Text: Killis Campbell, “The Mind of Poe,” The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (1933), pp. 3-33 (This material is protected by copyright)


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THE MIND OF POE

I

THE poet Lanier is said to have remarked on one occasion, “The trouble with Poe was, he did not know enough.”(1) To which Mr. J. M. Robertson, the well-known student and critic, retorts: “Alas, that is the trouble with all of us!”(2)

Just what Lanier meant by saying that Poe “did not know enough” I cannot feel sure. A very astute friend of mine suggests that he meant merely that Poe was a man of limited emotional experience and narrow sympathies. And if that be the case, Lanier was undoubtedly right. For although Poe had, as I shall presently endeavor to show, larger sympathies and wider human interests than is commonly allowed, it is not to be denied that his emotional sympathies were limited and his knowledge of life in some measure restricted. But I cannot bring myself to believe that this was what Lanier meant.

It is possible, I think, that Lanier meant merely that Poe had not read enough, that he did not know [page 4:] enough about books. And on that supposition, too, he was doubtless right. Poe had, to be sure, a pretty wide acquaintance with the literature of his own time.(1) He was familiar with Byron and Shelley and Moore, with Coleridge and Keats and Wordsworth, with Lowell and Longfellow, with Scott and Dickens and Disraeli, with Irving and Hawthorne and Simms, with De Quincey and Lamb and Hazlitt. He was not unfamiliar, moreover, with the chief writers of the age immediately preceding his own, with Gray and Cowper and Sterne and Walpole and Charles Brockden Brown. And he knew his Shakespeare, his Milton, and his Pope: he quotes from Hamlet, for instance, some thirty-eight times; from Paradise Lost as many as sixteen times; and from Pope no less than twenty-six times. But he had little or no first-hand knowledge of Chaucer or of Spenser; he had small acquaintance with Shakespeare’s contemporaries, or with Milton’s, or with Dryden’s; and even among his own contemporaries there were some who appear to have been all but strangers to him — as Robert Browning and Thackeray and Jane Austen. Besides, his acquaintance with foreign literature seems to have been meagre and uncertain at best, being based largely on his work at college; while a great deal of his reading was professional, and hence was more or less perfunctory. [page 5:]

II

But it seems to me much more likely that Lanier had reference, not to Poe’s reading, nor to any narrowness of sympathies and interests, but, rather, to the content of his mind, — in a word, to the extent of his knowledge, — and possibly also to the fibre of his mind. At least, it would seem only fair to take him at his word, — that “the trouble with Poe was, he did not know enough.”

Wherein, then, let us ask, was Poe’s intellectual stock-in-trade such as to exclude him from the company of those who might aspire to greatness? I have already touched on his knowledge of literature. What of his knowledge of language and the languages, of music and painting and sculpture, of history and philosophy and religion, of mathematics and astronomy, of physics and chemistry and botany and zoology, of the world of nature, of the political, industrial, and social life of his time, and of human life and experience in their more intimate and vital aspects? And wherein, if at all, were Poe’s natural endowments such as to forbid his achieving eminence as a writer?

With respect to Poe’s knowledge of his own language, the evidence at hand is not very satisfactory. There is nothing to show that he ever received any formal instruction in the subject, unless a statement to the effect that instruction would be given in “the English Language in its Anglo-Saxon form,” made in [page 6:] an announcement of courses for the University of Virginia for 1825 and again for 1827 (that is, both for the year preceding and for the year following Poe’s one session at the University), be construed as pointing in that direction.(1) But it may be taken for granted that as a boy he had the old-time drill in the rudiments of English in the schools that he attended in Richmond and London; and he inevitably acquired a good deal of incidental knowledge of grammatical forms and relations in his courses in the foreign languages, particularly in Latin. In his critical papers, it may be added, he not infrequently draws attention to some carelessness in grammatical construction; and he occasionally remarks on the history of some word or ventures to suggest some etymology of his own.(2)

Of the foreign languages he knew best Latin and French. He had already begun the study of Latin in [page 7:] 1818, when but nine years old; for in that year his foster-father, John Allan, wrote his business partner in Richmond that Edgar could read Latin “pretty sharply.”(1) And he continued the study of Latin at the academy in Richmond (where he won local distinction for his facility in “capping verses” from Horace) and throughout his year at the University of Virginia, where he was listed at the end of the session among those who “excelled” in the subject.(2) His Latin quotations, it must be admitted, are sometimes inaccurate, — that is, verbally inaccurate (he is very rarely inaccurate, so far as I have observed, in his spelling of the Latin,(3) and this in spite of the fact that he was a notoriously bad speller).(4) Of fifteen quotations from Horace, for instance, four are inexact; and of sixteen from Virgil that I have noted, five are inexact. But about the same ratio holds for his quotations from Pope, whom he quotes inaccurately [page 8:] eight times in a total of twenty-six passages cited. And of some ninety quotations from the Bible, more than half are inexact.(1) Evidently he was accustomed to quote from memory. It is plain, too, that he did not scruple to twist or garble a quotation when he felt that this would serve his purpose.

