Text: Anonymous, “Edgar Allan Poe,” the Spectator (London, UK), vol. CII, whole no. 4204, January 23, 1909, pp. 122-123


[page 122, column 2, continued:]


POE, who was born on January 19th, 1809, was a great master of artifices, and of a cunning style; and we would add that he was also a master of morbidity, were it not that the word explains nothing while asserting too much. His triumphs in technique and in the employment of specially invented mediums were wonderful enough in all conscience, without our attributing to him accomplishments of which be had no trace. In the past few days we have read several appreciations of Poe, and have been struck chiefly by their extravagance. In the Nation last week there was a paper by Mr. Bernard Shaw, who appears to be much surprised that Poe should have come out of America, as though the very recognition of the existence of genius did not at once deprive us of all ground for surprise at its conditions. Why should not Poe come from Boston as well as Shakespeare from Stratford-on-Avon, or Tennyson from Lincolnshire, or Da Quincey from Manchester But America, we are told, is not worthy of Poe, and only two men born since the Declaration of Independence could avert the everlasting condemnation of that erring country if they could and would speak for her-Ono of them is Poe himself, and the other is Whitman. Mr. Shaw does not even say two men of letters. So, because Poe is insufficiently appreciated in America, as we admit he is, that country — the country of Lincoln, and J. R. Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Emerson, and Thoreau, and Hawthorne, and Lee (greater even in defeat than in victory), and Jackson, and Grant, not to mention Longfellow [page 123:] and Whittier (who provoke too much controversy with Americans for our liking, and whom we shall therefore place hors concours) — is to be eternally damned. Yet several of the names we have mentioned are linked to great human onuses, and were borne by men of world-shaking character and purpose. Poe was a man without character, though his guilt was probably slight, for he was a weak vessel; and he cannot seriously be made a pretext for the condemnation of his country. He left his countrymen what was in its way a splendid legacy, though really irrelevant from Mr. Shaw’s point of view, — brilliant exercises in material ratiocination (his stories are often nothing less) and verses of which the technical finish haunts every ear that has heard the sound of them. That is Much; but it is an inhuman and perverse judgment which discovers in Poe the springs of truly great writing; for he Was without the finest human motives on the moral aide, and, for all his art, without the greatest and noblest of those zesminding harmonies of which Milton and Shakespeare hold the secret.

Mr. Shaw asks if the America of Poe has passed away, or whether it ever existed. The question hardly needs asking. The background of Poe’s imagination is obviously not America. More than any other country. It is all countries or no country. Poe saw his images against a neutral background, and saw them through the discolouring mists which issued from a nervous and fantastic mind. If Poe had been a truly great man, be would of course have been a great American; but he was not. Mr. Shaw is, we suppose, constitutionally unable to perceive that the second defect points to the first. And so he goes on grotesquely exalting Poe at the expense of Dickens (“for him the great synthetic ideals do not exist”), among others, and reminding us that the “gorging and guzzlings which make Christmas our annual national disgrace” were recommended by Dickens, as though Poe were himself immaculate in the matter of sensuous indulgence and controlled his bodily appetites. All of which demonstrates, when you come to look into it, that a prodigious amount of nonsense can be preached by brilliant humanitarian Philosophers in the name of progress and art.

