Text: Bruce I. Weiner, “Poe and the Blackwood’s Tale of Sensation,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 45-65 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 45, unnumbered:]



Edgar Allan Poe’s penchant for Gothic sensationalism remains an obstacle to a serious appreciation of his fiction. Next to Hawthorne and Melville, who tried to transform Gothic romance into tragedy, Poe seems parochial and immature, working the machinery of terror for its own sake and for more than it is worth. His reliance upon Gothic effects has led such notables as Henry James and T. S. Eliot to conclude that, despite a considerable influence upon other writers, Poe’s appeal is chiefly to the adolescent mind. To take him “with more than a certain degree of seriousness,” wrote James, “is to lack seriousness one’s self.”(1) Even Allen Tate, who believed that we should take Poe seriously, had to confess that his style “at its typical worst,” the “Gothic glooms . . . done up in a glutinous prose,” makes for tiresome reading, “unless one gets a clue to the power underlying the flummery.” The clue, Tate believed, lies not in the influence of the Gothic novel but in Poe’s impoverished sensibility, at once primitive and decadent, exploiting the Gothic to satisfy an appetite for sensation but lacking the perception or moral perspective to relate such sensation to life.(2)

More recent critics have portrayed Poe as a shrewder and more sophisticated manipulator of Gothic effects. G. R. Thompson maintains that Poe’s Gothic tales are informed by an intricate irony, which plays the rational off against the supernatural, not, as in Ann Radcliffe’s novels, to restore us finally to reason, but, as in the tales of Hoffmann and Tieck, to leave us in uncertainty about the nature of events. In this way, Thompson argues, Poe gives shape to a vision of despair “over the ability of the mind ever to know anything, either about the ultimate reality of the world or the mind itself.”(3) In the view of David Ketterer, Poe’s vision has even less to do with Gothic horror. He sees Poe as a visionary rather than a skeptic, who attacks our faith in reason and reality in order to confirm a faith in transcendental imagination and who uses “the horror format largely for market considerations.”(4) These readings do much to establish Poe as a serious, philosophical writer, but they exaggerate his detachment from Gothicism. Although no mere Gothicist, Poe was captive, I believe, to a Gothic sensibility. I hope to show at least that, in imitating the late Gothic “tale of sensation,” popularized by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Poe was neither as shrewd nor as ironic as recent critics suggest, and that his vision in the tales, though it may at times transcend the sensationalism he employs, is largely shaped by it. [page 46:]


Poe’s debt to the Blackwood’s tale of sensation has been firmly established. He testifies to a knowledge of Blackwood’s thrillers, and many of them have been identified as sources of incident and technique in his own tales.(5) Michael Allen has examined at length the influence of the British magazine tradition, especially the brand of journalism that Blackwood’s introduced, on Poe’s theory and practice as author and critic.(6) Yet Poe’s exploitation of the kind of Gothic sensationalism Blackwood’s was known for is vaguely understood. Part of the problem is that we have no specific study of the tales published in the early numbers of Blackwood’s. They have been classified and described by critics interested in their influence on Poe, but his parodies in “Loss of Breath,” “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and “A Predicament” are the most revealing criticism of them we have. These parodies complicate matters, however, since Poe mocks in them the Gothic formula he seems to take seriously elsewhere in his fiction and criticism.

As Michael Allen points out, Poe was writing for magazines imitating by and large a Blackwood’s format that had revolutionized the magazine marketplace. Combining the serious review-essays of the established Edinburgh Review and Quarterly Review with light literature and critical controversy, Blackwood’s sought to attract both the elite audience of the Reviews and the growing mass of semi-educated middle-class readers. Allen identifies three kinds of fiction appearing frequently in the early volumes of Blackwood’s: the tale of sensation, “usually structured around a protagonist isolated in some strange, horrific, or morbid situation which is progressively exploited for effect”; the burlesque of popular literary fashions or philosophical ideas; and the working-class idyll, usually with political and moral overtones. Poe, he suggests, adopted the first two, the tale of sensation to appeal to the popular fiction-reading audience and the burlesque to cultivate the more sophisticated reader.(7) Thus Poe seems to have been shrewdly adapting himself to the magazine marketplace. That he made the tale of sensation, moreover, the subject of some of his burlesques suggests that he was unusually detached from his craft.

