Text: Anonymous, “Edgar Allan Poe,” New York Daily Tribune (New York, NY), November 17, 1875, p. 5, cols. 1-2


[page 5, column 2, continued:]




The long-neglected sepulcher of Poe is to be marked by a monument to-day. It would be easy upon such an occasion to demonstrate at length the world’s tardy justice to men of talent, or to set forth in a cento from complaining bards the misfortunes and the miseries of genius. The present loves dearly to dwell upon neglect of merit in the past, and to reverse uncharitable and mistaken judgments — to talk indignantly of Homer blind and begging; of Milton blind and a poor schoolmaster; of Chatterton’s suicide; of the sorrows of Burns or of Byron; of the Quarterly’s unfairness to Shelley, and of its ribald ridicule of Keats. Time unquestionably does soften many resentments and consign to oblivion many weaknesses. The fortune of some writers has doubtless been a hard one; yet we believe that a fair scrutiny will show as large a proportion of success and of its material results in the literary as in any other profession. A clever Frenchman remarks that “while everybody has heard of the sorrows of genius, there has been no book written to record its happiness.” If poets are careless livers they must pay the penalty; and the number of great works in the English tongue which have not had a degree of immediate success is smaller than many, accustomed to the language of complaint, would suppose.

Poe did not differ from a great many of his predecessors; he was a man who was always needing help, and he was helped a great deal at almost every period of his short career. Left an orphan and penniless, he was adopted and treated as a son by a gentleman of fortune. He had unusual opportunities of early education in a good classical school aborad. He received what hundreds of American boys long for in vain — an appointment to the Military Academy of the nation. Mr. White gave him employment upon The Southern Literary Messenger; Mr. Burton gave him work upon one magazine, Mr. Graham upon another. Mr. Willis upon a newspaper; for his books he seems never to have had any difficulty in finding publishers — at any rate the books were published; when he could and would lecture, lyceums and other associations were glad to secure his services; and in society, and especially by some excellent literary ladies, he was treated with marked and constant kindness. But he was not a man whom it was easy to help. He would labor only when he pleased, and do only what the feeling of the moment prompted. His bread was to be earned, if at all, by periodical writing; for the pages of magazines, reviews, and newspapers the material must be regularly supplied, and for regularity of that kind, Mr. Poe was not remarkable. Mr. White, his steady friend, had a great deal to bear; Mr. Burton once found at the last moment that all preparation for the next number of the magazine had been neglected; the Society in Boston which engaged Mr. Poe for a poem was put off with a juvenile production; and the poet afterward boasted of the deceit. So it is not true that Mr. Poe was neglected. Few writers of his time met with more constant and substantial encouragement. But the habits of the man were hopelessly erratic. He has been charged with ingratitude toward those who befriended him, and the charge has also been denied; but it will hardly be denied that in his literary work he was exceedingly aggressive. Nothing pleased him better than to run a muck among the writers of his time. He loved dearly to tear a great reputation to pieces. He equally loved to impale obscure offenders upon his critical pen. He had no mercy, and to be merciless is not the way to make friends. Criticism there must be; but the criticism which delights in giving pain is neither profitable nor necessary, nor is it more tolerable when it is shaped mainly to exhibit the critic’s cleverness and ingenuity. There is no work, however noble of venerable, which may not be so misrepresented as to render it ridiculous; but the minor poets who wore flayed by Mr. Poe were neither noble nor venerable; while abler writers who were subjected to his peculiar processes survived attacks which were more amusing than effective or useful.

Still, whatever may have been the acrimony of Mr. Poe’s critical writings, whatever its somewhat more than occasional unfairness, one must not disregard its frequent justice and accuracy. Circumstances, exigencies, his own waywardness, sometimes made him the most insincere of men; yet his love of complete and perfect work, his rigid literary method, and his inborn hatred of literary shams and pretenses, are not to be denied. His tales are wonderful instances of the mechanical informed by the ideal. He is a DeFoe without realism — a Swift without hard and over-accumulated detail. Both in his prose and in his poetry he presents an admirable example of the advantage of keeping the imagination well restrained by art. In his highest and wildest flight, in his deepest and saddest dream, whether he is invoking the demons of his own personal mythology or apostrophizing the good angels to whose keeping Destiny has committed his lost love, no frenzy overpowers his clear intellect, and he is a magician who is master of all his resources. It would be saying to much to say that he did not feel; he was very far from being a mere practitioner of vulgar thaumaturgy; but in the quality of suggesting more than it expresses, in that subtle skill which fits the meaning to the mood of the reader, in that verbal melody which has the mysterious and unspeakable purport of all music, Mr. Poe’s poetry stands in the very first class. Nothing can be more erroneous than to consider this method of elevated suggestion as of modern origin. It is older than the Prophets; it is as old as the mystic theologies of the East; it is the secret of all song which depends upon the deliberate receptivity of the listener; of all inspirations which pique the ages; of all problems which have a new solution for every new nature which strives to grasp them; of all the utterances in unknown tongues which make the question of what is meant, impertinent. “Here I pause,” says De Quincey in one of his finest essays, “to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind. It is the meanest faculty and the most to be distrusted.”

