Text: Charles Whibley, “Edgar Allan Poe,” The New Review (London), Vol. XIV, no. 85, June 1896, pp. 612-625


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IF Poe’s life was a tangle of contradiction, his posthumous fame has been a very conflict of opposites. He has been elevated to heaven, he has been depressed to hell; he has been pictured angel and devil, drunkard and puritan. His poetry has seemed to this one the empty tinkling of a cymbal, to that the last expression of verbal beauty. But despite the warfare of opinions, he has been read and imitated throughout the world, and he is still, after half a century, the dominant influence of three literatures. An inventor in many fields, he deserves whatever homage may be paid him; and if his genius has been somewhat obscured by the monument, in ten volumes, of late erected to his honour, the zealot will discover many a block of pure marble, half hidden in the heap of shot rubble.

Poe in ten volumes! Did fortune ever play a more wayward trick upon a man? Poe in ten volumes — Poe, to whom a long poem was a flat contradiction! His editors have omitted nothing, who might have omitted so much. They have spared you neither his casual reflections upon handwriting, nor his ephemeral portraits of America’s forgotten literati. Did he, in the Forties, review such a piece of bookmaking, as was not worth his momentary regard, here it is set forth with the added dignity of enclosing covers. There is no doubt that he would have been shocked himself at this work of patient resurrection. Had he but lived to edit his own work, his fastidious care would assuredly have rejected the journalism, and cut the edition short by five volumes. Yet it were ungracious to reproach the piety of Messrs. Stedman and Woodberry: if you are indifferent to Poe’s opinion of Christopher P. Cranch, you need not read it; and, having all, you are not harassed by the fear that you have been defrauded of a masterpiece. For the rest, the editors have done their work modestly and well. They have provided a sound text — their first duty; they have furnished so many [page 613:] notes as are necessary; and if enthusiasm is wanting to their memoir and appreciation, they have given all the facts, and left the reader to form his own conclusion.

No sooner was Poe dead than he became the immediate prey of the body-snatcher. The literary hyena fastened upon his corpse, and fattened hideously upon his desecrated blood. No poet, since Shelley, had given the ghoul so rich an opportunity. As the whole tragedy of Poe’s life sprung from a hostile environment, so after his death the environing enemies leapt to their final act of resentment and revenge. He was a drunken monster, who had committed all the crimes invented in his gloomiest romances. William Wilson was a true page of autobiography; the brutalities of The Black Cat were among the slightest of his indiscretions; worse even, teste Gilfillan, he murdered his wife that he might find a suitable motive for The Raven! Now, if Gilfillan had read the works of his victim, he would have known that realism was loathsome to the temperament of Poe, who had no need to rehearse his effects. But when the slanderer is abroad, he cares not how flagrant are his calumnies, especially if he speak in the cause of morality.. Stupidity’s true mouthpiece, however, was one Rufus Griswold, who easily outgilfillaned the smug Gilfillan himself. This vessel of wrath had been the poet’s friend, and (strange to tell) Poe, by appointing him his literary executor, was unconsciously guilty of posthumous suicide. Griswold was not one to lose an illegitimate occasion. Poe died on October 8th, 1849. On October 9th, Griswold’s infamy was in type. Hate and malice scream in every line of this monumental hypocrisy. Here speaks, through the mouth of Griswold, the hungry middle-class, which hated poetry, and loathed the solitary dignity of Poe. The poet’s character, said this common Pecksniff, was “shrewd and naturally unamiable.” He recognised no “moral susceptibilities”; he knew “little or nothing of the true point of honour.” That no doubt he left to the Griswolds of his country. His one desire was to succeed — “not shine, not serve — succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.” And so magnificently did he “succeed,” so vilely did he sacrifice his art to prosperity, that America, which kept Griswold in affluence, condemned the author of William Wilson to starvation and neglect!

