Text: Hamilton W. Mabie, “Edgar Allan Poe: A Study,” Outlook, (New York, NY), vol. 62, no. 1, May 6, 1899, pp. 50-62


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Edgar Allan Poe: A Study

By Hamilton W. Mabie

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POE’S character is the most complex which has yet appeared among American writers, and his genius is the most elusive and individual. He fills a very considerable place in our literary development, and yet, in important aspects of his career, he seems to have been entirely detached from it. His genius is no longer questioned, nor is his influence; and yet his impress on the spiritual life of the country is hardly perceptible. Concerning no other American man of letters has there been such a consensus of critical opinion abroad; concerning no other native poet, save Whitman, have there been such radical differences of opinion at home. He holds a secure place among American writers, but he is in no sense a representative writer; his character and career were deeply affected by the conditions of the time in which he lived; but one looks in vain for any vital expression of the life of his time in his prose or verse. In his criticism, it is true, there are the reflection and imprint of the literary conditions amid which he lived; but his criticism, although temporarily significant and important, was the product of his analytical skill and insight, not of his genius. He is, within narrow limits, as true an artist as Hawthorne, and at times the master of a spell which Hawthorne did not command; and yet he has left a larger legacy of second-class work behind him than any other American writer of his class.

He came early under Southern influence, he always regarded himself as a Southerner, and he has been long accepted as the foremost representative of the South in our literature; but it would not be easy to discover the marks of the Southern spirit or the Southern tradition in his work. His temperament had much in common, it is true, with the Southern temperament, but no man was more free from that intense localism of feeling which is characteristic of the South.

As a critic his point of view was that of an American slightly in advance of his time; as a creative artist he has no country. A singular detachment is characteristic of [column 2:] his work at the very time when great passions were steadily rising and important historical movements taking shape. While Lowell, Emerson, and Whittier were profoundly influenced by the spiritual conditions about them, Poe took his solitary way as remote from the inspiration of the period as he was from its disturbing influence. The contradictions in his character and life were even more radical than those in his genius and art; and neither the writer nor the man is comprehensible without careful, open-minded, and sympathetic study of his conditions and career. These contradictions began with his birth; for although he was to be the most widely known of Southern writers, he was born in Boston. He was always a man of solitary temper; he never struck roots into any soil; and it seems significant, therefore, that, although born in the capital city of New England, neither he nor his parents can be said to have lived there.

His grandfather, David Poe, a man of Irish blood, was an ardent patriot during the Revolutionary period, and left a reputation in Baltimore as a vigorous and resolute person, whose will commanded his temperament. Poe’s father began as a student of law, and ended by going on the stage. His mother, Elizabeth Arnold, the daughter of an English actress, who forsook the region of Covent Garden for the precarious life of a player in the New World, was a woman of delicate figure, the possessor of a sweet voice of small range, and of a charm of manner which won friends if not popular success. The two young actors were married in the South, appeared in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, and reached Boston in the fall of 1806. Here they spent the three succeeding years, and here, on January 19, 1809, the second son was born and named Edgar. Two years later the family, sharing the vicissitudes of players of mediocre talent in a country in which the position of the stage was still uncertain, were in Richmond in extreme destitution. The pathetic appeal, published in a local newspaper, in which “Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and [page 52:] surrounded by her children, asks your assistance, and asks it perhaps for the last time,” was not made in vain; but not even Southern generosity could prolong the life of a fragile and overburdened woman, and Mrs. Poe died a few days later. Of Mr. Poe nothing is known subsequent to the death of his wife. The three children were scattered; Edgar being fortunate enough to awaken the interest of Mrs. John Allan, the young wife of a well-to-do business man in Richmond.

The conditions of the boy’s life were changed as by magic; he became a member of a family living in easy and comfortable ways; he was tenderly cared for and greatly admired. The fascination of his personality was already making itself felt, and his mobile and sensitive face, his luminous eyes, and his talent for declamation brought a foretaste of that applause of which he was avid by nature. Mr. Allan had not only the Scotch thrift, but the Scotch regard for education; and the child of his adoption, now become Edgar Allan Poe, had the best opportunities of his time. He went to school in Richmond for several years; a fastidiously dressed child, fond of his pony and his dogs, and easily attracting the attention and awakening the interest of many people outside his own home, in which he had all the honors of an only child. In 1815 Mr. Allan took his family to England, and Edgar entered the Manor House School, on the outskirts of London.

