Text: John Mackinnon Robertson, “Edgar Allan Poe” [part 01], Our Corner (London, UK), vol. VI, no. 3, September 1885, pp. 154-162


[page 154:]

Edgar Allan Poe.


THERE is still, peradventure, so much of fascination for men in the personality and the work of Edgar Poe that a fresh attempt at an estimate of these may escape even the tacit protest of the much-enduring votary of polite letters, accustomed as he is to lay down his magazine with the verdict that of making many criticisms there is no end. Demurrers to the re-judgment of literary cases, indeed, have been made too often not to supply their own rebuttal. A solvitur ambulando has disposed of the complacent conclusion of our fathers that everything had been said that could be said about Shakspere; and to-day we can meet the blasé reader with the axiom that each generation must of necessity have its own opinions about the past, such opinions being simply the expression of its special relation to things. Evolution is a name potent to put down the most obstreperous Conservative in criticism. But, all the same, it is a satisfaction to turn to a topic of which the freshness is almost unchallenged at the age of a generation in the nineteenth century.

Just because of its fascination, indeed, the Poe problem has been less methodically handled than most. Its aspects are so bizarre that [page 155:] critics have been more concerned to declare as much than to sum them up with scientific exactitude. First the ear of the world was won with a biography unparalleled in literature for its calculated calumny — a slander so comprehensive and so circumstantial that to this day perhaps most people who have heard of Poe regard him as what he himself called “that monstrum horrendum — an unprincipled man of genius”, with almost no moral virtue and lacking almost no vice. It was an ex-clergyman — Griswold — who launched the legend; and another clergyman — Gilfillan — improved on it to the extent of suggesting that the poet broke his wife’s heart so as to be able to write a poem about her. The average mind being, however, a little less ready than the clerical to believe and utter evil, there at length grew up a body of vindication which for instructed readers has displaced the sinister myth of the early records. The vindication, as it happened, began immediately on the publication of Griswold’s memoir; only, the slander had the prestige of book form while the defence was at first confined to newspapers; hence an immense start for the former: but at length generous zeal triumphed to the extent of creating an almost stainless effigy of the poet — stainless save for the constitutional flaw which was confessed only to claim for it a tender and tearful pity. Then there came a reaction; the facts were more closely studied and more unsympathetically pronounced upon; the admission of a constitutional flaw was capped by a professedly scientific but unscientifically hostile diagnosis which pronounced the hapless poet an epileptic; and the last and most ambitious edition of his works is supervised by a none too friendly critic. Good and temperate criticism has been forthcoming between whiles; but there is still room, one fancies, for an impartial re-statement of the facts.

“It would seem,” writes Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, the American poetess, sometime the fiancée of Poe, and one of the vindicators of his memory — “it would seem that the true point of view from which his genius should be regarded has yet to be sought”. The full force of that observation, perhaps, cannot be felt unless it be read in contiguity with some of the sentences in which Mrs. Whitman professedly sets forth her point of view: —

“Wanting in that supreme central force or faculty of the mind, whose function is a God-conscious and God-adoring faith, Edgar Poe sought earnestly and conscientiously for such solution of the great problems of thought as were alone attainable to an intellect hurled from its balance by the abnormal preponderance of the analytical and imaginative faculties.”

“These far-wandering comets, not less than ‘the regular, calm stars’, obey a law and follow a pathway that has been marked out for them by infinite Wisdom and essential Love.”

The school-girl Theism exemplified in these passages appears to be the reigning religion in the United States, and is doubtless common enough everywhere else; and it seems sufficiently clear that for people whose minds oscillate between conceptions of Poe’s intellect as hurled from its balance and as wisely guided by a loving God who deprived it of the faculty of God-consciousness — for such people the “true point of view from which his genius should be regarded” must indeed be far to seek. ‘That point of view can hardly be one from which you explain the infinite while perplexed by the finite; it is to be [page 156:] attained not à priori but à posteriori; that is to say, Poe’s life and his works have to be studied with an eye, not to discovering a scheme of infinite wisdom, or even to finding a “point of view”, but simply to the noting of the facts and the arranging of them. The true point of view is surely that from which you see things.

