Text: John H. Ingram, “Chapter 12,” Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters, and Opinions (1886), pp. 146-166


[page 146:]

( 146 )



FOR the five months following Poe’s secession, nothing of his of any consequence appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine. The purchaser, Mr. Graham, was not only a man of literary proclivities but also a shrewd man of business, and he speedily recognised the value of the ex-editor’s services. In November, therefore, he arranged with Poe to resume his former post on the magazine, which from the beginning of the forthcoming new year was to be amalgamated with another periodical styled the Casket, and henceforward was to be known as Graham’s Magazine. To the last — the December — number of the Gentleman’s, Poe contributed his gruesome sketch, ” The Man of the Crowd.” This weird record of the solitude-dreading mortal — this impersonation of La Bruyere’s “grand malheur de ne pouvoir étre seul” — appeals more strongly to the human heart than any of its author’s other prose works, the majority of which, as is so generally acknowledged, subdue the intellect only. What a fascination for the thoughtful, whose thinking is prompted by heart as well as brain, lurks in these opening sentences of the tale!

“It was well said of a certain German book that ‘es läszt sich nicht lesen’ — it does not permit itself to be read. There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told. Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors, and looking [page 147:] them piteously in the eyes, die with despair of heart and convulsion in throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And thus the essence of all crime is undivulged.”

The description of a convalescent’s feelings of serene contentment in the return of health, when he finds himself “in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui — moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs,” is a faithful portrayal of the experience of many, and is, therefore, widely different from Poe’s usual psychological observations, which are mostly based upon the outre and the abnormal. “The Man of the Crowd” stands forth as a specimen of its author’s real genius-his masterly powers of combined suggestiveness and description.

From the beginning of 1841, and for some time henceforward, the history of Edgar Poe is merged into, and becomes chiefly, the recital of his literary labours, the most remarkable of which now consisted of contributions to Graham’s Magazine. The worthy proprietor of that publication speedily received due reward for his appreciation of Poe’s talents. Indeed, it is declared that in a little less than two years the number of subscribers to the magazine increased from five to fifty-two thousand, and this, although aided by Mr. Graham’s liberality to his contributors, was mainly due to the new editor. His daring critiques, his analytic essays, and his weird stories, following one another in rapid succession, startled the public, and [page 148:] compelled it to an acknowledgment of his powers. New enemies were created, however, by the dauntless intrepidity with which he assailed the fragile reputations of the small bookmakers, especially in his pungent papers on “Autography.”

In the April number of Graham’s appeared Poe’s world-famed story of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” It was the first of a series-the series aptly termed by Eaudelaire, “une espéce de trilogie” — illustrative of an analytic phase of its author’s complex mind. The particular idiosyncrasy in which the tale germinated is thus introduced in the exordium:

“The mental features discoursed of as the analytical are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension preternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.

“The faculty of re-solution is possibly much invigorated by mathematical study, and especially by that highest branch of it which, unjustly, and merely on account of its retrograde operations, has been called, as if par excellence, analysis. Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyse. A chess-player, for example, does the one without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. . . . I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the [page 149:] unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play. If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat. The possible moves being not only manifold but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers. In draughts, on the contrary, where the moves are unique and have but little variation, the probabilities of inadvertence are diminished, and the mere attention being left comparatively unemployed, what advantages are obtained by either party are obtained by superior acumen. To be less abstract — let us suppose a game of draughts where the pieces are reduced to four kings, and where, of course, no oversight is to be expected. It is obvious that here the victory can be decided (the players being at all equal) only by some recherché movement, the result of some strong exertion of the intellect. Deprived of ordinary resources, the analyst throws himself into the spirit of his opponent, identifies himself therewith, and not unfrequently sees thus, at a glance, the sole methods (sometimes indeed absurdly simple ones) by which he may seduce into error or hurry into miscalculation.

