Text: Henry Austin, “The Hamlet of Our Century,” Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA), December 20, 1891, pp. 19-20


[page 19, column 3, continued:]



For The Times-Democrat's Christmas Edition.

THE MYStery of the person,” to adopt the apt phrase of Carlyle, has never been more strangely illustrated than by the life of Edgar Allan Poe. Indeed, there seems almost an excuse for the superstition that the thirteen letters in this quaint name had some connection with the curious fatality that pursued its bearer.

Probably no modern poet — except perhaps Byron, who invited it, and possibly Shelly, who naturally earned it by the novelty of the doctrines he announced — was attacked in his life and afterward with so much personal and persistent venom, while probably, on the other hand, no modern poet, certainly no American, has been so greatly admired and so passionately loved.

A study of Poe, the person, first as diabolized by his enemies of the Griswold type, then as transfigured and enhaloed by such friends as Willis and such lovers as Sarah Helen Whitman, then as etched in the cold, but generally just, fashion of his latest biographer, Mr. Woodberry, presents us with perhaps the most curious psychical problem in the history of literature. And the same difference of opinion in regard to Poe's character obtains in regard to his personal appearance. I have heard him described by an early associate as a man of diminutive stature, with very black hair, very dark blue eyes, one being noticeably larger than the other, and features of a decidedly Irish type, which, indeed, from his ancestry, might have been somewhat expected. Again I have heard him described by one who knew him later in life as slightly above the medium height, and carrying himself with such military erectness (learned at West Point, where he appears to have learned little else,) as to seem taller; and the same person spoke of him as having massy brown hair and light gray eyes of a peculiar softness and with a far-away look. This same describer said that, at times, his polish of manner and suavity of expression were things delightful in themselves, apart from the brilliant remarks, which he scattered lavishly, not hoarding them up for his writings as many authors do; and that at times this singular being, with pallid face and soft, seraphic eyes, had the fiercest flow of profanity ever known in Newspaper Row. The final fact appears to be that he was not a pigmy physically, but exactly [column 4:] five feet six inches in height, with broad shoulders and exquisitely proportioned body.

I have met, in collecting the printed accounts of Poe, and in the several talks with men who knew him well, continual contradictions like these, so that it might seem as if this now most famous American, whose works are read in almost every language that pretends to have a literature, was the original Jekyll and Hyde — two gentlemen at once. Indeed, it is more than likely that the idea of Jekyll and Hyde was amplified by Stevenson, the most brilliant of living English writers, from Poe's story of “William Wilson,” for it is curious to trace the influence of Poe on recent literature. We find it everywhere, and especially in France, in which country, it will be remembered, he was first brought into notice by the suit of one newspaper against another for plagiarizing their special, original story; it turning out in evidence that both stories were stolen almost verbatim from the work of an obscure American journalist. Since that time Poe has become a classic in France, and French authors have borrowed from him with the openness that characterized the Latin poets in their dealings with Greek predecessors — save that where the Latins as a rule only borrowed situation and illustrations from the infinite treasury of Homeric poems and the great dramas of the age of Pericles, the French writers have adopted plot, situation, style, and ever character, from the works of Poe.

For instance, what is Edmond About's story of “The Man With the Broken Ear” but an inflation of Poe's squib “Some Words With a Mummy,” and what is Jules Verne's “Around the World in Eighty Days” but a delightful elaboration of Poe's “Three Sundays in a Week?” Certainly the “Three Sundays in a Week” supplies the pivotal ideas; and the same semi-scientific, ratiocinative style which Poe introduced in his “Moon-Hoax” [[“Balloon Hoax”]] and other fantasticalities has been seized and exceeded upon by Jules Verne. Then again, the great French dramatist Victorian Sardou, is a play which has been very popular in this country under the title “A Scrap of Paper,” appears to have been taken the character of the naturalist from Poe's story “The Gold Beetle.” In this play, as in the story, the naturalist finds a beetle and looks around for something to wrap him in, picking up an important piece of paper for that purpose. In another scene the method of hiding the paper is evidently the result of Sardou's having read the story of “The Purloined Letter,” and the character of the baron, as well as the general setting of the scene of his chamber, suggests a character mistily outlined by Poe in his brief sketch entitled “The Assignation.”

The number of natural children which Poe's “Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” have had is enormous, and to be responsible for as much of Gaboriau and Baudelaire and Gautier is at once almost a fame and an infamy.

