[Text: Thomas Seccombe, “Reflections on the Poe Centenary,” Cornhill Magazine (London, UK), vol. XXVI, ns. no. 3, March 1909, pp. 337-350


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[page 337:]

REFLECTIONS ON THE POE CENTENARY.

ONE would naturally have thought that in the matter of literary centenaries old England might have successfully defied transatlantic competition. But no! Here, too, as Thackeray says, when the young Lady Castlewood stands up to Aunt Bernstein in ‘The Virginians,’ the colonies have revolted and defeated the mother country. No recent celebration has had so much life and conviction about it as the celebration of Edgar Allan Poe that is now committing itself to the tender care of the literary historians of the future. In the first place, the Poe celebration has been carefully prepared. For several years past books and commentaries and editions of Poe have been snowing up the bookshops of two continents. The celebration, therefore, has coincided with a distinct epoch in the critical commemoration of its subject. In the second place, the commemoration has not been confined to one place or one capital. It has been cosmopolitan, international. The University of Virginia has missed no opportunity of giving a touch of academic distinction to the occasion (Oxford has set the example of reserving the unique honour of a special mausoleum for a pupil whom it had expressly expelled). But New York, Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia have all taken a prominent part, and have entirely repudiated the idea of a local celebration of Poe. With an agreeable assumption of humility, New England has deferred to the voice of Europe. It has admitted that there must have been a good deal more in Edgar than it had formerly deemed possible. England and France have both had the joyeuse entrée which the opportunity of saying ‘We always thought so’ not infrequently affords, and they have certainly not failed to take advantage of it. The ‘Times,’ the ‘Nineteenth Century,’ Mr. Bernard Shaw, and other leading organs of public opinion have proclaimed with one voice the irrevocable and irresistible pre-eminence of Poe. Paris, which witnessed the dawn, and exulted in the noonday of the cult of Poe, has prepared poems, paragraphs, marginalia, studies and even elaborate monographs against the occasion. In the last number of the ‘Mercure de France’ we read a version of Mr. Ingram’s interesting illustrated sketch of ‘Poe’s Life’ in ‘The Bookman,’ in the current number [page 338:] we have a bird’s-eye bibliography of the subject by M. Calvocavessi, and we are still awaiting another promenade littéraire sur Poe from the pen of M. Remy de Gourmont. This is the way, of course, for a centenary to be made really effective. It is not enough to have a few ladylike lectures about Milton in Cambridge or in London. If it be the object of a celebration to enhance and not merely to confirm an existing reputation, we must see the torch transmitted across the water, say, to Rotterdam, or even to Dublin. This has been done so effectually in the case of Poe that his portrait is familiar in all lands, and his is a name to conjure with, not only among editors and sub-editors, but also in such ordinarily unimpressionable circles as those of papermakers, printers, and publishers. In the very cheap reprint series of the Continent there is, after Shakespeare, no other English name which recurs with quite so much certainty and regularity as that of E. A. Poe.

Throughout the nineteenth century, and more especially after De Tocqueville, it is, of course, true to say that the Continent was always looking for some new thing in the literary line to come out of America. But no man of letters that was ever born at Boston had less of the distinctively American quality than Poe. He conforms, in fact, in almost every respect to the English type of literary, and more especially poetic, celebrity. He is of obscure, but undoubted, Irish descent; he is poor, misfortunate, a wanderer and a rebel against the religion and the respectability enshrined in the hearts of his fellows. He is essentially of the fellowship of the poets whose title is engraved on the rock by Shelley in ‘Julian and Maddalo’:

Most wretched men

Are cradled into poetry by wrong:

They learn in suffering what they teach in song.