It is much the same with his knowledge of French. He probably began the study of French while at school in London, and he was graduated in the subject after one year at the University of Virginia, being (as in Latin) among the starred graduates.(2) At West Point in 1830 he ranked third in French in a class of eighty-seven. Among the books that he drew out of the library of the University of Virginia in 1826 were three works in French, — Voltaire’s Histoire Particulière and Rollin’s Histoire Ancienne and Histoire Romaine,(3) — from which it may be inferred that he had already, at the age of seventeen, acquired the habit of reading extra-curricular French works in the original. His quotations from the French, which abound, even to excess, throughout his writings, are usually accurate in form, his chief lapses in this regard being in certain twisted accents and false genders; but in idiom he was not infrequently at fault, as Miss Edith Philips has shown.(4) [page 9:]

Of his knowledge of German and Spanish and Italian I do not feel so certain. That he could make shift to read brief passages of easy German has, I think, been established,(1) but just how far his acquaintance with the language extended is not clear. In every likelihood, his first-hand acquaintance with German was small. There is no record of his having had any instruction in the subject,(2) and he quotes from the German not above two dozen times, — once for as many as ten lines from Humboldt, and again for half a dozen lines from Novalis,(3) — but in each instance, as Professor Schreiber has shown, he relies on another for the translation that he gives.(4) He writes (with reference to a book) that “er lasst sich nicht lesen,”(5) she twice speaks of Werther’s Lieden [page 10:] (sic),(1) and in the printed texts he consistently omits his umlauts.(2) Spanish and Italian and Greek were among his subjects at the University of Virginia, and it is tolerably certain that he could make some headway in the translation of each. He must have been least at home with Spanish, in view of the fact that his quotations from the Spanish (seven in all by my reckoning) exhibit minor inaccuracies in quite half the lines cited. His quotations from Italian and Greek, on the other hand, are with few exceptions accurate, — though he confuses a “xi” with a “zeta” in one case(3) and with a “sigma” in another,(4) and he adopts the wrong gender form with one of his Greek relatives.(5) He translates quite correctly, however, in a note on one of his stories, a passage of twenty lines from Plato’s Republic;(6) and tradition has it that he attracted attention to himself on one occasion while at the University of Virginia by turning a passage from Tasso into English verse as a class exercise.(7) It [page 11:] appears that he also had some slight knowledge of Hebrew, which was among the subjects required by the “Rector and Visitors” of the University of Virginia in the School of Ancient Languages,(1) though this must have been exceedingly slight.

Of his knowledge of the fine arts — of music, and painting, and sculpture, the theatre and dancing — I am likewise uncertain, though it was, we may assume, neither wide nor deep. For at least one year in London he had lessons in dancing.(2) He sang well, so it has been held;(3) and he is likewise said to have played the flute;(4) and we know that he was fond of the piano and of instrumental music generally. In an early letter (written in 1835) he remarks that he has been making “some odd chromatic experiments” by way of testing the music of some of his own lines;(5) and elsewhere he reveals an acquaintance with technical terms in music.(6) In certain of his essays, especially those written about 1845, he comments on the opera and on theatrical performances in New York City, which he attended from time to time.(7) He was personally acquainted with Murdock, Junius Brutus Booth, and Mrs. Mowatt; and he inherited from his [page 12:] parents an interest in the actor’s art, although he took no part in theatrical performances, so far as we know, after his youthful years in Richmond.

Some acquaintance with painting is indicated by sundry comments here and there on the work of the world’s great artists, including Michael Angelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Correggio, Rubens, and Poussin. He was personally acquainted with the portrait painter S. S. Osgood and with R. M. Sully (nephew of the famous Philadelphian), to each of whom he sat for a portrait.(1) In two uncollected articles in the Broadway Journal, he essays to pass judgment on the authenticity of an alleged Titian’s “Venus,”(2) and it appears that he wrote still other art-criticisms for the Broadway Journal. He exhibits also in various passages an interest (though doubtless superficial) in sculpture and in household decoration. He wrote an article of a dozen pages on the subject of landscape gardening;(3) and published a signed article in 1845 on “The Ivory Christ.”(4)

Such knowledge of history as he possessed he perhaps came into largely at haphazard. He probably had in his boyhood some instruction in general history; [page 13:] we know from one of the bills submitted to his foster-father for his schooling in London that he received there some instruction in English history;(1) and he drew from the library while at the University of Virginia several treatises on American and European history.(2) Apparently, though, he had not read widely in the work of the great historians, Gibbon and Niebuhr and Bancroft being the only modern historians of note with whom he reveals any familiarity. On the other hand, the evidence is overwhelming that he kept well abreast of the history of his own times, and he was peculiarly fascinated by contemporary accounts of voyages of exploration and discovery.(3)

Poe early developed an interest in philosophy. In common with the more acute minds of New England in his day, he was genuinely attracted to German philosophical thinking. He knew something of Kant and Hegel and Fichte and Leibnitz. Apparently he drew the idea underlying his story of “Morella” from Schelling’s theorizing on the subject of identity, to which he indirectly credits it.(4) He quotes from both Aristotle and Plato; and he alludes both in his [page 14:] prose and in his verse to Plato’s doctrine of ideas.(1) He cites passages also from Comte and Pascal. Of the English philosophers he appears to have known best Locke and Mill and Bentham. In his “Morella” he cites Locke’s definition of “personal identity” as consisting in the “sameness of a rational being”;(2) and he ridiculed in various places the doctrines of Mill and Bentham. But how accurate or how profound his knowledge of philosophy was, I hesitate to say: it is a field in which further investigations must be made before we can be sure of our ground. I hazard the guess, however, that Poe had little exact or systematic knowledge of the subject, — though it is plain that he had, somehow, picked up a good many scraps of philosophical information, which he used to advantage in both his stories and his essays, and especially in his early tales and his pseudo-metaphysical treatise Eureka, and that he superposed upon these bits of philosophical lore a good many metaphysical notions of his own, some of them quite seriously meant, and others dictated by his predilection for mystification and hoaxing.(3)

Religion and religious thought, on the other hand, [page 15:] seem to have interested Poe but little, save on the more abstract side. As a child he was drilled in the Episcopal catechism;(1) he knew something of the history of the Episcopal Church;(2) and it is probable that he was acquainted with the tenets both of the Episcopal Church and of the Presbyterian, — though I am persuaded that he cared not the least for matters of dogma. At the same time, he appears to have been deeply interested in such profounder ideas as the meaning and nature of the Deity. The origin of the universe and God’s relation to the universe form the central ideas of his Eureka; and he speculates on similar ideas in the introduction to his “Mesmeric Revelation” and in “The Power of Words.” The same speculative tendency in religious matters reveals itself also in his early poem “Al Aaraaf,” in which he develops the idea that God reveals himself not alone in knowledge and in power but also in beauty. By one of his critics he has been held to have been “a soured and self-willed unbeliever”;(3) but this view is contradicted in a dozen passages in his [page 16:] writings. In at least two of his essays, he avows a belief in the immortality of the soul;(1) in one of his early essays he subscribes without qualification to the doctrine of the “infallibility of the Divine word”;(2) in another he speaks of God’s omnipotence and omniscience;(3) and in a brief critical notice, apparently from his pen, in the Broadway Journal(4) he boldly declares that “men deny a God only with their lips.”

