messenger of 1836. This imaginative, youthful effusion concerns the “Helen” of the poet's boyhood, Mrs. Stannard, of Virginia. We find the verses copied in Lowell's prefatory remarks to “Poe's Works but, strange to say, they are not embodied in the author's collection. It may be well to repeat them on this occasion:

“Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like the Niccan bark of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn traveller bore

To his town native shore.

“On desperate seas long wont to roam —

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face.

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Home.

“So in your brilliant window-niche,

How statue-like I see thee stand!

The agate lamp within thy hand.

Ah, Psyche! from the regions which

Are Holy Land.”

“To Helen” (No. 2) was first published Mrs. Kirkland's Union Magazine, New York, 1848. The passage, [page 137:]

“Oh Heaven! — oh God!

How my heart beats in coupling these two words!

Save only thee and me!”

is not in they original rendering. This was a genuine love-epistle, sent to a distinguished lady-poet of Rhode island, which eventually led to a serious attachment.

Eminently romantic, ardent, and possessed, our author here attains the apex of his ability as an imaginative poet. We think this quotation will serve to confirm our assertion

“And thou, a ghost amid the entombing trees.

Didst elide away. Only thine eyes remained.

They would not go — they never yet have gone;” etc.

“They follow me — they lead me through the years;

They are lay minister — yet I their slave,” etc.

Other passages have equal merit.

“Ulalume” was first published in the American Whig Review, New York, 1847. The poet states that this version “is autobiographical.” Weird, sonorous, and ingenious, though not as melodious or impressive as “The Raven;” in skillful elaboration it is excelled only by that poem. Mrs. Whitman told the reviewer that “Poe preferred ‘Ulalume’ to ‘The Raven,’” and added: “He certainly read it more impressively, with a look as if he were filled with its solemn splendor.”

“The Bells” was first published in Sartain's Union Magazine, Philadelphia, 1849. Anthologists have singled out this poem for especial commendation. Among the rest, it has been chosen in Mr. Whittler's Collection as representative of Poe's genius. Here, for once, we have mannerism “run mad.” There is novelty of form and artistic construction; but the wording is, mostly, “tinkle” and “ tintinnabulation,” with little variety, soul, or sentiment; whilst the refrain becomes distressingly repetitious. Professor John H. Hart, formerly editor of Sartain's Union Magazine, states that the first draft consisted of only two short stanzas, as follows


“THE bells! hear the bells!

How fairy-like a melody there swells

From the silver tinkling cells [column 2:]

Of the bells, bells, bells! Of the bells!

The bells! — oh, the bells! The heavy iron bells!

“Hear the tolling of the bells!

Hear the knells!

How horrible a monody there floats

From their throats

From their deep-loved throats!

How I shudder at the notes

From the melancholy throats

Of the bells, bells, bells!

Of the bells!”

But before publication the author reconsidered and extended his composition to its present dimensions. This version owes its acceptation to the elocutionists, who ring their many changes and inflexions on its endless iterations. As poetry, nothing could be more tedious and uninspired.

“An Enigma,” originally published in Mrs. Kirkland's Union Magazine, New York, 1848, was called “Sonnet.” Dedicated to Sarah Anna Lewis, and formed on the same acrostic plan as “A Valentine.” We are unable to determine what is here meant by the term “tuckermanities.” Does the word slurringly refer to the late Mr. H. T. Tuckerman, the literary reviewer?

“Annabel Lee.” Soon after Poe's death an authorized and paid-for version was printed in Sartain's Union Magazine, 1850. At about the same time Mr. Griswold, Poe's literary executor, caused the appearance of an imperfect copy in the New York Tribune; and, strangely enough, the poem also appeared as original in the Southern Literary Messenger. It was the last written of our author's versions. The second stanza originally began —

“She was a child and! was a child,” etc.

Melodious, tender, and romantic, but extravagant in language and sentiment, uncommonly repetitious, and endowed with little underlying thought. A manuscript copy was sold at auction in New York city, some years ago, for one hundred and eighty dollars. Does not this circumstance illustrate that it was injudicious in the late Horace Greeley, after Poe's death, to offer for sale publicly, in [page 138:] the columns of the Tribune, one of Poe's fifty-dollar promissory notes for the paltry sum of five dollars?