In this secluded English village, with its long, shaded street, the boy spent five of the most impressionable years of his life, and the surroundings and experiences of this period left an ineffaceable impress upon his imagination. The school was lodged in an old, spacious, irregular structure; the school-room was low, ceiled with oak, and lighted by Gothic windows; its desks bore the marks of generations of jackknives; the playground was wide and open to the sun; a high brick wall, with great gates studded with spikes of a size to daunt the most venturesome boy, inclosed the grounds; and beyond lay the sweet English landscape of green lanes, softly rolling fields, great trees with the memories of forgotten centuries still murmuring in their branches; and behind the visible landscape was that other landscape which is always unfolding itself to the [column 2:] imagination in that ripe old world. The neighborhood was rich in the most romantic history. The names of its walks recalled Henry and Elizabeth; Anne Boleyn and the Earl of Leicester had lived there; Essex had found his home there; and there, too, was one of the original homes of English literature, for there De Foe had written the earliest story of adventure and the earliest piece of perfectly developed fiction in the language.

The English landscape with which he became familiar never faded, and reappeared, especially in its architectural features, again and again in his stories. The mellow atmosphere, the gnarled and mossy trees, the half-ruined house, the rich verdure of meadow and lane, were easily touched with an overripe and melancholy beauty, akin to the loneliness of desolate spirits .and solitary experiences, by the active imagination of a later period.

The Allans returned to Richmond in 1820, and Edgar became the pupil of a solemn and pedantic Irishman, read the classics, made Latin verses, and gained greater ease in French. He had already begun to write verses, but his schoolfellows knew him as a brilliant student, irregular and desultory in his work, but doing with ease whatever he undertook; lacking in accuracy and thoroughness, but quick and versatile; fond of reading; satirical in temper; slight in figure, but well made, sinewy, active, and graceful; a daring swimmer; scrupulously neat in dress and noticeably courteous in manner. He had winning qualities, but he was not popular with his fellows. The fact that he was the child of strolling players was not forgotten by them nor by himself; through all the luxury which surrounded him, it remained a painful reminder of other and less fortunate conditions. He was proud, solitary, and the slight chill of disapproval in the air about him evoked a defiant spirit. One who was on terms approaching intimacy with him described him as “self-willed, capricious, inclined to be imperious, and, though of generous impulses, not steadily kind or even amiable.’‘ There was something in his nature, then and later, which held him back from complete confidence in men; he had warm friends among men, and at least two women were devoted to him; but the frank and generous freedom, [page 53:] the wholesome interchange of confidence between man and man, he seems never to have known. There was a touch of unreality in his life, as there was, later, in his art; he was not only a dreamer, as some of the sanest men have been, but he never quite clearly discovered and accepted the distance between the actual and the imaginary. One never feels entirely at home with him; not because such unusual tracts of experience are open to him, but because there is an elusive element in him — a lack of large, deep, rich [column 2:] humanity beneath his talent. This element of unreality made solid friendship quite impossible; and it limited his art in certain respects quite as distinctly as it limited his character.

While he was in this critical stage of adolescence, Poe lost a friend who might have been a steadying influence in the perilous years before him; a lovely, generous, and gracious woman, whose first sympathetic words to him thrilled his heart and evoked a passionate devotion. Mrs. Stanard was the mother of one cf his mates, and had, therefore, ready access to his confidence; she became his confidante, and he lavished upon her the affection which he would have given his mother. But within a few months she died, and the boy, who had found warmth and light in her comprehending affection, was almost prostrated by grief. He haunted her grave, and, in the passionate melancholy which possessed him, became aware of the tragic resources of a temperament singularly accessible to misfortune and singularly sensitive to the mystery of grief and despair — a temperament which seemed to assimilate the latent sadness of life, and to respond to the experiences of the outcast and despairing souls in a speech, both in prose and verse, which magically gave back their most elusive tones.

In 1825 Poe entered the University of Virginia, which in that year opened its doors to students and began its influential career; an institution then, and still, in many respects, unique in the academic world. He was in his seventeenth year, compactly built, somewhat short in stature, his face touched with sadness, but readily becoming animated. He entered the schools of ancient and modern languages, studied Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian, after a desultory fashion; played cards for stakes, and showed that taste for strong drink which later made his career a tragedy. At this period gambling rather than excessive drinking was his undoing. Becoming involved in debt, he had to invoke the aid of Mr. Allan, who paid his debts in Charlottesville, but refused to make good his losses at play, amounting to the very respectable sum of twenty-five hundred dollars. Poe remained at the University until the close of the session, and returned home with honors in Latin and French to find that his future was to be in Mr. Allan’s counting-room. His irregularities had cost him his educational opportunities.