Here, too, in America nearly every young literary aspirant fancies he can do that sort of thing and come pretty near the master, but literature is an art in which “pretty near” does not count.


Passing from the domain of the vivid short story, which was Poe's special province and in which finally his fame must abide, to that contiguous realm of poetry into which he made flying incursions, we find the same stamp of his picturesque personality and also the same permanent influence emanating from his works Whether we regard that influence as healthful or not, it is impossible to deny its extent. The raising of melody to a position of almost equal importance with the expression of thought, and the dependence on cunning collocations of sound to intensify the effect of the primal, poetic idea, the sense of art superadded to original passion, as if flame could be seen suddenly transforming itself into marble — all these things which mark the few poems written by Poe have unquestionably been the stimulation, not only of Rosetti, Swinburne and hosts of minor writers, have not only through them brought about a period of what might be termed conscious poetic evolution, have not only resulted in the recent mild mania for a revival of French forms of versification, but there is hardly any poet of mark in England — with the exception, perhaps, of Browning — who has entirely escaped the impress of Poe's imperial fascination.

To prove how much Poe's poems owe to their form and to his wonderful knowledge of phonetic effects, it is only necessary to examine the themes of his poetic works and find how narrow is their range, intellectually and passionally. He sings of love, but not of love as a familiar presence — the daily goddess of domestic lives. It is a love sublimated in its ardor, but a love transpierced with the arrows of an irresistible destiny. There is only one song of pure, living joy in his works, and that begins with a sigh:

“I dwelt alone in a world of moan,

And my soul was a stagnant tide.”

In all his poetry the burden is death, the refrain is inconsolable sorrow. There are four things that especially attracted his fancy, or rather for that is too tame a phrase to me in regard to him; there are four things that haunted his imagination — the phenomena of death, of drugs, of dreams, of madness. They might be called the four corners — the four posts of the bed of his spirit; and the wonderful are with which he plays variations on these themes, with which he reproduces again and again the same thought but with a new thrill, is due in a last analysis to the melody, to almost absolute knowledge of the subtle and secrete properties of sound.

The crowning peculiarity in connection with this is that the moment simplicity of language is used in almost all these poems. For instance, “The Raven” begins like an old-fashioned fairy tale with the childish symplicity [[simplicity]] of “Once Upon a Time —” “Once Upon a Midnight Dreary,” it is at first hardily poetry — simply the perfection of easy colloquialisms set to rhythm: but in the second stanza an eerie touch is given by making the statement:

“And each separate, dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.”

Note the art in this introduction of the dim feeling of ghostliness, the idea of spirit, by means of the dying fire and not as a conscious emanation from the soul of the student. It is just a touch only and not a strong, psychal seizure, but it suffices to key the listener up to a pitch of expectation.

The third stanza increases the spiritual pressure just a little by bringing in the extremely common and natural rustling of the curtains, incidentally depicted as purple, thus suggesting the richness of the student's habitation, a material comment with the somberness of his soul. But not to deepen the impression too suddenly and anticipate his climax, the poet in the fourth stanza, with its suggestion of mysticism in the line:

“Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before —”

carries us up again on the wave of the peculiar moral. We are ready to turn back into the chamber with our souls burning and, hearing again the noise at the lattice, are eager to be convinced

“ 'Tis the wind and nothing more.”

Now in stanza seven, overlaying the slight touch of mysticism, comes another artistic element — a dash of grotesquerie:

“Then with many a flirt and flurry,

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.”

Has all this mystery of midnight, this peering into darkness, produced nothing more than a bird tapping at a window, as birds familiar with man have done a thousand times? No wonder the student (into whom we are now resolved), with a sort of grim playfulness, attempts to quiz his unexpected visitor, getting an unexpected answer which causes him to marvel, though at first he feels no special point in [column 5:] it even while, in the ninth stanza he attempts to argue off the odd jar of the reply. But it will not off, and now comes a still stronger spiritual pressure, the crediting of a mere bird, the raven, with a soul:

“As if his soul in that one word he did outpour.”

And in the same tenth stanza the utter desolation of the student is emphasized by the fact that he now looks forward with regret to the raven's probably departure on the morrow, though at first he regarded the dark bird as an intruder:

“Other friends have flown before —

On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.”

