Text: John Robertson, “Edgar Allan Poe” [part 04], Our Corner (London, UK), vol. VI, no. 6, December 1885, pp. 346-357


[page 346, continued:]

Edgar Allan Poe.


(Concluded from page 310.)

AS for the group of tales of the saner type, with their blazing vividness and incomparable compactness of substance — beyond insisting on the intellectual importance of the capacity implied in these attributes, and the essential realism of the stories within the limits of their genre, there can be little need to claim for them either attention or praise. Their fascination as narratives is felt by all: the only drawback is the tendency to argue that, because the non-realistic novel is potentially inferior to the realistic, this class of story is inferior to the realistic novel or story of ordinary life. To reason so is to confuse types. Lytton is a worse novelist than Thackeray because, professing both explicitly and implicitly to portray character and society, he is less true in every respect; and the idealistic element in George Eliot is of less value than her work of observation because it claims acceptance on the same footing while its title is, in the terms of the case, awanting. Here we are dealing with comparable things — with performances to be adjudicated on in relation to each other. But in Poe we deal with quite a different species of art. That familiar objection to his tales on the score of their lack of human or moral color — expressed by Mr. Lowell, in his “Fable for Critics”, in the phrase “somehow the heart seems squeezed out by the mind” — is the extension of the confusion into downright injustice. It lies on the face of his work that Poe never aims at reproducing every-day life and society, with its multitude of minute character-phenomena forming wholes for artistic contemplation, but — to put it formally — at working [page 347:] out certain applications and manifestations of the faculties of reflexion and volition, as conditioning and conditioned by abnormal tendencies and incidents. He does not seek or profess to draw “character” in the sense in which Dickens or Balzac does; he has almost nothing to do with local color or sub-divisions of type; his fisherman in “The Descent into the Maelström” is an unspecialised intelligent person; Arthur Gordon Pym similarly is simply an observing, reasoning, and energising individual who goes through and notes certain experiences: in short, these personages are abstractions of one aspect of Poe.(1) On the other hand Usher and the speakers in “The Black Cat” and “The Imp of the Perverse” merely represent a reversal of the formula; peculiar idiosyncrasy in their case being made the basis of incident, whereas in the others pure incident or mystery was made the motif. No matter which element predominates, normal character study is excluded; Poe’s bias, as we said before, being toward analysis or synthesis of processes of applied reason and psychal idiosyncrasy, not to reproduction of the light and shade of life pitched on the every-day plane. It was not that he was without eye for that. On the contrary, his criticisms show he had a sound taste in the novel proper; and we find him rather critically alert than otherwise in his social relation to the personalities about him.(2) Again, however, his attachments, once formed, were deep and intensely faithful — nothing, for instance, could be closer or lovelier than the tie between him and Mrs. Clemm — and his sensitiveness was extreme where his affections were concerned, though his friendly employer Willis speaks of him as a man who in his business life “never smiled or spoke a propitiatory or deprecating word”. In fact, if Poe’s private life be compared with that of Hawthorne before the latter’s marriage, Poe will seem the man of domestic and sociable tendencies, and the other a loveless egoist. His son-in-law tells us that Hawthorne had very little intercourse with his mother and sisters while living in the same house with them, and that he frequently had his meals left for him at his locked door. Southey, too, saw little of his family. Yet no one shivers over Hawthorne and Southey as minds without hearts.

As a fictionist, then, he is to be summed up as having worked in his special line with the same extraordinary creative energy and intellectual mastery as distinguish his verse; giving us narratives “of imagination all compact” yet instinct with life in every detail and particle, no matter how strange, how aloof from common things, may be the ensemble. As Dr. Landa remarks, he has been the first story-writer to exploit the field of science in the department of the marvellous; and he has further been the first to exploit the marvellous in morbid psychology with scientific art. These are achievements as [page 348:] commanding, as significant of genius, as the most distinguished success in any of the commoner walks of fiction; and a contrary view is reasonably to be described as a fanatical development of an artistic doctrine perfectly sound and of vital importance in its right application, but liable, like other cults, to incur reaction when carried to extremes. After “The Idiot Boy” and “The Prelude” came “The Lady of Shalott” and the “Idylls of the King”; and even if Poe be eclipsed for a time, posterity would still be to reckon with.