In mathematics, a subject that always attracted him, Poe’s standing at West Point was seventeenth in a class of eighty-seven; and he not infrequently employs mathematical terms or formulas in his stories. In his notes on Eureka, furthermore, he enters upon a number of mathematical-astronomical speculations in support of the theories there advanced, which, however inaccurate or immature they may be, evince at least a mathematical turn and considerable ingenuity in the manipulation of figures, and would seem to indicate an acquaintance with the subject well beyond that possessed by the average layman of intelligence at the present time.(5)

He also had acquired a good deal of information, superficial though it may have been, about astronomy. [page 17:] His interest in the subject probably had its origin in the circumstance that his foster-father owned a telescope, which stood on the porch of his spacious home in Richmond,(1) and through which the boy Poe must often have gazed at the stars. He made use of a number of astronomical terms in one of his earliest tales, “Hans Pfaall”; he brings into play his knowledge of astronomy in still other tales(2) and in several of his poems, including “Al Aaraaf “ and “Ulalume”; and he resorts to extensive astronomical speculations in his Eureka, where he discourses upon such topics as the speed of the stars, the diameters of certain planets, the weight of the earth, the distances of the planets from one another, and the circle described by “Leverrier’s planet” (the recently discovered Neptune).(3) In his “Ulalume” he avails himself of the information, with which, I imagine, not every layman is acquainted, that Venus as seen through the telescope assumes in some positions the aspect of a crescent.(4)

In connection with his study of astronomy he had also picked up considerable information about physics and the mechanical arts. He touches in various [page 18:] places on the law of gravitation, and he adopted and applied this principle in Eureka in his theorizing as to the origins of the universe, and he employed it for imaginative purposes in his “Hans Pfaall.” Another of his stories, “A Descent into the Maelström,” is based on a pseudo-physical principle which he attributes to Archimedes;(1) namely, that “a cylinder, swimming in a vortex,” offers “more resistance to its suction, and [is] drawn in with greater difficulty than an equally bulky body, of any form whatever.” And in half a dozen tales he utilizes information that he had collected about aeronautics. He suggests, in an article written early in the forties,(2) the feasibility of crossing the Atlantic in an air-ship. In one of his early stories he represents a balloon as passing above the North Pole,(3) and in another story he discourses about the speed of air-ships and about transcontinental air-routes.(4) Elsewhere he speaks of the physics of music,(5) of the “orange ray of the spectrum,”(6) of polarized rays,(7) of the galvanic battery and its possible use,(8) and of the mechanism of telegraphy and of electrotyping.(9)

He knew something, too, about chemistry, though so far as I can learn he at no time had any set instruction in the subject. He had somewhere learned, for instance, that bichloride of mercury is a wood [page 19:] preservative, and he used this information to bolster up his climax in “The Gold-Bug”; and in “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” he describes a process by which ice may be manufactured chemically.(1) His story “Eiros and Charmion” turns upon a situation in which all nitrogen is extracted from the air by reason of the approach of a comet, with the result that the earth is consumed by fire.

He had likewise garnered a number of learned facts about botany and geology, as seen in his employment of technical botanical terms in “Al Aaraaf “(2) and in several of the tales,(3) and in his mention of geological terms in his essay on Stonehenge and in one or another of his stories.(4) He had some knowledge, also, of biology, and indeed he collaborated in the translation and adaptation of a book on shells, his Conchologist’s First Book.(5)

It has been held that he had considerable knowledge of the law.(6) He registered as a student of law in Philadelphia in 1843;(7) but such legal study as he undertook he can scarcely have carried very far. Moreover, the only substantial evidence of his acquaintance with law is furnished by his use here and [page 20:] there of technical terms from that field (as “in fee simple impartite,” “ex parte,” “non est inventus,” etc.)(1) and by several reviews of legal reports.(2) But his technical terms he may have gleaned from his reading, or have drawn from works of reference; and for his reviews of law treatises he may well have called in the aid of specialists in that field.(3)

Poe’s knowledge of nature is traditionally held to have been slight.(4) The evidence afforded by his poems obviously lends support to that view. Only one of his lyrics, “Evening Star,” deals with nature as its central theme, and nature plays a noteworthy subsidiary part in less than a dozen others. Even in those, moreover, in which it plays some part, the nature introduced may scarcely be said to be natural: apparently it was drawn largely from books, as in the case of his mention of the albatross in “Romance” and of the nyctanthes and the “Nelumbo bud” in “Al Aaraaf,” or in his very happy mention, in “For Annie,” of the pansy and the rosemary.(5) So, too, in his tales, while natural objects are often mentioned, [page 21:] it is pretty clear that he drew mainly on his reading. In his Arthur Gordon Pym he catalogues a number of birds (thirteen in one passage) belonging to the South Seas; and in the same story he enumerates sixteen varieties of fish from the South Seas, drawing in each instance, I suspect, on Benjamin Morrell’s Four Voyages. Manifestly he relied on books also for his description of shells in his treatise on conchology.(1) His landscapes are as a rule of the fabric of his own fancy; and in some passages in which he would give the impression that he had drawn from life, it is reasonably certain that he was relying on books or on the testimony of others.(2) It may, then, be conceded that he rarely wrote “with his eye on the object.”

