Text: John Robertson, “Edgar Allan Poe” [part 02], Our Corner (London, UK), vol. VI, no. 4, October 1885, pp. 204-213


[page 204:]

Edgar Allan Poe.


(Continued from page 162.)

IT is worthy of note that fully nine-tenths of the criticism passed on Poe, appreciative and otherwise, has been directed to his small body of poetry. The fact serves at once to prove the one-sidedness of the average literary man and the range of Poe’s power. He had a working knowledge of astronomy, of navigation, of mechanics, and of physics; he certainly compiled a manual of conchology, and had at least dipped into entomology; he could work out cyphers in half-a-dozen languages; he delighted in progressions of close and sustained reasoning; he had a decided capacity for logic and philosophy; he eagerly followed and easily assimilated the modern theories of the universe; he was a keen and scientific literary critic; and in addition to all this he produced some of the most remarkable imaginative writing and some of the finest poetry of the century. But his critics have been, with very few exceptions, men of purely literary equipment; verse-writers and amateurs of belles-lettres and story tellers, who judge only verse and prose and character. Sharing their deprivations, I have gone through most of their writings on the watch for an estimate of the scientific and constructive capacity shown in certain of the Tales, and have found an almost unanimous and doubtless judicious silence on the subject. An occasional non-committal phrase about the “Eureka”, and a few generalities on the scientific element in the Tales, represent the critical commentary on the ratiocinative side of Poe’s intellect. Now, to treat his verses as his most significant product is to ignore half his remarkableness, and to miss those elements of strength and eminence in his mind which most effectively outweigh the flaws of his character and the occasional aberrations of his judgment. Save in his own country, indeed, the Tales have had popular recognition enough. Poe’s countrymen never bought up Griswold’s edition of his works, [page 205:] and have till quite recently been without a complete collection of them; but Mr. Gill has calculated that while the poems are five-fold more popular in England than in America, the stories are even more widely admired among us; and they have been thoroughly naturalised in France in a complete and admirable translation, chiefly by Baudelaire; besides being reproduced to a greater or less extent in nearly every other European language. Seeing that they were eagerly read on their first appearance in America, it must be assumed that, as Mr. Gill suggests, the public there were scared off by Griswold’s slanders and the consequent myth. But if, with all this European vogue for the Tales, critics continue to descant chiefly on the poetry, the inference as to the impressive quality of the latter is irresistible.