There is still to be considered, if we could measure Poe completely, his workin the field of general criticism and philosophy; and to some of us that aspect of him is not less remarkable than his artistic expression of himself in verse and fiction. Even among his admirers, however, this is not the prevailing attitude. Thus Mr. Ingram, to whose untiring and devoted labors is mainly due the vindication of Poe’s memory, considers that criticism was hardly his forte; and Dr. William Hand Browne, who, in his article in the Baltimore .New Eclectic Magazine on “Poe’s Eureka and Recent Scientific Speculations” has been the first bearer of testimony to the poet’s importance as a thinker-even this independent eulogist thinks it necessary to declare that in Poe’s “Rationale of Verse”, “in connexion with just and original remarks on English versification, of which he was a master, we find a tissue of the merest absurdity about the classical measures, of which he knew nothing”. I cannot agree to the implications of Mr. Ingram’s phrase, and I cannot but think that Dr. Browne has spoken very recklessly as to Poe’s knowledge and criticism of the so-called “classical measures”. That Poe in his schooldays was a crack Latinist we know from one of his schoolfellows, who dwells especially on the delight with which he used to listen to Poe’s conning of his favorite pieces in Horace. The school in question was exceptionally strong on the Latin side, and it is simply impossible that Poe, whatever he might do in Greek, could be otherwise than familiar with the orthodox scansions of the classic poets, ranking as he did as joint dux of the school. If Dr. Browne thinks the strictures in the “Rationale” on the prosodies of the old grammarians are absurd, let him show as much. Until he does, the probability must be held to be that a good Latinist who is a “master of English versification,” and Writes ably on that, is worth listening to when he deals with Latin metres.(3)

To my mind, the “Rationale of Verse” is a brilliant essay towards the logicalisation of a prosodical method which is essentially incapable of reduction to scientific bases; and in that sense its failure is its success. That is to say, we have here a close and lucid argument which, by doing nearly all that can be done to reorganise the analysis [page 349:] of verse into “feet” on the old plan, proves once for all that the primitive expedient of the “foot” is impotent to solve the psychological problems which verse presents. Whether or not we agree with Poe in rejecting the old scansions of Horace, we can all see that “feet” are purely arbitrary arrangements of the complex rhythms of modern verse, and leave half of even the rhythmic pheenomena uncodified. Poe’s bold undertaking to “scan correctly any of the Horatian rhythms, or any true rhythm that human ingenuity can conceive”, while “employing from the numerous ‘anvient’ feet the spondee, the trochee, the iambus, the anapaest, the dactyl, and the caesura, alone” — this is but a short cut to the proof that neither these nor the other “feet” can really analyse verse as we read it today. That he, reputed a fine reader, should fail to see this, is puzzling to the extent of suggesting that there is extreme presumption in thus dismissing his argument. But, feeling as I do the pellucid clearness and almost flawless unity of the “Rationale” as a composition — qualities which are the special stamp of Poe’s literary products — I cannot but think that he has acquired his confidence in his conclusions at the cost of ignoring the deeper issues. He has disposed of the confusions of his predecessors by overlooking the problems which confused them. As he says, “there is, perhaps, no topic in polite literature which has been more pertinaciously discussed, and there is certainly not one about which so much inaccuracy, confusion, misconception, misrepresentation, mystification, and downright ignorance on all sides,(1) can be fairly said to exist”; and, that being so, it is too much to suppose that a mere return to the simpler “feet” will settle everything. In his own critique on “Longfellow’s Ballads” we have the pregnant deliverance: “In short, the ancients were content to read as they scanned, or nearly so. It may be safely prophesied that we shall never do this; and thus we shall never admit English hexameters.” Very true and sound; but how, on that view, can we proceed to chop our verse into the old rhythms?