To view Poe, however, as a shrewd exploiter of Blackwood’s sensationalism is to distort the facts of his magazine career. It is to accept the impression fostered by Poe and credited by scholars that tales of sensation were the main feature in Blackwood’s. Allen gives them equal footing with the burlesques and moral idylls, but Thompson calls them “the mainstay of the fiction of Blackwood’s.”(8) Mabbott claims that Poe’s attempt in “The Pit and the Pendulum” to do “a straight [page 47:] story in the Blackwood manner . . . has outlived all the once famous Tales of Blackwood” (M2: 679). Actually, I count only nine “straight” tales of sensation in Blackwood’s from its inception in 1817 to 1845 and eleven others that combine the sensational formula with literary burlesque.(9) All but one of these twenty tales appeared before Poe began to publish fiction in 1832. There are other episodes of Gothic sensationalism in reviews of books and long-running serials like Samuel Warren’s “Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician,” but the tales of sensation are greatly outnumbered by burlesques, moral idylls, and tales of adventure.(10) Nor was the tale of sensation as widely imitated and pirated as Poe and some of his critics suggest. As Allen notes, very few appear in American magazines, especially after 1832, in proportion to other kinds of fiction.(11) More widely imitated and parodied were Blackwood’s features such as John Wilson’s erudite and gossipy editor’s column (“Noctes Ambrosianae”), Warren’s “Diary of a Late Physician,” DeQuincey’s “Murder Considered as a Fine Art” (His more famous “Confessions of an Opium Eater” was written for Blackwood’s but published in the London Magazine), and serials on German literature (“Horae Germinicae”) and contemporary philosophy (“The Metaphysician”).(12)

Blackwood’s gained some notoriety with its tales of sensation, but Poe was wrong to suppose that they carried the magazine or could carry one in America. In fact, he was on the defensive from the start in his attempt to publish such fiction. In response to criticism of the too-horrible nature of “Berenice,” one of his earliest tales, Poe proposed to his publisher, Thomas W. White of the Southern Literary Messenger, that the most celebrated magazines, such as Blackwood’s, owed their success to fiction of a similar nature:

You ask me in what does this nature consist? In the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful colored into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical. You may say this is all bad taste. I have my doubts about it.(13)

There was no doubt about it, however, among Poe’s publishers and friends, who found his burlesques too grotesque or esoteric, his tales of sensation too strange and mystical. Refusing to publish his tales in 1836, Harpers advised him to “lower himself a little to the ordinary comprehension of the generality of readers” (H17: 378). This was the advice of his friends as well. Relaying the reasons for Harpers’ rejection to Thomas W. White, who was then Poe’s employer on the Messenger, James Kirke Paulding advised that Poe apply his [page 48:] considerable skills “to more familiar subjects of satire,” to the “habits and manners” of Americans and the literary pretensions of England. Another friend, James E. Heath, explained to Poe in 1839, after White refused to publish “The Fall of the House of Usher,” that Dickens had given “the final death blow to tales of the wild, improbable, and terrible class” (H17: 378, 48). Philip Pendleton Cooke, more appreciative of Poe’s genius, still wished in 1846 that he would bring “his singular capacity for vivid and truth-like narrative to bear on subjects nearer ordinary life” and write “a book full of homely doings.”(14)

In the face of such blunt and persistent opposition, Poe’s exploitation of the Blackwood’s tale of sensation can hardly be understood as shrewd journalism. He had some savvy as a magazinist, but his publishers and friends more accurately reflect the preference of readers in his day for realistic fiction with satirical, moral, or sentimental overtones.(15) Poe would have done better to have produced an American version of the moral idyll he seems to have ignored in Blackwood’s. His persistence in the sensational vein, on the other hand, cannot be dismissed simply as bad taste or bad judgment, since he proves in the parodies of Blackwood’s that he was aware, even scornful, of the shortcomings of the tale of sensation. A taste for the sensational and some bad judgment, no doubt, contributed to Poe’s attempt to market fiction that was idiosyncratic and all but outmoded, but it is explained also, I believe, by his interest in the thematic implications of the tale of sensation. Poe shared with the Blackwood’s writers not simply a vivid treatment of horrible experiences, calculated to shock and excite the reader, but also an interest in philosophical sensationalism, the idea derived from Locke that human knowledge and identity consists primarily in sensations.


Margaret Alterton suggested long ago that Poe’s interest in philosophy may have been aroused by his reading of the Blackwood’s tales of sensation.(16) Although not a serious philosophical literature, the tales of sensation do reflect a significant philosophical context in Blackwood’s. Published in London, the magazine emanated from Edinburgh and was an unofficial organ of the Scottish philosophy of Common Sense or Scottish Realism, as it was often called. Formulated primarily by Thomas Reid in the late eighteenth century, Scottish Realism was still the dominant mode of thought in Britain and America in Poe’s day, despite the significant impact of French and German idealism.(17) Blackwood’s was known for being tolerant of French and German ideas and literature during a time when hostility [page 49:] toward those foreign schools generally prevailed, but it was chiefly inspired by the rational, material, and conservative tenets of the Common Sense school.