The great Atlantic race of American men of letters, the really wonderful Boston group from Longfellow to Aldrich, proclaimed their Americanship by sedulously imitating the English of an age antecedent to their own. Poe had no such cramping limitations to contend with. He wanted to produce certain effects, and in his quest of them he borrowed, if that be the word, indiscriminately from any writer he thought would suit his purpose. In his home, as we see from his letters to Mrs. Clemm, he thought and spoke and wrote as an American of the Martin Chuzzlewit period; but when he wrote for press he employed the best magazine English of the ‘London,’ ‘New Monthly,’ and ‘Blackwood,’ not without a touch [page 339:] of what Hazlitt called (in his exquisite but unfair depreciation of ‘Vivian Grey,’ in a phrase far more applicable to Wainewright than to Disraeli) the ‘Dandy Style.’ Poe’s parents were strolling players, only one generation out from England, and five of his most impressionable years were spent at a boarding school in Stoke Newington (1815-1820). He must have had very much the same kind of education that Keats had at Enfield, or Hood at Clapham. In essential characteristics he was probably not much less of a cockney than either of them. He has not in the least degree the external appearance of an American literary man. What a state of isolation he lived in amid that environment — the America of 1840, his life-story shows. The one literary centre in the America of that day was far more remote from Poe than London or Paris. He never met his intellectual equal in the flesh, except Lowell, and he saw Lowell only once, and on that one occasion he was, unhappily, drunk. He was not a voluntary or predestinate hermit, as Blake and Hawthorne to a large extent were; but of all the writers of his time he was perhaps the most strangely solitary. With a power of magnetic attraction which might have rivalled that of Shelley, and a profile not unworthy of Southey, he had no one to fascinate but a few self-styled ‘literary ladies’ of New York. With a taste for the Contes Fantastiques de Haussmann in architecture he lived in sprawling cities that had not yet attempted magnificence. A bookish man, with all the morgue of an expert bibliographer for exact reference, he has to depend upon a single board of books (including presentation copies from Mrs. Browning) held up by a picture-cord. The American model, in short, has always been Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Rogers. In tracing the affinities of Poe we have our choice between Savage, Chatterton, Coleridge, and De Quincey! A nation that wanted Emerson and could appreciate the cleverness of Poe, but would be inclined to use in regard to it the words of Seneca (which Poe himself adopted for one of his tales) Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio! There seemed to them something malign about his genius, and they were shocked by his flouts and jeers at Bryant and Longfellow in the same way that good Germans were alienated by Heine’s depreciation of Klopstock and Schiller. Time, however, has now brought its revenges, and the idler whom the High Mightinesses of criticism rejected (as formerly they rejected Bunyan, Wither, Blake) is now to occupy the frontispiece of American literature. At the International Congress of Reputations Poe is now the chosen representative of his age and [page 340:] country. How is it that the man whose depreciation of Bryant and Longfellow so shocked a former generation of Americans is now to be placed upon such a pedestal?

It is a common, and, we believe, an erroneous belief that in the annals of literature, whatever may be the case in this mortal life of threescore years and ten, truth, justice, and intrinsic value must in the end prevail; and that the great writers who write for posterity will never be lost in the dead letter office, but will eventually reach their address. The voice of Europe, it is also said, anticipates that of posterity. To our thinking both voices are likely to be misled by gossip, rumour, advertisement, mystery, romance, and all the other prevailing factors of chance medley, just as much in the future as in the present. Books live by books. Books are to dead authors what advertisements are to the living. Those who do not get written about do not survive to become great. True greatness, says the author of ‘The Way of All Flesh’ wears an invisible cloak. The critics play a certain part in manipulating the sacred mantle, but not a preponderant one. For however inscrutable and incorruptible they may be, when they treat of dead authors, they must still follow the line of vital or human interest. They no more decide the route of greatness than the dog who barks in front of the triumphal chariot. Like historians, one is apt to conclude, critics are helpless in forecasting the future in inverse proportion to their excellence in rationalising about the past. The only thing certain and immutable about the vital literature of the future is that it must be something quite other than the vital literature of the past. The great critic, like the great historian, is superior to false analogies, knowing that, however much appearances may favour the idea, neither history nor literature ever does really repeat itself. No; the critic’s function is to expound and, where necessary, to divine the meaning of the books of old, and to adjust and interpret that meaning to the present. Whenever he endeavours to go beyond, to forecast, to prophesy, or to dogmatise about good and bad (the relativity of which in letters is one of their chief charms), he transcends his function and becomes either futile or absurd. Like the grammarian, it is not his part to teach us what to say or how to speak, but to adjust grammar and dictionary to actually existing speech.

