Text: John Robertson, “Edgar Allan Poe” [part 03], Our Corner (London, UK), vol. VI, no. 5, November 1885, pp. 303-310


[page 303:]

Edgar Allan Poe.


(Continued from page 213.)

THE few extracts above given are enough to show that as a poet Poe has a commanding significance and distinction; but if we find him remarkable in that regard, what shall we say of the range and calibre of the mind which produced the manifold achievement of his prose? The more one wanders through that, out of all comparison the more extensive part of his work, the more singular appear those estimates of the man which treat him merely as a poet of unhappy life and morbid imagination. Perhaps it is that in all seriousness the literary world inclines to Mr. Swinburne’s conviction that poets as such are [page 304:] the guardian angels of mankind, and all other mind-workers their mere satellites; perhaps that, despite Goethe’s services to biology, it has a hereditary difficulty in conceiving a post as an effective intelligence in any other walk than that of his art, and accordingly excludes instinctively from view whatever tends to raise the point. Or is it that the recognition of the abnormality of feeling in Poe’s verse, and in his best-known stories, gives rise to a vague notion that his performances in the line of normal thought can be of no serious account? It is difficult to decide; but certain it is that most of his critics have either by restrictedness of view or positive misjudgment done him serious wrong. Of the misjudgments that which chiefly calls for notice is the before-mentioned attack on Poe’s reputation by Mr. Fairfield. On the main thesis of that production — the contention that Poe was subject to brain epilepsy — I should not be anxious to make out a negative even if I were qualified to investigate the subject. To begin with, there is independent and altogether unprejudiced testimony that Poe suffered from a brain trouble; and whether or not that trouble was cerebral epilepsy is a question of detail chiefly important to thoughtful specialists. During the serious illness which fell on Poe after his wife’s death, Mrs. Clemm’s nursing labors were shared by a true and valued friend of the little family, Mrs. Marie Louise Show, who was a doctor’s only daughter, and had received a medical education; and this lady has written as follows: —

“I made my diagnosis, and went to the great Dr. Mott with it; I told him that at best, when Mr. Poe was well, his pulse beat only ten regular beats, after which it suspended, or intermitted (as doctors say). I decided that in his best health he had lesion of one side of the brain, and as he could not bear stimulants or tonics, without producing insanity, I did not feel much hope that he could be raised up from brain fever brought on by extreme suffering of mind and body — actual want, and hunger, and cold having been borne by this heroic husband in order to supply food, medicine, and comforts to his dying wife — until exhaustion and lifelessness were so near at every reaction of the fever that even sedatives had to be administered with extreme caution.” Ingram’s Life of Poe, Vol. II., p. 115.

The latter details may be noted as telling us something of Poe’s moral nature; the diagnosis as a fairly decisive deliverance on the brain question, especially when taken in connection with other medical evidence, and testimonies as to the startling effect of a mouthful of sherry or even a glass of beer on Poe at times. There is altogether good reason to hold that his brain was diseased. But what then? To say nothing of the sufficiently trite observation that great wits have their realm near the region of madness, biologists have told us that cerebral and other disease may intelligibly be and has actually been a cause of exceptional intellectual capacity.(1) What of Cuvier’s hydrocephalus and Keats’ precocious maturity? Even scrofula, and worse affections than that, have been maintained or surmised to promote cerebration: the formula being that certain conditions which are [page 305:] pathologically classed as morbid are biologically important though impermanent variations. Cromwell’s inner life has phænomena in some points analogous to Poe’s; and if it comes to epilepsy, we’ have to reckon with a confident classification of Mahomet among that order of sufferers; not to mention certain speculations in connexion with a name which may occur to Freethinkers. But why multiply cases? In what other instance has it been proposed to make light of a man’s mental achievements because his brain is known to have been flawed? I am not aware that any deliberate attempt was ever made to belittle what merits Cowper has, because of his affliction; or that Comte’s antagonists have ever given countenance to a. condemnation of his philosophy as a whole on the strength of his fit of alienation, even though mad enough passages can easily be cited from his works. It has been left for Mr. Fairfield, writing almost unchallenged by the literary class in Poe’s native land, to proceed with an execrable recklessness from an argument that Poe was an epileptic to a monstrous corollary of unmeasured detraction from almost every species of credit he has ever received. That this detraction represents a mere headlong deduction is plain from the fashion of its utterance. I have touched on one or two of Mr. Fairfield’s minor blunders: let us see how he puts his main literary case.