The close of the “Rationale” raises a question which has been generally decided against Poe — that as to whether he had any humor. Humor of the kind in which American literature is specially rich he clearly had not. Such attempts as his “X-ing a Paragrab” have none of the hilarious fun of those grotesque exaggerations which form one of the two main features of American humor; and of its other constituent of subtle, kindly drollery, unembittered jesting at the incongruous in morals or in incidents, he can offer us almost as little. The explanation is that in respect of temperament he was too unhappily related to American society to have any cordial satisfaction in studying it; and that his sense of the comic had the warmthlessness and [page 350:] colorlessness of unmitigated reason. One sometimes finds him even pungently humorous, but it is always in a generalisation, or in derision of a fallacy or a fatuity; always in a flash of the reason, never in a twinkle of the temperament; and only those who are capable of what George Eliot once delightedly spoke of as the laughter which comes of a satisfaction of the understanding, will perceive that he possesses humor at all. His satire, indeed, is strictly in keeping with his criticism in general. The peculiar quality of that, which for some readers makes it unsuccessful, lies in this absolute supremacy of judgment. The apparent or rather the virtual ruthlessness of much of his critical writing is the outcome of the two facts that he had an extremely keen critical sense and that, in applying it, save when his emotional side was stimulated, as it generally was when he was criticising women, he was sheer, implacable intellect. To him the discrimination of good and bad in literature was a matter of the intensest seriousness: of the faculty for doing mere “notices” of the mechanically inept and insincere sort turned out by so many of the criticasters who moralise about his lack of the moral sense — of that convenient aptitude he was quite destitute. To represent him, however, in the way Mr. Stoddard does, as a kind of literary Red Indian, delighting in the use of the tomahawk for its own sake, is to add seriously to that darkening of critical counsel about Poe to which his countrymen have so largely contributed. The prejudiced critic in question speaks as follows:

“Like Iago, he was nothing if not critical, and the motto of his self-sufficient spirit was Nil admirami. . . . It is a weakness incident to youth and ambition. . . . I do not think that Poe ever outgrew it, or sought to outgrow it. He believed that his readers loved havoc; Mr. Burton, on the contrary, believed that they loved justice. And he was right, as the criticisms of Poe have proved, for they have failed to commend themselves to the good sense of his countrymen. His narrow but acute mind enabled him to detect the verbal faults of those whom he criticised, but it disqualified him from perceiving their mental qualities. He mastered the letter, but the spirit escaped him. He advanced no critical principle which he established; he attacked no critical principle which he overthrew. He broke a few butterflies on his wheel; but he destroyed no reputation. He was a powerless iconoclast.”

I quote this as the most close-packed, comprehensive, and consistent piece of aggressively bad criticism by a not distinctly incompetent critic that I remember to have seen. From the malicious, not to say malignant, “Like Iago” to the overstrained depreciation of the “powerless iconoclast”, all is unfair and untrue. The remark about “havoc” and Mr. Burton refers to a jesting answer made by Mr. Poe to one of his employers who deprecated his severity; an answer which to take as an expression of Poe’s critical creed is discreditably unjust. He thought the severity complained of was deserved, and he merely made the light answer by way of soothing the uneasiness or silencing the objections of an employer for whose judgment he had no respect. To take seriously a phrase so uttered is either moral pedantry or worse. As to the view taken of Poe as a critic by the “good sense” of his countrymen, that must be left to the decision of the tribunal in question, if it can be got at; and the proposition that [page 351:] Poe’s mind was narrow may profitably be left alone; while the other dicta may be best disposed of by laying down truer ones.