Who is it, then, that holds the reins of the coach? It is, if we mistake not, that elusive phantom the cultivated reader in all lands, individually hardly, if at all, discoverable, but, collectively. [page 341:] an exclusive society, a powerful freemasonry of isolated persons of a certain culture, part instinctive, part acquired, informed by a delicately balanced admixture of energy and leisure, learning and experience, gaiety and sorrow, intellectuality and aesthetic intuition, which compiles the Who’s Who of the ages, and which gives to books and, indeed, to all works of art, that most valued, because most rare and most withdrawn, of all human gifts, a relative permanence. Admission to this inmost and supremely enviable of all clubs is not inheritable, still less purchaseable, as the sect of snobs do fondly maintain. The ultimate interest of art and letters is dear as thought to this supreme tribunal; but it has no express organ of opinion, and it is actuated by a multitude of motives many, if not most, of which are anything but the ostensible ones.

Let us take four of these unostensible motives in the case of Edgar Poe. They will go far to explain the present ascendancy of his fame.

I. Nothing touches the Suprema (as we will term the tribunal aforesaid) more than the idea that a man of good promise is a voluntary martyr to the lamentable complaint called literature, that little-ease of the castle of life: that when competency, honour and self-complacency beckon he should sacrifice all to become that vain, waspish, worn-out, jealous, suspicious, hungry, hag-ridden and often half-crazy egotist we call a ‘literary man.’ Poe drained the said romance of writing to the dregs. An idler among the industrious apprentices, the men in shirtsleeves who made the America that Mrs. Trollope and Captain Marryat knew, this Ishmaelite had little use for Jowett’s valedictory advice to the Oxford undergraduate: ‘Be good, do what you are told, speak the truth.’

Yet America began by treating him generously. The son of two poor players, left an orphan, under three, early in December 1811, in the current of Christian charity induced by the great Richmond theatre fire at Christmas in that year, he was adopted by a substantial tradesman, who earned a twilight immortality by befriending the infant poet, henceforth known as Edgar Allan. He placed the boy at a good school near London, and afterwards at Virginia University; but college gambling debts estranged the good Allan, now by inheritance a much richer man, having left his shop and bought a fine house in Maine Street, Richmond. He still offered his adopted son a place in his counting-house; but disliking the desk’s dead wood after the strange freedom of Virginia University, Poe bolted, as Coleridge had done in 1793, and turned [page 342:] artilleryman. Two years later, by Allan’s good offices, he obtained his discharge. A twelvemonth passed by, and in 1830, by the same influence, he got a cadetship at West Point. He veiled this crisis of his fate later by stories of military service in Greece or literary adventure in Paris. It was his last chance of escape from the thraldom of another De Quincey to dram and magazines — the American magazines of the thirties and forties. He hurled it from him in sheer, reckless improvidence. For Allan had now taken to himself a new wife, in the place of the one who had mothered Edgar, and was expecting an heir. The poet’s dismissal from West Point for neglect of duty coincided with the end of Allan’s patience and the appearance of a first volume of verse. It was his manifest destiny. Poe had decided to embark upon American authorship, and everyone knows whither that frail bark led him. The story is not exhilarating. But the romance of his youthful marriage with a beautiful cousin under fourteen buoys up our flagging interest. He was a dark, attractive creature with a striking forehead, a strong touch of the blarney, and, in a pre-eminent degree, the gift of fascinating women.