Perhaps by reason of the sub-rational tendency to specially depreciate an author of one’s own country who is loudly praised by foreigners, some American writers have spoken with absolute contempt of Poe’s poetry. Mr. Henry James, junior, for instance, has a strange phrase about his “very valueless verses”; and Mr. Stoddard’s strongest feeling in the matter appears to be an aversion to the refrains — perhaps not an unnatural attitude towards Poe on the part of a critic who believes a poet may have too much art. In these circumstances it may still be expedient to follow Mr. E. C. Stedman in bearing witness to the quality of Poe’s poetry. It is perhaps true, as has been said by Oliver Wendell Holmes, that there is almost no poet between whose best and worst verse there is a wider disparity; but that is rather by reason of the fineness of the good than the badness of the bad; and the latter, in any case, consist simply of the long poems of Poe’s youth — “Al Aaraaf,” “Tamerlane,” and the “Scenes from Politian”. Mr. Lang, in editing the whole, has not scrupled to indicate his feeling that these are hardly worth reading; and while one feels that in that view the proper course were not to edit them, so much may be conceded. In regard to some of the successful poems, again, there is to be reckoned-with the disillusioning effect of extreme popularity; an influence of the most baffling sort, often blurring one’s critical impression in a way for which there is hardly any remedy. The choicest air, as it had once seemed, may be made to acquire associations of the barrel organ; and it may ultimately become a fine question whether it was not a vice in it to be so associable. One may brazen out one’s early attachment — as, I fancy, Mr. Arnold did when he lately insisted that “Lucy Gray” was a “beautiful success” — but when loyalty to an old opinion is merely justified by its survival, criticism is turned out of doors. So that, lest we are insidiously led into committing the unpardonable critical sin of certificating popular poetry by its popularity, it will be well to consider briefly in the concrete the merits of “The Raven “. Many of us, I suspect, have at one time developed a suspicion that that much-recited work is not poetry of the first order; and the suspicion is deepened when we reflect that the distinction of learning it by heart in our youth was conferred on it in common with other works as to which there can now be no critical dubiety. It is difficult to gainsay Mr. Lang when he impugns its right, and that of “Lenore”, to the highest poetical honors: both poems, like “The Bells”, have a certain smell of the lamp, an air of compilation, a suspicion of the [page 206:] inorganic. And yet a studious re-reading of “The Raven” may awaken some remorse for such detractions. Not only has it that impressiveness of central conception which is never lacking in Poe’s serious work, but it is really a memorable piece of technique. It is hardly possible to say where inspiration lacks and mechanism intervenes; the poem is an effective unity. Some hold that the touches of plagiarism — the “uncertain” sound of the “purple curtain”, and the collocation of “desolate” and “desert land”, both echoes from Mrs. Browning’s “Lady Geraldine”(1) — serve to discredit the ensemble; but that is surely false criticism. The problem is, whether the appropriations are assimilated; and they clearly are. Mrs. Browning herself expressed the commanding individuality of the work in the phrase “this power which is felt”. The poem has that distinctive attribute marking most of Poe’s writing, the pregnancy of idea, the compulsive imagination which fascinates and dominates the reader. One feels a creative and sustaining power behind it~ — a power as of absolute intellect. To feel specifically the impact of this influence, let the reader compare the poem as a. whole with “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”, and note how, ample as is the poetess’s gift of speech, choice as are her harmonies, and fortunate as are many of her lines, there is yet a something spasmodic and convulsive pervading the whole, a tone of passionate weakness, in full keeping with the hysterical character of the girlish hero, which gives a quite fatal emphasis to the occasional lapses of expression — these seeming to belong to weakness and slovenliness; while in reading “The Raven” there is hardly for a moment room for a disrespectful sensation. The imperious brain of the “maker”, as the old vernacular would straightforwardly name him, stamps its authority on every line; and the subtle sense of the artist’s puissance remains unaffected by the despairing avowal of the conclusion. The speaker may sink prostrate, but the poem is never shaken in its serene movement and marble firmness of front. It has “cette extraordinaire élévation, cette exquise délicatesse, cet accent d’immortalité qu’ Edgar Poe exige de la Muse”, remarked on by Baudelaire; and nothing in the poem is more remarkable than the Apollonian impunity with which the poet is able to relax and colloquialise his phraseology. Mrs. Browning could not venture without disaster on such an infusion of realism into idealism as the “Sir, said I, or Madam”, and “the fact is, I was napping”: her Pegasus would be voted to have stumbled in such a line as

“Though its answer little meaning, little relevancy bore” —

where Poe sweeps us over by his sheer unswerving intentness on his. theme. The explanation seems to be that the writer himself is without apparent consciousness of artistic fallibility — that he is pure intellect. addressing an abstract reader; and that, as he never seems to strain. after words, he has a regal air of having said precisely what should be said; so that when we read of “a stately raven of the saintly [page 207:] days of yore”, we hesitate to impugn the fitness of the term. What, then, is it in “The Raven” that takes it out of the first rank of poetry? Well, then, first, the admixture of simple oddity, which is disallowed by Poe’s own law that poetry is the “rhythmical creation of beauty”; and, second, the decomposability of the structure at two points — namely, the factitious rustling of the curtains, which have no business to rustle, and. the falling of the shadow, which has no right to fall. These touches are “willed”, and, on reflexion, have the effect of obtruding their art upon us; whereas the perfect poem must seem homogeneous and inevitably what it is. It is sometimes argued that the very continuity and clearness of the tale in themselves vitiate the work, as dispelling true glamor; and assuredly, though it is made certain by Poe’s own avowal that “The Genesis of the Raven” was a hoax, there can be little doubt that the poem was most carefully put together. But to depreciate a work of art on such a. ground as that seems to me perfectly inadmissible. Results must be judged on their merits. And, indeed, the mere flaws in the rationale of the piece, scarcely perceptible as they are, would not in themselves suffice to invalidate it, any more than the clear flaw in the logic of the second last stanza of Keats’ “Ode to the Nightingale” discredits that: they do but accentuate the force of the objection to the un-elevated though still dignified tone of the earlier stanzas and the consequent narrative stamp on the whole. But even in making these admissions, the lover of verse must insist on the singular power of the composition; which remains more extraordinary than much other work that is more strictly successful. Poe’s second-best verse has a distinction of its own.

