Text: Daniel G. Hoffman, “Foreword; Marching With Poe,” The West Point Poems, Facsimile Edition, Louisiana State University Press, 2005, pp. xi-xv (This material is protected by copyright)


[page xi:]


Marching with Poe

All readers of Edgar Allan Poe will be grateful for the commemoration in Private Perry and Mister Poe of our most widely read and controversial major author. In addition to that natural audience, anyone interested in or intrigued by Poe's early years in the American military will appreciate this book, as it addresses a strangely neglected aspect of his life. His most recent biographers, Kenneth Silverman and Jeffrey Meyers, have, respectively, itemized the subjects Poe studied at West Point and suggested that there he found a camaraderie substituting for the family life he lacked. Yet the received opinion among Poe's biographers is that he found military life inimical to his imagination. No doubt there has been no literary scholar or critic until Major William Hecker who has had first-hand knowledge of Poe's training as artilleryman and cadet. The very notion of serving under such compulsory discipline has, to Poe's biographers and scholars, seemed opposed to the originality of his Gothic imagination. How could army life prove other than antithetical to Poe's Romantic effort to live in his imagination unsullied by contact with mortality or time? [page xii:]

Yet Poe freely chose to enlist in the army. It is common currency among his biographers to note that he took the nom de guerre Edgar A. Perry because a gentleman could not serve as an enlisted man. But in the America of his youth there were many other ways for a poor young man to make his way, among them going West, going to sea, or taking up a new profession with one's identity. Poe, however, decided to join the military, and did so well that he was soon promoted to sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank. Poe reenlisted as a cadet with the ambition of becoming an officer. Surely the four years he spent in military life were not at first antithetical to his artistic aims; when the disappointments Major Hecker describes disillusioned him, he managed his own discharge. That he bore no resentment of his military years is suggested by his attempt to raise funds from his fellow cadets, first, to publish Poems in 1831, then several years later to start his own magazine, one of Poe's many ill-starred ventures.

It is remarkable that no biographer, scholar, or critic of Poe's life and writings has, until now, inquired what, in addition to Fort Moultrie's providing the landscape for “The Gold Bug,” were the effects of his army experiences on his literary work. It is as though four years of military life had no influence on his imagination. We must be grateful to Major Hecker for raising and offering answers to these questions.

When we consider how Poe integrated into his sensibility such disparate aspects of his knowledge as cryptography, mesmerism, oceanography, and cosmology, it [page xiii:] seems more likely that he absorbed and internalized certain elements of his military experience. I speak not only of his training in constructing and accurately firing bombs, which Major Hecker is the first to describe and which required, at risk of injury or death, exacting physical discipline and coordination. Poe's concentration on these military engines of destruction may well have contributed to or reinforced his apocalyptic vision in such writings as “The City in the Sea” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

It is likely, too, that the very discipline of army life, from close-order drill to the hierarchy of command, reinforced Poe's conception of the draconian rules he proposed to govern the writing of poetry and fiction. Prosody, for Poe, was no rhetorical abstraction, but the disciplined ordering of the movement of the poem's language. The rhythmical movement of sounds vestigally connects the dance of language to the dance of the body. In close-order drill Poe experienced a precisely ordered sort of communal dancing. The individual person was submerged in the identical rhythmical action of the troop, in unison performing intricate maneuvers. Poe's determination to use metronomic meters to lull the reader's conscious mind into submission to the commands of narrative and imagery could only have been strengthened by his exposure to military discipline. It is typical of Poe to have absorbed all his experiences, transformed them, and made them contribute to his unremitting vision of life, death, and the idealistic annihilation of the sensory world. [page xiv:]

Poems (1831) is the book of verse Poe dedicated “To the U.S. Corps of Cadets.” Poe solicited among his fellows for funds to bring out the collection; they, accustomed to his light verse send-ups of their instructors, must have been surprised indeed to receive a work so different from their expectations. Its pages can still surprise the contemporary reader, who expects to find, in “To Helen,” the familiar and unforgettable lines, “To the glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome,” or, in “Sonnet: To Science,” the concluding image of the poet's lost lyrical impulse, “and from me / The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree.” The reader will discover none of these lines in the 1831 volume. To read “The City in the Sea” we must turn instead to “The Doomed City,” and finding other unfamiliar titles — “Irene,” “A Paean” — discover them to be the first incarnations of “The Sleeper” and “Lenore.” Comparisons with the later final versions reveal how skillful a reviser was Poe, for in every case the changes are improvements.

The opening essay, “Letter to Mr. ———” (later known as “Letter to B.”), shows the very young poet dismissing Wordsworth with impunity while praising Coleridge. The penultimate paragraph, on pp. 28-29, is a first statement of Poe's aesthetic. A bold riff on Biographia Literaria, Poe's respect for Coleridge's intellect foreshadows characteristics he would impute to the title character in his tale “Ligeia.” Her name appears on page 100 — her “harshest idea / Will to melody run ...” — in “Al Aaraaf.” That long [page xv:] poem is here accompanied by his other lengthy (and similarly unsuccessful) effort, “Tamerlane.”

Whatever we can learn of the circumstances of Poe's life contributes to our understanding of his strange yet universal genius. We must be grateful not only for the opportunity this volume provides for our reading Poe's Poems (1831) as it first appeared, but, even more, for the exploration of an overlooked chapter in Poe's life and the new insights into his work this consideration makes possible.




Dr. Daniel Gerard Hoffman (1923-2013) was an active poet, a former Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress (1973-1974), and a long time professor of English. He taught at Columbia University, Swarthmore College, and the University of Pennsylvania, retiring in 1996. He is best remembered in Poe circles for his 1971 study Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe .


[S:0 - PPMPA, 2005] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Private Perry and Mister Poe (G. A. McGowan)