But there are not wanting references to nature that must have been based on personal observation. Again and again Poe introduces into his writings glimpses of the sea, with which he beyond any doubt had an intimate and sympathetic acquaintance.(3) Once at [page 22:] least he describes briefly but realistically a snowy evening,(1) and once a rainy, blustery evening.(2) At several points in his tales he makes occasion to speak of vegetables or garden plants, among those referred to being cabbages, cucumbers, turnips, onions, celery, cauliflower, Irish potatoes, corn, parsley, pumpkins, watermelons, milkweed, and purslain. He mentions, too, at one point or another, a variety of fruits, including blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, grapes, figs, apricots, apples. Of trees he mentions, among others, the cypress, the cherry, the box, the ash, the cedar, the sycamore, the catalpa, the red bud, the palmetto, the magnolia, the poplar, the walnut, the maple, and the sassafras, all of which he apparently knew at first hand.(3) And while many of his birds and animals are drawn from books, others came as surely from personal observation.(4) A similar generalization [page 23:] may be made with regard to his knowledge of flowers: from one or another of his stories it may reasonably be inferred that he had a sympathetic acquaintance with the rose, the lily-of-the-valley, the buttercup, the tulip, the pansy, the violet, the hyacinth, and the laurel. It is said that there grew by his door-step at Fordham a bed of “mignonette, heliotrope, and dahlias,”(1) in the cultivation of which he may be presumed to have had some part, and that outside the door of one of the homes in which he lived in Philadelphia there was in summer “a blaze of hollyhocks and geraniums.”(2) During his last three years in the Allan home in Richmond, moreover, Poe lived in a spacious Southern mansion that looked out upon a garden in which a variety of vegetables and fruits grew in summer;(3) and it may be taken for granted that he sometimes visited the farm which Mr. Allan owned in Goochland County, near Richmond. There are, too, in his stories, passages in which I think I find evidence of a sympathy with animals, — with a dog in one instance and with a herd of buffaloes that meet an accidental death in another.(4) He owned at one time a pet bobolink,(5) and his letters reveal his loyalty to the family cat.(6) In one of his tales he writes, with evident sincerity, in praise of bypaths [page 24:] as affording the proper point of view for the observation of a natural landscape.(1) We know that he was fond of swimming and of roaming in the woods; and it appears that he was fond of boating, of hunting, and of excursions into the country.(2)

It would seem, then, that although Poe’s first-hand acquaintance with nature was comparatively slight, he had, for all that, a closer acquaintance with nature than is commonly assumed,(3) and it is plain that he was not without a genuine sympathy for nature in certain of its aspects.

What of Poe’s knowledge of the political, industrial, and social life of his time? It has almost universally been held that he cared little for the life that went on about him. But, as I endeavor to show in a later essay,(4) this view is not sustained by an examination of his writings. His poems, it may be granted, [page 25:] throw little light on the matter; but his tales not only reveal a genuine interest in the political and economic life of his day, but they also reveal a genuine concern about the social life of his time; while his critical and miscellaneous papers everywhere testify to his interest in the multifarious social and industrial activities of his age.

In several of his early reviews he touches on slavery in the South.(1) In one of his papers he pleads for a more rational educational system in Virginia; in another he dwells on the duty of our nation to “remunerate scientific research” and to bear its part in contributing “to the aggregate of human knowledge”; in another he laments the lack of liberty of opinion in America; in still another he complains of the sensitiveness of Americans to criticism by foreigners and of their testiness of temper; in yet another he praises the Southerner’s chivalry and attitude of deference to women, but in another he condemns the occasional spirit of barbarity displayed in rural sections of the South; in still others he voices his disapproval of the tendency to build up an “aristocracy of dollars” in America, of the contemporary craze for reforms, — of the “uplifters,” “progress mongers,” and “reform cranks” or “reform demigods”; of the “rush of the age,” of the diffuseness of American legislative oratory, of the “popgunnery of the newspaper [page 26:] press,” of the craze for “glitter” and “glare” in household decoration.

In a single story, “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” — to cite also something of evidence from his more imaginative writings, — he evinces an interest in so wide a variety of subjects as the wonders of the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, the miracle of steamboat navigation on the Hudson, a petrified forest in Texas, orchids, caterpillars and lion ants, a flock of pigeons two hundred and fifty miles long, the eccaleobion or incubator, the speed of a passenger train on the London and Northwestern Railway, the daguerreotype, and — by way of climaxing his story — the fashion of wearing bustles.(1)

It seems to me not improbable, moreover, that Poe had both a wider and a deeper knowledge of human life in its more personal and vital aspects than is commonly supposed. Living largely to himself, he was, I dare say, not a very sociable being, a man who made little display (save in his own home) of human sympathies; though he always had friends, he had few intimate friends; and he had never known the joys and sorrows of parenthood.(2) Barring a warmly felt sympathy for the Negro slave, he exhibited in his [page 27:] writings little knowledge of the laboring man and of the commonplace things of every-day existence. He served for a time as a soldier, but he never bore arms in defense of his country; he travelled little save in his youth; and he saw but little of social life after leaving the Allan home in 1827. On the other hand, he suffered as no other one of our major poets has suffered from poverty and adversity. Though he could hardly have had any recollection of his parents, the shadow of their poverty and of their wretchedness during their last years haunted him always. And though he enjoyed during his more impressionable years the comparative luxury of the Allan home, this only served to intensify his suffering when, after a display of waywardness and pique on his part, he was, in effect, driven from that home, disowned, and, as he felt, disgraced.(1) He served, at one time or another, as a common soldier; as a clerk, so it has been held;(2) and also as a day-laborer in a brick-yard,(3) if another story may be credited; he aspired, at different times, to be a teacher, a government clerk, a lawyer. He was so human as to find entertainment in secret writing, in crossword puzzles, and in riddles of all sorts, and he was interested throughout his life in athletic sports and exercises.

