Text: Ingram, John H., Review of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (part I), Athenaeum (London), vol. 4, whole no. 3556, December 21, 1895, pp. 865-866


[page 865:]

The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. With a Memoir, Critical Introduction, and Notes by E. C. Stedman and G. E. Woodberry. Vols. I.-V. (Lawrence & Bullen.)

The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Vols. I.-IV. (London, Shiells & Co.; Philadelphia, 3. B. Lippincott Co.)

The Complete Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, together with a Selection from his Stories. With Illustrations by H. C. Edwards. (F. A. Stokes Co.)

“MISERY is manifold,” said Poe in one of his earliest and most autobiographical tales. His own story exemplifies the dictum. From birth to burial his career was a series of misfortunes of all kinds, and he had to endure ills that should excite the sympathy of the most antipathetic of biographers. Yet Mr. Woodberry, who compiles the memoir prefixed to the new ten-volume edition of Poe’s works, is out of touch with his subject; he is as unmoved as the Parcæ. That he refrains from critical comments upon Poe’s career and works may not be unfortunate; but that he should not only repeat several ancient, but also supply several new unproved scandals about him is a pity.

Although, of necessity, walking closely in the path of his more recent predecessors, Mr. Woodberry must be credited with having made lengthy and laborious research in the history of Poe, and if he have discovered little that is oth new and true, that is scarcely his fault; at least, he deserves commendation for the zeal with which he has sifted and verified or discarded, according to his lights, the assertions of others. Nevertheless, he is chary of citing anything that redounds to the credit of his illustrious countryman, and dwells continuously upon his intemperance; and rakes up much uncorroborated rubbish from ancient dustheaps. He is quite certain that he knows what the poet felt, thought, or intended at various periods of his life, but as regards his actual deeds can only assert that “it is believed,” or “it is said,” or “it seems,” that Poe did so-and-so. This latest memoir, indeed, contains little new matter of worth, the most interesting being some quotations from Poe’s correspondence with Lowell. Especially may we refer to some self-revelations the poet furnished when asked to send data for a sketch. Said Poe:

“I am excessively slothful and wonderfully in-dustrious — by fits. There are epochs when any kind of mental exercise is torture, and when nothing yields me pleasure but solitary communion with the mountains and the wooda,’ — the altars’ of Byron. I have thus rambled and dreamed away whole months, and awake, at last, to a sort of mania for composition. Then I scribble all day, and read all night, ao long as the disease endures I am not ambitious — unless negatively. I now and then feel stirred up to excel a fool merely because I hate to let a fool imagine that he may excel me. Beyond [column 2:] this I feel nothing of ambition. I really perceive that vanity about which most men merely prate, — the vanity of the human or temporal life. I live continually in a revery of the future. I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. . . . . .You speak of ‘an estimate of my Life,’ — and, from what I have already said, you will see that I have none to give. I have been too deeply conscious of the mutability and evanescence of temporal things to give any continuous effort to anything — to be consistent in anything. My life has been whim — impulse — passion — a longing for solitude — a acorn of all things present in an earnest desire for the future. I am profoundly excited by music, and by some poems — those of Tennyson especially — whom, with Keats, Shelley, Coleridge (occasionally), and a few others of like thought and expression, I regard as the sole poets.”

One new item respecting the poet is that when only fifteen he began his military career as lieutenant of a Virginian volunteer corps. The old story, repeated by Mr. Woodberry, that subsequently, in 1827, Poe enlisted in the United States army under a false name, will need better evidence than that adduced to convince us of ita trustworthiness. At the time Poe was only eighteen, and probably deemed himself two years younger, yet the Perry Mr. Wood-berry would identify him with gave his age as twenty-two, and, according to the military records, differed from the poet in age, height, complexion, and feature. It is needless to examine in detail the statements and misstatements of Mr. Wood-berry’s new memoir. The former, when repeated from popular biographies, are known already, and the latter may be left to refute themselves ; but in leaving a biography which has been compiled from such a mass of heterogeneous material as this one has been, we may again express our regret that its author has not been able to find a kindly word for his famous countryman, nor has been able to suggest a charitable motive for any of his actions.

Mr. Stedman’s introductory essay to the tales serves as an antidote to the bias of the memoir. We differ from several of the critical conclusions he arrives at, but rejoice to recognize in him a man able to apprehend and appreciate the artistic genius of Poe. This critical introduction is a worthy prelude to the tales, the key-note to which is struck thus: “The reader who chanced in youth to come upon one of Poe’s finer stories is not likely to have forgotten its impression on his jaded sense of mystery and beauty.” Mystery and beauty are, indeed, the predominant characteristics of Poe’s best work, and in many of his tales are harmoniously combined.