Mr. Poe (writes one of them at this epoch) was five feet eight inches tall, and had dark, almost black hair, which he wore long and pushed back in student style over his ears. It was as fine as silk. His eyes were large and full, grey and piercing. He was then, I think, entirely clean shaven. His nose was long and straight, and his features finely cut. The expression about his mouth was beautiful. He was pale and had no colour. His skin was of a clear, beautiful olive. He had a sad, melancholy look. He was very slender when I first knew him, had a fine figure, an erect, military carriage, and a quick step. But it was his manner that most charmed. It was elegant. When he looked at you, it seemed as if he could read your very thoughts. His voice whs pleasant and musical, but not deep.

His girl wife worshipped him, and her mother (‘Muddie’) became his obsequious slave. Ideal hues have been shed upon their dollarless dwelling. Edgar could obtain prizes for his work, and subaltern posts upon the ‘Messengers,’ ‘Mirrors’ and ‘Gent’s Magazines’ of those latitudes, but his waywardness and a certain crookedness, partly due, no doubt, like his drunkenness, to a peculiar physical susceptibility, baulked him of a regular income, the one thing needful. He bore from the first the birthmark of the unsalaried. Can America be blamed for that? From time to time with his ‘MS. Found in a Bottle,’ ‘The Gold Bug,’ ‘The Raven,’ ‘The Bells,’ he electrified the continent. From a literary point of view it was quick to appreciate his work — even his scorpion-reviews. [page 343:] His essays, poems and tales appeared again and again in successive magazines, and so ruined their own chance as books. The gradual decline and almost imperceptible decease of his wife unmanned him — for a time. Then he was buoyed up by two hopes, first, that of philandering successfully for a fortune among the literary females of New York, and secondly, the dream of setting up by a syndicate of good writers a really literary magazine — a magazine which should be sufficiently stable and dignified for his, Edgar Allan Poe’s, ‘Novum Organum’ [Eureka!] to appear in its pages. Mystery man and magazinist to the last, most inventive of story tellers and critics, costive poet of haunting lin-lan-lone melodies in verse, he was just ripened when his infirmity cut him off in his forty-first year — and five fellow-countrymen attended him to his solitary and unhonoured grave in the Baltimore burying ground.

II. The report that Poe’s contemporary biographer, the Rev. Rufus Griswold, was actuated by malicious motives has been of inestimable service to the poet’s reputation. Rufus was a rival critic and poet. He had supplanted Poe at one of the magazines. Poe regarded him as a sulky friend, but Rufus had a nonconformist conscience; he knew that he had a grudge against Edgar, and, when the time came to write an anonymous obituary notice for the New York Press, his conscience indicated the line of the least resistance. Had not Poe ridiculed almost to extinction his entomological museum of American amateur poets? When he had to write a formal biography he felt it incumbent on him to justify his no longer anonymous obituary. Poe’s incorrigible mendacity had no doubt misled him and others, and what the telltale evidence was precisely we shall never know, for most of it was destroyed by Mr. Leland; and for the most significant evidence in reserve, Poe’s letters to his early patron and friend, Mr. Kennedy, we shall have to wait until 1920. The case against Griswold is not half so black as it has been painted, but we may admit that he wrote an uncharitable biography, and what more could a man of genius desire? What has not the merest, alleged suspicion of malice done for Shelley (through Hogg and Peacock), for Carlyle (through the agency of Froude), and even, in a sense, for Dr. Johnson!