“Whist has long been noted for its influence upon what is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight in it, while eschewing chess as frivolous. Beyond doubt there is nothing of a similar nature so greatly tasking the faculty of analysis. The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies capacity for success in all those more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind. When I say proficiency, I mean that perfection in the game which includes a comprehension of all the sources whence legitimate advantage may be derived. These are not only manifold but multiform, and lie frequently among recesses of thought altogether inaccessible to the ordinary understanding. To observe attentively is [page 150:] to remember distinctly; and, so far, the concentrative chessplayer will do very well at whist; while the rules of Hoyle (themselves based upon the mere mechanism of the game) are sufficiently and generally comprehensible. Thus to have a retentive memory, and to proceed by ‘the book,’ are points commonly regarded as the sum total of good playing. But it is in matters beyond the limits of mere rule that the skill of the analyst is evinced. He makes, in silence, a host of observations and inferences. So, perhaps, do his companions; and the difference in the extent of the information obtained lies not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation. The necessary knowledge is that of what to observe. Our player confines himself not at all; nor, because the game is the object, does he reject deductions from things external to the game. He examines the countenance of his partner, comparing it carefully with that of each of his opponents. He considers the mode of assorting the cards in each hand; often counting trump by trump, and honour by honour, through the glances bestowed by their holders upon each. He notes every variation of face as the play progresses, gathering a fund of thought from the differences in the expression of certainty, of surprise, of triumph, or of chagrin, From the manner of gathering up a trick he judges whether the person taking it can make another in the suit. He recognises what is played through feint, by the air with which it is thrown upon the table. A casual or inadvertent word; the accidental dropping or turning of a card, with the accompanying anxiety or carelessness in regard to its concealment; the counting of the tricks, with the order of their arrangement; embarrassment, hesitation, eagerness or trepidation — all afford, to his apparently intuitive perception, indications of the true state of affairs. The first two or three rounds having been played, he is in full possession of the contents of each hand, and thenceforward puts down his cards with as absolute a precision of purpose as if the rest of the party had turned outward the faces of their own.

“The analytical power should not be confounded with simple ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis. The constructive or combining power, by which [page 151:] ingenuity is usually manifested, and to which the phrenologists (I believe erroneously) have assigned a separate organ, supposing it a primitive faculty, has been so frequently seen in those whose intellect bordered otherwise upon idiocy, as to have attracted general observation among writers on morals. Between ingenuity and the analytic ability there exists a difference far greater indeed than that between the fancy and the imagination, but of a character very strictly analogous. It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.”

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (as also the two narratives in a similar strain which shortly followed), are desired by their author to be read somewhat in the light of commentaries upon the propositions advanced in the preceding remarks. Accepted as fiction merely, their merit is pre-eminently conspicuous, but as demonstrations of the mental problems to which they refer, they deserve the earnest attention of the psychologist and moral philosopher, and entitle Poe’s works to study in quarters where the productions of the mere romancist are rarely or never known.

Poe’s name was first introduced to the French public by ” The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the tale, shortly after its appearance in Graham’s, being copied with complimentary comment into the Paris Charivari, the translator objecting, however, that no such street as the Rue Morgue existed (“so far as he knew,” says Poe) in Paris. This circumstance was also cited in after years by Baudelaire as one of a series of proofs that the poet had never visited the French metropolis! Some years later the tale reappeared in Le Commerce, as an original feuilleton, under the title of ” L‘Orang-Otang,” [page 152:] and shortly afterwards La Quotidienne, aware, apparently, of the source whence the work had been obtained, transferred it bodily to its own columns. This being noticed by a third journal as a case of gross plagiarism, a lawsuit was instituted, during the hearing of which Le Commerce proved that Edgar Poe was the real and sole author of the story in question. The interest created by this legal inquiry induced Madame Isabella Meunier to translate several of Poe’s tales for the Democratic Pacifique and other French journals.

In the May number of Graham’s appeared another of Poe’s prose chefs d’œuvre, the weird narrative entitled “A Descent into the Maelstrom.” Scientific truth and artistically blended than idiosyncratic tale natural secret that vortex, offers more poetic invention have never been more in this most marvellous and its author having learned the a cylindrical body, revolving in a resistance to its suction, and is consequently drawn into it with greater difficulty than bodies of any other form of equal bulk, instead of inditing a chapter on mechanics, charms all readers with a story of weird and fascinating power.