If, then, “The Raven” is thus dismissed; and if, as must needs be, “Lenore” is pronounced a piece of brilliant mosaic; and “The Bells” is classed as a fine piece of literary architecture rather than a poetic creation, we shall have left but a small body of work from which to choose our specimens of Poe’s fine poetry. But what remains will serve. Poe never professed to make poetry his main aim, or even an aim at all: it was his “passion”; and what is here contended is that, many-sided as he was, he had a poetic faculty of the highest kind, among other powers which few or no other poets have possessed. The decisive credentials of perfect poetry are an organic oneness of substance, that substance being of a purer essence than ordinary speech; a quality of meaning which pierces to the sense without the methodic specification of prose; and a charm of rhythm and phrase which is a boon in itself, permanently recognisable as such apart from any truth enclosed. These, broadly speaking, are the “values” of poetry; and he who says Poe’s verse is valueless must, I think, be adjudged to be without the poetic sense. Mr. James must presumably have meant one of two things; either that Poe’s poetry conveys no moral teachings or descriptions of life and scenery — these constituting the “valuable” element in poetry for those to whom its special qualities do not appeal — or that its art is commonplace. The first objection need only be conceived to be dismissed; the second, supposing it to have been that intended, which I doubt, would need no answer beyond a few quotations. Among Poe’s early poems is one “To Helen”, which he is said to have represented as being composed [page 208:] when he was fourteen, the “Helen”, on that view, being supposed to be the lady, mother of his school friend, who was kind to the boy, and whose death he so passionately mourned. In view at once of Poe’s habit of mystification and of the nature of the poem, I cannot believe that is the true account of the matter. The verses are not those of a boy of fourteen. But they were undoubtedly written in Poe’s teens, and I cite them as constituting one of the most ripely perfect and spiritually charming poems ever written at that or any age: —

“Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicaean barks of yore

Which gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.


“On desperate seas long wont to roam,

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome.


“Lo! in you brilliant window niche,

How statue-like I see thee stand,

Thy agate lamp within thy hand —

Ah, Psyche! from the regions which

Are Holy Land!”