The poem by which Poe is best known is “The Raven,” which he seems to have written, partly at least, as an experiment in versification. This was an exercise of which he was exceedingly fond, and about which he had several striking theories. Apart from its meaning, whatever that may be, the piece is interesting merely as a study of rhythm. The double rhymes, the pauses and the cadences which suggest both, give a peculiarly melodious character to the lines, while the iteration of musical phrases furnishes a key-note which colors the whole performances. The characteristic tone is wonderfully sustained. It is in the minor mood, and the melancholy is intensified to the end, being here and there hightened [[heightened]] by touches almost of pleasantry, which are like sunbeams breaking through the rifted clouds. It is a poem with a pulse in it which never stops beating, sometimes with the sluggishness of despair and sometimes with the rapidity of fevered frenzy. The informing spirit is that of “the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore.” An ordinary verse-maker would have continually repeated this beautiful name, making it, in two senses, the burden of the work; Poe better produces the same effect by a masterly frugality of repetition; but in the second and fifth verses, by its sudden and rapid duplication, he fixes “Lenore” in the ear of the reader; and afterwards all the rhymes are continually suggesting it, and especially the mysterious “Nevermore!” until, as the crescendo culminates, he twice repeats the double “Lenore” in the fourteenth and sixteenth stanzas, and closes with the despairing sob of a “Nevermore!” which is final. Meanwhile, all the accessories are in perfect keeping. All is picture which is not sound. The very luxury of the apartment imparts a sensuous effect — the purple curtains, the gloating lamp-light, the velvet violet lining of the chair. The pallid bust of Pallas is a suggestion, and upon this perches “The Raven,” which is itself from beginning to end a character — “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, ominous,” and yet “stately” and “with many a flirt and flutter.” The single croaking word which it utters “is its only stock and store” — its pitiless response to the piteous cry of [column 2:] “Lenore!” So with the wail of a soul that never will be lifted from the shadow, this symphony of despair is concluded. Mr. Poe, who to the end of his short day never rid himself of a cheap habit of mystification, furnished an explanation of the method which he employed in the construction of this unique poem. It is of little value. He might have furnished, if he had pleased, a dozen different explanations. An artist who takes you into his confidence and tells you the secret of his art, is always to be distrusted; and Mr. Poe’s analysis of “The Raven” has the air of an afterthought. The poem, like many others of the same character, sand itself, following, however, the law of the genius which controlled its structure. In “The Bells,” a poem which has been greatly overrated, the dexterity exhibited in “The Raven” degenerates into mere charlatanry, and its delicacy into a florid coarseness. There is no lack of suggestion, but it seems to us generally thin; the prevailing tone is melodramatic, while here and there is a perilous approach to actual absurdity, and the lyrical extravagance of Victor Hugo.

Of the prose works of Mr. Poe it is hardly necessary for us to speak at length. His tales won early popularity, and have kept it. He is one of the best of story-tellers, and especially clever in the use of the supernatural, while his manipulation of his scheme is painstaking and curious. He creates and unravels mysteries with great ingenuity; and some of his prose in the qualities of fancy and imagination gives us a higher idea of his genius and talent than that which we receive from even the best of his verse.

The feelings with which we turn from the consideration of Mr. Poe’s works, are those of admiration and regret. Most of what he did is so remarkably well done that, with prolonged life and more regular literary habits, he might have given to the world some book of first-rate importance. He might have written a great poem; he might have constructed a great philosophical romance; he might have contributed something to the advancement of science, if only his life had been longer and had been wise. For he was but thirty-eight years old, when the troubled dream of his earthly existence ended in tragedy, and the vexed spirit, wearier than men may think, of its own errors and mistakes, sunk to the repose of the tomb at last. It is easy to criticise; it is easy to find fault; but at this moment when kindly hands are raising a memento above the dust of one whose career was full of doubt and danger and disappointment, let us forget his weaknesses and remember only his merits!






[S:0 - NYDT, November 17, 1875] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (Anonymous, 1875)