Much, of course, depends on methods of observation. At the outset, we are confronted by the facts that Poe’s father married imprudently at eighteen, and that his mother was an actress. That is either a mere romantic detail or a very important fact, according as Poe is regarded as an organism or an immortal soul. Here, indeed, the point of view means the seeing or the not seeing of certain facts; but as most people to-day have some little faith in the operation of heredity, it may be assumed that the significance of Poe’s parentage is admitted when it is mentioned. Recent investigators have come to the conclusion that David Poe was not merely romantic and reckless, but given to the hard drinking which was so common in the Southern States in his time; and thus, coming of a father of intemperate habits and headlong impulses, and of a mother whose very profession meant excitement and shaken nerves, Poe had before him tremendous probabilities of an erratic career. As fate would have it, the man who adopted the little Edgar on the death of the young parents — they both died of consumption — did everything to aggravate and nothing to counteract the temperamental conditions of the life he took in charge. We know that Edgar’s brother William Henry, who may or may not have been equally ill-managed by the friend who adopted him, turned out a clever scapegrace and died young; but certain it is that Mr. Allan was no wise guardian to Edgar. The habits of the house were Southern and convivial; the clever child was petted, flattered, and spoiled; and it seems that Poe might have been made a toper by his environment even if he had no bias that way. Again, Mr. Allan was rich, and Poe had no prospective necessities of labor, no sense of obligation to be methodical; which makes it the more natural that his later life should be a failure financially, and the more remarkable that he should exhibit unusual powers of close and orderly thought. Finally, the boy’s shifting life — his schooling in England, his brief military cadetship at West Point, and his studentship at the Virginia University — all tended to deprive him of the benefits of habit, which might conceivably have been some safeguard against his hereditary instability; and at the same time his training tended to develop, though inadequately and at random, his purely intellectual powers, while supplying him with no moral guidance worth mentioning. Such a character required the very wisest management: it had either bad management or none. It was therefore only too natural that the youth should be self-willed and insubordinate at West Point, and much given to gambling at college.

The other side of the picture, however, must be kept in view. While apparently loosely related to life in respect of the normal affections (he seems to have had no communication with his brother or his sister, and to have had no attachment to Mr. Allan) he was very far from being the unfeeling and loveless creature he was so long believed to be. He seems to have described himself accurately when he wrote of his uncommon and invariable tenderness to animals; and there is a [page 157:] trustworthy story of his passionate grief on the death of a lady — the mother of a school-companion — who had been kind to him. The grief took the shape of midnight vigils in the churchyard, but it could hardly be the less sincere on that account. And an important piece of testimony is given by a lady who knew him and his connexions well — Mrs. Weiss — as to the manner of his marriage. The majority of respectable reader, probably, have regarded Poe’s marriage to his beautiful and penniless young cousin as one of his acts of culpable recklessness; but it turns out that it was rather a. deed of generous devotion. He had acted as a boy tutor to Virginia Clemm in her early childhood, and when, after his final rupture with Mr. Allan, he went to reside with his aunt, the young girl acquired a worship for him. It was on Mrs. Clemm’s impressing on him, when he contemplated leaving her house after being an inmate for two years, the absolute absorption of the girl in his existence, that he proposed the marriage. She was hardly fifteen, poor child, but she was of the precocious Southern blood, and her youth seems to have made her mother only the more fearful of the effect of separation from her adored cousin. Poe’s marriage was thus an act not of free choice, but of prompt generosity. Devoted as she was up to her death, Virginia never gave him the full intellectual companionship he would have sought in a wife; but there is no pretence that he ever showed her the shadow of unkindness, and it is admitted that in her last days he was tenderness itself. All which is a fair certificate of good domestic disposition, as men and poets go.