But Griswold’s purple patch must be given in its true colour. In these terms did our moralist describe the friend, laid but a few hours since in the grave: — “Passions, in him, comprehended many of the worst [page 614:] emotions which militate against human happiness. You could not contradict him but you raised quick choler; you could not speak of wealth but his cheek paled with gnawing envy. The astonishing natural advantages of this poor boy — his beauty, his readiness, the daring spirit that breathed around him like a fiery atmosphere — had raised his constitutional self-confidence into an arrogance that turned his very claims to admiration into prejudices against him. Irascible, envious — bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient angles were all varnished over with a cold, repellent cynicism; his passions vented themselves in sneers.” Those there are who assert that Griswold’s outrage upon truth and taste was a revenge, deliberately taken upon Poe’s hostile criticism. But, indeed, there is no need to spy out a motive for so simple a crime. Griswold spoke not for himself, but for his world. Genius is repellent to those who know it not; drunkenness is a crime in the eyes of happier men who fear not the disease. The envious morality of hypocrites, in whose veins vinegar flows for blood, rises superior to all the obligations of taste and friendship. No doubt the infamous Rufus laid down his pen, that day, with infinite content; no doubt he adjusted his spectacles over the Tribune next morning with a more than usual placidity. Thus he, who would not allow a poet the license of displeasure, gives an easy rein to his own denunciation. Nor does the poor devil divine the incongruity. Poe’s “harsh experience,” he says in a tone of grievance, “had deprived him of all faith in man or woman.” Of course it had: Poe had known Griswold.

But all the world was not as Griswold. Willis was quick to champion the dead man, and to declare that he had always been for him an exemplar of amiability. Indeed, there is a cloud of witnesses to prove not only the cowardice of Griswold but his untruth. To Mrs. Osgood Poe was never “otherwise than gentle, generous, well-bred, and fastidiously refined.” The intelligent few among his contemporaries understood him, at least by flashes, and did not apply to him the rigorous code of a magistrate trying a drunken navvy. To visit him at his house (you are told) was to be convinced of his refinement and simplicity. There was one friend who found this envious monster devoting himself to the care of birds and flowers. And, strangest irony of all, Mrs. Whitman, whom Poe’s enemies assert to have endured the worst affront, proved the noblest and most eloquent of his champions. Had not the shriek of malice been raised so often, Poe’s character might be left to defend itself. His works are ours; his opinions are familiar, if not accepted; the [page 615:] music of his verse still sings in our ear. But the dishonour done to his memory compels a frequent defence, especially since a simple character exposed him to affront. There should, then, be no uncertainty in a benign judgment. Some men, says Baudelaire, have guignon written upon their forehead, and Edgar Poe was of their number. He was born out of time, out of place. He was bidden to live in an alien and a hostile world, whence he recoiled in an impotent horror. A poet, whose intelligence was solitary and aloof, he was driven into the battle-field, and it is not surprising that he suffered irremediable defeat at the hands of the Griswolds of his time. His life was always a dream, often a nightmare; and, since he lived shut up within himself, he knew not envy, but merely contempt. How should he be envious of the contemporaries whom he surpassed? Despite his melancholy, he enjoyed those periods of sanguine expectation which are proper to his temperament. For instance, he preserved a fervent faith in The Stylus, that imagined review which should reform American literature and fill his pocket. The common fool denounced him for a drunkard and a sloth, forgetting, in his hasty censure, that Poe was not only devoted to his family and friends, but that in sixteen years he produced a greater sum of admirable work than any octogenarian in America.

He was an idealist, caught up into a real world; he was a poet stifled in an atmosphere of commerce and morality; he was a Southerner in the midst of Abolitionists; he was a lofty aristocrat living in an unbridled democracy. His very beauty, the charm of his voice, the quiet distinction of his manner, his love of splendour, of noble houses, and Italian gardens — all these qualities aroused the suspicion of his contemporaries. His years of travel, his swiftly garnered experience had given him that air of a “gentleman,” which is seldom beloved in a progressive state. Though it is ever hazardous to confuse a writer with his work, yet one may believe that in The Domain of Arnheim Ellison’s ideals are Poe’s own. Little enough have they to do with citizenship or a liberal franchise. Here they are: — 1) free exercise in the open air; 2) the love of woman; 3) the contempt of ambition; 4) the conviction that attainable happiness is in proportion to its spirituality. Naturally Griswold found nothing in these aspirations, save arrogance and contempt.

But Poe, in a letter to Lowell, has best described his own temperament. “I am excessively slothful and wonderfully industrious,” he said, [page 616:] “by fits.” He denies that he is ambitious, unless negatively. “I really perceive,” the passage of self-revelation continues, “that vanity about which most men merely prate — the vanity of the human or temporal life. I live continually in a reverie of the future. I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity.” How should a poet frank enough to formulate these truths, a poet whose life was “whim — impulse — passion — a longing for solitude — a scorn of all things present” — how should he appeal to the sympathy of his age or even to the bluff optimism of Mr. Lowell?