On the first of the same month he contributed to the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post — a paper belonging to Mr. Graham, and for which Poe wrote critiques — another startling manifestation of his analytic capabilities, in a prospective review of Dickens’s story of “Barnaby Rudge.” In this review the poet explained with mathematical exactitude what should be the plot of the as-yet-unwritten story, and the correctness of his solution drew from Dickens a letter of flattering acknowledgment, in which he inquired [page 153:] whether Mr. Poe had dealings with the devil. Alluding to the poet’s wonderful analysis of his plot, Dickens says, ” By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.” Some years later, Poe, commenting upon this remark, after noting that this was not the precise mode of procedure on Godwin’s part, says, “But the author of ‘Caleb Williams’ was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process,” a process, indeed, not altogether divergent from Poe’s own acknowledged method of retaining the dénouement of his work always before him, and subordinating all incident, tone, even verbal combination, to the development of this idea. But for deficiency in construction of plot he criticised the author of ” Pickwick,” deeming that he had no positive genius for adaptation, and still less, in Poe’s judgment, “for that metaphysical art in which the souls of all mysteries lie,” yet apart from this drawback, he expressed an intense reverence for Dickens, deeming him England’s greatest living novelist.

In the July number of Graham’s Poe reverted to his favourite theme of cryptography, in an article styled “A few Words on Secret Writing.” It was a subject to which he had already devoted some time, both at home and in the papers of New York and Philadelphia, and this magazine article was the result of, and in connection with, his challenges to the public to produce a cryptographic riddle he should not be able to resolve. “The facility with which he would [page 154:] unravel the most dark and perplexing ciphers,” writes a clerical friend, “was really supernatural. Out of a most confused medley of letters, figures, and cabalistic characters, in any of the seven different languages, the English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin and Greek, his wonderful power of analysis would, almost at once, evolve sense, order, and beauty; and of the hundreds of cryptographs which lie received while editor of one of our popular periodicals, he never failed to solve one unless it was illegitimate, that is, unless its author put it together not intending to have it made sense. During a visit which he paid to Lowell, designing to test his cryptographical skill, I wrote a short paragraph somewhat in the following fashion.* . . . The sentence was this: —

“ ‘The patient was severely attacked with spasms and acute pain in the hypogastric region; remedial agents were employed; but without effect, and death soon ensued.’ This rendered into cipher in the manner shown* above would be: — ‘Gurengvragjuffrireryl nggnpxrgjigufonfzfnagnghgrenvavagurulcbtnfgevpertvb aerzrgrnyntragfjrerrzcybirgohgjigubbgrssrpgnagqrngufb bararafirq.’

“Mr. Poe solved this cipher in one-fifth of the time it tool. me to write it. This, however, is one of the most simple forms of cryptography.”

In his magazine article, Poe deemed it scarcely possible to “imagine a time when there did not exist a necessity, or at least a desire, of transmitting information from one individual to another in such manner as to elude general comprehension,” and, whilst tracing the history of the art of secret writing from dim antiquity, [page 155:] he propounds the dictum, that “means of secret intercommunication must have existed almost contemporaneously with the invention of letters.” Further dilating upon the congenial theme, he says: —

“Few persons can be made to believe that it is not quite an easy thing to invent a method of secret writing which shall bate investigation. Yet it may be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve. In the facility with which such writing is deciphered, however, there exist very remarkable differences in different intellects. Often, in the case of two individuals of acknowledged equality as regards ordinary mental efforts, it will be found that, while one cannot unriddle the commonest cipher, the other will scarcely be puzzled by the most abstruse. It may be observed generally that in such investigations the analytic ability is very forcibly called into action; and, for this reason, cryptographical solutions might with great propriety be introduced into academies as the means of giving tone to the most important of the powers of mind. . . .

“At a cursory glance, these various modes of constructing a cipher seem to have about them an air of inscrutable secrecy. It appears almost an impossibility to unriddle what has been put together by so complex a method. And to some persons the difficulty might be great; but to others — to those skilled in deciphering-such enigmas are very simple indeed. The reader should bear in mind that the basis of the whole art of solution, as far as regards these matters, is found in the general principles of the formation of language itself, and thus is altogether independent of the particular laws which govern any cipher, or the construction of its key. The difficulty of reading a cryptographical puzzle is by no means always in accordance with the labour or ingenuity with which it has been constructed. The sole use of the key, indeed, is for those au fait to the cipher; in its perusal by a third party, no reference is had to it at all. The lock of the secret is picked. In the different methods of cryptography specified above,* it will be [page 156:] observed that there is a gradually increasing complexity. Put this complexity is only in shadow. It has no substance whatever. It appertains merely to the formation, and has no bearing upon the solution of the cipher. The last mode mentioned is not in the least degree more difficult to be deciphered than the first, whatever may be the difficulty of either.”