What then was there in Poe’s life as a whole to justify detraction? When the testimony is fully sifted the discreditable facts are found to be: first and chiefly, that he repeatedly gave way to his hereditary vice of intemperance; secondly, that he committed one serious lapse from literary integrity; thirdly, that he was often splenetic and sometimes unjust as a critic; fourthly, that he showed ingratitude and enmity to some who befriended him. Setting aside his youthful passionateness and prodigality, that is now the whole serious moral indictment against him. The insinuations and assertions of Griswold, to the effect that he committed more than one gross outrage, are found to be either wholly false or wholly without proof; and many of the biographer’s aspersions on his disposition have been indignantly repudiated by those who knew him well — as Mr. G. R. Graham and Mr. N. P. Willis, both of whom employed him. As for the alleged ingratitude to un-named friends, it seems only fair to ask whether any such faults may not be attributed to the havoc ultimately wrought in Poe’s delicately balanced temperament by fits of drinking. Mr. R. H. Stoddard has given an account of some very singular ill-treatment he received from Poe while the latter edited the Broadway Journal — treatment which at once suggests some degree of cerebral derangement on his part; and a story told of his resenting a home-thrust of criticism by a torrent of curses, goes to create the same impression. This was in his latter years, at a time when a thimbleful of sherry could excite him almost to frenzy, and when, according to Mr. Fairfield, he had developed incurable cerebral disease. Setting aside the question of his fairness as a critic, which will be discussed further on, there remains to be considered his one noteworthy deflection from literary honesty. He did undoubtedly publish under his own name a manual [page 158:] of Conchology which incorporated, without acknowledgment, passages from a work by Captain Brown published in Glasgow; and it is alleged by Griswold, and implied by Mr. Stoddard, that the American book is substantially based on Brown’s. But how far Poe’s plagiarism went has not been clearly shown. Mr. Stoddard, who exhibits a distinct and not altogether unnatural bias against his biographer, prints parallel passages which undoubtedly amount to “conveyance”; but he unjustifiably omits to answer the statement on the other side, that the “Manual of Conchology” was compiled under the supervision of Professor Wyatt; that Poe contributed largely to it; that the publishers accordingly wished to use his popular name on the title-page; and that, finally, the book, though corresponding in part to Brown’s because based, like that, on the system of Lamarck, is essentially an independent compilation. Such is the statement of Professor Wyatt, and the matter ought to be easily settled. What Mr. Stoddard does is to convey the impression that Poe copied wholesale, though only a few appropriations are cited; and it is impossible on these to say what was the extent of the wrong-doing. Now, whereas virtual appropriation of an entire book must be pronounced a serious act of literary dishonesty, the incorporation of some of another man’s paragraphs or sentences is so common an offence among compilers, not to mention original writers, that it may reasonably be classed beside those innumerable acts of lax morality in commerce for which it is almost idle to denounce any offender singly. But supposing the action to be summarily pronounced discreditable, it still seems only reasonable to suggest that it might be accounted for by the demoralisation resulting from intemperance, without its being concluded that Poe was essentially a dishonorable man. There is ample evidence as to his scrupulous honesty and fidelity in his relations with his literary employers; and it is not recorded that he ever inflicted loss on any man, any more than unkindness on those about him. We sum up, then, that Poe’s mental and moral balance, delicate by inheritance, was injured by the drinking habits into which he repeatedly relapsed; but that his constitution was such that what was to others extremely moderate indulgence could be for him disastrous excess.

Now, it might be argued with almost irresistible force that such a case as this is one for pity and not for blame — that a man of Poe’s heredity and obvious predisposition to brain disease is to be looked on in the same spirit as is one who suffers from downright hereditary insanity. But, seeing it may be replied that all vices are similarly the result of hereditary and brain conditions, and that we should either blame all offenders to whom we allow freedom of action, or none, I am inclined to rest the defence of Poe on a somewhat different basis; and to substitute for a deprecatory account of his moral disadvantages the assertion that morally he compares favorably with the majority of his fellow creatures. Whether that is either a paradox or a piece of extravagant cynicism let the reader carefully judge.