But the student still does not see, or still but dimly feels and refuses to see, that the bird has come as a special messenger to himself. Startled at the raven's chiming in with his scarcely more than muttered thought, he yet argues that the mournful word which has become the refrain is only a stock phrase learned by the bird from some former master

“Whom unmerciful disaster

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

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore

Of ‘Never-nevermore.’ ”

Now, in the twelfth stanza, he becomes fascinated by the raven. He wheels his seat to front the bird and bust and door, and, sinking upon the velvet (another passing hint at the richness of the habitation), he begins to add fancy to fancy in somewhat the same way in which he piles up adjectives.

“Thinking what this ominous bird of your —

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of your

Meant in croaking ‘Nevermore.’ ”

And now in the thirteenth stanza comes the beginning of the end. The raven has ceased to be a mere bird — a casual curiosity tossed in by the tempest for his fancy to sport with — it is now the “fowl whose fiery eyes” burn into his bosom's core. As he sits, with his

“Head at ease reclining

On the cushion's velvet lining with the lamplight gloating o’er,[[“]]

the thought comes to him with a sudden tremendousness of pressure, “This, this is the meaning of the raven's cry:”

“But whose velvet, violet lining with the lamplight gloating o’er,

She shall press, ah, nevermore.”

Then the vague voluptuousness of the almost bodily memory that she had once reclined on these cushions fills the air with an intense, spiritual perfume which grows denser and denser. So strong is the love of the lover that it conjures back from the grave, for one delicious, delirious moment, not the astral body, but the real spirit of the loved and lost — soon to be lost again and forever —

“The air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.

‘Wretch,’ I cried, ‘thy God hath lent thee — but these angels he hath sent thee

Respite — respite and nepenthe.’ ”

So deep is the intoxication of this temporary imagination that he fancies it will last. He fancies that he has found a nepenthe; but, like the reiterant stroke of a hammer striking on his spiritual nature, comes the fiat of the Raven,


No longer does he look upon the bird as a mere accident. In the agony of despair he would seek to make it a means of communication with the lost one. He appeals to it as if, from being originally a think of evil — a devil — it had become his only possible savior:

“Tell me truly, I implore —

Is there — is there balm in Gilead? — tell me — tell me, I implore!”

And at first he will not accept the answer; he will not understand it. He appeals again, every word showing that he regards the bird no longer as a bird, but as an equal soul — and a spiritual entity —

“By that God we both adore —

Tell this soul with sorry laden if, within the distant Aiden,

It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore —

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore —”

and, of course, the answer maddens him; and now comes the pictorial, the symbolic, part of the poem, in wihch [[which]] the personal experience ceases to be merely the experience of an individual and becomes exponent of the reaching out, in despair, of our general humanity — exponent of our impotent defiance of destiny.

“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!”

Note now the intensification of the language. Passion, in all tongues, speaks by metaphor; thinking melts back into original “thing-ing,” or speaking by things; that is, by signs and pictures:

“Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!

Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’ ”

It would almost seem to me that the poem should have ended there. We have hardly any need to be told that

“The Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;”

or that

“His eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming.”

We have hardly any need to be told that his soul

“From out that shadow shall be lifted — Nevermore!”


Looked at as a whole after the first reading, studied as an artwork, this poem is unique. As has been said, “It belongs to that rare class of productions that suffice singly to make a reputation.” It is like no other great poem in the language. It is almost nude. No royal robes of opulent illustration adorn it. Of metaphor and simile — the strong colors of the poet — Poe could be lavish when he chose.

His earlier poems, like those of Keats, are overloaded with imagery. But this is a picture in black and white only — the two universal symbols of mourning — and the simplicity, the conversational ease of the language, is saved from sameness by the newness of the phonetic effects and the evervarying [[ever-varying]] flow of the melody The profuseness of the interlinear rhyming and the apparently spontaneous luxuriance of the illiteration [[alliteration]], the occasional introduction of a rare, or of an odd and unexpected word, making the little crests that foam over every now and then as the billows of the verse bear the boat of thought along — these are the tokens of an omnipresent and ever vigilant art; but it is an act so profoundly potent that on the first reading or hearing it is not seen, and even after many readings by some remains unsuspected. Moreover, it is an art of which only Tennyson, in English, has ever given examples. It is a stately nuptial between Greek severity of poetic form and modern luxuriance of rhyme and rhythm.