In his warfare against didactic poetry Poe avowed that he regarded Keats — not Shelley, as Mr. Stedman thinks — as “ the sole British poet who has never erred in his themes,” because “ Beauty is always his aim.” As long as Poe was true to the deity he had thus dedicated himself to — the Beau for which, as Baudelaire recognizes, he had “un amour insatiable” — Poe’s work was fit to rank with the best. When the exigencies of his existence compelled him to waste his skill in scarifying nonentities or in inditing tawdry jocularities, his magic wand was broken and his enchantments evaporated. As Mr. Stedman truly says: — [column 3:]

“In genuine humour Poe seemed utterly wanting. He had also little of the mother wit that comes in flashes and at once ; but his powers of irony and satire were so great as to make his frequent lapses into invective the more humiliate . . . . . . . . Poe knew this as well as any one, but a measureless self-esteem would not acknowledge the flaw in his armour. Hence, efforts which involved the delusion that humour may come by works and not by inborn gift Poe’s consciousness of his defect, and his refusal to believe it incurable, are manifest in trashy sketches for which he had a market.”

That he had a market for such merchandise was the main point. Left to his own inclinations, he might always have gifted his readers with such masterpieces as ‘Ligeia,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ or ‘The Descent into the Maelstrom’; and, as Mr. Stedman points out, had there been such a “market” then as nowadays for literary wares, be could “ have stayed at home and out of temptation, and have kept his product at the upper standard. This was, after all, his idea of happiness, and again and again he tried to realize it, but as often ii vain.”

Addicted as Poe was to mystery and to mystifying his audience, for himself he attempted to demonstrate there was no mystery. He, he would prove to us, had gauged the universe, and could assay its value. Calmly and scientifically, if we will only submit to the glamour of his wizardry, he will explain the inexplicable. Creation is a riddle which he can expound. Death and eternity are but problems he will solve for us — but cryptograms he can unriddle for our benefit. Only resign ourselves to his guidance, and, though he lead us through the Valley of the Shadow, it will be as a guide who knows the route, and with whom we cannot go astray.

It is customary to compare Poe with Hawthorne, his contemporary and his compeer, with whom, however, he had little or nothing in common. Mr. Stedman specifies some of the latter’s shorter stories as rivalling those of Poe, but they “differ from them in the moral purpose of their allegory. There is no such purpose,” as he truly states, “overt or covert, in more than three or four of Poe’s, but an artistic passion vibrates throughout their design.” It was as an artist only that Poe wrought, and as artist only that he wished to be judged; and, although we cannot entirely accept the deductions he attempts to draw in his ‘Philosophy of Composition,’ that he did work not only with a set motif, but upon a prearranged plan, no acute student of his writings can doubt. The subtlety with which he dissected the sentences of others showed how well he understood their construction. Hawthorne could be carried away by his theme, but Poe never forgot his rôle. Although both affected mystery, the difference in their methods of producing it was as different as were the results. Hawthorne’s personages are always essentially human, whilst Poe’s are super or ultra human, both in action and endowment. Even in his highest efforts Poe’s dramatis persona are but puppets, however deftly he manipulated them. Yet, admitted that his sphere is a limited one, in it Poe reigns supreme.

A beneficial influence upon Poe’s reputation, especially in the United States, cannot fail to be exercised by Mr. Stedman [[Stedman’s]] appreciative [page 866:] and masterful essay. A revulsion of feeling will be created in the minds of those who have hitherto regarded Poe as some monstrosity of nature. Such words as these, coming from a man of Mr. Stedman’s eminence, cannot miss their aim. Poe, he declares,

“could not fail to have opinions that were sincere, whatsoever his conduct of life and expression. Absorbed in his work, the best of the man sometimes Came out. We may also admire his stand for the diviity of his profession and of the imaginative gift. It is to his lasting credit that, no matter from what motive, he spoke up proudly and bravely for the quality of the poet a mind ; that he believed the greater faculty includes the leas and that the best bard is the wisest.”

Messrs. Shiells & Co.’s edition furnishes neither introduction, nor memoir, nor prefatory matter of any kind.

The last volume on our list is a Christmas book, containing clever illustrations spoiled by the process employed.



Although neither review is signed, one may confidently assign the author as John H. Ingram based on the content. Both parts are attributed to Ingram by J. C. Miller in his Building Poe Biography, 1977, p. 258.

A clipping of this article was retained by J. H. Ingram and is item 896.


[S:0 - ATH, 1895] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Review of Stedman and Woodberry Edition of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe [Part I] (John H. Ingram, 1895)