It is, I submit, the habit of most people, in judging of any character in favor of which they are not prejudiced, to try it by the standard of an imaginary personage who is without any serious fault. The strength of this disposition can be seen at almost any performance of” a melodrama sin a theatre, the great body of the audience being [page 159:] obviously in strong sympathy with virtues of which there is reason to, doubt their own general possession; and strongly hostile even to vices which they may fairly be presumed in many cases to share. As for the general disposition to condemn the vices we are not inclined. to, that may be dismissed as a commonplace. And yet it is one of the rarest things to find these facts recognised in conduct. A rational moral code is hardly ever to be met with. Intemperance — to bring the question to the concrete — may be reduced in common with most other vices to an admitted lack of self control; but it is clearly blamed for some other reason than that it evidences such a defect. If a man or woman falls hopelessly in love, however abject be the loss of self-command, the average outsider never thinks of calling the enamored. one vicious merely on account of the extremity of the passion. That, on the contrary, is regarded by many people as rather a fine thing. If, again, a man is either extremely selfish or extremely prodigal, while he may be censured for his fault, he is still held to be less blameable than the mere intemperate drinker. Sometimes the censure passed on the latter is justified on the score that his vice impoverishes others; but this is not always so; and in any case the selfish or ill-natured man and the spendthrift may do equal injury to the happiness of others. The truth is that the revulsion against the drunkard’s vice arises from a keen sense of the physical degradation it works in its subject; and how strong and how instinctive this is can be told by many men who have contemplated in helpless fury the excesses of’ relatives or dear friends. In these cases severe blame may be justified by the feeling that the keenest reprobation is necessary to sting the drunkard into moral reaction; but it would be difficult to show that when a man is dead it is equitable or reasonable to apply the same degree of blame to him in reckoning his relation to his fellows. All. criticism of dead celebrities should be regulated by two considerations: first, the risk or absence of risk that omission to censure for certain faults may encourage the living to repeat them; second, the need otherwise for resisting any tendency to blame certain faults unduly. Thus it is reasonable and necessary to denounce Carlyle’s Philistinism, and injustice in criticism so long as there is a tendency to complacently imitate him in these faults, or to applaud him for them — which comes to the same thing. It will be time enough to apologise for him as affected by the reaction after the French Revolution, and by his Puritan heredity, when it is no longer necessary to resist that reaction and to discredit theistic fanaticism. I confess I can see no other safe or rational principle on which to apply, in moral criticism of the dead, the general law that men’s actions are the outcome of their antecedents; and environment. If so much he conceded, it must, I think, be allowed that there is no more need to-day to denounce Poe for his unhappy vice than to asperse Charles Lamb — which Carlyle, by-the-way, has done with the self-righteousness of the chief of Pharisees. Nobody is likely to be encouraged in tippling by the fact that we speak with tender pity of Lamb’s failing. The query —

Who wouldn’t take to drink if drink’ll

Make a man like Rip Van Winkle?

is not serious.

No one in these days, indeed, does think it necessary to pass damnatory [page 160:] sentence on Lamb; and the difference between the ordinary judgments on Lamb and Poe is a striking illustration of the capriciousness of popular morality. Lamb’s weakness for gin is regarded as morally on a level with his poor sister’s chronic homicidal mania; and of course, strictly speaking, his misfortune was as much a matter of cerebral constitution as hers. But surely if Mary Lamb is to be spoken of with pure pity for that during a fit of madness she caused the death of her beloved mother, and certainly if Charles is to be similarly pitied, we are committed to speaking gently of such a case as Poe’s. Yet people whose feeling for Lamb is entirely affectionate speak of Poe with austere disapproval; and I cannot but think that the explanation of this and much other asperity towards Poe’s memory is the singular quality of his literary work, especially of his tales. It has been remarked a hundred times that these are unique in literature in their almost complete destitution in the moral element, commonly so-called. They are one and all studies either of peculiar incident, intellectual processes, or strange idiosyncrasy; and the ordinary reader, accustomed in his perusal of fiction to a congenial atmosphere of moral feeling, and to judicial contrasts of character such as he sees and makes in actual life, becomes chilled and uneasy in the strange regions to which Poe carries him. The common result seems to be the conclusion that the story-teller was lacking in moral feeling; and though everyone does not give effect to his conclusion as the Rev. Mr. Gilfillan did, such a conviction is, of course, not compatible with sympathy. How crudely and cruelly people can act on such semi-instinctive and unreasoned judgments is strikingly shown in the correspondence between Mrs. Whitman and Poe during the period of their engagement.

“You do not love me,” writes Poe passionately, “or you would have felt too thorough a sympathy with the sensitiveness of my nature to have so wounded me as you have done with this terrible passage of your letter — ‘How often I have heard it said of you, He has great intellectual power, but no principle — no moral sense’.”