The human note in the man comes out clearly enough in his letters, and particularly in certain references [page 28:] to his wife and to his parents. He wrote Lowell in 1845 wishing him in his marriage “as substantial happiness” as he had derived from his own marriage.(1) In an early letter, to Beverly Tucker, he laments the fact that he has never known parental love.(2) And in one of his later essays he takes occasion to condemn the prejudice against the player’s profession, remarking at the same time that he was “himself the son of an actress” and that “no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of the descent from a woman who, although well-born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty.”(3)

Limited, then, though his sympathies must have been in some directions, and restricted though his interests almost inevitably were, I am of the opinion that his sympathies and interests were a good deal wider than most of his biographers and critics have been inclined to admit. He had, if I read him aright, immense intellectual curiosity and an extraordinarily large stock of general information.

III

What, finally, of the fibre of Poe’s mind, of his natural endowments, and of his intellectual integrity? No one, so far as I know, has ever denied to Poe the possession of a peculiarly acute and active mind. Mr. John Macy asserts, indeed, that he “met his intellectual [page 29:] equal in the flesh” only once: when in 1845 he received a brief visit from Lowell.(1) That he had keen insight and superior powers of discrimination is indicated by the fact that virtually all of his important critical judgments have been sustained by time. That he had unusual gifts for generalization and for abstraction is made plain by his Eureka and by certain of his essays. And that he had extraordinary powers of analysis comes out everywhere, — in his critical reviews, in his studies in sensation, in his ratiocinative and pseudo-scientific stories, in his solving of ciphers and cryptographs. He had, moreover, as is abundantly evidenced in the construction of his stories especially, fine powers of synthesis. And no American author, I think, has exhibited more of clarity in his writing, none more of independence in his thinking, and few, if any, more of originality.

It has been held, and with justice, that in his writing, and hence, by implication, in his thinking, he took too little account of the moral and the spiritual,(2) — that he lacked “ethical insight,” what Emerson once charged in effect, but obviously with less of warrant, against Poe’s intellectual master, Coleridge;(3) and this defect, it may very well be, limited Poe’s influence and his usefulness as a literary critic. [page 30:] It has also been said, and again with justice, I think, that Poe attached too much importance, relatively, to facts and too little to ideas,(1) — a circumstance explicable in part, however, by the very nature of the life he lived, a sort of hand-to-mouth existence affording small opportunity for the more abstract and deliberate exercises of the mind in which, under different conditions, it is at least conceivable that he might have distinguished himself. It has been held, too, that his constant repetition of favorite ideas and situations argues something of intellectual sterility,(2) and this, likewise, may be conceded; but such a concession should carry with it the further concession that in his practice of repeating himself he associated himself with more than one of his most illustrious compeers in the field of letters.

Question has likewise been raised in some quarters as to Poe’s honesty and his intellectual integrity. That he was subject to prejudices may at once be admitted; and it must also be admitted that in his letters and his reviews he sometimes stooped to inordinate flattery or indulged in a species of literary log-rolling. In particular, — either by reason of his chivalry or, it may be, for selfish motives, — he was given to extravagant praise of certain women who enjoyed his admiration and whose favor he courted. But an even more serious indictment has been brought against him, to the effect that he at times [page 31:] made a display of learning or affected an erudition to which he had no claim. Specifically it is alleged that his erudite lists of out-of-the-way authors and books sometimes involved mere affectation and show, — charlatanry it has been called, — and that his quotations and allusions were often at second hand.(1) And there is no denying that he interlarded his writings too freely with French and Latin quotations, and that he carried too far the use of foot-notes and of learned commentary, — notably in his two longer poems, “Tamerlane” and “Al Aaraaf.” But surely too much has been made of his weakness in this direction. Both his citation of out-of-the-way authorities and his use of foreign phrases and quotations he sometimes indulged in deliberately for artistic purposes. The numerous phrases from the French in “Bon-Bon” and “The Duc de L’Omelette,” for instance, were introduced for the sake of atmosphere. In “Lionizing” the wealth of learned allusion is a part of Poe’s humor. And I cannot feel that the catalogue of strange books in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is out of place. That Poe was not ignorant, [page 32:] moreover, of the folly of a parade of learning may be inferred from his ridicule of it in “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” “To be ignorant of Latin is no crime,” he writes in one of his reviews; “to pretend a knowledge is beneath contempt.”(1) It may be said, moreover, in partial extenuation of Poe’s too prolific use of mottoes and foot-notes, that he was but falling in with a fashion of the day, freely resorted to by Scott and Southey and Byron and Moore among others; and, further, that he made much less of such display in his later years.

IV

I come back, in conclusion, to the query with which I started, the question raised by Lanier’s observation: “The trouble with Poe was, he did not know enough.” The matter is, by its very nature, difficult to settle. The great poet, it goes without saying, will be possessed of wisdom and of insight; but how far learning is necessary to the achievement of greatness with the imaginative writer must, I think, remain a moot point. Poe indeed declares of Coleridge that he went wrong “by reason of his very profundity.”(2) And it can at least be said that Lowell’s erudition did not invariably stand him in good stead as a poet.

It is perhaps late in the day to be raising any question as to Poe’s intellectual powers and attainments. But I have felt that Lanier, writing as he did before [page 33:] any satisfactory edition of Poe’s works had been brought out, was hardly in a position to pass with full assurance on the poet’s intellectual equipment; and that others have made too much of his occasional pedantries and affectations; and that quite too much has been made of his superficialities here and there. He was not, of course, a scholar, nor professed to be — nor needed to be. He lacked common sense and practical wisdom. He was frequently inaccurate, and he was seldom thorough. His knowledge of some fields was beyond any question restricted. He had had, as he would have been ready enough to admit, little education of a formal sort.(1) But judged by present-day standards, he possessed an unusually wide acquaintance with things in general, and in particular with the literature of his own day. He was not profound; but he did his own thinking, and he had intellectual courage in plenty. His mind was remarkably clear; and in powers of analysis I wonder if he was surpassed by any writer of his day. In native endowment and in insight he seems to me to have possessed gifts comparable to those of any other American writer of his time, save possibly Emerson. What is much more remarkable than any intellectual limitations under which he labored is the fact that, despite these inhibitions and his many physical handicaps, he managed, by reason of his industry and his enterprise and his resourcefulness, to accomplish as much as he did.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 3:]

1.  See The Poems of Sidney Lanier, edited by his wife, New York, 1884, pp. xxxv-xxxvi.

2.  J. M. Robertson, New Essays Towards a Critical Method, London, 1897, p. 106.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 4:]

1.  In an article published in the University of Texas Studies in English, No. 5, pp. 166-196 (1925), I have endeavored to collect such evidence as we have as to the extent and nature of Poe’s reading. See, also, for additional notes, ibid., No. 7, pp. 175-180 (1927).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 6:]

1.  See Enactments by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1825, p. 3; ibid., revised edition, 1827, p. 17.