But the dullard’s heaviest artillery has been marshalled against the crime of drunkenness. The poet’s life is — in this aspect — a series of iterated and repelled charges. Yet the most that has been proved against Poe is that wine had an instant and perverse effect upon his brain. Let the dullard go home and thank God for that superior virtue which permits him to drink his muddy beer in peace; let him also reflect that no wine could purchase for him the dreams, the poems, the hopes, which it purchased for Poe. That his death was tragic and premature is, alas, indisputable. And here, again, has been an occasion for much foolishness. He died, like Marlowe and many another man of genius, in the street, unheeded, almost unrecognised. But he died at his own time, when his work was done, a victim to the stolid stupidity of circumstance. He was great, not on account of his frailty, which the fool sometimes mistakes for talent, but in his frailty’s despite; and he yields not in good fortune to the solemn prig, whose sole congratulation is that his unremembered and useless life trickles out respectably in bed.

It is strangely ironical that though he would have chosen to live in the Kingdom of Fancy, he was driven at the outset to a picturesque activity. His descent was distinguished, yet he was little better than a foundling when he was adopted into the family of John Allan, who brought him up in gentle affluence. His education was varied and efficient. Two years spent at Stoke Newington, at the school of Dr. Bransby, gave him the local colour for William Wilson, and a hint for the description of that veritable “palace of enchantment,” wherein his unhappy hero met his conscience. Thereafter he returned to America, spent a year without profit at the University of Virginia, and presently, following the example of his admired Coleridge, enlisted as a private soldier. Lowell relates, without a definite authority, that Poe [page 617:] had already set forth to fight at Byron’s side for the independence of Greece, and that, having got into trouble at St. Petersburg, he was rescued by the American Consul. For the sake of romance you are willing to believe the legend, and you regret that fortune had not favoured the brave so far as to bring Poe into the presence of Byron. But at least it is true that Poe served three years in the United States Army, meanwhile, like Cumberbak, cultivating the muses. Then it was that Allan did him a last service. He found him a substitute and entered him, though already disqualified by years, as a cadet at West Point. But West Point was as little to his mind as the barrack, and it was not long before a breach of discipline procured his dismissal. He published his poems by subscription among the cadets, and having no more to expect from his benefactor, he determined upon the profession of letters.

His first success was achieved (in 1833) with The MS. Found in a Bottle, which won a prize offered by The Saturday Visiter. Henceforth, with varying fortune, he earned his living by his pen. He wrote stories, satires, poems; his criticism became the terror of the incompetent; and though his Southern descent, his genius, his reasonable contempt, rendered him unpopular in the North, he was, many years before his death, the best hated and most highly respected of his class. The one constant ambition of his life — to start a magazine of his own — was disappointed; but alone of his contemporaries he captured a reputation in Europe, and neither ill-health nor misfortune shook for an instant his legitimate confidence in himself, his determination to set in their place the pigmies who surrounded him. Meanwhile, his strange marriage with Virginia Clemm, who, at the ceremony, was not yet fourteen, with his unfailing devotion to his fragile wife and her mother, disproved the boorish cruelty wherewith he was so complacently charged. On the other hand, the affection, requited yet unsuccessful, which he cherished at the end for Mrs. Whitman, for “Annie,” and for Mrs. Shelton, does not suggest the humour of one who had a strong, rational hold upon existence. But he lived his own life, as he died his own death, and it is for the Griswolds to hold their peace in the presence of genius.