What may fairly be said against Poe’s criticisms is that they have not the absolute artistic balance and completeness, the perfection of “form” which belongs to his tales and poems. Criticism was not with him, as it has been said to be with Mr. Lowell and Mr. Arnold, a “fine art”: it was rather a science; and his critiques accordingly are processes of scientific analysis and summing-up, almost invariably restricted in a business-like manner to the subject in hand. What he might have done if he had had the opportunities of the two writers named; it he had had academic leisure and good media, is a matter for speculation; but what we do know is that he has left a body of widely various criticism which, as such, will better stand critical examination to-day than any similar work produced in England or America in his time. Mr. James, half-sharing the strange American hostility to Poe, thinks that his critical product “is probably the most complete specimen of provincialism ever prepared for the edification of men”, though he admits that there is mixed in it a great deal of sense and discrimination; and that “here and there, sometimes at frequent intervals, (sic) we find a phrase of happy insight embedded in a patch of the most fatuous pedantry”. Well, provincialism is a very incalculable thing: so Protean and subtle that some people find some of the essence of it actually in the very full-blown cosmopolitanism of Mr. James, whose delicate art is so much occupied with the delineation of aspects of the life of idle Americans in Europe and idle Europeans in America, and so admirably detached from all grosser things. Putting that out of the question, and assuming that Mr. James is as qualified a critic of criticism in general as he has undoubtedly proved himself to be of the novel, we must in any case hold that he did not sufficiently consider the general conditions of criticism in Poe’s day when he penned his aspersion. When we remember how matters stood in England, with Christopher North and the youthful Thackeray and Macaulay and the Quarterlies representing the critical spirit; when we note how Carlyle, studying “Blackwood” and “Frazer” in those days, decides that “the grand requisite seems to be impudence. and a fearless committing of yourself to talk in your drink”; and when we try to reckon up what of insight and real breadth of view there was in all these, we shall find it difficult to accept Mr. James’s standard. Provincialism is a matter of comparison. If it be decided that to deal as minutely as Poe did with the contemporary literature and littérateurs of one’s own country is unwise, the provincialism of the proceeding will still be to prove; and one finds a number of things in Poe’s critical remains which go some way to explode the detractions we have been considering. When we look to see what line he takes as a critic, we find him delightedly extolling Tennyson as a great poet when men were still worshipping devoutly at the shrine of Wordsworth; insisting from the first that the obscure Hawthorne was a genius of a far higher order than Longfellow; welcoming Dickens as a great artist in the humors of character, but warning him that he had no gift of construction; heartily eulogising Hood; giving generous praise to Mr. Horne’s “Orion”; denying merit to the popular Lever; pointing out that the still more popular “Valentine Vox” was not [page 352:] literature; standing up for fair play to Moore; scrutinising Macaulay; doing homage to Mrs. Browning; paying the fullest admiring tribute to the memory of Lamb; coolly and impartially analysing Cooper — always quick to give honor where honor was due, and to protest against critical injustice; never once pandering to commercialism or tolerating the puffery of the undeserving; never weighting his scales for the benefit of any, save perhaps when his idiosyncrasy made him exaggerate the merits of some women-poets.