Bayne, in his thoughtful essay on “Tennyson and his Teachers,” has shown that Poe's poem, “The Haunted Palace,” bears close poetic kinship with Tennyson's “Palace of Art.” Bayne remarks, however, that the American's work is characterized by an intense introspection and dept of spiritual suggestion, whereas Tennyson's poem is marked by rich and accurate detail; meaning that one is an internal and the other an external picture. But Bayne misses the closer tie between Poe and Tennyson, which lies in their peculiar blending of modern externals with the classic spirit, and this kinship of Poe with the Greek mind is closer than that of the great English poet It was a kinship that not only suffuses all Poe's poetry but influenced his daily life. The old Greek idea of irresistible and irresponsible [column 6:] fate is one that is not only present on nearly every page of Poe, but that seems to have colored his personal conduct in its minutest details. Gray has the touch of gentlest melancholy, as evidenced in the phrase.

“The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

And leave the world to darkness and to me.”

With Poe this phrase is changed to one of weightier significance:

“This wreck — this ruin —

These stones — alas! these gray stones — are they all —

All of the famed and the colossal left

By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me?”

This intrudes everywhere. But despite the intrusion of this ancient superstition, or rather, perhaps, because of it and because of the intense spirituality in its idealization of woman with which this poem throbs, it has appealed to all near it quoted by the Australian cattle driver as well as by the finished Frenchman. It belongs to no country; it is the property of all mankind.

It would seem sometimes as if the unrest and unfaith of the nineteenth century had culminated in this man. One of the most beautiful of his poems, a poem delicious in language and in rhythm, staring with the beautiful picture of a June midnight and of a lover standing beneath the casement of his mistress, closes with a desire — a prayer:

“Oh! may her sleep,

As it is lasting, so be deep!

Soft may the worms about her creep!

Far in the forest, dim and old,

For her may some tall vault unfold —

Some vault that oft hath flung its black

And winged pannels fluttering back,

Triumphant, o’er the crested palls,

Of her grand family funerals —

Some sepulchre, remote, alone,

Against whose portal she hath thrown,

In childhood, many an idle stone —

Some tomb from out whose sounding door

She ne’er shall force an echo more,

Thrilling to think, poor child of sin! —

It was the dead who groaned within.”

Mark how, as in music, the phrase recurs: “Some tall vault. ... Sone vault. ... Some sepulchre, remote, alone. ... Some tomb —” each time with a slight addition to the picture which, with its final touch of the little child throwing stones against the door of the family vault in the dim, old forest, and thrilling back from the echoes, must remain, I fancy, forever unequalled — at least let us hope so — in the poetry of our day for its infinite sombreness. This man would even take an intrinsically joyous measure like that of “Eldorado” and twist it to the service of pain.

In all his music there are but two songs in a major key; one of them “Eulalie,” is significantly short. The other, “For Annie,” is the triumph of a man who has escaped from life and takes a singular, almost mischievous delight in the idea that while people fancy him dead and shudder at the sight of him, his heart

“Is brighter

Than all the many

Stars in the sky,

For it sparkles with Annie.”

But the poem is especially curious because it stands among his others as the expression of a satisfied immortality.

I confess that, while admiring immeasurably some of Poe's poems, there are others that seem to me simply radiant rubbish. I have never been able, for instance, to regard “Ulalume” as anything but vocalization and alliteration run mad. A London critic has said of it: “These are only words — but what words! What a spell they wield! Reading them, a misty picture of atarn [[a tarn]], dark as a murderer's eye below, with withered October leaves fluttering above, ghostly mimics of a misery that scorns the name of sorrow, is hung up in the chambers of your soul forever.”

I confess to getting more sense of poetry out of the critic's description than out of the poem, and Ulalume's only excuse for being, to my mind, is that it gave birth to Bret Harte's delicious parody. It possesses a melancholy interest, however, because it is one of the last fruits of that wonderful tree of curious knowledge; but it is the fruit of that tree withered and blasted. In it can be found the early grace grown careless, the new poetic manner degenerated into a mannerism, the marvellous melody overreaching itself and breaking — “sweet bells, jingled out of tune and harsh!” The subtle sense of sound, which was at first the crown of Poe's poetry, became at last its doom, and on the whole, apart from “The Raven,” “The Sleeper,” and “Lines for Annie,” and one or two others, I think we msut agree with the Edinburgh critic as to Poe's rank in the domain of poetry, and admit that, generally speaking, he scattered imaginative melodic spells, rather than wrought out, like Tennyson, elaborate, imaginative pictures.