“The Haunted Palace” was originally printed in Brooks’ monthly Baltimore Museum, in 1333, afterward embodied in the prose talc of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” published in 1839. Distinguished British reviewers have singled out these verses for special commendation. The subject is allegorical. Poe says of it: “I mean to imply a mind haunted by phantoms — a disordered brain.”

We think the merit of this composition lies mostly in euphonious wording and skillful construction.

“The Conqueror Worm “was first published in Graham's Magazine, Philadelphia, 1843, and reprinted in the New York Broadway Journal of 1845. In the early version the fifth line of the second stanza stood

“At the bidding of vast shadowy things.”

And the fifth line of the fifth stanza read

“And the seraphs all haggard and wan.”

As a whole, it is dramatic and powerful, but extravagant. The climax in the fourth stanza, where “the blood-red thing” appears, is more startling than satisfactory. The close is strong and suggestive. But who. or what, precisely, is “The Conqueror Worm?” Is it the worm of the still? — of the coffin? — is it sin — is it death?

“The Sleeper” was first published in the Southern Literary Messenger of 1835, and named “Irene.” After undergoing reconstruction, these lines again appeared as original, under their present title, in the New York Broadway Journal of 1845. The first half describes a lone and lovely sleeper, one of the glowing forms of Titian. But the second part abruptly divulges that this lovely, dreaming sleeper is only a cold and ghastly corpse. We are more shocked than stimulated by this discovery. Some of the descriptive passages, although a little obscure, are picturesque. We notice these: [column 2:]

“The lily lolls upon the wave,

Wrapping the fog about its breast,

The ruin moulders into rest.”

“The bodiless airs, a wizard rout,

Flit through thy chamber, in and nut.”

“I pray to God that she may lie

Forever with unopened eye,

While the dim, sheeted ghosts go by!”

We have interpolated a comma after the word “dim;” the sense seems to require it. But the line —

“Sort may the, worms about her creep” —

closely following descriptions that are lovingly pathetic, is repulsive.

“Dream Land “ was originally published in Graham's Magazine, in 1844. The twenty-first, twenty-second, twenty-third, and twenty-fourth lines are repetitions of the four previous ones; the six closing lines are identical with the six at the opening; all of which is an unnecessary extension. The meaning of —

“—— an Eidolon named night”

will remain Greek to most readers. This version, with its ghouls, blackness, and chaos, and its nightmare manner, can not be rated among Poe's most successful compositions.

“Eulalie,” first published in 1845, is enjoyable, dainty, lover-like verse, skillfully worded, and cleverly constructed. We are here reminded of the songs of the Elizabethan dramatists.

“For Annie.” Here the subject-matter does not accord with our sense of what is fitting for poetry. Surely these verses belong to the hospital or asylum. One might with equal propriety indite a Monody on the Small-pox, or a Sonnet to the Toothache. Much hardihood of feeling is necessary to turn one's infirmities and transgressions to account of poetry. For her to whom these melancholy strains were addressed, we can only proffer our commiseration

“The moaning and groaning, the sigh in gand sobbing,”

etc., were probably self-imposed penalties; and “that horrible, horrible throbbing” — the “nausea” — “the fever that maddened the brain the torture of thirst,” etc., might readily have been referred [page 139:] to natural causes, which come of doing violence to the laws of health and sobriety.

“Scenes from Politian”was first printed in the Southern Literary Messenger of 1836. Here we find little characterization. The situations are commonplace; the story jacks interest; the language is neither poetic nor impressive, but deformed by excessive iteration. Our dramatist has made a strange selection of names for his characters. “Politian” (it might as well have been “Politician”) and “Baldazzar” (why not “Belshazzar”?) are chosen to indicate a pair of British noblemen. One of the best passages occurs where “Lalage” handles her mirror, saying:

“Ha! here at least's a friend — too much a friend

In earlier days — a friend will not deceive thee.

Fair mirror, and true! now tell me (for thou canst).

A tale — a pretty late — and heed thou not

Though it were rife with woe. It answers me,

It speaks of sunken eyes, and wasted cheeks,

And Beauty long deceased-remembers me

Of joy departed — Hope, the Seraph-Hope,

Inurned and entombed! — now, in a tone

Low, sad, and solemn, but most audible.

Whispers of early grave untimely yawning

For ruined maid. Fair mirror and true — thou liest not!

Thou hast no end to gain — no heart to break.”

This is genuine and pathetic.