At least his works remain to confute the blasphemer, and it is certain that no writer ever bequeathed so many examples to posterity. Although he went not beyond the tradition of his time, although he owed something to Maturin and Mrs. Radclyffe, something also, in decoration and [page 618:] decay, to the romantiques of 1830, he was essentially an inventor. He touched no kind of story without making it a type for all time. Even The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which you confess to be tiresome and elaborate, has been a stimulus to a whole generation of romance-mongers; and you feel, despite its faults, that it displays a greater verisimilitude, if not a greater knowledge, than the best of its successors. Before all things, Poe had the faculty of detaching himself from the present and of imagining unseen continents. With seamanship, science, erudition, mysticism, with all the branches of human knowledge he feigned an acquaintance. He tells you with pride that The MS. Found in a Bottle was written many years before he had seen the maps of Mercator; and you find yourself eagerly forgiving the amiable pedantry. But it is in The Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque that Poe first revealed his personal imagination — an imagination rather of tone than of incident. The [[Fall of the]] House of Usher, Ligeia, and the rest surpass all other stories in economy of method and suggestion. Death, catalepsy, and the supernatural are the material of them all. They know neither time nor place; they are enwrapped in an atmosphere only substantial enough to enclose phantoms; spectral castles frown upon sombre tarns, destined to engulph them; clouds, fantastically outlined, chase one another across an imagined sky; ancient families totter to their doom, overwhelmed in misery and disease; ruined halls are resplendent with red lanterns and perfumed with swinging censers; the heroine’s hand is cold as marble, marble-cold also is her forehead, but she is learned in all the sciences, and the castle library contains the works of Caelius Secundus Curio and Tertullian. Everywhere there is a sombre splendour, a forbidding magnificence. No wonder that the dweller in an English abbey shudders at “the Bedlam patterns of the carpets of tufted gold.” Naught save the names, which are of no country and of no age, heightens the colour of the monotone romance. Madeleine, Berenice, Ligeia, Morella, Eleonora — do they not sing in your ear, and by their beauty make more horrible the cold tragedy of their deaths? To analyse these fantasies closely is impossible; you must leave them to the low, dim-tinted atmosphere wherein Poe has enveloped them. They are vague, fleeting, mystical — a sensation of tapestry, wherein spectral figures wander hand in hand. Silence and horror are their cult, and there is not one of the ladies whose everapproaching death would not be hastened by a breath of reality. Ligeia dwells in “a dim and decaying city by the Rhine,” but who [page 619:] would seek to discover her habitation? It were as infamous as to discover beneath a tropical sun, “the Valley of the Many-coloured Grass,” where pined the hapless Eleonora. The best of the fancies are rather poetry than prose, and already Poe had perfected his artifice of the refrain. The finest passage in Eleonora is repeated with the stateliest effect, and the horror of Silence is increased tenfold by the oft-recurring phrase: “And the man trembled in the solitude, but the night waned, and he sat upon the rock.” In these grotesque imaginings even laughter becomes a terror. At Sparta, says the monster of The Assignation, “the altar of Laughter survived all the others,” and he chuckles at the very point of death. When, in The Cask of Amontillado, the last stone is fitted to Fortunato’s living tomb, “there came from out the niche a low laugh,” which might well have sent Montresor’s hair on end. Not even did Morella’s lover meet his doom with tears. “I laughed with a long and bitter laugh,” he says, “as I found no trace of the first in the charnel where I laid the second — Morclla.” But, worst of all, the demon laughs when the whole world is cursed to silence: wherefrom you may deduce as sinister a theory of the ludicrous as you please.

And then he turned to another kind, and created at a breath M. Dupin, that master of insight, who proved that the complex was seldom profound, and who discovered by the natural transition from a colliding fruiterer, through street stones, stereotomy, Epicurus, Dr. Nicholls and Orion, that Chantilly was a very little fellow, and would do better for the Théâtre des Variétes. Now, Monsieur Charles A. Dupin was of good family — so much you are ready to believe; he was also young — a statement you decline to accept on the word of a creator, unless, indeed, he be the Wandering Jew. But whatever his age and breeding, he is a master of analysis, and plays at ratiocination as a boy plays with a peg-top. He knows by long experience that in pitting your intelligence against another’s you are sure to win if you identify yourself with your adversary. And when once this principle is understood, it is as easy as a game of marbles, and more profitable. M. Dupin loves darkness better than light, not because his deeds are evil, but because, being a poet and a mathematician, he works better by lamplight. Hence it was his practice to live through the day by the glimmer of two flickering candles, and to walk abroad at night under the spell of the gas-lamps. When serious work was toward, or he was forced to interview the doltish Prefect of Police, then he [page 620:] sat in the dark, and silently puffed his meerschaum. The smallest indication was sufficient for him, and while the police fumbled over the murders in the Rue Morgue, arresting a harmless bank-clerk, he not only discovered the true culprit, but was convinced that the culprit’s master was a sailor, belonging to a Maltese vessel. “How was it possible?” asked his incredulous accomplice, “that you should know the man to be a sailor, and belonging to a Maltese vessel?” “I do not know it,” said Dupin. “I am not sure of it! Here, however, is a small piece of ribbon, which from its form, and from its greasy appearance, has evidently been used in tying the hair in one of those long queues of which sailors are so fond. Moreover, this knot is one which few besides sailors can tie, and is peculiar to the Maltese.” Imagine the joy of happening upon this masterpiece of combined observation and analysis, in the days before the trick had not been vulgarised beyond recognition! And yet, despite this flash of genius, M. Dupin affected to despise ingenuity, which he regarded as the cheapest of human qualities; and he would persuade you that all his finest effects were produced by pure reason! His most daring deed was done in the Rue Morgue: the instant discovery of the inhuman murderer was adroitness itself; and the advertisement of the recovered Ourang-Outang was even more brilliant. Unhappily there is a touch of melodrama in the locked door, the pistol upon the table, and the extorted confession. But M. Dupin is seldom guilty of such an indiscretion, and you readily forgive him. A more subtle achievement was the recovery of the purloined letter, for in this exploit he opposed the great Minister D —— , and proved the superior at all points. In brief, his shining qualities are as stars in the night, nor have they been dimmed by the unnumbered imitators, who to-day are mimicking the tone and the manner of the inimitable Dupin.

