Text: Paul H. Hayne, “Poe’s Method of Writing,” Appletons’ Journal, vol. VII, no. 162, May 4, 1872, pp. 490-491


[page 490, column 2, continued:]



A RECENT article in APPLETONS’, by Mr. Eugene Didier, in which he gives us a correct version of the circumstances resulting in Poe’s death, reawakened my interest in that wonderful genius, and caused me to hunt up certain memoranda in relation to his style of poetic composition.

These I found snugly stored away in a somewhat ancient and dilapidated portfolio; and, since they are rather curious than other wise, I have arranged them for publication.

As a preliminary truth, suggested by the subject, I may remark that the putting together of rhymes, that shall be tolerably harmonious and correct, is an easy matter to the majority of educated and sensitive persons; while the construction of a perfect poem, however brief, is, even to genius, the work of care, no less than the result of that “divine impulsion” we have agreed to term “inspiration.”

One feels assured that nineteen-twentieths of those poems in the English or any other language, which are fitted to stand the tests of time and criticism, are not the first rude transcripts of thoughts thrown off in the heat of creative enthusiasm, but the elaborated compositions of days, weeks, nay, perhaps months of artistic labor.

Many beautiful productions which to the superficial readers appear to be improvisations, gushing unstudied from the heart, and subjected to no after revision or modification, belong, in fact, to the maturest efforts of the intellect. Even the Italian poets, whose language assumes so readily a metrical form, have been noted for the conscientious painstaking bestowed by them upon performances which would doubtless be pronounced by the ignorant as trivial, and easy alike of conception and execution.

A remarkable instance of the correctness of these views came to my notice many years [column 3:] ago. Being at that time upon a visit to Richmond, Virginia, I called, one morning, at the office of the Southern Literary Messenger (then edited by that accomplished scholar, John R. Thompson); and, in turning over the pages of some back numbers of the magazine, I found several of Poe’s poems, now celebrated the world over, printed evidently from the first rough draught, without the slightest attempt at revision, or polish of any sort.

It is a singular study to compare them with his verses as they stand at present, in all the authorized editions of his works. Everybody is familiar, for example, with the rich, almost voluptuous, melody of the ballad of “Lenore,” beginning thus:

“Ah! broken is the golden bowl, the spirit flown forever!

Let the bell toll, a saintly soul floats on the Stygian river,” etc.

The initial stanza in both versions (the first rude transcript and the revised rhymes) is the same; but, from the second stanza onward to the end, the “original” differs materially from the poem to which we are accustomed. I have copied this piece with scrupulous accuracy from the Messenger. Here it is:


“Her friends are gazing on her,

And on her gaudy bier,

And weep! — oh, to dishonor

Her beauty with a tear!


“They loved her for her wealth,

And they hated her for her pride,

But she grew in feeble health,

And they love her — that she died!


“They tell me (while they speak

Of her ‘costly-broidered pall’)

That my voice is growing weak,

That I should not sing at all;


“Or that my tone should be

Turned to such solemn song —

So mournfully, so mournfully —

That the dead should feel no wrong.


“But she is gone above,

With young Hope at her side,

And I am drunk with love

Of the dead, who is my bride:


“Of the dead — dead — who lies

All motionless,

With the death upon her eyes,

And the life upon each tress.


“In June she died, in June

Of life — beloved and fair;

But she did not die too soon,

Nor with too calm an air.


“From more than fiends on earth,

Helen, thy soul is riven,

To join the all-hallowed mirth

Of more than thrones in heaven.


“Therefore, to thee this night

I will no requiem raise,

But waft thee on thy flight

With a paean of old days!”

This poem appears simply to have foreshadowed the other. Even the metres, in their strange irregularity, are different; and that the author has marvellously improved upon his first copy will hardly be denied by any reader of discrimination.

There is one other poem I unearthed from [page 491:] the musty columns of the Messenger, which possesses much of the value of a complete original. Very few of its lines have been retained by Poe, and these form a portion of the verses on page 34 of Redfield’s edition. The piece is called —


“Far away — far away,

Far away — as far, at least,

Lies that valley as the day

Down within the golden East;

All things lovely — are not they,

One and all, too far away?


“It is called the valley Nis,

And a Syriac tale there is

Thereabout, which, Time hath said,

Shall not be interpreted:

Something about Satan’s dart,

Something about angels’ wings

Much about a broken heart,

All about unhappy things;

But the valley ‘Nis,’ at best,

Means ‘the valley of Unrest.’


“Once it smiled, a silent dell,

Where the people did not dwell —

Having gone unto the wars —

And the sly, mysterious stars,

With a visage full of meaning,

O’er the unguarded flowers were leaning;

Or the sun-ray dripped all red

Through tall tulips overhead,

Then grew paler as it fell

On the quiet Asphodel.


Now, each visitor shall confess,

Nothing there is motionless;

Nothing, save the airs that brood

O’er the enchanted solitude —

Save the airs, with pinions furled,

That slumber o’er the valley World:

No wind in heaven! yet lo! the trees

Do roll like seas, in northern breeze,

Around the stormy Hebrides —

No wind in heaven! yet clouds do fly

Through the terror-stricken sky,

Rolling like a water-fall

O’er the horizon’s fiery wall.

And, Helen! like thy human eye,

Low-crouched on earth some violets lie,

And, nearer heaven, some lilies wave,

All banner-like, above a grave;

And, one by one, from out their tops,

Eternal dews come down in drops —

Ah! one by one, from off their stems,

Eternal dews come down in gems!”

Poe’s characteristic weirdness of rhythm, and his power of investing sound — vox, et præterea nihil — with sentiment and strange suggestiveness, belong to a few of the lines in “The Valley of Nis;” but the performance, as a whole, strikes me as vague and unsatisfactory, full of verbal trickery rather than of genuine art.






[S:0 - AJ, 1872] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Poe's Method of Writing (P. H. Hayne, 1872)