One is disposed to echo the first clause; but the étourderie which Poe feels so acutely is only one of those moral stupidities of which naturally tender-hearted women become capable precisely because their moral and affectional sensibilities at times overbalance their commonsense. Nothing could be more witlessly and inexcusably cruel, and at the same time nothing could be more absurd; for if Poe really were without principle any protests of his to the contrary could be worth nothing; and if the accusation were false he had been ruthlessly insulted to no purpose; but the cruelty was probably unconscious, or nearly so. Poor Mrs. Whitman wrote, as lovers will, to extract an assurance which could have no value in the eye of pure reason, but which emotion craved; for the moment half believing what she said, but wishing to be disabused of her suspicion by a passionate denial. That she obtained. The most fortunate thing for a man so impeached would be the possession of a strong sense of humor, though that might involve a coolness of head which would jeopardise the amour. But poor Poe, wounded as he was, took God to witness that

“With the exception of some follies and excesses, which I bitterly lament, [page 161:] but to which I have been driven by intolerable sorrow, and which are hourly committed by others without attracting any notice whatever — I can call to mind no act of my life which would bring a blush to my cheek — or to yours.”

And after alluding to the malignant attacks that had been made on him — for one of which he brought a successful libel action — and the enmity he had excited by his uncompromising criticisms, he cries: “And you who know all this — you ask why I have enemies. . . . Forgive me if there be bitterness in my tone.” On which Mr. Ingram warmly comments that the man who wrote so must have been sincere. It is hardly necessary to urge it. Mrs. Whitman did but utter the valueless verdict of conventional minds on an abnormal individuality. With fuller knowledge she wrote after his death that, “so far from being selfish or heartless, his devotional fidelity to the memory of those he loved would by the world be regarded as fanatical”; and all the evidence goes to show that, whatever were his faults of taste as a littérateur, his moral attitude to his fellow creatures was that of one who was, as he claims for himself, quixotically high-minded. The truth is, an extensive fallacy underlies the aversion which many people have for Poe — the fallacy, namely, of assuming that a large share of what is vaguely called moral or human feeling, in an author or in anyone else, implies a disposition to right feeling or conduct; and that the absence of such feeling from an author’s fiction, or from anyone’s talk, implies a tendency to wrong-doing. And this fallacy, I think, lurks under the observation that Poe’s mind, if not immoral, was non-moral. The assumption in question is a sentimentality that is discredited by accurate observation of life. To return — in a perfectly dispassionate spirit — to Lamb, we see that his wealth of kindly sympathy did not save him from intemperance; and it could easily be shown that a great many moralists have been either gravely immoral characters or unamiable and variously objectionable. I confess I have never been able to regard Dante as a satisfactory personality, with his irrational and capriciously cruel code and his general inhumanity; and a good many will agree with me that Carlyle, who was always moralising, was prone to gross injustice, and presents a rather ignoble moral spectacle in his own life. The slight on Poe’s moral nature was first published by Griswold, who is proved to have been a peculiarly mean and malignant slanderer; and the moral Mr. Gilfillan invented a gross calumny. Run down the list of men of genius of modern times who have discussed conduct and human nature, and you will find an extremely large proportion against whom could be charged blemishes of character and conduct from which Poe was free. The ferocity and fanaticism of Dante, the grossness of Chaucer, the hard marital selfishness of Milton, the brutality of Luther, the boorishness of Johnson, the ripe self-love of Wordsworth, the political bigotry of Scott, the colossal egoism of Goethe, the riot of Burns, the murky and selfish spleen of Carlyle, Shelley’s incapacity for self-sacrifice — all these are repellent and anti-social qualities which cannot be charged against Edgar Poe. In short, the ideal man of lively moral feeling and entirely beneficent conduct, by contrast with whom Poe is seen to be an incomplete human being, has never existed in flesh and blood; and if we take the rational course of striking an average of poor humanity we shall find, as before submitted, [page 162:] that our subject does not fall below it. We may even go further. In regard to the widespread and false notion that Poe was a libertine, we may endorse the assertion of Mr. Stoddard “that professional men and artists, in spite of a vulgar belief to the contrary, are purity itself compared with men engaged in business, and idle men of the world”. Let us in fairness confess that the average man or woman is likely to be one or other of these things — mean, or gross, or faithless, or coldly selfish, or dishonest, or disingenuous, or cruel, or slanderous, or recklessly unjust; though one or other of these qualities may co-exist with generosity, or philanthropy, or probity. If we recognise so much, we shall cease to animadvert on Poe’s failings; and proceed rather to consider how rare and how fine his work was.


(To be continued.)







[S:0 - OC, 1885] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (J. M. Robertson, 1885)