Text: Margaret Alterton, “Conclusion,” Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (1925), pp. 184-186 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 184:]


Poe may be said to have reached a point in his critical thinking wherein he saw that effect as the object of a writer’s art is produced by an appreciation of the orderly nature and working of law, and he felt that the secret of impressive writing lies in the use of natural processes. As regards the stages by which he reached this conclusion, it is apparent that the particular interests he found in his reading came to transmute themselves in his mind into one consistent way of thinking. Each of these interests, we have seen, has played its part in making his literary theory, — a theory which guided his choice of subject-matter and formed his technical method.

From his reading Poe taught himself to choose material that of itself possessed a compelling interest. Although he never wholly abandoned as subject-matter for his own experimentation the mystic and the supernatural, he yet confessed to a growing conviction that real experience will best touch the heart of humanity. He selected then from Blackwood and other foreign periodicals, from scientific journals, from Plato, and from other sources, what he found to be the most likely themes for producing an impression. Such material as youthful beauty afflicted with disease, either mental or physical, and condemned to die a lingering death; sensations that irresistibly arise from sad situations; and emotions that are common to the heart of all mankind, found their way into his poems and stories.

Moreover, from his reading he learned a method of dealing with this subject-matter. To this end he considered effect in the manner that writers in Blackwood and that Augustus Wilhelm von Schlegel had conceived it, and dwelt upon such points as adaptation of constituent parts, a pre-established design, the doctrine of the Many-in-One, and the need of brevity in the way that philosophy explained them. He acquired some degree of understanding of the processes of civil law, of the fundamental principles of the drama, and, finally, he attempted to see in all these lines of his study so many instances of the functioning of science. Unity, [page 185:] therefore, became to him a law which a writer may use both as a test for excellence and as a means whereby he may attain to an excellent standard.

And this technique and content which were the outgrowth of his reading he explained as varying aspects of the same question. For subject-matter in his hands, became, in its philosophic meaning, not only a theme to elaborate but also a method of development. Beauty, as Plato had explained it, he found, was not only a suitable theme for poetry, but, again on Plato’s recommendation, it also furnished a method of making that beauty felt by others. And this union of technique and content he likewise professed to see embodied in the field of realism. Disease was not only a fascinating subject for successful tales, but it also suggested, in a scientific diagnosis of its symptoms, a means of producing horror in the reader. In fact, he considered that any real experience of universal interest, if depicted with the method learned from nature, could not fail to be impressive. This copying from nature had in his mind no vagueness in its application, but was, the text has attempted to show, a conscious effort on a writer’s part to imitate in his poem or story, the order of natural law, as that law manifests itself in perfect adjustments, in short, in scientific unity. Thus, Poe taught himself that the matter and method of fitting together details of beauty and disease, of adapting to each other sensations overwhelming some unhappy victim, of delicately adjusting emotions, determined the effect of the piece. He taught himself, as he said, to advance, some steps at least,in the science of criticism; and, as he also stated, to use this critical principle in its meaning of verisimilitude.

Such critical dicta then, as Poe gives for the guidance of poets in the Philosophy of Composition, and of writers of the short story in the review of Hawthorne’s Tales, could not have been merely exaggerated statements detailed at the end of some finished product, either poem or story, merely to describe, as an afterthought, methods he had used unconsciously. On the contrary, we have seen that his ideas had a long period of growth, that they began in the early days of his study of British periodicals, and that they passed through other and varying influences, — law, the drama and fine arts, philosophy, and science, — each of which added to them richness and depth of meaning. Moreover, Poe was forever conscious of his method. [page 186:]

It now remains only to be said that there are certain materials which have been studied as possible additions to the Poe canon. Some of these pieces, as has been pointed out in the text, have been already ascribed to Poe, although no detailed weighing of the cases has hitherto been offered; other pieces are, I believe, mentioned for the first time in this paper as possibly the work of Poe. It may be useful to enumerate these works in this place: — “Genius” (in vol. 2 of the Southern Literary Messenger), “The Philosophy of Antiquity” (parts 1-3, in vols. 2 and 3 of the Messenger), “The Classics” (in vol. 2 of the Messenger), “New Views of the Solar System,” “New View of the Tides” (in vols. 4 and 5 of the Messenger), “Half an Hour in the Fine Arts Gallery in Philadelphia” (in vol. 5 of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine), and several articles of art criticism referred to in the text.






[S:0 - OPCT, 1925] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Origins of Poe's Critical Theory (M. Alterton) (Conclusion)