That Poe himself felt this to be a fact, the casual remarks he makes about Tennyson, and the modest, pathetic preface he wrote to his own poems would seem to prove.

“Events not to be controlled,” he said, “have prevented me from making at any time any serious effort in what, under happier circumstances, would have been the field of my choice. With me, poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion. I think nothing in this volume of much value to the public or very creditable to myself.”

The public have not agreed with him as to the value of one of his poems and with some, no doubt, the same conviction exists about certain others; but the mass of it is as barren, compared with his prose works, as a glittering Nova Zembla icefield compared to Mount Chimboraza, that carries every zone on its sides. And then, too, it has some strange absurdities, doubly strange in that the man who perpetrated them was extremely intolerant of such solecisms in the works of others. For instance, the oft-quoted “Lines to Helen,” with their irregular and in one place ear torturing rhythm, and their indefensible rhymes, such as “face” and “Greece,” or the lines where he says:

“but o’er the Past

(Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies

Mute, motionless, aghast!”

How a spirit can hover and be motionless at the same time is not explained. In the poem “Israfel,” most unaccountably selected by the critic and poet, Stedman, for special commendation, we find the incongruity of the red lightning, which belongs to our terrene atmosphere, running at large in the universe with the rapid pleiads. We find “long” rhyming with “belong,” and again a suspicion of a mixture of mythologies.


Yet, though the circled of Poe's poetic power is a small one, it must be admitted that, like the moonlit ring of fable — the ring of faery — it is a magic one. But in our first analysis as much as in our last we surprised the secret of his spell. His magic is his music. The melody dominates the idea and wafts us out and far out on ebbing waves of speculation — into an ocean of indefinite sensation — a deep sea of dream. And this music lends itself to much of his prose work also, so that, taking other elements likewise into consideration, it may be said that many of his prose tales are more poetic than most of his poems. Indeed, many of his poems occupy a misty border-land between prose and poetry. They are rhythmic eloquence fashioned with his peculiar felicity of repetition, a rhetorical trick that seems to have grown upon him. Of this class are “The Coliseum,” which took a prize, the “Lines to Helen,” and the poem that begins

“Not long ago, the writer of these lines,

In the mad pride of intellectuality.”

For instance, in the lines “To Helen:”

“I saw thee once — once only — years ago:

I must not say how many — but not many.

It was a July midnight; and from out

A full-orbed moon, that, like thine own soul, soaring,

Sought a precipitate pathway up through heaven, [column 7:]

There fell a silvery-silken veil of light,

With quietude, and sultriness, and slumber,

Upon the upturned faces of a thousand

Roses that grew in an enchanted garden,

Where no wind dared to stir, unless on tiptoe —

Fell on the upturned faces of these roses.”

He has now become enamored of this last phrase and he repeats it three times within ten lines. Then he comes back again in four lines to the roses — “those slumbering roses.” Again,

“the very roses' odors

Died in the arms of the adoring airs.”

Then, from the roses he rises to her eyes:

“Save but the soul in thine uplifted eyes.

I saw but them — they were the world to me.

I saw but them — saw only them for hours —

Saw only them until the moon went down.”

And a peculiarity of his blank verse is the carrying on of the line, dividing the adjective and its noun, for just a second metrically, and then letting it crest over like a wave:

“Upon the upturned faces of a thousand

Roses that grow in an enchanted garden.”

Or again:

“Alas, I cannot feel; for ‘tis not feeling,

This standing motionless upon the golden

Threshold of the wide-open gaze of dreams.”

He even goes so far as to divide the pronominal adjective from its noun, and markedly for the sake of the rhyme:

“In agony sobbed, letting sink her

Plumes till they trailed in the dust.”

Another mannerism in style is a frequent, almost constant use of “from out;” and an intellectual peculiarity in the super-abundance of sidereal or astrological allusions throughout his works.

It might have been expected that a man of letters whose mother was an ornament to the stage would have had some hereditary bias toward the production of drama, but the fragments of Poe's play, “Politian,” with the exception of the scene between Politian and Lalage, are curiously wretched stuff, with their

“Draw, villain, and prate no more!”

and their

“O Azrael, yet awhile! — Prince of the Powers

Of Darkness and the Tomb, O pity me!”