To merely credit these verses with “Horatian elegance”, as some admiring critics have done, is to render them scant justice. ‘They have not only Horace’s fastidiousness of touch — with perhaps the single reservation of the slightly hackneyed “classic face” — but the transfiguring, aerial charm of pure poetry, which is not in Horace’s line. The two closing lines of the middle stanza have passed into the body of choice distillations of language reserved for immortality; and there is assuredly nothing more exquisite in its kind in English literature than the last stanza. To have written such verses is to have done a perfect thing. Turn next to “The Haunted Palace”, an experiment in the perilous genre of poetic allegory. What poet had before essayed that with perfect success? I will not venture to say none; but I can call to mind no instance. According to Griswold, “The Haunted Palace” is a plagiarism from Longfellow’s “Beleaguered City”, a futile imputation, which only serves to help us to a fuller recognition of Poe’s success. Personally, I have a certain tenderness for “The Beleaguered City” as being one of the first imaginative poems that impressed my boyhood; but no prejudice of that sort can hinder any one from seeing that the poem is vitiated by its nugatory didacticism — the fatal snare of the allegorist. Mr. James, in his “Hawthorne”, appears to think he has caught Poe condemning himself in a critical declaration against allegory; but I suspect the inconsistency is more apparent than real. Poe almost never, so far as I can see, uses allegory for the purpose of sustaining a thesis, which is the thing he objects to. The generic difference between the allegory of “The Haunted Palace” and that of “The Beleaguered City” is that the latter is a kind of confused sermon, while the other is a pure artistic creation — a changing vision projected for its own sake and yoked to no “moral”. Didactic [page 209:] poetry there may be, in a happy imposition of poetic quality on a moral truth, which ordinarily gravitates towards prose; but to make allegory pointedly didactic is to deliberately impose prose on the poetic, and this Poe never does in his poetry proper. He simply limns his image and leaves it ——— a thing of uncontaminated art. “The Haunted Palace” is the allegory of a brain once of royal power, shrined in noble features, but ultimately transmuted to a haunt of madness — a half-conscious allusion, perhaps, to the poet’s own unhappy destiny; but there is no precept, not even a hint of the ethical: the weird imagination is unrolled in its terrible beauty, and that is all. The singer is a “maker”, not a commentator. And then the melody and surprise of the verse!

“Banners yellow, glorious, golden,

On its roof did float and flow,

(This — all this — was in the olden

Time, long ago);

And every gentle air that dallied,

In that sweet day,

Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,

A wingéd Odor went away.”

Longfellow could do some things in rhyme and rhythm, but his genial talent did not accomplish such singing as this, and as little could he compass the serene height of strain which Poe maintains with such certainty.

Every charge of plagiarism against Poe does but establish more clearly his utter originality of method. Mrs. Browning and Longfellow, whom he is charged with imitating, are themselves facile imitators, who, somehow, do not contrive to improve on their originals; but Poe, in the one or two cases in which he really copied in his adult period, lent a new value to what he took. Where he seems to have adopted ideas from others the transmutation is still more striking. Mr. Fairfield, whose assay “A Mad Man of Letters” (Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. X.) broaches the theory of Poe’s epilepsy, and who is as far astray in laying as in denying charges of plagiarism against Poe, declares that his “Dreamland” “palpably paraphrases Lucian’s ‘Island of Sleep’ “ —— meaning, I suppose, the description of the Island of Dreams in the “True History”; and the statement is so far true that in Lucian there is a Temple of Night in the Island, and the categories of. the dreams include visions of old friends; but to call the poem a paraphrase is absurd. There is all the difference of seventeen hundred years of art between the Greek’s semi-serious fantasy and the profound and magical note of Poe’s poem:

“By a route obscure and lonely,

Haunted by ill angels only,

Where an Eidolon, naméd Night,

On a black throne reigns upright,

I have reached these lands but newly

From an ultimate dim Thule —

From a wild, weird clime that lieth sublime,

Out of SPACE — Out of TIME.”

Genius, according to Mr. Arnold, is mainly an affair of energy; and the definition would hold for all the work of Poe, whose creative [page 210:] achievements, in the last analysis, are found to derive their eminence from the extraordinary intensity which belonged to his every mental operation — intensity, not violence. Be his fancy ever so shadowy in its inception, he informs it with the impalpable force of intellect till it becomes a vision more enduring than brass. There is no poet who can so “give to aery nothing a local habitation and a name “. It was perhaps not so wonderful after all that commonplace people should shrink from, as hardly belonging to human clay, the personality which brooded out such visions as these:

“Lo! Death has reared himself a throne

In a strange city, lying alone

Far down within the dim West . . . .


“No rays from the Holy Heaven come down

On the long night-time of that town;

But light from out the lurid sea

Streams up the turrets silently —

Gleams up the pinnacles far and free —

Up domes — up spires — up kingly halls —

Up fanes — up Babylon-like walls —

Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers

Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers —

Up many and many a marvellous shrine

Whose wreathéd friezes intertwine

The rid, the violet, and the vine.


“Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

So blend the turrets and shadows there

That all seems pendulous in air,

While, from a proud tower in the town,

Death looks gigantically down . . . .


“No swellings tell that winds may be

Upon some far-off happier sea —

No heavings hint that winds have been

On seas less hideously serene.”

With unwaning vividness the unearthly vision burns itself tremorless upon the void, till it is almost with a shudder of relief that the spell-bound reader cons the close:

“And when, amid no earthly moans,

Down, down that town shall settle hence,

Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,

Shall do it reverence.”

Perhaps such terrific imaginings can never be taken into common favor with healthy dwellers in the sunlit world; but it is hard to understand how any, having studied them, can find them forgettable. It cannot for a moment be pretended of these verses, even by the sciolists of criticism, that they lack “inspiration” and spontaneity of movement: detraction must seek other ground. We find, consequently, that the stress of the hostile attack is turned mainly on one poem, in which the poet’s customary intension of idea appears to lose itself more or less in a dilettantist ringing of changes on sound. I have no desire to seem in the least degree to stake Poe’s reputation on “Ulalume”, which trenches too far on pure mysticism for entire [page 211:] artistic success, and at the same time is marked by an undue subordination of meaning to music; but I cannot help thinking that the dead set made at that piece is unjustifiable. Mr. R. H. Stoddard is exceptionally acrid on the subject.

“I can perceive”, he writes in a memoir of Poe, “no touch of grief in [‘Ulalume’], no intellectual sincerity, but a diseased determination to create the strange, the remote, and the terrible, and to exhaust ingenuity in order to do so. No healthy mind was ever impressed by ‘ Ulalume’, and no musical sense was ever gratified with its measure, which is little beyond a jingle; and with its repetitions, which add to its length without increasing its general effect, and which show more conclusively than anything else in the language the absurdity of the refrain when it is allowed to run riot, as it does here.”

Now, this censure is fatally overdone. Mr. Stoddard had on the very page before admitted that “Ulalume” was, “all things considered, the most singular poem that [Poe] ever produced, if not, indeed, the most singular poem that anybody ever produced, in commemoration of a dead woman”. A critic should know his own mind before he begins to write out a judgment. Here we have an explicit admission of the extreme remarkableness of a given poem; then a denial that it ever “impressed” a “healthy mind”; then an unmeasured allegation that “no musical sense was ever gratified” with its musical elements. Let one stanza answer — the praise of the star Astarte —:

“And I said — ‘She is warmer than Dian:

She rolls through an ether of sighs ——

She revels in a region of sighs:

She has seen that the tears are not dry on

Those cheeks, where the worm never dies,

And has come past the stars of the Lion

To point us the path to the skies —

To the Lethean peace of the skies —

Come up, in despite of the Lion,

To shine on us with her bright eyes ——

Come up through the lair of the Lion,

With love in her luminous eyes.’ ”