Though The Gold Bug is a masterpiece of another kind, it is nearly related to The Purloined Letter. It displays the perfect logic, the complete lucidity, the mastery of analysis, which make M. Dupin immortal. No step in the adventure but is foreseen and inevitable. Never before nor since has use so admirable been made of ciphers and buried treasure. The material, maybe, was not new, but the treatment, as of a glorified problem in mathematics, was Poe’s own invention. In his hands the slightest incident ceased to be curious, and became (so to say) a link in the chain of fate. Not only was he unrivalled in the art of construction, but he touched the simplest theme with a clairvoyant [page 621:] intelligence, which seemed at the same moment to combine and analyse the materials of his story. Thus, also, the best of his scientific parables convince the imagination, even if they leave the reason refractory. But the purpose of these is too obvious, their central truths too heavily weighted with pretended documents for immortality. It is upon the grotesque, the horrible, and the ingenious that Poe has established his reputation. And surely the author of Ligeia, of Silence, of William Wilson, of the Dupin Cycle, of The Gold Bug, and of The Mask of the Red Death need not defend his title to undying fame.

Though Poe was a maker of great stories, he was not a great writer. That he might have been is possible, for none ever showed in fragments a finer sense of words; that he was not is certain. Mr. Stedman attempts to excuse him upon the ground that he lived before Pater, Flaubert, and Arnold. Never was a more preposterous theory formulated. As though the art of prose were newly invented! The English tongue, accurate, noble, coloured, is centuries older than Pater; and even in Poe’s own time there were models worth the following. He knew Coleridge from end to end, and did not profit by his example. So conscious is he of style in others, that he condemns the Latinity of Lamb, but he rarely knits his own sentences to perfection. The best he wraps round with coils of useless string, and he is not incapable of striking false notes upon the Early-Victorian drum. He shocks you, for instance, by telling you that William Wilson at Oxford “vied in profuseness of expenditure with the haughtiest heirs of the wealthiest earldoms in Great Britain” — a sentence equally infamous whether it appeal to the ear or to the brain. Egeaus, again, the ghoulish lover of Berenice, boasts with a pride which Mrs. Radclyffe might envy that “there are no towers in the land more time-honoured than my gloomy, gray, hereditary halls.” This is fustian, and you regret it the more because in construction, in idea, Poe was seldom at fault. The opening of his stories is commonly perfect. How could you better the first page of The [[Fall of the]] House of Usher, whose weird effect is attained throughout by the simplest means? Another writer would take five pages to explain what Poe has touched off in the first five lines of The Oval Portrait; and to how many writers has this rejection of all save the essential been a noble example? But Poe, writing on the impulse of a whim, let the style which he knew elude his grasp, and if his carelessness cast a shadow upon his true masterpieces, it reduces the several volumes of properly forgotten fantasies to the lower level of journalism. [page 622:]