Poe, he tells us, passed through three psychological periods: the first, one in which he “seems (sic) to depend for artistic effect on minuteness of detail”, as in the “Descent into the Maelström”, “The Gold Bug”, the “Case of Monsieur Valdemar”, and “Hans Pfaall” [“imitated”, says Mr. Fairfield with his usual culpable inaccuracy, “from the ‘Moon Hoax’ ”]; the second, a time of predilection for minute analysis, such as is shown in “The Mystery of Marie Roget”; and the third, a spell of morbid introspection, producing such tales as “The Fall of the House of Usher “. Now, what are the facts? The last mentioned story was published in 1839; “Ligeia” — a story in the same “morbid” taste — in 1838; “Berenice”, “Morella”, and “Shadow”, all productions of the weird order, in 1835; “Silence” in 1838; and the eminently introspective tale of “William Wilson” in 1839; while “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” appeared in 1845; “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, and “Marie Roget” in 1842. Thus we have the works of “morbid introspection” before the specifically cited studies in minute detail and minute analysis — the “Usher” story before the “Marie Roget” and the “Valdemar”; and such a production as “Morella” almost contemporary with “Hans Pfaall”. Mr. Fairfield’s theory of development breaks down at every point. But that is a small matter beside his positive attacks on Poe’s reputation. Among these are the following:

“He did not think. He was merely a dreamer, having a singular faculty for the coherent organisation of his dreams. . . . Once matriculated in the great college of life, he tried to atone with cunning devices for lack of mental culture. . . . Mentally he never grew up. For the altitude and sincerity of intellectual manhood were, on the other hand, substituted puppetshow cleverness and analytic feats of the solve-a-puzzle kind. Thus equipped he came upon the stage, scarcely caring what his words meant, so that they sounded well: not as a man, but as an extremely clever actor of manhood.”

The italics are mine, and I apprehend they are a sufficient commentary [page 306:] on the egregious implications they emphasise. Baudelaire, discussing Griswold’s biography, asked whether in America they have no law against letting curs into the cemeteries: and it is hardly going too far to say that this latest aspersion on a great genius’s memory would never have had even a hearing in a well-ordered literary republic. It is charitable to suppose that Mr. Fairfield is not yet “mentally grown up”; the only alternative explanation being that the species of cleverness his essay exhibits is precisely what he asserts Poe’s to have been. To refute his propositions in detail would be to concede too much; but I have thought it well to cite them with the note that not only has no adequate recognition been given in America to Poe’s intellectual eminence [I exclude the friendly memoirs and vindications], but this extravagantly wrong-headed denial of it secures the vogue due to a true estimate.