He took his place in Mr. Allan’s counting-room only to disappear and begin the unsettled, roving career which never again found permanent lodgment or shelter. He next appears in Boston, where he made his first venture in the field to which his tastes and his genius were steadily and with increasing insistence drawing him. “Tamerlane and Other Poems “ was the venture of an amateur publisher, but it had [column 2:] some success. It revealed the sensibility of a poetic nature rather than poetic power; it was full of traces of imitation, and its chief interest lies in the light which it throws on Poe’s mind and growth. Byron was in the full tide of his immense influence upon young men of imaginative temper, and Poe did not escape a fever which was not only highly contagious, but, in the case of all weak victims, fatal to original and natural development. Byron’s colossal pride found a quick soil in Poe’s nature, and confirmed his tendency to idealize pride as a heroic quality.

But a slender volume of verse was a very fragile reed to lean upon, and, by way of cutting the Gordian knot with a sword, in 1827 Poe enlisted in the United States army as a private soldier, under the name of Edgar A. Perry. After a service of two years, in which he appears to have done his work with entire fidelity and noticeable efficiency, he was discharged, largely through the kindly offices of Mr. Allan, with whom he had effected a reconciliation. About this time he wrote: “I am young — not yet twenty; am a poet — if deep worship of all beauty can make me one — and wish to be so in the common meaning of the word. I would give the world to embody one-half ‘the ideas afloat in my imagination;” and, by way of justifying these statements, “ Al Aaraaf,” “Tamerlane,” and “Minor Poems” were published in Baltimore in 1829. The habit of slightly or radically revising a piece of work which had already appeared, and sending it out in a new form, dates from his second volume, and grew upon him as time went on. “Al Aaraaf “ was an obscure allegory, with a brief narrative passage and an abrupt ending; “Tamerlane” showed signs of careful revision, but gained, rather than lost, in imitative quality. In “Fairyland” alone among his earliest poems is there a clear and convincing glimpse of Poe’s genius.

In the following year Poe is found at West Point; Mr. Allan had married a second time, and had, in his judgment, finally disposed of his difficult ward by securing for him an appointment to the Military Academy. He is described at this period as shy and reserved, associating mainly with cadets from Virginia, a ready French scholar, apt at mathematics, an omnivorous reader of books; but neglectful, and even [page 55:] contemptuous, of military duties. He paid no regard to the routine of roll-call, drill, and guard duty was often under arrest, and at the end of six months’ service was dismissed by court martial, on the charge of absenting himself from various military and academic duties, and of disobeying on two occasions the orders of the officer of the day. In March, 1831, Poe was again free to seek his fortune, and he was again penniless. He had arranged, meantime, for the publication of a new edition of his works, and the volume entitled “Poems” appeared, this time in New York. It was a new edition in name only. From the previously published volume six poems were omitted, several were greatly changed, and six additional pieces were included. With the appearance of these new pieces all doubt about Poe’s genius was finally dispelled; for these additional poems were “Lenore,” “The Valley of Unrest,” “The City in the Sea,” “To Helen,” and “Israfel.” These poems were to attain perfection by many later touches, but both in conception and in form they disclose all that was original and distinctive in Poe’s mind and art. He was already traversing those remote and mysterious worlds, lighted by low moons, haunted by strange tragic figures, with backgrounds of marvelously drawn landscape, somber, weird, and solitary, with which he was to familiarize his readers both in prose and verse; while his art shows perfect sympathy and understanding between his thought and his skill. He had the magic of style; he was a master of sound if not of language, and more perfectly than any other American poet he knows how to beguile the ear by a melody which is at once simple and mysterious which captivates the instant it is heard, and yet eludes all attempts at successful imitation. There is something hypnotic in the spell of his verse, which gives one an uneasy sense that he is yielding to a charm addressed to his senses rather than to his imagination. In “The Raven” and “The Bells” this hypnotic quality is at its highest, and the higher poetic quality at its lowest; the outer courts of the soul are swept with sound, but the inner court remains silent.

This question about the reality of his art and its entire sincerity has undoubtedly stood in the way, not of its wider, but of [column 2:] its higher appreciation in this country. But this suspicion of the predominance of a purely sensuous over genuine poetic quality, which finds confirmation in “ The Raven” and “The Bells,” has no place in the consideration of such perfection of sense and sound as the lines “To Helen,” “The City in the Sea,” and “Israfel.” The first of these pieces is so slight in thought that its charm will hardly bear analysis; the second is a piece of description which shows Poe’s power of this kind at its best; the third is not only the most tender and beautiful expression of Poe’s genius, but in the region of pure song it is one of the finalities in American poetry. In imaginative conception and in form it may even be said to be one of the finalities of modern art. It has the ease, the floating quality, the natural magic, of those rare lyrics which are equally at home in the memory and the heart of the race.