And even the scene between Lalage and Politian is spoiled by Bulwer Lytton's trick of attempting to personify feelings and passions and make extra literary capital out of them by excessive capitalization; as, for instance:

“There Care shall be forgotten,

And Sorrow shall be no more, and Eros be all.

  * * * * * * * *  

“No more a mourner — but the radiant Joys

Shall wait upon thee, and the angel Hope

Attend thee ever.”

But the scene I now quote is worth of the masters:

“Not mother, with her first-born on her knee,

Thrills with intenser love than I for thee.

Not on God's altar, in any time or clime,

Burned there a holier fire than burneth now

Within my spirit for thee. And do I love?


Even for thy woes I love thee — even for thy woes —

Thy beauty and thy woes.

Lal. — Alas, proud Earl,

Thou dost forget thyself, remembering me!

How, in thy father's halls, among the maidens

Pure and reproachless of thy princely line,

Could the dishonored Lalage abide?

Thy wife, and with a tainted memory —

My seared and blighted name, how would it tally

With the ancestral honors of thy house,

And with thy glory?

Pol. — Speak not to me of glory!

I hate — I loathe the name; I do abhor

The unsatisfactory and ideal thing.

Art thou not Lalage and I Politian?

Do I not love — art thou not beautiful —

What need we more? Ha! glory! — now speak not of it!

By all I hold most sacred and most solemn —

By all my wishes now — my fears hereafter —

By all I scorn on earth and hope in heaven —

There is no deed I would more glory in,

Than in thy cause to scoff at this same glory

And trample it under foot. What matters it —

What matters it, my fairest and my best,

That we go down unhonored and forgotten

Into the dust — so we descend together.

Descend together — and then — and then perchance ——

Lal. — Why dost thou pause, Politian?

Pol. — And then perchance

Arise together, Lalage, and roam

The starry and quiet dwellings of the blest,

And still ——

Lal. — Why dost thou pause, Politian?

Pol. — And still together — together.

Lal. — Now, Earl of Leicester!

Thou lovest me, and in my heart of hearts

I feel thou lovest me truly.

Pol. — Oh, Lalage! (throwing himself upon his knee.)

And lovest thou me?


It has been said that there is no moral in Poe's poetry and very little in his writings; not that they are immoral, but unmoral. One critic asserts that the ideas of right and wrong are as feeble in his chain of thought as in the literature of ancient Greece. This is a strangely infelicitous comparison, for the literature of ancient Greece is, if anything, overloaded with moral questions. Throughout that ever-radiant realm of thought problems of conscience are continually present, only, instead of a tag being put on the end of a play or poem, after our modern fashion, to tell the reader or hearer just what he ought to feel, or just what moral lesson he should derive from the spectacle, it is very frequently left entirely to his own interpretation and application. So Poe, in his poems and stories, does not concern himself with specific morals. He paints grave, sombre, spiritual pictures and leaves us to write the exact title or label of explanation. And the problems which he treats by preference are those which concern the individual soul, not in its relations to others, or its deeds done in the body, but in its relations to itself, to its eternal twin, or other, feminine self, and to the endless fact of the universe.

So marked is this preference that it is hardly exaggeration to say that certain mystical ideas appear to have exercised over him an almost fatal fascination. They recur again and again with increasing force. The idea of psychal attraction triumphing over corporeal dissolution, the dream of the passionate soul of a dead woman transfusing itself through the contrary organism of another living woman to manifest. If only for a moment, its death-defying love, the belief, not merely in thought transference, but in spirit transference and mergence through love, is the sum of such teaching as may be found in Poe. And through all his work, what Mrs. Browning called “this vivid writing, this power which is felt,” is vivid because of its intense stretch of feeling into another world. Paradox as it may seem, death is the vital principle of Poe's unearthly genius. It was said of him by one who had listened to the learning that streamed from the mouth of Landor; to the wit that bubbled and still bubbles from Holmes; to the wisdom that trickled from the golden lips of Emerson, that Poe's unpremeditated talk was the finest; that, while not a brilliant talker in the after-dinner sense, not a maker of points or a frequent sayer of funny things, he was the most thought-suggestive of all, and that what he said was marked beyond all question with that sovereign grace — sincerity. Even his bitterest enemy, Griswold, said of him that he was sometimes “supramortal in his eloquence;” and as he spoke on the themes that most intimately concern the soul of man “his large, variable eyes looked repose or shot fiery tumult into the soul of his listener.”