Let us glose nothing: let us admit that in discussing the commonplace quality of Lever he becomes so insanely extravagant in his esteem of the kind of fiction to which his own faculty pointed as to say that “for one Fouqué there are fifty Moliéres”, and to declare that “Mr. Dickens has no more business with the rabble than a seraph with a chapeau de bras “ — here stultifying a previous utterance. There is nothing to be said for such deliration as that, of course: we can but set it down to the brain-flaw. But at the risk of being charged with neck-or-nothing partisanship, I venture hereanent to endorse what I consider the judicious phrase of the friendly reviewer who pronounced Poe “potentially” one of the greatestof critics. It is a perfectly fair distinction. One finds that Poe’s critical judgment was generally unerring; and that he invariably knew and told how and why he reached his verdict; and one finds in an utterly preposterous misjudgment on his part only a sign of momentarily supervening distraction. For the comparative bareness of the critical part of his work is no argument against his being a great critic. The very strength of his critical faculty tended to make him pronounce rigorously technical and unadorned decisions where other men would turn out polished and charming essays; but in the terms of the case his work is more truly critical than theirs. The truth is that in our literature pure criticism is very scarce. Our most popular and charming critics so-called, Mr. Arnold and Mr. Lowell for instance, are rather essayists than methodical judges of literature: they write apropos of books and authors, giving us in so doing a finished expression of their own sentiments and their own philosophy, and as a rule — in Mr. Lowell’s case at least — giving us sound literary opinions and displaying a fine taste; but leaving us rather to echo their conclusions. out of esteem for their authority than guiding us to any science of discrimination on our own account. Writing as critics, they are adding to literature rather than effectively analysing it. With Poe it is altogether different. We read his criticisms not for their own literary quality but for their judicial value and their service to critical. science; and though it follows that they can never be widely known, it is not unsafe to predict for them recognition and interest at a time when a great deal of the more “readable” products of modern critics are forgotten. Certainly Poe was in advance of his time in the rigor of his critical principles. The unrealised ambition of his literary life, — the foundation of a critical journal which should be absolutely honest and be written by none but competent critics, giving the reasons for all their judgments — was utterly utopian. Neither the required critics nor fit readers then existed or yet exist in. America; — or for that matter in England. Now, as in Poe’s day, it may be that the qualified craftsmen in the States have [page 353:] to waste their strength in miscellaneity; but however that may be it is certain that American criticism, like English, makes but a poor show beside the critical literature of France. For illustration, it must suffice here to suggest a comparison of the graceful essay of Mr. Stedman, the best American estimate of Poe, with the article by M. Emile Hennequin in the January number of the Revue Contemporaine; an analytic study which, reading it as I do when my own essay is as good as written, makes me feel as if my labor were mostly thrown away. M. Hennequin, perhaps, would not resent the inference that he has learned some lessons of analysis from Poe; who, by the way, performed as remarkable a feat of analysis in his criticism of “Barnaby Rudge” as in any of his other productions. The decomposition of that story, the revelation of the writer’s mental processes, and the deduction of the plot from the opening chapters, drawing as they did from Dickens an inquiry whether his critic had dealings with the devil, are things to be remembered in the history of literature. But if there were no such achievement to Poe’s credit, and if he had not written his essay on the “American drama “ — one of the ablest dramatic criticisms even penned — that body of multifold criticism which stands in his works under the title “Marginalia” Would alone suffice, to my thinking, to prove him a born critic. Barring some inexplicable contradictions concerning Lytton — contradictions which suggest either deliberate mystification or mixed authorship — that miscellany of paragraphs and essaylets is a perpetual glitter of clear thought, into which one dives time after time, always finding stimulus, always buoyantly upborne by the masterful, inexhaustible mind.

But while we find Poe even in his college days making curious attempts to “divide his mind” by doing two things at once; and in later life musing intently on “the power of words”, his thinking faculty was not limited to analysis and criticism — processes which it is the fashion in some quarters to regard as of an inferior order relatively to those of historic speculation and sociological dogmatism or “construction”. It so happens that he has given us, in addition to all his artistic and critical work, one of the most extraordinary productions of imaginative philosophic synthesis in literature. It is not, however, of a sociological nature. A remarkable detail in Poe’s life and character is that he rarely touches on things political; whence, perhaps, an impression that he had no sympathy with social movement and aspiration in general. On the strength, presumably, of the allusion to mob rule in “Some Words with a Mummy”, and of some sentences in the “Colloquy of Monos and Una”, Mr. Lang confusedly decides that “If democratic ecstasies are a tissue of historical errors and self-complacent content with the commonplace, no one saw that more clearly than Poe”. But the school of languid anti-democrats cannot rightfully claim Poe as being on their side. If they will read cap. vi. of the “Marginalia” they will find him expressing democratic sentiments in propm’a persona; and in his “Fifty Suggestions” they will find a remarkable prophetic judgment as to the revolutionary spirit in Europe. If further proof is wanted of Poe’s essential democratism, I would cite the circumstance, not generally known, that in the Broadway Journal there appeared, while he was sole editor, an article entitled “Art Singing and Heart Singing”, signed “Walter Whitman”, in which are suggested for [page 354:] apparently the first time those doctrines as to democratic culture which have since become so familiar; and that there is the editorial note “It is scarcely necessary to add that we agree with our correspondent throughout”. The fact remains, however, that Poe made no attempt at a sociological synthesis. Setting aside the constructive element in his tales, it is in his cosmogonic philosophy that we must look for the synthetic side of his mind.