Meantime the poet was barely recognized, was without means of support, had exhausted the patience of Mr. Allan, wasted several opportunities, and was now to face the world at his own charges. He made his next experiment in the art of living in Baltimore, where he had friends, and where there were a number of litterateurs of local importance, and a weekly literary journal. This journal, the “ Saturday Visitor,” offered a prize of one hundred dollars for the best prose story; and the prize was awarded to “A MS. Found in a Bottle,” and the story was published in the autumn of 1833. Poe’s fortunes were at so low an ebb that he was declining invitations because he could not dress presentably, and the stimulus of success in a practical form was of immense value to him. He was living with his father’s widowed sister, Mrs. Clemm, whose daughter, Virginia, was then eleven years old. The poet had now fairly launched himself on the uncertain tide of literary fortune, had clearly shown his individual quality both in prose and verse, and there was but one more event needed to commit him entirely to his profession, and that event came in 1834, when Mr. Allan died and left him without an inheritance. He was writing stories and criticisms, and he was drinking too often and too freely. His sensitive nervous system, his irregular life, the privation and strain [page 56:] of constant change and uncertainty, his fitful and melancholy temperament, and the intensity of his imagination, made him an easy prey to intemperance, and an easily shattered victim. Nothing could have saved him except a strong will; and, unluckily, he belonged to the class whose temperaments command their will. At this time, however, his excesses were infrequent, and there is no doubt of the sincerity of his effort to free himself from a weakness to the perils of which he seems never to have been blind.

The attachment between Poe and his cousin Virginia ripened into love, and became the deepest and noblest passion of his life. The sensitive girl was barely thirteen, but in September, IS35, the marriage took place. Poe had removed to Richmond, was editing the Southern “Literary Messenger,” and was writing poems, stories, and reviews with evident ease and delight. In one of these stories Poe brings on the stage the figure in whose temperament and fate he was most deeply interested, and who, under various names, was to reappear again and again in his later tales.

Egæus in “Berenice” belongs to the race of visionaries whose sphere of interest and experience touches the realities of life only at rare intervals, and then solely for the sake of heightening the sense of its difference and remoteness. Gloomy towers, gray hereditary halls, a solitary and desolate landscape, subtly suggest to the senses the tragedy of disordered fancy, morbid temperament, diseased will, and abnormal fate which is to be worked out in a series of impressions designed to envelop the reader in an atmosphere of melancholy forebodings. The moment one breathes the air of Poe’s tales an oppressive sense of something ominous and sinister is felt. For Poe had the art which Maeterlinck has so successfully practiced, of securing possession of the reader’s mind by assailing his senses one after the other with the same set of sensations. Poe’s tales, like Maeterlinck’s plays, are marvelously constructed to shut the reader in by excluding all other objects and impressions until his imagination is entirely at the mercy of the story-teller.

Egæus has no human warmth or passion; although, like most of Poe’s heroes, he is consumed with the desire of possession. Berenice is a veritable phantasm, and never for a moment deceives us by the semblance of reality; her fate is repulsive, for Poe’s artistic feeling often failed . to keep him in the realm of pure suggestion in dealing with the horrible. In the most perfect of the prose tales, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” “Eleonora,” and “The Masque of the Red Death,” the full force of Poe’s marvelous accuracy and vraisemblance of detail is felt by the imagination; but it must be added that the failure to completely possess the mind of the reader is due to no limitation in Poe’s art; it is due to the limitation of his material. He went as far on the road to complete illusion as his subject matter permitted; but his subject matter was so largely made up of the morbid, the abnormal, the phantasmal, that it can never seem other than it was in its substance. In these tales, so full of powerful effects and charms wrought out of the potencies of sin, disease, solitary desolation, abnormal play of the senses, Poe’s artistic quality is supreme; in them, as in half a dozen poems, he is one of the modern masters of technique; and their limitations as works of art must be sought not in the skill but in the soul of the workman. That limitation is found in the fact that Poe deals with experience of a very narrow and limited kind; with emotions, passions, and tendencies which are exceptional and abnormal; with landscapes and localities which are essentially phantasmal and unreal, not in the sense of being purely imaginary, but of lying outside the range of imagination creating along lines of normal activity.

In the exact degree in which a writer deals with life in the most inclusive forms of experience does he reveal breadth of view, sanity of insight, and constructive power. These are the characteristics of writers of the first and second rank: of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, and of Cervantes, Moliere, Schiller, and Tennyson. And because of this breadth of view and of sympathetic insight, these writers are one and all representative or interpretative artists; they make their art the medium of the disclosure and expression of race experience on a large scale. In this representative quality Poe is almost utterly lacking; he was detached in imagination from the world about him. His [page 57:] tales and poems bear the trace of no fatherland; they have no racial marks upon them. And this lack of representative quality carries with it a certain limitation of insight, of interest, and of artistic power which excludes Poe from the company of the greater poets. He has neither the depth of emotion nor the solidity of thought which the great artists share. There is a touch of unreality about his passion as well as about his material; he is never quite convincing, even in the expression of the deepest feeling.