Mr. Stoddard must be told that there are some of us who do not wish any of these repetitions away, and who think the culminating music is closely analogous to effects produced a hundred times by Mozart and Schubert and Beethoven, who had all some little gift of melody, and were considerably given to the “repetend”, as Mr. Stedman happily re-christens the so-called refrain. The above-quoted stanza is the best, no doubt, and there is one flaw in it, namely, the “dry on”, which is truly an exhaustion of ingenuity; but even here one is struck by the imperial way in which Poe buttresses his lapse with the whole serene muster of his stanza — so curiously different a procedure from the fashion in which Mr. Swinburne, for instance, scoops a rhyme-born figure into his verse and, consciously hurrying on, leaves it, in its glaring irrelevance, to put the whole out of countenance. Poe’s few stylistic deflections are dominated by his habitual severity of form. As for the charge of insincerity, it is enough to remark that it has been brought against every poet who has artistically expressed a grief; it being impossible for some people to realise [page 212:] that art feeds on deep feelings, not at the moment of their first freshness, but when revived in memory. A more reasonable objection is brought against “Ulalume” on the score of its obscurity; but that too is exaggerated; and the announcement of Mr. Fairfield that it is a “vagary of mere words”, of an “elaborate emptiness”, is an avowal of defective intelligence. The meaning of the poem is this: the poet has fallen into a reverie in the dusk, and his brain — Mr. Fairfield says it was then a tottering brain — is carrying on a kind of dual consciousness, compounded of a perception of the blessed peace of the night and a vague, heavy sense of his abiding grief, which has for the moment fallen into the background. In this condition he does what probably most of us have done in connexion with a minor trouble — asks himself “What was the shadow that was brooding on my mind, just a little while ago?”; and then “If I have forgotten it, why should I wilfully revive it, instead of drinking-in peace while I may?” This, I maintain, is a perfectly ordinary experience in fatigued states of the brain; the specialty in Poe’s case being that the temporarily suspended ache is the woe of a bereavement — a kind of woe which, after a certain time, as we know, however sincere, ceases to be constant, and begins to be intermittent. The Psyche is the obscure whisper of the tired heart — the suspended memory — that will not be wholly appeased with the beauty of the night and the stars; and the poet has but cast into a mystical dialogue the interplay of the waking and the half-sleeping sense, which goes on till some cypress, some symbol of the grave, flashes its deadly message on the shrinking soul, and grief leaps into full supremacy. Supposing Poe’s brain to have been undergoing subtle disease in his later days, this its last melody has a more deeply pathetic interest than belongs to the theme. We shall have to examine that theory; but before going into the subjective data, which mainly lie in the prose works, I would finally cite, as still further demonstration of Poe’s poetic gift, the poems “El Dorado”, “Annabel Lee”, and “For Annie”. The first is a brief allegory, with something of a moral, but a. moral too pessimistic to have any ethically utilitarian quality; the second a lovely ballad enshrining the memory of his married life; the third a strange song, impersonally addressed to one of the women to whom he transiently turned in his lonesome latter years — a wonderful lullaby in which a dead man is made to placidly exult in his release from life and pain, and in the single remaining thought of the presence of his beloved. In these poems we have the final proof of the inborn singing faculty of Poe. Some of his poems, as has been already admitted, are works of constructive skill rather than out-pourings of lyric ecstacy; and such a musical stanza as this —

“And all my days are trances,

And all my nightly dreams

Are where thy dark eye glances,

And where thy footstep gleams —

In what ethereal dances!

By what eternal streams!” —

has perhaps a certain stamp of compilation. But no unprejudiced reader, I think, will fail to discern in the three poems last named a quite unsurpassable limpidity of expression. They evolve as if of their own accord. In “El Dorado” the one central rhyme is reiterated [page 213:] with a perfect simplicity; “Annabel Lee” is almost careless in its childlike directness of phrase; and “For Annie” is almost bald in its beginning. But I know little in the way of easeful word music that will compare with this:

“And oh! of all tortures

That torture the worst

Has abated — the terrible

Torture of thirst,

For the naphthaline river

Of Passion accurst: —

I have drunk of a water

That quenches all thirst: —


“Of a water that flows,

With a lullaby sound,

From a spring but a very few

Feet under ground —

From a cavern not very far

Down under ground.


“And ah! let it never

Be foolishly said

That my room it is gloomy,

And narrow my bed;

For man never slept

In a different bed —

And to sleep, you must slumber

In just such a bed.


“My tantalised spirit

Here blandly reposes,

Forgetting, or never

Regretting its roses —

Its old agitations

Of myrtles and roses:


“For now, while so quietly

Lying, it fancies

A holier odor

About it, of pansies —

A rosemary odor

Commingled with pansies —

With rue and the beautiful

Puritan pansies.”


(To be concluded [[continued]].)



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 206:]

1.  One of the disputed points as to which there should never have been any dispute is the question of priority in these passages. Mr. Fairfield, who imputes other plagiarisms to Poe, brusquely asserts that Mrs. Browning was the imitator. The plain facts are that her poem was published in 1844, and Poe’s in 1845, and that. Poe admired her poetry greatly.






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