III. The obtrusively moral estimate of a poet, which the unco’ guid have proffered us in the case of Poe, has brought about the inevitable violent oscillations of opinion. Criticism must either react against the critics of the past or perish. This is how the ‘Edinburgh’ (primus inter pares) spoke about the author of ‘The [page 344:] Raven.’ The most worthless of all authors is Poe. ‘Many authors may have been as idle, as improvident, as drunken, as dissipated, as treacherous and as ungrateful, but none combined these qualities’ . . . The weakness of human nature has, we imagine, its limits; but the biography of Poe has satisfied us that the lowest abyss of moral imbecility and disrepute was never attained till he came.’(1) In the generation that followed this symmetrical cascade of sonorous unwisdom, Matthew Arnold had attained such an ascendancy over opinion that no critical dog or cat dared bark or mew until he had nodded or smiled assent. When a poet’s name was flung down, the wretched critic, with a hangdog air, took it into a corner and worked hard with his mouth to reconcile his verses to the ‘criticism of life’ formula. If he failed the case was clear — no poet! What a piquant audacity, what a sensation of intrepid licence, is there not in the idea, now that ten years or so have elapsed and the field is quite safe, the tyranny quite overpast, to set up a poem, a good quarter of which is made up of such criticism of life as ‘Bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells,’ and to call it the finest in the universe, and Poe the greatest poet in existence! A critic who perpetrated this blasphemy and lived to tell the tale was bound to venture on further audacities. A long poem, said Poe, is a flat contradiction in terms. Good! Let us say, then, that the line ‘Ou sont les neiges d’antan 1’ is worth the whole of ‘Paradise Lost,’ or, better still, that two lines of Verlaine, ‘II pleut sur le toit’ . . . is better than all Wordsworth. Still more amusing is it, after we have all been worshipping Tennyson and Browning, the Brahmin caste, and the Boston poets, whose worst fault, if we may judge by their biographies, can have been nothing more serious than grumpiness, men so respectable and so safe — safe in the closet, safe in the Press, safe at a banquet, safe in the bank parlour, safe everywhere — how amusing to round upon these men, whose writings brought courage and energy and gladness and endurance to two Continents, and to scream between the convulsions of humour that their disreputable brother, ‘poor Edgar’ (as the Little Doctor called him), who never brought a whiff of hope or energy to anyone, was worth the whole boiling of them!

IV. Poe’s European and especially his French reputation contributes a large quota to the totality of interest indispensable to the building up of a world-reputation.’ It has been said with little exaggeration that he is the ancestor of all the Parnassian and [page 345:] Diabolic groups. Foe begat Baudelaire, and Baudelaire begat Barbey d’Aurevilly and Villiers de l’lsle-Adam. The last-mentioned begat Verlaine and Huysmans. All these writers exulted in the debt that they owed to Poe, who likewise, through Baudelaire, influenced Swinburne, who formed the bond of union in the Tuesday salon of Mallarme, and who nearly swept Maeterlinck from his moorings. Before Baudelaire, however, Poe’s name had become known in France through a lawsuit. Two rival newspapers had the simultaneous idea of pirating a story from an English magazine. One styled its translation ‘L’Orang-Outang.’ The other more slavishly copied its original as’ Les Crimes de la Rue Morgue.’ In the suit that followed it came out that both were independent versions from the English of a certain Edgar Poe. His tales were soon in requisition among the translators of Paris, among them Mme. Meunier, Simond, Rabbe, Rosny, and E. D. Forgues, the literary executor of Lamennais, well known later as translator and critic of Charlotte Bronte and Mrs. Gaskell, who wrote an article on Poe and his Tales in the ‘Revue des Deux Mondes’ of 1846. Baudelaire’s first translation of a single story by Poe was published in 1848. In 1855 a series of stories was published in ‘Le Pays,’ and these were collected in 1856 as ‘Histoires Extraordinaires.’ ‘Nouvelles Histoires’ and the remainder of Poe’s works followed in regular succession down to 1865, and these very close and exact translations have become so identified with Baudelaire that they are regularly incorporated in his collective works. The essay on Poe which now serves as preface to the ‘Histoires’ originally appeared in the ‘Revue de Paris’ of 1852. Adopting the aesthetic tone of Leigh Hunt and the exquisite school, Baudelaire makes American materialism responsible for all Poe’s mishaps. The ‘great gaslighted barbarity’ of outre mer crushed, stifled, murdered him. The United States was, to such a genius as Poe’s, one vast prison in which he rushed hither and thither with the feverish agitation of a being created to breathe more aromatic air.’ ‘All his inner and spiritual life, whether drunkard’s or poet’s, was one constant effort to escape from this antipathetic atmosphere,’ in which, according to Baudelaire, ‘the impious love of liberty has given birth to a new tyranny, the tyranny of the beasts, a zodcracy.’ Poe in the midst of ‘this seething mass of mediocrity and commonplace’ cared only for the exceptional, and painted it with faultless and terrifying artistry.