If one critical impression can be said to be predominant for an attentive reader of Poe’s prose, it is perhaps a wondering sense of the perfection which may belong to what Lamb so well called “the sanity of true genius”, even where the genius borders on the formless clime we name insanity. This is no idle paradox. ‘Vhat I say is that while Poe’s work again and again gives evidence of a mind tending to alienation, it yet includes a hundred triumphs of impeccable reason; and that for the most part his intellectual faculty is sanity itself. It opens up a curious view of things to compare the opaque, lethargic, chaotic state of mind which in respectable society so securely passes for sanity, with the pure electric light — the cloudless clearness — of Poe’s intelligence in its normal state, and to reflect that he has been called mad and is generally regarded as cracked. How would Mr. Fairfield, for instance, have compared with Poe in thinking power if he had had to deal with such a problem as that of the prima facie credibility of the “Moon Hoax”, which he falsely accuses Poe of imitating ? The “Moon Hoax” was a celebrated narrative, the work of Mr. Richard Adams Locke, which appeared in the New York Sun some three weeks after Poe’s “Hans Pfaall” had been published in the Southern Literary Messenger, and which made a great sensation at the time. The “Moon Story” gravely professed to describe the inhabitants, animals, vegetation, and scenery of the moon, as having been lately made out by Sir John Herschel with a new telescope; while Poe gave a minute narrative, touched at points with banter, of a balloon journey to the same orb; but there was little detailed resemblance in the narratives, and Poe accepted Mr. Locke’s declaration that he had not seen the “Adventure” when he concocted his hoax. The point of interest for us here is that the hoax was very widely successful; and that Poe found it worth while afterwards to show in detail how obvious was the imposition, and how easily it should have been seen through by intelligent readers. “Not one person in ten”, he records, “discredited it, and the doubters were chiefly those who doubted without being able to say why — the ignorant, those uninformed in astronomy — people who would not believe because the thing was so novel, so entirely ‘out of the usual way ‘. A grave professor of mathematics in a Virginian college told me seriously that he had no doubt of the truth of the whole affair!” Accordingly, Poe appended to his “Hans Pfaall” story, on republishing it, an analysis of the other story, than which there could [page 307:] not be a more luminous exhibition of psychologic logic, so to speak. His scientific and other knowledge, and his power of scrutiny, enabled him to detect a dozen blunders and clumsinesses; but perhaps the most characteristic touch is his remark on the entire absence from the narrative of any expression of surprise at a phænomenon which, on the assumptions made, must have been part of the discoverer’s vision — namely, the curious appearance presented by the moon’s alleged inhabitants, in that their heads would be towards the terrestrial gazer, and that they would appear to hang to the moon by their feet. The demand for an expression of astonishment at this was that of an intelligence which had carried the action of imagination to a pitch of methodic perfection never before exemplified. The processes of subconscious inference which initiate conviction, the polarity of average thinking, the elements of evidence — all had been pondered and perceived by Poe with an acumen that at times seems miraculous. And the result and the demonstration was no mere protraction of subtle introspection, but the masterly solution of abstruse concrete problems. His facility in the explication of cypher-writing was astounding: witness his triumph over all challengers when he dealt with the subject in a Philadelphia journal and in Graham’s Magazine; his unravelling of a cryptograph in which were employed seven alphabets, without intervals between the letters or even between the lines; and his crowning penetration-of a cypher so elaborate that no outsider succeeded in solving it with flu; key when Poe offered a reward as an inducement. Take, again, the essay on “Maelzel’s Chess Player”, in which he bends his mind on the question whether that was or was not an automaton; examines with an eye like a microscope the features of the object; passes in review previous attempts at explanation; and evolves with omniscient logic an absolutely irresistible demonstration of his conclusion that the machine was worked by a man and of the manner of the working. The power to work such a “feat of the solvea-puzzle kind” is as rare, as remarkable, as any species of supreme faculty that can be named. It is sanity raised to a higher power. Such performances, to say nothing of his prediction of the plot of “Barnaby Budge” from the opening chapters, should give pause to those who incline to the view, endorsed by some critics, that there was nothing extraordinary in Poe’s feats of analytic fiction, seeing that he himself tied the knots he untied. But that criticism is invalid on the face of it. Why is Poe so unrivalled in his peculiar line if it is so easy to tie and untie complex knots of incident, and to forge chains of causation. in narrative? Does any one ever dream of denying skill in plot-construction to Scribe and Sardou because they deliberately lead up to their deno├║ments? Is it the tyre who propounds deep problems in chess, or the schoolboy who imagines new theorems in geometry? The matter is hardly worth discussing. That the author of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Adventure of Hans Pfaall”, and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” could be a mere intellectual charlatan, differing only from his fellows in power of make-believe, is what De Quincey would call a “fierce impossibility”.

As a fictionist and thinker Poe has half-a-dozen excellences any one of which would entitle him to fame. The general mind of Europe has been fascinated by his tales; but how far has it perceived the [page 308:] quality of the work in them? It has for the most part read Poe as it has read Alexandre Dumas. Poe, indeed, wrote to interest the reading public, and he was far too capable an artist not to manage what he wanted; but, it was not in his nature to produce work merely adequate to the popular demand. Hundreds of popular stories are produced and are forgotten, for the plain reason that while the writer has somehow succeeded in interesting a number of his contemporaries, his work lacks the intellectual salt necessary for its preservation to future times. Posterity reads it and finds nothing to respect; neither mastery of style nor subtlety nor closeness of thought. But Poe’s best stories have a quality of pure mind, an intensity of intelligised imagination, that seems likely to impress men centuries hence as much as it did his more competent readers in his own day. Even at the present moment, when his genre is almost entirely uncultivated, such a hard-headed critic as Professor Minto sums up that “there are few English writers of this century whose fame is likely to be more enduring. The feelings to which he appeals are simple but universal, and he appeals to them with a force that has never been surpassed.” To that generously just verdict I am disposed, however, to offer a partial demurrer, in the shape of a suggestion that it is not so much in the universality of the “feelings” to which he appeals as in the manifest and consummate faculty with which he is seen to frame his appeal, that Poe’s security of renown really lies. Doubtless many readers will, as hitherto, see the narrative and that only — just as Poe himself points out that “not one person in ten — nay, not one person in five hundred — has, during the perusal of ‘ Robinson Crusoe ‘, the most remote conception that any particle of genius, or even of common talent, has been employed in its creation. Men do not look upon it in the light of a literary performance.” But one fancies that the age of critical reading is evolving, in. which, notwithstanding a random dictum of Poe’s own to the contrary, men will combine delight in the artist’s skill with due susceptibility to the result.