Some amusing incidents growing out of Poe’s dealings with cryptology are thus reverted to: —

“In the discussion of an analogous subject, in one of the weekly papers* of this city, about eighteen months ago, the writer of this article had occasion to speak of the application of a rigorous method in all forms of thought — of its advantages — of the extension of its use even to what is considered the operation of pure fancy — and thus, subsequently, of the solution of cipher. He even ventured to assert that no cipher, of the character above specified, could be sent to the address of the paper, which he would not be able to resolve. This challenge excited, most unexpectedly, a very lively interest among the numerous readers of the journal. Letters were poured in upon the editor from all parts of the country; and many of the writers of these epistles were so convinced of the impenetrability of their mysteries, as to be at great pains to draw him into wagers on the subject. At the same time, they were not always scrupulous about sticking to the point. The cryptographs were, in numerous instances, altogether beyond the limits defined in the beginning. Foreign languages were employed. Words and sentences were run together with out interval. Several alphabets were used in the same cipher. One gentleman, but moderately endowed with conscientiousness, inditing us a puzzle composed of pothooks and hangers to which the wildest typography of the office could afford nothing similar, went even so far as to jumble together no less than seven distinct alphabets, without intervals between the letters or between the lines. Many of the cryptographs were dated in Philadelphia, and several [page 157:] of those which urged the subject of a bet were written by gentlemen of this city. Out of, perhaps, one hundred ciphers altogether received, there was only one which we did not immediately succeed in resolving. This one we demonstrated to be an imposition; that is to say, we fully proved it a jargon of random characters, having no meaning whatever. In respect to the epistle of the seven alphabets, we had the pleasure of completely nonpluss-ing its inditer by a prompt and satisfactory translation.

“The weekly paper mentioned was, for a period of some months, greatly occupied with the hieroglyphic and cabalistic-looking solutions of the cryptographs sent us from all quarters. Yet, with the exception of the writers of the ciphers, we do not believe that any individuals could have been found among the readers of the journal who regarded the matter in any other light than in that of a desperate humbug. We mean to say that no one really believed in the authenticity of the answers. One party averred that the mysterious figures were only inserted to give a queer air to the paper, for the purpose of attracting attention. Another thought it more probable that we not only solved the ciphers, but put them together ourselves for solution. This having been the state of affairs at the period when it was thought expedient to decline further dealings in necromancy, the writer of this article avails himself of the present opportunity to maintain the truth of the journal in question-to repel the charges of rigmarole by which it was assailed — and to declare, in his own name, that the ciphers were all written in good faith, and solved in the same spirit.”

The interest and excitement created by this public discussion on secret writing continually increased; and Poe, not lilting to be conquered, continually wasted valuable time and labour on the, to him, unprofitable occupation of correspondence there anent, until, in the August Dumber of Graham’s Magazine, the following correspondence and comments commenced: —

“Just as we were going to press with the last sheet of this number,” writes the editor, “we received the following [page 158:] letter from the well-known author of ‘Clinton Bradshawe,’ ’ Howard Pinckney,’ &c., &c.: —

“ ‘My DEAR SIR, — The enclosed cryptograph is from a friend of mine [Dr. Frailey], who thinks he can puzzle you. If you decipher it, then you are a magician; for he has used, as I think, the greatest art in making it. — Your friend,

‘F. W. THOMAS.’ ”

There is no necessity to cite the intricate puzzle which followed this note, in reply to which Poe said “By return of mail we sent the solution to Mr. Thomas; but as the cipher is an exceedingly ingenious one, we forbear publishing its translation here, and prefer testing the ability of our readers to solve it. We will give a year’s subscription to the magazine, and also a year’s subscription to the “Saturday Evening Post,” to any person, or rather to the first person, who shall read us this riddle. We have no expectation that it will be read; and therefore, should the month pass without an answer forthcoming, we will furnish the key to the cipher, and again offer a year’s subscription to the magazine, to any person — who shall solve it with the key.” To this Poe appended the statement that, in the magazine, he had only undertaken to decipher a certain class of cryptographs, and to this limit he must hold his correspondents, adding, “To be sure, we said that ‘human ingenuity could not construct a cipher which human ingenuity could not resolve;’ but then we do not propose, just now, to make ourselves individually the test of ‘human ingenuity’ in general. We do not propose to solve all ciphers. Whether we can or cannot do this is a question for another day — a day when we have more leisure than at present we have any hope of enjoying. The most simple cryptograph [page 159:] requires, in its solution, labour, patience, and much time. We therefore abide by the limits of our cartel. It is true that in attempting the perusal of Dr. Frailey’s we have exceeded these limits by very much; but we were seduced into the endeavour to read it by the decided manner in which an opinion was expressed that we could not.”