It is on this account that I have chosen for this brief essay the somewhat peculiar title it bears, since Poe represents to me, in his life and in the general effect of his writings, the extreme of that type of character which the world finds in the conventional Hamlet. Poe is Hamlet intensified, inasmuch as our modern life is more complex and compellant of introspection, self-analysis and philosophic questioning than was the life of the Elizabethan era. That era was a period of great national awakening — of imaginative impulse on the material plans of development. The persons and their effects in this world were, as a rule, the [page 20, column 1:] subjects handled by the poets or dramatists. As with the rest, so, in a great measure, with Shakespeare. The individual, or the question of individual soul, was generally lost sight of in the chaotic splendor rising like a golden and crimson mist above the conflicting passions of the kings and nobles, who were the chief characters of his theatric pageant. Only in rare cases, as in Marlowe's “Faust” and Shakespeare's “Lear” and “Hamlet,” do we find the individual soul acting by itself a drama in a drama, with the “Immensities and Eternities” for its chorus.

That Shakespeare felt all these “mysteries of the person” more deeply than most of his contemporaries may be fairly surmised from his sonnets, but that he subordinated them in most of his dramas to the requirements of the age is also unquestionable. Writing with him was not a mission. He did not feel it as a high and sacred calling. It was simply his way of getting from the world a sufficient competence; and he appears to have cared for nothing when that end was gained. He retired to his native village to enjoy an elegant leisure and give himself up probably, not to the deep potations that he has been accused of, but to speculations on human life, for his own amusement and not for the benefit of mankind. In our century, however, the sense of individuality and at the same time of what the author owes to the public has been infinitely intensified. Nearly all the great writers have felt themselves preachers or artists more than money makers. Poe, with his passion for the beautiful in form and color and sound, and with his sixth sense, continually apprehensive of invisible things, seems to have profoundly felt a double duty laid upon him — the duty of creating beautiful art-forms and through them of preaching the littleness of this earth-life as compared with the infinite psychal possibilities of eternity.

His early death, so sad in its circumstances, was a national calamity, for his genius, like his life, failed of fulfillment. He had settled nothing; he had given no assurances; he had simply offered questions; and in this I find his likeness to the conventional Hamlet. The mystery that he found in life he made by his life more mysterious than ever, and, while adding largely to the beauty of our literature, he left little, almost nothing, of practical value for the conduct of humanity. Emerson said: “Hitch your wagon to a star.” Poe had no wagon and little sympathy with the people who had. But he saw the star. And though nothing quite so sad as his life can be found in the history of American literature, the light of a stellar vision still lingers on the raven down of his earthly darkness.




Henry Willard Austin (1858-1912) was an American journalist, critic and poet. He was born in Massachusetts as the third child of a prominent attorney and Collector of Customs for the Port of Boston. He published Vagabond Verses in 1890 (Boston: J. Stilman Smith and Co.). He was educated in private schools, travelled extensively after graduation and attended Harvard for one year, but did not continue his studies nor obtain a degree. He was a Theosophist, a socialist, and follower of Edward Bellamy and the Nationalists. As such, he was a co-founder of their magazine The Nationalist, in May 1889, for which he also served as the first editor. The magazine did not succeed, and folded the next year, giving way to The New Nation. An obituary was printed in the Boston Globe on October 17, 1912 (p. 4, col. 7), stating neither the precise date of his birth or death. His father, Arthur Williams Austin (1807-1884), although a northerner, was a strong sympathizer with the south and the confederacy, defending slavery in 1850 as “a political necessity.” The elder Austin was a friend of William Gilmore Simms, and in his will of 1884 left approximately $400,000 to the University of Virginia even though he had no personal ties to the university beyond an admiration for Thomas Jefferson.

The original article was printed in narrow newspaper columns, which constrain the lines of the poems quoted in a way that is difficult to emulate.

The article was reprinted, in excerpted form, in the Kansas City Times, January 2, 1892, p. 5.


[S:0 - NYT, 1891] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe's Life in Fordham (Henry Austin, 1891)