Even among those enlightened enough to perceive the immense importance of naturalism in fiction, there are, it is to be feared, some who are so narrow as to see no value in any work of which the naturalism is not that species of absolute realism which — selection apart — is substantially contended for by M. Zola, and is variously exemplified in his and other modern novels of different countries and correspondingly different flavors. Now, the efiective vindication of Poe, to my mind, is that, weird bizarre and abnormal as are the motifs he affected, he is essentially a realist in his method. Granted that he turns away from experience, ordinary or otherwise, for his subjects, what could be more perfect than the circumspection with which he uses every device of arrangement and tone, of omission and suggestion, to give his fiction the air of actuality? Take his “Hans Pfaall”. Hardly any critic, save Dr. Landa in his preface to his Spanish translation of some of the Tales, has done justice to the marvellous exactitude and verisimilitude with which Poe has there touched in his astronomical, physical, and physiological details; and employed them to the point of carrying illusion to its possible limit even while he has artistically guarded himself from the downright pretence by the fantastic fashion of his introduction. There is realism and realism. [page 309:] It was Poe’s idiosyncrasy as a fictionist to examine, not the interplay of the primary human and social emotions either in the open or in half lights — not to be either a Thackeray or a Hawthorne — but to trace the sequences and action of the thinking faculty in its relation to the leading instincts and feelings of the individual; and this he does partly by studying himself and partly by comparing himself with others — precisely the method of ordinary humanist fiction. He is always an observer in this direction. His objection to the “Moon Hoax” was that it not merely showed ignorant blundering in its details but was wanting in proper calculation of the attitude of good observers; so, in his paper on “Maelzel’s Chess Player” he unhesitatingly rejects one of Brewster’s explanations as assuming too commonplace a stratagem; so, in easily unravelling a friend’s cypher, he laughs at the “shallow artifice” he sees in it; so, in a note on the origin of the name of the weeping willow, he observes that most people would be sure to fasten it on the phenomenon of the exudations of the leaves, while he is certain that the term was given with no recognition of that special fitness; and so in his Parisian stories he derides, in the police officer, the cunning which he finds so inferior to true sagacity.

Even the story of “The Black Cat” is realistic — realistic in the very wildness of its action. Any one in reading Poe can see how he consciously constructed tales by letting his creative faculty follow the line of one of those morbid fancies that probably in some degree occur at times to all of us, and of which, alas! he must have had a tremendous share; giving the recapitulation a gruesome lifelikeness by vigilant embodiment of the details he had noted in following the track of the sinister caprice. And so “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and “William Wilson”, and “The Cask of Amontillado” are realistic — realistic in the sense that they have had a psychologic basis in the perversities of a disturbed imagination: hence the uncanny fascination of these and other stories of his in a similar taste. Whether that particular species of fiction will retain a hold on men is a matter on which it would be rash to prophesy; and indeed it may be that that only this but another class of Poe’s productions — that which includes “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “Ligeia”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, “The Assignation”, and “Berenice” — may, as mankind progresses in rational culture, lose that peculiar impressiveness they have for so many readers to-day. These weird conceptions, whelmed in shade, seem to belong to some side region, out of the main road of human evolution. To my own taste, I confess, they are less decisively and permanently impressive than such feats of daylight imagination, so to speak, as “Arthur Gordon Pym”, “Hans Pfaall”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, or even “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and “The Purloined Letter”; but there is no overlooking the element of power, the intension of idea, which makes itself felt in the twilight studies as in the others. Like every man who has to live by steady pen-work, Poe produced some inferior stuff and some downright trash; but wherever his faculty comes at all fully into play it puts a unique stamp of mentality on its product — a stamp not consisting in mere force or beauty of style, though these are involved, but in a steady, unfaltering pressure of the writer’s thought on the attention of his [page 310:] reader. And when we recognise this pregnancy and intensity, and take note that such a critic as Mr. Lowell was so impressed by the “serene and sombre beauty” of “The Fall of the House of Usher” as to pronounce it sufficient by itself to prove Poe a man of genius and the master of a classic style, we shall see cause to doubt whether any considerable portion of Poe’s imaginative work belongs to the perishable order of literature.


(To be concluded.)



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 304:]

1.  Mr. Fairfield knows as much, for he cites Dr. Maudesley as “very positive in his opinion that the world is indebted for a great part of its originality, and for certain special forms of intellect, to individuals who . . . . have sprung from families in which there is some predisposition to epileptic insanity.” But Mr. Fairfield’s essay is as destitute of coherence as of caution and fitness of tone.






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