The West Point cadet in the thirties was, it seems, required to acquaint himself in his second year with the elements of English grammar, the instruction being given in connection with the courses in French (see the Annual Report of the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, Washington, 1896, p. 135); but I can find nothing in the records to indicate that any instruction in English grammar was given to the first-year cadet at that time. Poe casually mentions Lindley Murray twice in his collected writings (The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Harrison, New York, 1902, XIV, 181, 212: hereafter referred to as “Poe’s Works”); and once he mentions the bulky grammar of Goold Brown (ibid., p, 212); and once, also, he makes merry in exposing the inadequacies of a contemporary grammatical treatise, Pue’s English Grammar (ibid., X, 167 f.).

2.  See, for instance, Poe’s Works, II, 28; IV, 205, 290; VI, 132; XIV, 45, 69, 223.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 7:]

1.  The Sewanee Review, XX, 206 (April, 1912).

2.  Poe’s Works, I, 61.

3.  I have noted the spelling agressi (Poe’s Works, IV, 136), and the substitution of dicite for discite (ibid., XVI, 6). But the reader must be on his guard against assuming that Poe’s citations from the foreign languages as reproduced in the various editions of his works represent precisely what he wrote; in most cases the editors have silently corrected the errors which appear in the original texts. In some cases, too, it is but fair to Poe to say, the error may be due to the printer’s carelessness, as must surely have been the case, for instance, with two inaccuracies in the spelling of the Latin noted by Harrison in the text of “Loss of Breath” (Poe’s Works, ii, 366).

4.  There are, for example, in the score of letters brought together in the “Valentine Letters” (Edgar Allan Poe Letters . . . in the Valentine Museum, Richmond, Virginia, ed. Mary Newton Stanard, Philadelphia, 1925) some ten or a dozen slips in spelling.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 8:]

1.  See W. M. Forrest, Biblical Allusions in Poe, New York, 1928, pp. 152 f., and see also Studies in Philology, XXVII, 548 (July, 1930).

2.  James A. Harrison, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, New York, 1902, p. 61.

3.  J. H. Ingram, Life and Letters of Poe, London, 1880, pp. 42-43.

4.  “The French of Edgar Allan Poe,” American Speech, II, 270-274 (March, 1927). [page 9:]

A friend of mine, a Romance scholar, to whom I once submitted some specimens of Poe’s French, remarked that it was “pretty rocky ”; and Miss Philips (p. 273) characterizes his French as “curious” at times, especially in its idiom, and she points out (p. 270) that Baudelaire, in translating his stories, altered his French in numerous instances. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Poe had a ready reading knowledge of French.

As to Poe’s fondness for interlarding his essays and tales with French and other foreign phrases and quotations, see below, p. 31.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 9:]

1.  See Gustav Gruener, “Poe’s Knowledge of German,” Modern Philology, ii, 125 f. (June, 1904). But see also Carl Schreiber, “Mr. Poe at his Conjurations Again,” the Colophon, ii, 1-11 (May, 1930). Professor Schreiber gives it as his opinion that Poe “never read more than three pages of consecutive German prose, if indeed he read that number.”

2.  Except in so far as this is implied in a statement in the Enactments by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, both of 1825 and of 1827 (pp. 3 and 17, respectively), that German “shall be taught” in the School of Modern Languages.

3.  Poe’s Works, V, 1 f.; XVI, 299.

4.  The Colophon, II, 5 f.

5.  Poe’s Works, IV, 134.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 10:]

1.  Poe’s Works, VI, 249; the Democratic Review, XIX, 32 (July, 1846).

2.  This blunder may, however, be due to the printer, most American printing establishments of the time probably being without the necessary type; and in at least one piece of writing in his autograph, — that of a scrap of manuscript preserved at the Fordham Cottage, in which he comments on Coleridge’s borrowing of two lines from Schiller (for his “Ovidian Elegiac Metre”), — Poe enters the umlaut quite legibly in one instance, in the use of the word flüssige (though it must be added that in the same passage he omits the umlaut with the words füllt and Säule).

3.  Poe’s Works, xiv, 70.

4.  Ibid., II, 117 (text of the Broadway Journal).

5.  Ibid., IV, 134.

6.  Ibid., p. 204; and in his Politian he quotes a poetic rendering of a famous passage from the Odyssey, perhaps translated by himself (see T. O. Mabbott’s edition of Politian, Richmond, 1923, p. 64).

7.  Ingram, p. 41.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 11:]

1.  See for a brief discussion of his knowledge of Hebrew, Forrest’s Biblical Allusions in Poe, pp. 205 f.; and note that the word huggab used by Poe in “A Tale of Jerusalem” (Poe’s Works, ii, 219) does not appear in any English translation of the Scriptures, but apparently represents Poe’s anglicizing of the original Hebrew.