It resulted from the supremacy of the “reasoning reason” in Poe that the train of thought which evolved the “Eureka” found expression also in his artistic work. To say nothing of his psychological tales, we have the “Colloquy of Monos and Una” (as to the alleged plagiarising in which there is not a shadow of evidence) where two souls in heaven look back on the finished course of humanity; the “Conversation of Eiros and Charmian”, in which similarly one spirit tells another of how the race was destroyed; and “The Power of Words”, in which yet again two immortals talk of transcendental things. In this last dialogue there is a touch which for vastitude of imagination is perhaps unique. “Come”, says the spirit Agathos to Oinos, who is “new-fledged with immortality”, — “Come! we will leave to the left the loud harmony of the Pleiades, and swoop outward from the throne into the starry meadows beyond Orion, where, for pansies and violets and heart’s-ease, are the beds of the triplicate and triple-tinted suns.” In the way of “brave translunary things” it will not be easy to beat that. This is indeed poz’esis; and it was perhaps with a true instinct that Poe recorded his desire that the “Eureka”, with all its logic and criticism should be regarded as a poem. It is a great, impassioned, imaginative projection, beginning in just some such elemental swell of ideal emotion as gives birth to poetry. But there could be no greater mistake than to regard the “Eureka”, with its vast cosmogonic sweep, as a mere rhapsody. Dr. William Hand Browne, who has made it the subject of a sufficiently practical article, finds that its author possessed, “in remarkable excellence, the scientific mind”. Recognising this, Dr. Browne remarks that it has been Poe’s peculiarly hard fortune to be’not only persistently maligned by his enemies but imperfectly estimated by his friends; a truth which Dr. Browne goes onto unconsciously illustrate by denying Poe credit for The Gold Bug and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and, as we have seen, by charging him with writing absurdly and ignorantly on the classical measures. These injustices, however, perhaps give only the more weight to Dr. Browne’s eulogy when he attributes to Poe “the power of expressing his thoughts, however involved, subtle, or profound, with such precision, such lucidity, and withal with such simplicity of style, that we hardly know where to look for his equal: certainly nowhere among American writers”. That seems to me absolutely true; and there could be no better evidence in support than the “Eureka”. It is, of course, out of the question to load this already too long-drawn study in belles-lettres with any attempt at exposition or analysis of Poe’s theory of the universe. I can but note, that Dr. Browne undertakes to show, and has shown to the satisfaction of some, that the “Eureka” has “anticipated some of the latest and most important results of scientific investigation”; further, that it certainly defended the Nebular Theory vigorously and confidently against some widespread [page 355:] cavils of the time; and that, apart from its speculations, it seems to me in some respects a piece of the ablest dialectic of modern times. To Dr. Browne’s commentary it might be added that in the preliminary section Poe emphatically forestalls some of the strongest recent declarations against the absolute Baconian theory of discovery, and that with two sweeps of his blade he demolishes a position of Mill’s, which Mr. Balfour has only been able to take, recently, by laborious assault in his “Defence of Philosophic Doubt”. It would be hard to conceive swifter or more forceful logic than one finds in some of these pages; but it is perhaps right for me to say, finally, that I do not represent the “Eureka”, apart from its physical theory, as philosophically valid. It is the last word of philosophic Pantheisrn as distinct from pure Monism; and as such probably suffices to obliterate philosophic Theism; but for those of us who are Atheistic in our Monism it is necessarily unconvincing; marvellous and incomparable though we may find the genius with which the argument is sustained.