Like our Eugene Delaoroix, who raised his art to the heights of great poetry Edgar Poe loves to makes his figures move on backgrounds of violet and greenish [page 346:] tints, lighted by the phosphorescence of decay and blown upon by the breath of storms. In his work, so-called inanimate nature partakes of the nature of living beings, and like them shudders with a supernatural and galvanic shudder. . . . Poe writes for our nerves.

Barbey d’Aurevilly wrote in similar strain of Poe as the most beautiful thing which the sink and off-scouring of humanity has ever produced, stranded on a desert waste to be trampled to death by the elephant feet of American materialism, while Peladan, in his introduction to Mourey’s version of the poems, impugned Yankeedoodledom devoid of civilisation, without art, without a language, without a nationality, as the murderer of the greatest genius of the nineteenth century! The Symbolists and Decadents of the Chat Noir, represented by Mauclair, Morice and others, have gone to still greater lengths in extravagance, Poe being solemnly included by them, together with Chateaubriand, Goethe, Hugo, Balzac, Baudelaire, and Wagner, in the ‘parallelogram of forces’ which has gone to produce French literature of tout à l’heure Gould, Lauvriere, Barine, De Gourmont and others have studied Poe exhaustively from the pathological point of view, and have tried their utmost to play harmonics upon the strings of his disordered nerves, his drug-haunted and hydrocephalic symptoms, not always quite intelligibly. Camille Mauclair treats Poe as the typical ideologue. Sainte-Beuve and Taine, though they expressed interest, left Poe severely alone. Leconte de Lisle, Mallarme, whose wonderfully wrought prose version of twenty of Poe’s poems appeared in 1888 in a beautiful volume illustrated by Manet, and Hennequin, in his ‘Écrivains Français,’ got nearer to the root of the matter, for they at any rate saw that Poe was far more an hallucinator than an ideologue, that he was the creator rather than the victim of illlusions, that his genius, in short, was more inventive than imaginative. By some of his French idolaters Poe was compared with Pascal, by others with Byron (a ‘Banjo-Byron’ truly). M. Jules Lemaitre, we must assume, may have been laughing in his sleeve when he saw the cénacle swallowing his classification of Poe along with Plato and Shakespeare. In one of his ‘Dialogues des Morts,’ at any rate, he makes Poe the poet of Fear, who declaims that he has expressed states of soul which the author of ‘Hamlet’ himself barely guessed at twice or thrice. This is a little staggering, even to our hardihood of belief, coming as it does from the lips of one described by a fellow-American, second to none as a connoisseur, as ‘a greater charlatan even than Baudelaire.’ [page 347:] But is it essential, when all is said, to take this chorus of French decadent bards so very seriously; or, even when a critic of renown describes Poe’s verse in a recent number of the ‘Revue des Deux Mondes’ as the most magnificent which the English language possesses, are we merely to bow our crests and receive it as gospel? What would the French critics say if we proceeded to demonstrate to them that La Fontaine and Racine were absurdly overrated in France? Nay, what do we do ourselves when English critics proceed to dogmatise and discriminate widely on the subject of French poetry? Do we not laugh consumedly? Do we need foreign critics to explain to us why ‘Marmion’ just falls short of or Gray’s ‘Elegy’ just attains the level of great poetry? We can judge to some extent by a glance at the past poetic idols of Continental critics. Young and his ‘Night Thoughts,’ Macpherson’s ‘Ossian,’ ‘Childe Harold,’ Sebastian Melmoth. When a prose translator of the conscience and nicety of Mallarme renders ‘By the heaven that bends above us’ into Par les cieux sur nous epars, we can perceive what firmaments must sever the Poe that the French reader worships from the Poe that we know. The poetry of another land is always poetry denuded of two-thirds of its rhythm and three-quarters of the associational value of the words. Poetry, in fine, is far too exquisite a thing to be international or universal. Transplanted, in exile, it is like a once beautiful sea shell that has lost both its sheen and its murmur. In an indifferent medium such as Esperanto we will gladly accept the verdict of French critics (the acutest in the world) as to the most magnificent verse extant; but, when it comes to English verse, we must courteously but unambiguously beg to differ.