2.  The “Valentine Letters,” p. 319.

3.  Hervey Allen, Israfel, p. 144.

4.  Ibid., pp. 43, 144.

5.  The Century Magazine, CVII, 654 (March, 1924).

6.  Poe’s Works, X, 197; XVI, 8.

7.  Ibid., XII, 184 f.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 12:]

1.  He had, it seems, some gift for drawing: see Hervey Allen, p. 145; Mrs. Weiss, The Home Life of Poe, New York, 1907, p. 122; and an article in Time for October 6, 1930, p. 56, touching three pencil portraits — of himself, his wife, and his early sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster — said to have been made by himself.

2.  Margaret Alterton, Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory, Iowa City, 1925, p. 85.

3.  Poe’s Works, IV, 259 f.

4.  Margaret Alterton, op. cit., p. 84.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 13:]

1.  The Dial, LX, 144 (February 17, 1916).

2.  Poe’s Works, I, 47.

3.  See, for instance, his article (as yet uncollected) on Reynolds’s “Exploring Expedition” (Graham’s Magazine, XXIII, 164 f. [September, 1843]), and his review of Reynolds’s report on his earlier expedition into the South Seas (Poe’s Works, IX, 306). He reveals also a familiarity (see below, p. 168) with various other accounts of exploring expeditions, including those of Lewis and Clark, Captain Cook, and Benjamin Morrell.

4.  Poe’s Works, II, 29.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 14:]

1.  Once, to be sure, in an essay ascribed to him by his editors (Poe’s Works, XIX, 164), he speaks disparagingly of Plato; but if this essay be actually the work of Poe, it may reasonably be assumed that he wrote in a wilful and wayward mood.

2.  Poe’s Works, II, 29.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 14, running to the bottom of page 15:]

3.  Poe almost invariably spoke disapprovingly of the Transcendentalists, it may be noted, but, for all that, he possessed something in common with them. He asserts, for example, in his Eureka (Poe’s Works, XVI, 10) that “the Universe is a Plot of God,” — with which may be compared [page 15:] Emerson’s statement in the “American Scholar” that nature is the “web of God.” Elsewhere he gives his endorsement to the ancient doctrine of the “flux” of things, asserting at one point (ibid., X, 160 n.) — again quite in the manner of Emerson — that “all things are in a perpetual state of progress; that nothing in nature is perfected.” And in one of the earliest of his stories he quotes (with implied approval) the statement of Godwin in his Mandeville that “invisible things are the only realities” (ibid., II, 154).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 15:]

1  The Dial, LX, 144 (February 17, 1916).

2.  Poe’s Works, VIII, 239 f.; IX, 33 f.

3.  A. H. Strong, The American Poets and their Theology, Philadelphia, 1916, p. 161.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 16:]

1.  Poe’s Works, X, 159; XIV, 273.

2.  Ibid., X, 6, 159.

3.  Ibid., XVI, 254. And see also a brief note on the “Study of Nature” (Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, VI, 235 [May, 1840]), in the course of which he speaks of “the infinite power, wisdom and goodness of the Great Cause of all being.”

4.  II, 388 (December 27, 1845).

5.  See in this connection A. R. Wallace, Edgar Allan Poe, New York [1930], pp. 5, 8.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 17:]

1.  Woodberry, Edgar Allan Poe, Boston, 1885, p. 25.

2.  Poe’s Works, II, 61, 62 f.; IV, 4; V, 248, 253; VI, 140, 109 f.

3.  Ibid., XVI, 340 f., 348, 252, 283, 279 f., 284. From his notes on Eureka (see especially p. 330), it is plain that he endeavored to keep abreast of the discoveries in astronomical science.

4.  See also Quinn, Baugh, and Howe, The Literature of America, p. 24 (of the notes), for his alertness in fixing the time of the poem early on an October morning when both Venus and the moon would be crescent and “would be in conjunction with the constellation of Leo.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 18:]

1.  See Modern Language Notes, XLII, 520 (December, 1927).

2.  Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, VI, 247 (May, 1840).

3.  Poe’s Works, II, 88.

4.  Ibid., VI, 206.

5.  Ibid., XVI, 8.

6.  Ibid., pp. 17 f.

7.  Ibid., II, 5.

8.  Ibid., V, 173, 261.

9.  Ibid., VI, 98 f.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 19:]

1.  Ibid., p. 99.

2.  Ibid., VII, 25, 26.

3.  See especially “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” ibid., VI, 92-93.

4.  Ibid., XIV, 112; II, 40; III, 231.

5.  He may also have had some hand in a treatise on natural history; see his review of A Synopsis of Natural History, ostensibly the work of Thomas Wyatt, in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, V, 61 (July, 1839).

6.  Margaret Alterton, Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory, pp. 46 f.

7.  Hervey Allen, Israfel, p. 565.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 20:]

1.  Poe’s Works, IV, 177; XII, 36.

2.  Southern Literary Messenger, II, 50 f. (December, 1835); ibid., pp. 731 f. (October, 1836).

3.  Similarly it might be argued from Poe’s use of certain ttanical terms from physiology and medicine (as tunica albuginea, os sesamoideum pollicis pedis, and aneurism of the aorta [Poe’s Works, VI, 121 f., 157]) that he had made a study of medicine; but surely no student of Poe would seriously uphold such a supposition.

4.  See, for instance, Woodberry, Edgar Allan Poe, Boston, 1885, p. 252; and H. M. Belden, Observation and Imagination in Coleridge and Poe: A Contrast [Hartford, 1928], pp. 31 f.