When, after thus discursively scanning the intellectual achievement of Poe, we return to the contemplation of him as a personality, there arises a feeling of absorbing wonderment at the strange paradox of his being; the extraordinary union of this regnant intellect with that ill-starred temperament; the weakness of the man foiling the strength of the mind. The facts are plain. While he was writing his most rigorous criticisms, and building up his cosmogony in the white light and dry air of the altitudes of his reasoning imagination, the man was not merely stumbling under the burden of his constitutional vice as if smitten by sorcery, but was living an emotional life of passionate yearnings and rending griefs. It was a lamentable life. After his stormy youth, in the latter part of which we find him attacked by the most crushing hypochondria, there came the cruel train of pangs represented by the illness of his wife, who seems to have truly “died a hundred deaths” before the release came; and in this period it was, on his own account, that in a state of absolute frenzy between his woe and his bitter poverty, which seemed to league itself with disease against the young victim, he first gave way to delirious alcoholism. His wife’s death left him heart-shaken, the long agony of her decline having deepened his feeling for her into an abnormal passion of pitying worship. As years passed on, the unstrung emotionalism of the man made him turn first to one and then to another woman for sympathy and love — this while he maintained to the outside world, save in his lapses, his grave, lofty, high-bred calm of manner; and bated no jot of skill or thoroughness in his work. While he makes distracted love to Mrs. Whitman, he never slackens in his keen derision of the transcendentalists, whose cloudy philosophy he cannot abide. He writes his story of “Hop Frog” with his old impassible artistic aloofness, and writes about it to “Annie” in a letter touched with hysteria. “Forced, unnatural, false” — “strained, exaggerated, and unnatural”, are the terms Mr. Stoddard applies to these love-letters and letters of ecstatic friendship; and we cannot gainsay him here, save in so far as he imputes falsity. The case is one which Mr. Stoddard’s primitive scalpel cannot dissect: what seems to him bad acting is neurosis. On the side of the affections Poe’s sensitiveness [page 356:] becomes absolute disease; till the man who was accused of having no heart is wrecked by its palpitations. But the intellect is never really subjected: it is shaken and dethroned at times by the breaking temperament; but it is unconquered to the last. He becomes almost insane when his engagement with Mrs. Whitman is broken; but he again collects himself, and goes his way in silence. It is eminently significant that, as Mr. Ingram notes, he shows no resentment at being charged with aspiring to be a “glorious devil”, all mind and no heart, as he was by some of the Brook Farm transcendentalists. The explanation, I think, clearly is that while he was conscious of his tendency to turn emotions into reasonings, he knew his danger from his malady, and was eager to have it overlooked. “In the strange anomaly of my existence”, says the narrator in “Berenice”, — a story which offers abundant data for the “epilepsy” theory — “feelings with me had never been of the heart and my passions always were of the mind”; and here there is a certain touch of selfstudy; but we must not be misled by the phrase. Passionately quick, on the one hand, to resent moral aspersions, and extravagant in his emotional out bursts, he had the pride of intellect in a sufficient degree to wish, in his normal condition, to be regarded as above emotional weakness. One who knew him in his latter days thought there was to be detected in him a constant effort for self-control. But it is worth noting that when Mr. Lowell — who had some years previously done a tolerably eulogistic memoir of him for a magazine series — spoke of him in the “Fable for Critics” as being “three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge”, Poe in his critique of the “Fable” showed no temper over the impertinence, any more than he did over the “somehow the heart seems squeezed out by the mind”; speaking indignantly only of the violent attacks on Southern slave-owners, with which, as a Southerner, he had no sympathy; and being content, for his own part, to pull Mr. Lowell’s versification to pieces with all possible completeness.