It is as a poet and storyteller of purely individual quality that Poe must be regarded; and in the class of those who stand apart and speak for them selves only, he holds a very sure place. His stories place him with Hoffman, his verse associates him with Leopardi and Baudelaire. He has more genius than Hoffman: his melancholy has not the tinge of bitterness which made Leopardi one of the forerunners of modern literary pessimism. He belongs with these writers, not because his work resembles theirs, but because, like them, he was a man of detached and solitary genius; with an individuality of talent so distinct that it is impossible to classify him; indeed, in his case, comparison with other poets and story-writers is of value chiefly as bringing into higher [column 2:] relief his unique individuality of imagination, temperament, material, and method.

It requires an entire rearrangement of the present impression of Poe to think of him chiefly, not as a poet and storywriter, but as a critic. It was as a critic, however, that he was most highly regarded although not most widely known by his contemporaries. And it was in the columns of the” Southern Literary Messenger” that his critical gift first disclosed itself. In December, 1835, Poe fastened upon a recent and widely exploited novel of a very inferior quality, “Norman Leslie,” as an example of the provincial taste which prevailed in the country and hindered the growth of a genuine literature by the failure to discriminate between the good and the bad in literary art. There was a small body of admirable writers in the country, but there was no authoritative and searching criticism. Local feelings were stronger, in many cases, than the critical instinct. The “New Englander” and the “Knickerbocker,” the two periodicals which had some claims upon cultivated opinion, were not free from local prejudices, even when they rose above personal predilections. Poe exposed the pretentious crudity of “Norman Leslie” with a frankness which was evidently not distasteful to himself, [page 58:] and with such force and intelligence that he secured instant attention and wide recognition as a critic of ideas and convictions. During the remaining sixteen years of his life Poe supported himself chiefly by editorial and journalistic work; he had inventiveness and skill in adapting to public taste the various publications with which he was connected; but he was by interest and qualification a critic of contemporary English and American literature. He lacked the spiritual insight which has made the great critics not only the custodians of the literary tradition, but the interpreters of literary art; he had neither the breadth of view of Goethe, the grasp of philosophical principles of Coleridge (of whom he was, in a sense, a pupil), nor the clear intelligence of Arnold. He was, however, a thinker with a marked aptitude for analysis, and a lover of general principles, often abstract and somewhat artificial in application, but essentially sound; he had a very keen sense of form; his knowledge was extensive, although not always accurate; and he was not averse to controversy. He was out of sympathy with the vigorous literary movement which was fast taking on large proportions in Boston; and although he spent a good deal of time in New York, the superficiality of the later Knickerbocker school was always distasteful to him.

The time was ripe for frank and disinterested criticism, and Poe not only recognized the opportunity but regarded himself as having definite reformatory work to do. He was a born lover of beauty, and of art for its own sake, without reference to anything beyond or beneath the immediate impression produced; and he was, therefore, well adapted to the task of judging a generation whose limited intelligence and uncertain taste in matters of workmanship made it the dupe or the victim of the cheap, the meretricious and pretentious in contemporary writing. His collected reviews and critical articles fill three volumes in the edition of his works edited with such scholarly thoroughness and literary judgment by Mr. Stedman and Professor Woodberry, and these selections present only a part of his work in this field; for Poe was a voluminous writer, in spite of the vicissitudes of his career. Much of his critical writing was [column 2:] of slight value; none of it is likely to survive by reason of its intrinsic interest; for Poe was creative and masterful only when his imagination was in play. But his critical work absorbed a large part of his time, it attracted wide attention among his contemporaries, and it filled an important place in the literary development of the country.