Part IV., where the lovers meet in the garden, conjures up memories of “Romeo and Juliet,” to our author's disadvantage. “Lalage “ asks her lover, “Knowest thou the land?” — and we naturally turn to Goethe for an extension of the query. Subsequently “Politian” wordily exclaims:

“—— I will kneel to thee

And worship then, and call thee my beloved

My own, my beautiful, my lore, my wife,

My all; oh, wilt thou — wilt thou, Lalage.

Fly thither with me?”

Then the lady interposes —

“A deed is to be done —

Castiglione lives!”

To which tragic cue her lover grandiloquently responds —

“And he shall die!” (Exit).

Surely all this is in the line of extravaganza and burlesque. Further on occurs [column 2:] some time-honored dramatic turns of expression — such as: “I clutch thee “ (Macbeth). “Thou reasonest well” (Cato). Then we have a sword-encounter, quite in the manner of “blood and thunder “ theatricals. Observe:

Pol. Draw, villain, and prate no more!

Cas. Ha! — draw? — and villain? — have at thee then at once, Proud Earl! (Draws).”

At the close our dramatist indulges in a sort of legal language, where he says:

“There is no let or hindrance to thy weapon —

Strike home. I will not fight thee,” etc.,

rounding the passage with this stout Elizabethan oath:

“Now ‘s Death and Hell?”

‘Tis a queer medley, and sometimes borders on the ridiculous.

“Sonnet — To Science “ was printed in Poe's early volume, dated 1829. As a composition of youth it has uncommon merit, and, in our opinion, would not discredit some of the older poets. The early volume of Poe's Poems was issued in his eighteenth or nineteenth year, in Baltimore, soon after our author had left West Point.

“Al Aavaaf [[Aaraaf]]” was written in Poe's seventeeth [[seventeenth]] year, and gave its name to his early collection of 1829. This long version is encumbered with too many explanatory notes. Some writers hold that a poem to be complete should be left to explain itself. Both Lowell and Emerson assent to this doctrine. Here we note flitting visions of Coleridge's “Albatross “and “moony sky,” If the fourth line Circassia is “bob-tailed” into “Circassy.” Lines seventy-six and seventy-seven read —

“ —— Fante [[Zante]] !

Isolad! ova! Fion di Levante!” —

all of which, by the bye, is repeated in one of our author's later poems. “To Fante [[Zante]].” Wording like this unfairly presupposes a reader's familiarity with the Italian language. Of the passage —

“Some have left the cool glade, and

Have slept with the bee,” etc.,

Poe, the critic, would have said that the last word of the first line should have [page 140:] been transposed to the beginning of the second.

“Tamerlane” was first published in Poe's early volume of 1829, and dedicated to his friend John Neal. It lacks novelty, point, and purpose. We are sometimes expectant of “Timour the Tartar,” but he never turns up.

In Part II. there is a queer allusion to “beautiful Gomorrah.” Mr. Neal told the present reviewer that, on the evidence of these early poems, he predicted Poe's ultimate success; and that he for a long time stood alone in his favorable estimate of Poe's genius.

In pronouncing on Poe's poems, it is only fair to say that, while we indulge in pointing out their blemishes and shortcomings, we are also fully alive to their merits. To present their numerous felicities, and to define the charm of their [column 2:] beauty and power, would require much space and frequent quotation. Our author's “good wine needs no bush;” its merits are clearly apparent to any average intelligence.


Sir I am stoic — one who failed to know

When rhymes are kindled by an inner glow;

Say I am pauper-borrowing at best

That all my point is fuse, my pathos jest.

Say, though I hew the log to stately form,

I ne’er to mind resuscitate the worm

Say I by inches do, in childish play,

With word-mosaic line by line inlay.

If foul traduction serve shy purpose welt,

Unrein thy tongue, that, reckless, it may tell

How hunger galls me, or hew cups inflame

And tip with venom every shaft I aim.

Say all of these; then ‘vengeful rent thou’lt find,

And Father audience fitting to thy kind.

But dare not say I ever dimmed one gem

Of purity in beauty's diadem.




Weidemeyer also wrote a series on “The Poetry of Ralpha Waldo Emerson” for the Phrenological Journal beginning with the issue for July 1881.


[S:0 - RS, 1880] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar A. Poe and His Poetry (William Weidemeyer, 1880)