Personally, I sympathise with the modem tendency or current in the movement of which Poe’s reputation seems to be so rapidly rising. It is undeniable that his life was undeservedly pitiable. I can discern elements of true romance in it the more plainly as I retrace his life-story. He has been sensibly, if not, perhaps, very seriously, maligned. The critics of his day were unquestionably wrong — it is their right and, indeed, their privilege to be so, or they would not be critics. The luxuriant growth of Poe’s European reputation is instructive in the highest degree; the conversion of English critics to the jettisoning of old standards, which his elevation renders necessary, hardly less so. His position in the history of literature and in connexion with the study of comparative literature may eventually be decided to be a very important [page 348:] one. He is often claimed already as the creator or at any rate the pioneer of the supernatural, the exotic, and the grotesque element in the short story. We used to attribute the renaissance of wonder and terror in this medium to Walpole and Radcliffe, Maturin and Monk Lewis; but this may well have all been altered during the past few years by the infant Hercules of comparative literature. It would need a long essay to discuss this subject even in cursory fashion. I would only point out how inseparable the qualities of weirdness and horror were deemed from the great majority of all the short stories of that and the preceding period, witness “Frankenstein’ in England, La Motte Fouque’s stories in Germany, Scott’s ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale,’ the early stories of Mérimée (the greatest master in my opinion that the short story has ever had), from ‘Mateo Falcone’ and ‘Tamango’ in 1829, down to the very Poe-like ‘Lokis’ and ‘Venus d’llle,’ not to speak of Hoffmann and De Maistre. The short stories of ‘Pickwick’ even have a grim and grotesque element. There were plenty of routes by which the short story was pretty certain to develop, but as it has developed there can be little doubt that Maupassant (in such a story as ‘Le Horla’), Schwob, Jules Verne, Arthur Machen, Rudyard Kipling, and even the delectable Erckmann-Chatrian of our youth, owe a considerable debt to Poe. Like Poe’s fame, I fully expect that this debt will go on growing and that a hundred and fifty years hence our eulogies and comments of 1909 will appear quite comically commonplace and inadequate. The pendulum, says a recent writer, with perfect truth and a strong American accent, ‘has swung back and forth, and in spite of Mr. George E. Woodberry’s attempt more than twenty years ago to stop it on centre, it continues to swing up to the present day.’