Poe was now twenty-seven, and his wife not yet fourteen. “The Messenger” was making rapid gains in influence and circulation; the Southern press was singing the praises of the young poet and critic, and the cooler judgment of the North recognized his genius; there seemed to be solid foundation for future growth and work; but at the end of eighteen months the successful young editor had resigned his position on the “Messenger” and was trying to gain a foothold in New York. Although an indefatigable worker, with a keen sense of the business aspects of editorial work and a skillful advertiser of his own successes, Poe was of a temperament which became restive under recurring duties and the necessity of observing times and seasons; there were, moreover, occasional excesses which mercilessly drained his vitality. In many respects Poe was better placed at Richmond, in charge of the leading literary journal of the South, among people who were warmly attached to him, in a section which recognized his leadership and gave him unstinted admiration, than at any other time in his troubled and wandering life. His genius placed him on an easy equality with the rising group of New England writers; he was bred under other conditions and was the exponent of a different conception of the literary art; to the didactic tendency of New England he opposed the love of beauty for its own sake; and he had uncommon skill as a controversialist. He was in a position to organize the literary forces outside of New England and to co-operate in an expression of the spiritual life of the country which would have been measurably inclusive. Unfortunately, he was the victim of his temperament, and, like all men of his class, was unable to give his work organic direction and completeness. His influence was to be very great, but it was to lie in other directions; the quality of leadership was denied him. [page 59:]

Poe reached New York when the financial panic of 1837 was at its height; established literary enterprises were in distress, and new ventures were abandoned. “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” appeared in the summer of 1838, but brought neither reputation nor material returns. It contains passages which nobody but Poe could have written; it also contains passages which no one but Poe would have permitted himself to write — passages so revolting in detail and so nauseating that they violate the most rudimentary artistic instinct. The little family was living meantime by the aid of Mrs. Clemm’s tireless and measureless devotion to her daughter and her daughter’s husband. Among all women who have given their lives to art through vicarious sacrifice, Mrs. Clemm holds a foremost place. Her faith matched her patience, and her patience attained a kind of epical dignity in her uncomplaining and beautiful ministry. Poe had the refuge of his dreams, his fame, and the joy which is never denied the man of creative mind, however hard his conditions; Mrs. Clemm fought the sordid and inglorious fight with poverty day by day and gave no sign.

In the autumn of the same year the poet was trying to find work in Philadelphia. To this period belong two of his most characteristic pieces: the impressive and nobly imaginative prose sketch “Silence,” and the poem which afterwards found its true setting in “ The Fall of the House of Usher.” “The Haunted Palace” has all the mystery and magic of the poet’s genius at its best; but there lies at its heart a lesson so tragic that it must be a conclusive answer to those who hold that Poe’s gift was wholly detached from moral insight In 1839 two volumes of stories and sketches appeared, made up largely of reprints. The sale was small, [column 2:] although the books contained some of the most original work in modern literature. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia” Poe touched the high-water mark of creative and artistic skill; in sheer force of imagination fashioning a form which is at the same time sharp in outline and yet shading off everywhere into mystery, these masterpieces hold a place by themselves. In both these pieces a torch is held aloft in the gloom, and serves both to throw certain forms and figures into bold relief and to intensify the blackness of the darkness in which they are finally engulfed. Poe is seen here dealing with abnormal characters and incidents under conditions which seem to interpret and to vizualize strange and mysterious experiences, excluding with marvelous skill all distracting sound or disturbing light, and silently creating in the imagination of his reader a theater for the somber tragedy of smitten, wandering, or lost souls. In “William Wilson,” which appeared in the same collection of tales, there is the same quality of imagination, working, not in a region of phantasy, but in that of moral perversion and degeneration, with a psychologic insight which is more searching and striking in its working out than that which Stevenson brought to bear on the same problem in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In this original and impressive tale he was on Hawthorne’s ground, but the methods of the two great romancers had almost nothing in common. These stories are often classed with “The Raven” and “The Bells;” they belong, rather, in the perfection of their form and the depth of their conception, with “ Israfel “ and “ The City in the Sea.”

During the residence in Philadelphia appeared the first of those stories of ratiocination which exhibit another side of [page 60:] his mind and which have been the prolific ancestors of a host of more or less successful ventures in the field of detective story writing. “The Murders of the Rue Morgue “ belongs in the same group with “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Gold Bug,” tales which are on a much lower level of imagination than “Ligeia” and its kindred pieces, and the interest of which depends rather on pure inventiveness than on creative power. They appeal to curiosity, and are skillful rather than original. “The Descent into the Maelstrom,” which belongs to this period, is a masterpiece of swift, impressive, and absorbing narrative; while “The Masque of the Red Death” is a study in color which has an intensity out of all proportion to its incidents. In all these stories Poe was demonstrating the soundness of the principle that a writer “ having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, . . . combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. . . . In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.”

Poe was now the editor of “Graham’s Magazine,” which had made a notable success within a very short time, and was living in more comfort and apparent security than at any earlier period, when the great sorrow of his life suddenly overtook him. His delicate young wife, still hardly more than a girl, ruptured a blood-vessel while singing, hung for a long time between life and death, and was never again well. Poe’s devotion had a passionate intensity; he hung over the sickbed in an agony of apprehension, and was stretched for long years on the rack of anxiety and uncertainty. Under this terrible strain his character yielded at its weakest point.