Of Graham’s many thousands of readers none had solved the puzzle by the time stated; its solution was, therefore, furnished in the October number, together with a letter from Dr. Frailey of Washington, as an evidence not only of its correctness but also of its attendant difficulties, not that such proof seemed requisite, after the failure of the public to decipher the enigma. It will be seen that, in order to increase the embarrassment of the would-be elucidator, the doctor had used arbitrary characters to represent whole words, which, taken in connection with the other difficulties mentioned in his note, and the extraordinary phraseology employed, enables us to better appreciate the work accomplished: —

“WASHINGTON, July 6, 1841.

“DEAR SIR, — It gives me pleasure to state that the reading by Mr. Poe, of the cryptograph which I gave you a few days since for transmission to him, is correct.

“I am the more astonished at this, since for various words of two, three, and four letters, a distinct character was used for each, in order to prevent the discovery of some of those words, by their frequent repetition in a cryptograph of any length, and applying them to other words. I also used a distinct character for the terminations tion and sion, and substituted in every word where it was possible, some of the char acters above alluded to. Where the same word of two of those letters occurred frequently, the letters of the key-phrase [page 160:] and the characters were alternately used, to increase the difficulty. — As ever, yours, &c., ” CHARLES S. FRAILEY.

“To F. W. THOMAS, Esq.”

This note from the propounder of the cryptograph was enclosed in the following letter from Poe’s friend, Thomas: —

“WASHINGTON, July 6, 1841.

“MY DEAR SIR, This morning I received yours of yesterday, deciphering the ‘cryptograph’ which I sent you last week from my friend, Doctor Frailey. You request that I would obtain the Doctor’s acknowledgment of your solution; I have just received the enclosed from him.

“Doctor Frailey had heard me speak of your having deciphered a letter which our mutual friend, Dow, wrote upon a challenge from you last year, at my lodgings in your city, when Aaron Burr’s correspondence in cipher was the subject of our conversation. You laughed at what you termed Burr’s shallow artifice, and said you could decipher any such cryp tography easily. To test you on the spot, Dow withdrew to the corner of the room, and wrote a letter in cipher, which you solved in a much shorter time than it took him to indite it.

“As Doctor Frailey seemed to doubt your skill to the extent of my belief in it, when your article on ’Secret Writing’ appeared in the last number of your — Magazine, I showed it to him. After reading it, he remarked that he thought he could puzzle you, and the next day he handed me the cryptograph which I transmitted to you. He did not tell me the key. The uncommon nature of his article, of which I gave you not the slightest hint, made me express to you my strong doubts of your ability to make the solution. I confess that your solution, so speedily and correctly made, surprised me. I congratulate myself that I do not live in an age when the black art is believed in, for, innocent as I am of all knowledge of cryptography, I should be arrested as an accessory before the fact, and, though I escaped, it is certain that you would have to die the death, and, alas! I fear upon my testimony. Your friend, F. W. THOMAS.

“EDGAR A. POE, Esq.” [page 161:]

A transcript of the “solution” will afford an idea of some of the difficulties to be overcome in its discovery: —

“In one of those peripatetic circumrotations I obviated a rustic whom I snbjected to catechetical interrogation respecting the nosocomical characteristics of the edifice to which I was approximate. With a volubility uncongealed by the frigorific powers of villatic bashfulness, he ejaculated a voluminous replication from the universal tenor of whose contents I deduce the subsequent amalgamation of heterogeneous facts. Without dubiety incipient pretension is apt to terminate in final vulgarity, as parturient mountains have been fabulated to produce muscupular abortions. The institution the subject of my remarks, has not been without cause the theme of the ephemeral columns of quotidian journals, and enthusiastic encomiations in conversational intercourse.”