The criticism of Poe inaugurated a new era, a new cult of taste and beauty. Whether in theory or in practice he was ahead not only of his time, but of all time. That same keen intelligence which created M. Dupin, tore to pieces the prevailing superstitions and disclosed in a few pages the true qualities of literature. Beauty is his cult; poetry for him is “the rhythmical creation of beauty.” He is neither preacher nor historian. Being an artist, he esteems facts as lightly as morals. Art, he says, has “no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth.” A poem is written solely for the poem’s sake. “Perseverance,” again, “is one thing, genius quite another,” and the public has as little to do with the industry as with the inspiration of the artist. To us who have lived through the dark age of naturalism his passage upon Truth rings like a prophecy: “The demands of Truth,” he writes in The Poetic Principle, “the demands of Truth are severe; she has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that which is so indispensable in Song, is precisely all that with which she has nothing whatever to do. It is but making her a flaunting paradox to wreath her in gems and flowers.” Even more precise and bitter is his epigrammatic indictment of Realism. “The defenders of this pitiable stuff” — you will find the lines in Marginalia — “uphold it on the ground of its truthfulness. Taking the thesis into question, the truthfulness is the one overwhelming defect. An original idea that — to laud the accuracy with which the stone is hurled that knocks us in the head. A little less accuracy might have left us more brains. And here are critics absolutely commending the truthfulness with which only the disagreeable is conveyed! In my view, if an artist must paint decayed cheeses, his merit will lie in their looking as little like decayed cheeses as possible.” And that was written twenty years before the advent of Zola!

In The Philosophy of Composition, moreover, he explains, what should never have needed explanation, that a work of art is the result not of accident but of a reasoned artifice; and he illustrates his thesis by a whimsical, far-fetched analysis of his own Raven. He treats the poem with the same impartial intelligence which M. Dupin would have brought to the detection of a murderer or the discovery of a missing trinket. In truth, Poe might be called the Dupin of Criticism For he looked, with his keen eye and rapid brain, through the innumerable follies wherewith literature was obscured, and he rejected the false hypotheses as scornfully as M. Dupin set aside the Prefect’s imbecilities. As a practical critic Poe was a fighter. His sense of [page 623:] honour knew neither civility nor favouritism. He alone among critics has come forth with a chivalrous defence of his craft, in which he took a fierce pride. He was no adulator ready-made to serve some Society of Authors: he was a judge, condemning the guilty with an honourable severity. “When we attend less to authority,” he wrote, “and more to principles, when we look less at merit and more at demerit, we shall be better critics than we are.” Is that not enough to make the Popular Novelist turn green with fury, especially since it is the deliberate utterance of a man, whose example has furnished forth a whole library of popular novels? Twice he quotes the parable of the critic who “presented to Apollo a severe censure upon an excellent poem. The god asked him for the beauties of the work. He replied that he only troubled himself about the errors. Apollo presented him with a sack of unwinnowed wheat, and bade him pick out the chaff for his pains.” Now, this is the critic’s severest condemnation, and yet Poe is honest enough to declare that he is not sure that the god was in the right.

Being a severe judge, he was generously misunderstood. Longfellow was magnanimous enough to attribute “the harshness of his criticism to the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong.” Thus the Illiterate Novelist is wont to ascribe the lightest censure to a critic’s envy. And they do not see, neither Longfellow nor the Illiterate Novelist, that they are bringing superfluous charges of bad faith. Is it possible that Longfellow could not imagine the necessity of censure? Is it possible that he, like the bleating lambs of fiction, believed that criticism was written, not for its own sake, but for the voidance of gall? If such were his creed, if he, being a critic, would never have written a line, unblotted by hatred or irritation, it is fortunate that he never lapsed from his devotion to poetry. But Poe was not always harsh, and when he used the scourge, he used it in defence of literature. It was his misfortune to review his contemporaries; and they, though they resented his censure, have already justified his severity by crawling, one and all, into oblivion. A bolder editor, indeed, would have suppressed the two volumes of books reviewed — articles which served their turn at the moment, which are ill-written, and which dimly reflect the brilliant insight of Marginalia. But when Poe encountered a master, he was eager in appreciation. His praise of Alfred Tennyson was as generous as it was wise. “In perfect sincerity,” he wrote, “ I regard him as the noblest poet that ever lived.” [page 624:] And, again, remembering that this was written in 1843, you recognise in Poe the gift of prophecy.