Six years ago [he wrote at a later period], a wife, whom I loved as no man ever loved before, ruptured a blood-vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever, and underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially, and I again hoped. At the end of the year the vessel broke again. I went through precisely the same scene. . . . Then again, again, and even once again, at varying intervals. Each time I felt all the agonies of her death; and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly and clung to her life with more desperate [column 2:] pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. 1 became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these tits of absolute unconsciousness I drank — God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink, rather than the drink to the insanity.

There is no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy of this statement; and from this time Poe’s power of concentration grew weaker. He who would venture to pronounce judgment on such a career as Poe’s, in the sense of determining the moral responsibility of the victim, and striking the balance between the force of temptation in inheritance, temperament, physique, and conditions, and the power of resistance, must be either supremely rash or blindly ignorant; no such judgment is possible or necessary. Jt is equally futile to attempt to minimize the weight of the facts, or to deny their reaction on his productive power. Absolute veracity is a fundamental duty in all portraitures or estimates of men of genius; for the law under which all men live nowhere works its will more unmistakably than in the case of men of superior quality of mind. The relation of character to genius is not solely a matter of morals; it is quite as obviously a matter of psychology. To affirm that conduct and creativeness have no vital connection with one another is to confuse the facts of psychology as well as to conceal those of moral history. Artistic power is often strikingly put forth without regard to sanity of life; but genius is never completely expressed and its largest results harvested save by those who conform to the conditions of productiveness. In the last analysis, as Goethe saw so clearly, the artist is conditioned on the man; and the source of the limitations of a man’s art will be found, as a rule, in his character and life. Entire frankness, therefore, is the prime duty of the biographer and critic; the facts must have their full weight. But only the bigot will attempt to adjust the moral balance and determine the moral responsibility.

The editorship of “Graham’s “ was soon lost, with the usual accompaniment of contradictory statements regarding the cause. In 1844, with very few dollars in hand, Poe was venturing “a hazard of new fortunes” in New York. The conditions would have [page 61:] disheartened a man less hopeful ahd dating. It was almost impossible to live by writing, and Poe seemed incapable of keeping editorial positions after he secured them.

Early in 1845 “The Raven” was published; “Ulalume” and “The Sells” appeared later: With these poems the measure of Poe’s poetic expression was complete; and no American poems are so widely known. “The Raven “ is probably known by more people than any other piece of verse yet written on this continent. In these poems Poe’s technical skill is almost unsurpassed; he seems to have a magical command of sound; he knows by instinct and uses by intelligence the subtle resources of melody that lie in the open vowels; he produces the most striking effects by his masterly use of refrain and repetend. But the quality of Poe’s genius must be sought elsewhere; for there is a note of artificiality in each of these pieces of verse; they are marvelous pieces of construction, and melody seems to issue from the heart of them; but they have no spiritual root, and no deep artistic necessity fashioned them.

In New York Poe found large opportunities for work, but, with the exception of “The Bells,” he wrote little which added to his reputation or to American literature. He attacked Longfellow as a plagiarist, and failed to support the accusation; he reprinted, with changes more or less important, many of his earlier pieces; he was guilty in several instances of that exaggeration of the importance of insignificant contemporary writers which he had courageously condemned in others; and he was steadily sinking deeper into the morass which was finally to engulf him. His collected poems were published in New York under the title “The Raven, and Other Poems.” The revisions which appear in this volume are important, because they form the definitive text of his work in verse. In the preface there is a very frank confession of the obvious limitations of his poetic achievement in comparison with his genius: “Events not to be controlled 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 been, not a purpose, but a [column 2:] passion; and the passions should be held in reverence; they must not — they cannot at will — be excited, with an eye to the paltry compensations, or the more paltry commendations, of mankind.” The note of sincerity is cleat in the first statement; the note of insincerity is equally clear in the closing statements.