The key to this cipher is as follows: — “But find this out, and I give it up.”

Poe was not permitted to drop this subject so readily as he desired, at least as regards publicity. In publishing a long letter, in the December number of Graham’s, from a Mr. Tyler — who stated that he had been practically conversant with secret writing for several years, and must admit that, in the solution of the intricate hieroglyphics submitted to him, Poe had exhibited a power of analytical and synthetical reasoning he had never seen equalled — the poet, whilst commenting upon several misapprehensions in his correspondent’s communication, pointed out that his time was much occupied; and as, notwithstanding the limits he bad originally assigned to the challenged, they still continued to overwhelm him with correspondence, he must, perforce, in future decline to say anything further on the subject, deeply interesting though he found it to be. [page 162:]

Meanwhile, in addition to this cryptographic matter, and the strain of editorial duties, Poe was also contributing reviews and book notices to the monthly issues of Graham’s Magazine; in July, amongst other matters, was a very eulogistic critique on Bolingbroke, and some remarkable utterances on the Temperance Movement. This latter, Poe declared, was the most important reformation the world had ever known, but that “its great feature had never yet been made a subject of comment. We mean,” he explained, “that of adding to man’s happiness . . . by the simple and most effectual process of exalting his capacity for enjoyment. The temperate man,” he opined, “carries within his own bosom, under all circumstances, the true, the only elements of bliss.”

The weird “Colloquy of Monos and Una,” already alluded to in connection with the Stannard episode, appeared in the August number of Graham’s. This tale, in its attempt to search out the secrets of mortality beyond death — to define the indefinable — is most masterful; nor Coleridge, nor De Quincey, nor any man, ever wrought the like; and, as a literary work, it is simply unique. The early portion of the “Colloquy ” is an attack upon certain utilitarian and democratic tendencies of the time, the value and ultimate results of which were by no means perceptible to the poet. “At long intervals,” one of his ultra-mortal characters remarks, ” some master-minds appeared, looking upon each advance in practical science as a retrogradation in the true utility; . . . that knowledge was not meet for man in the infant condition of his soul. . . . The poets — living and perishing amid the scorn of the ‘utilitarians’ — [page 163:] of rough pedants, who arrogated to themselves a title which could have been properly applied only to the scorned-these men, the poets, pondered piningly, yet not unwisely, upon the ancient days when our wants were not more simple than our enjoyments were keen; — days when mirth, was a word unknown, so solemnly deep-toned was happiness; holy, august, and blissful days, when blue rivers ran undammed, between hills unknown, into far-forest solitudes, primeval, odorous, and unexplored. . . . Alas! we had fallen upon the most evil of all our evil days. The great ‘movement’ — that was the cant term — went on: a diseased commotion, moral and physical. . . . Among other odd ideas, that of universal equality gained ground; and in the face of analogy and of Godin despite of the loud warning voice of the laws of gradation so visibly pervading all things — wild attempts at an omniprevalent democracy were made.” From this vain and vague outbreak at the nature of surrounding things, the poet passes on to the true theme of his imagination, to that strange attempt to pierce the impenetrable veil which oversbrouds the visage of death made in this “Colloquy.”

The same month that this tale appeared, appeared also several reviews by Poe. In the, most important of these, that on Mr. Wilmer’s “Quacks of Helicon,” the poet’s discontent at the contemporary state of affairs is strongly expressed, and it is easy to comprehend, after perusal of this philippic, why certain members of the American literary republic are still so sore when Poe or Wilmer are on the tapis. The former welcomes the work under review because, among other reasons, “in the universal corruption and [page 164:] rigmarole amid which we gasp for breath, it is really a pleasant thing to get even one accidental whiff of the unadulterated air of truth.” The reviewer, after reprimanding Mr. Wilmer for the indecency of his satire, which he considers has done the work irreparable injury, without in any way enhancing its value on the score of sarcasm, vigour, or wit, as nothing vulgar should “ever be said or conceived,” proceeds to commend the author for, above all his other merits, the far loftier merit of speaking fearlessly the truth, at an epoch when truth is out of fashion, and under circumstances of social position which would have deterred almost any man in our community from a similar Quixotism. “For the publication of the ‘Quacks of Helicon,’ — a poem which brings under review, by name, most of our prominent literati, and treats them, generally, as they deserve (what treatment could be more bitter?) — for the publication of this attack, Mr. Wilmer, whose subsistence lies in his pen, has little to look for — apart from the silent respect of those at once honest and timid — but the most malignant open or covert persecution. For this reason, and because it is the truth which he has spoken, do we say to him from the bottom of our hearts, God speed!”