Poe’s true claims to immortality, if of a different kind and on a lower plane, are perfectly distinct. No man has struck out so many new lines in the region of romance. And he was not merely fruitful himself, he rendered others fruitful. He was the inventor of the detective story, and Wilkie Collins, Gaboriau, Du Boisgobey, Sir A. Conan Doyle, and others like these are all hie literary descendants. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter” are perfect examples of their class. If any one wants to read au engrossing exposition of the value of deductive reasoning, we commend him to “The Purloined Letter.” There he will find a lucid philosophy of the method which has since yielded such vastly popular results in the hands of all the writers of detective stories. In years to come it might be printed as a preface to “Sherlock Holmes,” for it contains virtually all the principles which are there applied with such practical skill. Again, Poe originated the story of scientific imagination. Read “The Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” and you see the germ of what Jules Verne wrote thirty years later. The Method is exactly that of “A Journey to the Moon,” of “The Voyage of the Nautilus,” and others, — bold flights of fancy Mingled with judicious parcels of popular science. Once again, Poe originated (though the model is not quite so definite in this case) the type of story which is half a tale of adventure In savage lands and half a tale of the marvellous. “The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym” was the precursor of Mr. Rider Haggard’s “She” and similar stories. Yet again, “The Gold Bug,” with its memories of Kidd and buried treasure, Bad its map and its cryptic directions, no doubt suggested the Machinery of “Treasure Island,” though R. L. Stevenson, of course, elaborated the method. One might go on for a long time giving examples of Poe’s originating genius, but tee will only add two more. “William Wilson,” that singular study of dual personality, was the prototype of Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” And in developing the realistic method Poe was before Flaubert and Zola. His parades of minute detail gave an intense reality to the scenes into which es introduced his bizarre and spectral figures. In one respect we might illustrate his success by that of Mr. H. G. Wells, who makes his readers go much more than half-way to meet [column 2:] the demands on their credence by the lifelike nature of the theatre in which the wonders are said to have happened. As we pointed out in the Spectator some twelve years ago, there is another kind of story in which Poe is supreme. This is the story in which modem men move in a dim world of crumbling castles and demoniac ladies, and hear, through magic casements opening on misty lakes, the thunders of the storm and the cries of the dying, while even above the tempest is beard the mutter of ancestral voices bewailing the ruin of an ancient line. Others have tried to borrow the light, but have never made it burn brighter, or, rather, with a more lurid intensity.

The ingenuity of Poe’s stories has its counterpart in the notable metrical skill of his verse. “The Raven” (a master. piece in verbal technique) and “Annabel Lee” live in the memory and never spoil; they never give one the impression that they are overwrought, like “The Bells” and some others. Poe once published an account of how he wrote “The Raven,” and Tennyson remarked that no poet had ever before thus taken the world completely into his confidence. If we remember the paper rightly, Poe explained, though we do not suppose he was perfectly serious, that a refrain was the important thing to choose first, and that everything else must lead up to, and be subordinate to, that. By a regular process of ratiocination be then showed that the word “Nevermore” was the most telling of refrains, and that “The Raven” was justified as a poem because it led up to that refrain. One suspects, after all, that Poe wrote “The Raven” first, and attached his principles to it afterwards.

What is it that is wanting in Poe’s work in spite of its high technical skill, and in spite of the almost universal appeal made to the imagination of men by tales of mystery and horror? We take the defect to be that there is no true human interest. We note as a sign of our times that the want is apparently not felt by Mr. Bernard Shaw and several other critics. We may be dazzled, horrified, and dismayed to any extent, but if there is no humanity in the stories there is no permanent delight. “Ligeia” is a marvellous description of a woman, but it is of a woman carved out of marble; she does not begin to impress us till another wife takes her place and she becomes a memory, and then has that mystical influence in a man’s life which Poe knows so well how to handle. But that is not a human impression. The more we read of Poe, the more we feel that we are really walking on the sands of the desert. There is gold in the sand, and there are the mysteries of dawn and eve, and the mirage shows shining castles and glowing pageants of woods, wastes, and waters. Yet it is not enough. We thirst for real running streams, and the kindly works of men and oxen, and the wholesome faces of human creatures, and the homely charities of the green earth.

Even when Poe fascinates us most, Pope’s couplet, forged for so different a man and in so different an age, rises to our lips: —

“Thus with each gift of nature and of art

And wanting nothing but an honest heart.”

Poe had not got, at any rate on his literary side, an honest heart, or, indeed, any heart at all. But what a tale of horror he might himself have written of “The Poet without a Heart,” and how he would have delighted in the intricacies and sophistries of such self-dissection.





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