But to complete the cycle of his accomplishments he was also a poet, and it is as a poet that he wears the greener bays. Here his practice coincided accurately with his theory. He believed that a long poem was a contradiction in terms, and he only erred once against the light, when he called Eureka, a tedious treatise upon all things and nothing, “a prose poem.” In his eyes the sole aim of poetry was beauty, and such beauty as should touch the ear rather than the brain. His musical art eludes analysis, and he esteemed it great in proportion as it receded from the hard shapes and harder truths of life. Of him it might be said truly that “he seemed to see with his ear.” You do not question Annabel Lee and Ulalume. You do not attempt to drag a common meaning from their gossamer loveliness. You listen to their refrains and repeated cadences; you delight in their rippling sound and subtle variations; and you are content to find yourself in the presence of an art, which, like music, does not represent, but merely presents, an emotion. And because Poe acknowledged the artifice of his poetry, some have denied him imagination. As though imagination did not most clearly manifest herself in artistic expression!

It is not surprising that Poe’s multiform genius should have proved a dominant influence upon European literature. Not only was he a sombre light to the decadence, not only was he a guiding flame in the pathway of the mystics; but also he revived the novel of adventure and lost treasure, of the South Seas and of Captain Kidd. The atrocities which have been committed in the name of his Dupin are like the sands for number, and the detective of fact, as of romance, has attempted to model himself upon this miracle of intelligence. Thus he has been an example to both houses — to Huysmans, who has emulated his erudition, and to Gaboriau, who has cheapened his mystery. It is his unique distinction to have anticipated even the trivialities of life. His title, The Man that Was Used up [[The Man that was Used Up]], has let in upon us the legion of imbeciles who did or didn’t, who would or wouldn’t. And stranger still, he it was that imagined the philosopher, who, in the vanity of his heart, should spell his god with a little g! His influence came not from America but from France. No sooner was The Murders in the Rue Morgue published in America, than it appeared as a feuilleton in le Commerce, and in 1846 was printed a volume of Contes, translated by Isabelle Meunier. Ten years later Baudelaire began the brilliant series [page 625:] of translations, which added the glory of Poe to French literature. That Poe gained in the transference there is no doubt: the looseness of his style — his most grievous fault — was tightened in the distinguished prose of Baudelaire; and henceforth Poe was free to shape the literary future of France. It was his example that moulded the conte to its ultimate completion. His talents of compression and facile exposition, his gift of building up a situation in a hundred words, were imitated by the army of writers, who first perfected the short story, and then sent it across the Channel. Nor is Baudelaire the only poet who has done Poe into French. M. Stéphane Mallarme, also, has proved his sympathy with the author of The Raven in a set of matchless translations. He has turned the verse of Poe into a rhythmical prose, and withal he has kept so close to the original, that the prose echoes not only the phrase but the cadence of the verse. And from France Poe penetrated every country in Europe. He is known and read in those remote corners which he described, yet never saw. He is as familiar in Spain as in Scandinavia, and but a year ago The Raven was translated “direct from English” in far-off Valparaiso.

And here is the final contrast of his life. The prophet of silence and seclusion is blown to the four winds of heaven. But he has conquered glory without stooping one inch from his proper attitude of aristocracy. He is still as exclusive and morose as his stories. Between him and his fantasies there is no discord. You imagine him always stern-faced and habited in black, with Virginia Clemm at his side, Virginia shadowy as Ligeia, amiable as the mild Eleonora in the Valley of the Many-coloured Grass. He dwelt in mid America, and he was yet in fairy-land. Though the squalor of penury and the magazines gave him neither “ancestral hall” nor “moss-grown abbey,” he lived and died enclosed within the impregnable castle of his mind.

Charles Whibley.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 612:]

* The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, newly collected and edited, with a Memoir, Critical Introductions, and Notes, by E. C. Stedman and G. E. Woodberry. (London: Lawrence and Bullen.)



The printing by Lawrence and Bullen is the British publication of the edition prepared for and published in the United States by Stone and Kimball. Charles Whibley (1859 — 1930) was an English journalist, and at one time the Paris correspondent for the Pall Mall Gazette.

The reference to Cumberbak is unresolved.

John H. Ingram retained a set of the pages containing this review, although he marks no comment other than the source as being The New Review, and a question mark besides “Cumberbak.” In the Ingram collection it is item 899, although the catalog improperly assigns the date as “ca. 1895.”


[S:0 - TNR, 1896] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (Charles Whibley, 1896)