Looking back on his hapless career, and contrasting his deserts with his lot, and with his reputation, one acquires a strong sense of the worthlessness of contemporary judgments. There are stories of his scrupulous conscientiousness and of his social considerateness such as could ‘be told of few of his detractors; and yet we find one of his . women friends resorting to inaccurate phrenology to account for the defects she inferred in his moral nature. Absolutely innocent in his relations with women, though his unworldly romanticism in their regard carried him into some miserable embroilments, he came to be reputed an extreme libertine; and his one fatal failing lost him some of the friendships he most needed; virtue and goodness not being always as merciful as might be. One of the most intensely concentrative and painstaking of writers, he has been stigmatised as indolent and spendthrift. As to that one is glad to quote once more from the judgment of Professor Minto in the Encyclopedia Britannica, a vindication which, it is to be hoped, will set the current of a true appreciation of the man: — “Poe failed to make a living by literature, not because he was an irregular profligate in the vulgar sense, but because he did ten times as much work as he was paid to do — a species of profiigacy perhaps, but not quite the same in kind as that with which he was charged by [page 357:] his biographer”. Pity and praise, we repeat finally, are far more his due than blame. On the one hand we have the high-strung, birthstricken, suffering man, “whom unmerciful disaster followed fast and followed faster”, till, instead of the proud, noble countenance of the earlier days, we see in his latest portrait, as M. Hennequin describes it in his vivid French way, a “face as of an old woman, white and haggard, hollowed, relaxed, ploughed with all the lines of grief and of the shaken reason; where over the sunken eyes, dimmed and dolorous and far-gazing, there is throned the one feature unblemished still, the superb forehead, high and firm, behind which his soul is expiring”. The pity of it all, and of the inexpressibly tragic conclusion, is too profound to be outweighed by the remembrance that the “delicate and splendid cerebral mechanism” remained almost intact to the end. But it is by that magnificent endowment that the world is bound to remember him.




[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 347:]

1.  The unfinished “Journal of Julius Rodman” (published in Mr. Ingram’s edition do knee of the tales and poems) presents us with a somewhat more individualised type, but there too the interest centres in the incidents.

2.  Since the first instalment of this article appeared I find I was in error in saying he had no intimate relations with his sister. They met frequently, at least at one period, and his silence about her is to be explained by the fact that in her the family taint, so to say, took the shape of somewhat slipshod lethargy. She was proud and fond of Edgar; he critical though not unbrotherly towards her.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 348:]

1.  That Poe’s general culture was exceptionally wide and effective it seems unnecessary to explicitly contend here, though some of his critics deny him such credit. His works must speak for themselves. It has indeed been pointed out by one critic that the nature of his reference to Gresset’s “Ver-Vert” (spelt by him Vert-Vert) in “The Fall of the House of Usher”, shows him to have used the title without knowing the poem; and Mrs. Whitman’s merely forensic rejoinder only shows that she had not read it either. I fancy he may have dipped into the poem and noticed such a phrase as “le saint oiseau” or the concluding lines, and so entirely missed the nature of the narrative. But one such miscarriage, whatever he the explanation, cannot destroy the general testimony of his so various writings.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 349:]

1.  As a proof that Poe did not exaggerate, take the fact that in such a standard English compilation as Brande and Cox’s “Dictionary of Science, Literature, and Art” we have the statement, under the article “Metre”, that “a line is said to be acatalectic when the last syllable of the last foot is wanting”; whereas that is the definition of catalcct’ic, an (watalectic line being one with its full complement of syllables. In an earlier compilation, “Brande’s Dictionary”, the same blunder is found, and a line with a superfluous syllable is there said to be hypercataleptic.” If Poe had done such things, there would be some excuse for charging him with ignorance of his subject.






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