The cottage it Fordham, on the outskirts of New York, was overshadowed by the approaching death of Virginia and by the declining health bf Poe himself; the ravages of care, the strain of overwork, and the disintegrating force of liquor and drugs, were rapidly destroying his nervous system. The young wife, upon whom he lavished the purest and noblest passion of his life, died in January, 1847; Poe went through a long illness, and was tenderly cared for by friends, He recovered, wrote “Eureka: A Prose Poem,” in which is revealed the marvelous inventiveness of his mind, and his singular lack of real philosophical insight and grasp of principles; published “The Bells;” delivered an occasional lecture; completed “The Domain of Arnheim,”one of his most characteristic tales of fantasy, and passed through at least one personal experience which made clear the inroads of weakness upon his will and intelligence. As the end approached a deep despondency settled upon him. In June, 1850 [[1849]], he started on a journey to Richmond. In Philadelphia he had a severe attack of delirium tremens, from which he recovered sufficiently to complete his journey and to find pleasure during a three months’ stay in the hospitable capital of Virginia among friends who were glad to show him every honor. Late in September he started to return to New York. An uncertainty which is not likely to be dispelled rests on the history of the next few days; the few and tragic facts are that, on Wednesday afternoon of the following week, he was recognized in a drinking-place in Baltimore by a printer, who reported the fact to Dr. Snodgrass. The latter promptly had Poe taken to a hospital, where he was received in an unconscious condition, and there on the following Sunday he died. “Lord, help my poor soul,” was his last appeal to the mercy of God and the charity of men.

Poe made his most definite impression upon his own contemporaries by his criticism; there is evidence that he [page 62:] attached the greater importance to his prose tales; but the reading world, which often reveals a very true instinct in these matters, insists upon the higher value and significance of his poetry. And the world is right; for Poe’s genius is most completely expressed in his verse. His criticism is memorable chiefly for its historical significance; it has no place with the enduring work in this field; its author has no standing with Sainte-Beuve, Coleridge, and Arnold. His prose tales have intense individuality of conception and workmanship, and are among the most distinctive and original work yet done in America. It is by his poetry, however, that Poe must stand or fall; for in his poetry his power and his limitation are most clearly revealed. Although not in any sense a deep and consistent thinker, Poe made his art a matter of constant meditation, and, with the aid of Coleridge, had evolved a theory both of verse and short-story writing which throws clear light on his aims and methods. “The Rationale of Verse” and “The Poetic Principle” are lucid and definite in the statement of that theory. Truth, he held, appealed and gave expression to the intellect, passion stirred the heart, but beauty was the natural speech of the soul; beauty was, therefore, the expression of the deepest part of man’s nature, the immortal part; its presence liberated the noblest forces in him, excited the highest emotions, and supplied the deepest satisfactions. Under the pressure of the need of his own soul and the recognition of the beautiful in the world about him. man is impelled to create, under the forms of art, a beauty of his own in which the real and the imaginary are harmoniously blended. From this creative activity truth and passion are not to be excluded; but they are to be kept in strict subordination to the main purpose of creating a definite and overpowering impression of beauty. The soul is to be nourished and enriched, not by ethical impulse or by the vision of larger knowledge, but by the dilation of the imagination. It must be added that beauty, in Poe’s view, was a witness to the presence of the divine in the world, and had, therefore, a spiritual significance and quality. Poetry he defined as “the rhythmical creation of beauty;” he insisted upon brevity as essential to lyrical perfection, and went so [column 2:] far as to affirm that “a long poem does not exist.”

If these principles or maxims are applied to Poe’s verse, it will be found that it stands the test. No artist had made his work more consistently embody and express his conception of the aims and methods of his art. Unlike Wordsworth and Whitman, Poe gains by the approach of his poetry to his philosophy. So far as his philosophy of art was concerned, there was nothing original in it; it was, however, exactly suited to his temperament and his genius. So. far as his maxims of construction are concerned, they are the laws of his own nature rather than of art. They so nicely bring out the structure of his own work that the suspicion of the ex post facto origin cannot be avoided.

Within the limits which Poe set to the poetic art, there was ample room for the deepest and noblest activity of the poetic impulse, for Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Tennyson. Put this field was greatly narrowed by his maxims for verse-production. In this narrower field of artistic vision and power he made his great and lasting success. In at least half a dozen poems he has shown a skill akin to magic in producing a single striking and unusual effect, by concentration of interest, subordination of secondary meaning, compression of thought within a narrow compass, and the identification of the poem with a distinctive metrical effect. Within these narrow limits, imposed by his own genius, confirmed by his character, and, later, rationalized into a philosophy, Poe was a master. He fashioned, under these rules, a few poems which are finalities.

When his work is brought to the test of the supreme poetic work of the race, it is seen, however, that it has very marked limitations; it remains perfect of its kind and unique in its quality, but it lacks mass, reality, passion, and spirituality. It is devoid of humor, that great human quality which, with one or two exceptions, flows through the greatest imaginative work; it is not representative on a large scale of human life and interpretative of human experience; there is no real grasp of character in it; its formative ideas are few and lacking in depth. Poe is the most individual of our poets and the most magical; but he lacks the veracity, insight, range, and fertility of the great poet.





[S:0 - OM, 1899] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe; A Study (H. W. Mabie, 1899)