5.  Evidently suggested by his reading of Hamlet.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 21:]

1.  The Conchologist’s First Book: or, a System of Testaceous Malacology, Philadelphia, 1839.

2  See, for instance, his description of a Louisiana landscape in “The Elk” (Poe’s Works, V, 157 f.).

3.  See especially his Arthur Gordon Pym, “Hans Pfaall,” “MS. Found in a Bottle,” “The Descent into the Maelström,” and “The Balloon Hoax”; and note certain very specific references to the sea, — as his mention of the “low, sullen murmurs of the sea” (Poe’s Works, II, 358) and of a “moaning sound, not unlike the distant reverberation of surf” (ibid., IV, 208) and of the bellowing of the sea in the earliest text of “Bon-Bon,” and a brief passage in one of his “Omniana” (Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, VI, 236 [May, 1840]), in which he says of the ocean: “I wonder any being who affects taste would venture to assert that this immense body of water presents only sameness and monotony. To me it seems that even the colors and sounds are little less varied than those we see or hear in the midst of the most luxuriant landscape.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 22:]

1.  Poe’s Works, II, 132.

2.  Ibid., XV, 141 f.

3.  In “The Island of the Fay” (ibid., p. 198) he writes accurately enough of the “white flakes of the bark of the sycamore”; and in “Landor’s Cottage” (ibid., VI, 258 f.) he gives an elaborate but realistic picture of a forest scene which he associates with the vicinity of New York City.

4.  In one of his stories (Poe’s Works, V, 88) he speaks of the “pale blue eye” of the vulture; in another of eyes that “protruded from their sockets like those of the green dragon-fly” (ibid., VI, 84); in another of a boat giving itself a shake “just as a dog does in coming out of the water” (ibid., II, 236); and in his “Poetic Principle” (ibid., XXV, 270) he speaks of the “aromatic air of a Southern midsummer night.” Among other realistic references to nature may be mentioned his characterization of a codfish as being “all head and shoulders” (ibid., IV, 192), and his description of the yellow poplar or tulip tree in “The Gold-Bug” (ibid., V, 109 f.) and again and even more vividly in “Landor’s Cottage” (ibid., VI, 260 f.).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 23:]

1.  Woodberry, II, 228.

2.  Hervey Allen, Israfel, p. 537. See also, in this connection, Miss Mary E. Phillips, Poe — the Man, Philadelphia, 1926, p. 1459.

3.  Allen, p. 127.

4.  Poe’s Works, III, 30; IV, 81; V, 144.

5.  Woodberry, II, 30, 228.

6.  Poe’s Works, XVII, 167.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 24:]

1.  Poe’s Works, V, 158.

2.  Harrison, Life of Poe, p. 24.

3.  He rarely enters, to be sure, into an elaborate description of any natural object; but the same is true of Emerson (as Professor Foerster, Nature in American Literature [New York, 1923], p. 62, has observed) and also of Bryant. And he was partial to nature in its abstracter and more spiritual aspects, as is indicated in the following extraordinary passage from “The Island of the Fay” (Poe’s Works, IV, 194): “I love, indeed, to regard the dark valleys, and the grey rocks, and the waters that silently smile, and the forests that sigh in uneasy slumbers, and the proud watchful mountains that look down upon all — I love to regard these as themselves but the colossal members of one vast animate and sentient whole — a whole whose form (that of the sphere) is the most perfect and most inclusive of all; whose path is among the associate planets; whose meek handmaiden is the moon; whose mediate sovereign is the sun; whose life is eternity; whose thought is that of God.” And see also a very striking passage in “The Power of Words” (ibid., VI, 140).

4.  See below, pp. 99 f.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 25:]

1.  See, in particular, a notice of J. K. Paulding’s Slavery in the United States (Poe’s Works, VIII, 269 f.), and the uncollected notice of Ingraham’s The Southwest (Southern Literary Messenger, II, 122 f. [December, 1835]), in which he gives very frankly his attitude toward slavery.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 26:]

1.  See also the series of papers contributed by Poe to the Columbia Spy in 1844, in which he gossips much in the manner of the newspaper “columnist” of to-day on matters of current interest in New York and Brooklyn at the time. These papers have recently been collected by J. E. Spannuth and T. O. Mabbott under the title Doings of Gotham (Pottsville, Pennsylvania, 1929).

2.  Such references as he makes to children, it may be noted, are not infrequently cynical in tone.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 27:]

1.  See the “ Valentine Letters,” pp. 55 f.

2.  Miss Mary E. Phillips, Poe — the Man, p. 309.

3.  Mrs. Susan Archer Talley Weiss, The Home Life of Poe, p. 63.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 28:]

1.  Woodberry, II, 104.

2.  The Century Magazine, CVII, 654 (March, 1924).

3.  Poe’s Works, XII, 186.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 29:]

1.  John Macy, The Spirit of American Literature, New York, 1913, p. 124. But Mr. Macy overlooks the fact that Poe was personally acquainted with both John Marshall and William Wirt (see Poe’s Works, VIII, 115; the “Valentine Letters,” pp. 125, 131, 133).

2.  Norman Foerster, American Criticism, Boston, 1928, p. 14.

3.  Emerson’s Journals, ed. E. W. Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, Boston, 1910, III, 186.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 30:]

1.  Paul Elmer More, “A Note on Poe’s Method,” Studies in Philology, XX, 302 (July, 1923).

2.  Foerster, American Criticism, p. 7.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 31:]

1.  See, for instance, W. C. Brownell, American Prose Masters, New York, 1909, p. 249; Joseph W. Krutch, Edgar Allan Poe, New York, 1926, pp. 92 f.; Edith Philips, “The French of Edgar Allan Poe,” American Speech, II, 270 f. (March, 1927); Carl Schreiber, “Mr. Poe at his Conjurations Again,” The Colophon, II, 1 f. (May, 1930); Edwin Greenlaw, “Poe in the Light of Literary History,” the Johns Hopkins Alumni Magazine, XVIII, 276 f. (June, 1930). And see for examples of his borrowing of mottoes and the like from Disraeli, Montgomery, and others, Woodberry, in Poe’s Works, ed. Stedman and Woodberry, Chicago, 1895, in, 280 f., and Earl Leslie Griggs, “Five Sources of Edgar Allan Poe’s Pinakidia,’ “ American Literature, I, 197 f. (May, 1929).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 32:]

1.  Poe’s Works, XI, 137.

2.  Ibid., VII, xxxix.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 33:]

1.  See in this connection the “Valentine Letters,” p. 253.

 


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:0 - KCMP, 1933] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (K. Campbell) (The Mind of Poe)