“We repeat it: it is the truth which he has spoken; and who shall contradict us? He has said unscrupulously what every reasonable man among us has long known to be as true as the Pentateuch’ — that, as a literary people, we are one vast perambulating humbug. He has asserted that we are toque-ridden; and who does not smile at the obvious truism of that assertion? Ile maintains that chicanery is, with us, a far surer road than talent to distinction in letters. Who gainsays this? The corrupt nature of our ordinary [page 165:] criticism has become notorious. Its powers have been prostrated by its own arm. The intercourse between critic and publisher, as it now almost universally stands, is comprised either in the paying and pocketing of black-mail, as the price of a simple forbearance, or in a direct system of petty and contemptible bribery, properly so called — a system even more injurious than the former to the true interests of the public, and more degrading to the buyers and sellers of good opinion, on account of the more positive character of the service here rendered for the consideration received. We laugh at the idea of any denial of our assertions upon this topic; they are infamously true. In the charge of general corruption, there are undoubtedly many noble exceptions to be made. There are, indeed, some very few editors who, maintaining an entire independence, will receive no books from publishers at all, or who receive them with a perfect understanding, on the part of these latter, that an unbiassed critique will be given. But these cases are insufficient to have much effect on the popular mistrust: a mistrust heightened by late exposure of the machinations of coteries — in New York — coteries which, at the bidding of leading booksellers, manufacture, as required from time to time, a pseudo-public opinion by wholesale, for the benefit of any little hanger-on of the party, or pettifogging protector of the firm.”

It is impossible to avoid sympathising with Poe’s scornful bitterness, in respect to this matter, and to help feeling that the existing evil — for the evil did exist then, and does exist now — could only be met by such outspoken language; and it is a remarkable commentary on the poet’s words that Mr. Wilmer, in 1859,* is found declaring that when he published an article on “Edgar A. Poe and his Calumniators,” not a single paper noticed the vindicatory work, “whereas the whole press of the country seemed desirous of giving circulation and authenticity to the slanders.” [page 166:] These facts — for facts they are — speak for themselves.

Noticeable reviews from the poet’s pen in August were upon the Lives and Poetic Works of Margaret Davidson (one of Southey’s protégées), and “L. E. L.” The September number of Graham’s contained the tale of “Never Bet the Devil your Head ” — a skit at the “Moral“-mongers — and various book notices, the most interesting being a severe critique on Campbell for his “Life of Petrarch” Whilst deeming the Italian poet entitled to the highest consideration as a patriot, and for his zeal and judgment in the preservation of priceless literary treasures, Poe cannot refrain from confessing that he does not ” regard the genius of Petrarch as a subject for enthusiastic admiration,” nor the characteristics of his poetry as displaying traits of the highest, or even of a high, order. “Grace and tenderness ” he grants him; “but these qualities are surely insufficient to establish his poetical apotheosis.” A temporary absence from Philadelphia prevented Poe contributing to Graham’s for October; but in November he commenced, and continued through three consecutive numbers, a series of papers on “Autography.” These analyses of character were new, and different from the articles bearing a similar title published previously in the Southern Literary Messenger; they were more critical, more caustic, their author now more widely known, whilst the publication in which they appeared had a far larger and far more influential circulation, and, consequently, they created many more fresh enemies for their inditer.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 154:]

*  The process need not be described in these pages. — J. H. I.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 155:]

*  In Graham’s Magazine. — J. H. I.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 156:]

*  Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post. — J. H. I

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 165:]

*  VideOur Press Gang; or, a Complete Exposition of the Corruption and Crimes of the American Newspapers.”



For some uncertain reason, the footnote on page 154 is keyed to two asterisks in the text.


[S:0 - EAP:HLLO, 1886] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - E. A. P.: His Life, Letters and Opinions (J. H. Ingram) (Chapter 12)