A private opinion on literary values is to my thinking a singularly worthless thing, except in so far as its expression is interesting, or as representing the frank belief of a certain group, college set. social impress, or course of reading or training. It would be disingenuous, however, in me not to confess that the glow of enthusiasm about Poe’s writings which seems at the moment so ardent and so universal leaves me all but utterly cold. Instead of growing with my age in increasing admiration for Poe, my interest in and admiration for his work seem to be appreciably diminishing. In college days, though my knowledge of his writings was regrettably superficial, I discerned Poe in a violet halo from which he was never dissociated in my imagination. I actually know his work far better now, but I seem to want to know it far less. Not being [page 349:] a French poet, and no longer a young man, Poe seems to have no power to waylay me. My inability to appreciate him more astonishes me mainly in view of the ecstatic praise lavished upon his verses and tales by contemporaries with some of whom, upon ordinary questions of literary opinion or debate, I should probably agree substantially upon three questions out of four. I presume that my failure must be due in large measure to my total lack of Irish lineage. I recognise, of course, that such stories as ‘The Gold Bug,’ ‘The Purloined Letter,’ ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (which I take to be among the very best) are admirable in their way. But stories about piratical treasures and scraps of paper seem to possess less glamour for me than they had formerly. The point about the master in ‘The Gold Bug’ going about in dread of a thrashing from his negro slave has always interested me for its daring; but could it be justified historically any more than the details of Kidd’s treasure? The dialect seems very tentative. The logical ingenuity of ‘The Purloined Letter’ is excellent, but the ‘pure algebra’ in it seems made to be skipped. The Inquisition machinery of ‘Le Puits et le Pendule,’ as Baudelaire calls it, is an uncanny mixture of fun and horror. Historically it is as grotesque as Hugo’s Wapentake. ‘The House of Usher,’ again, is too obviously built of painted cardboard, and its lack of character-interest compares badly with Mérimée’s ‘Lokis.’ With Poe’s figures it is inevitably a case of out of plot out of mind. As for ‘the most magnificent verses in the English language’ they remind one in turn of Sir W. S. Gilbert, of Calverley, of Barham, of Bayley, of Southey, and Moore, and not least of Colman’s marrow-bone-and-cleaver symphony: at their very best of Hood (‘For Annie’) and of Landor (‘To Helen’). Judged by such standards as I can understand, these last very artificial but very beautiful verses, upon the perfection of which he was working from a first draft in 1829 down to 1845, mark the height of his poetical achievement.

Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicean barks of yore

That 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 homo

To the glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome . . . [page 350:]

Among the makers of his own age the god of Poe’s idolatry was admittedly Tennyson, and this veritable thing of beauty was manifestly obtained by strict Tennysonian methods. Many need no conviction, but it would need a pit and a pendulum to convince me that in his ‘happy Runic Rhyme’

To the rolling of the bells —

Of the bells, bells, bells —

To the tolling of the bells

Of the bells, bells, bolls. bells —

Bells, bells, bells —

To the moaning and the groaning of the bells

he easily surpassed his master’s own ‘Ring out, wild bells.’ Of his other verse it seems to me it might be said indifferently that it has the tune without the touch of the born poet, that it appeals to the ear, but rarely if ever to the heart. Hazlitt’s criticism, which applies so remorselessly and unanswerably to the early work of Shelley, before his second sojourn abroad, applies with far less qualification to the whole of Poe’s verse. Take ‘Ulalume,’ for instance, in the case of which so discerning a critic as Mr. Macy expresses doubt as to whether the limit reached in it be the limit of beauty or the limit of sanity, what could be a fitter dwelling for the bloodless vampires and ‘poor pale shrieking ghosts’ of Hazlitt’s delineation than its ‘dank tarns’ and ‘ghoul-haunted woodlands’? Nothing could be more chaste in expression, it is perfectly true, than Poe’s ardours, nothing could be more unexceptionable than the weird touch of his revenantes; but quality and sentiment are alike to be found in ‘The Cane-bottomed Chair,’ which, as poetry, appears to me superior to the claptrap of ‘Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.’ In my Pantheon I must still regard the Raven as sacred to Charles Dickens. Poe, by the way, was a generous admirer of the great novelist, and I put his appreciation and analysis of ‘Barnaby Rudge,’ along with the four stories already noted, the two poems, and the essay on poetry and the poetic principle, as forming the main contents of’ the slim volume under his arm ‘with which this’ poor Edgar’ may hope (with that other poor drug-shadowed waif of the magazines who had ‘been in hell’) to enter the company of the immortals.

Thomas Seccombe.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 344:]

1.  ‘Edinburgh Review,’ April 1850.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - CM, 1909] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Reflections on the Poe Centenary (T. Seccombe, 1909)