In Blackwood’s and its British and American imitators frequently appear reviews of philosophical works and featured series of philosophical discussion, many of which carry on the debate between the Scottish realists and “philosophers of ideas.”(18) The Scots sought to refute the skeptical conclusions that David Hume had drawn from Locke’s epistemology and to stem the tide of idealism from abroad. As Ernest Lee Tuveson notes, Locke’s revolutionary contribution to philosophy was to assert that “the essences of things are unknowable, that all we can know assuredly is the ideas within our own circle of consciousness.”(19) The consequences of Locke’s proposition were to make knowledge of the world and of the self uncertain. There is no innate or unmediated knowledge of reality, no fixed ego; knowledge and identity are a function of impressions. The closest approach we make to reality or the essence of things is in our sense impressions or “sensations,” which Locke often calls “simple ideas.”

Locke steers away from skepticism by dwelling upon the primacy of sensations. He conceives of the mind as a tabula rasa, or blank screen upon which our experience of the world is projected in the form of fragmented sensations. The surest knowledge, Locke suggests, is a sort of simple “seeing,” the sensations entering the “dark room” of the mind and arranging themselves as “pictures” to be viewed by the understanding. He distrusts the more active powers of mind, its capacity to combine and transform sensations into “complex ideas” that have no source in nature, advising that we return frequently to our sense impressions to keep our bearings, to avoid confusion, obscurity and mental illness. Thus, in initiating the philosophy of ideas, Locke paradoxically establishes himself as the father of empirical science.

The Scottish realists were concerned primarily about the skeptical implications of Locke’s epistemology, especially as espoused by Hume, who did not share Locke’s confidence in the integrity of sensations or “simple ideas.” Because sensations are not facsimiles in the mind of the objects that produced them, as Locke suggests, Hume concluded that reality is unknowable. We know only our own ideas, simple or complex. The Scottish realists argued, however, that the mind does make indisputable contact with the world through the faculty of common sense. Accepting the Lockean notion that knowledge is largely the product of experience, they restored to the mind an innate or intuitive understanding that Locke had denied, calling it Common Sense. The sensations were a major bone of contention for the Scots. The problem with Locke and Hume, according to Reid, was that they confused “sensations” with “ideas,” the intuitive powers of mind with [page 50:] the abstract, thus divorcing the mind from reality. Reid argued that sensations are indivisible from the objects producing them; they provide Common Sense with direct evidence of the external world, even though they are not, as Locke suggests, an “express image” of it.(20)

The subtleties of the debate need not concern us here. I suggest that the tale of sensation popularized in fiction a widespread interest in philosophical sensationalism and reflected the bias of Common Sense. Locke made sensations the primary stuff of human consciousness and the Scottish realists continued to draw attention to them well into the nineteenth century. “Sensations are the great things after all,” Poe’s editor in “How to Write a Blackwood Article” tells an aspiring author: “If you wish to write forcibly, Miss Zenobia, pay minute attention to the sensations” (M2: 340). On the one hand, the analysis of sensations in magazine articles was indicative of an interest in human psychology, especially unusual states of mind, sparked by Locke’s epistemology. On the other hand, it reflected the distrust of the Common Sense school in anything that did not conform to fact and ordinary experience. In spite of their faith in Common Sense, the Scottish realists had to acknowledge, as did Locke, that the mind was capable of straying far from reality. Like Locke, they recommended that the speculative and imaginative powers of mind be held in check so that the simple sensations or impressions of Common Sense might prevail; otherwise, the mind might lose itself in a labyrinth of its own making.(21)

Blackwood’s flirted with the fashionable idealism of French and German writers but was regulated on the whole by Common Sense. The rational and material sobriety of Reid, Dugald Stewart, and Thomas Brown are consistently preferred to the wild and shadowy metaphysics of Kant, Schelling, and Cousin. Pretending to appreciate Kant, for example, DeQuincey ironically demonstrates how unsuited his metaphysics are “in an age which, if ever any did, idolatrizes the tangible and material.”(22) Another Blackwood’s writer chastises his countrymen for being too smug in their dismissal of German philosophers, although he considers them safe only when they are “scientific,” when facts, speculation, and faith are held in “the wellpoised union of which alone makes great scientific men.”(23) The same writer concedes that German lyric poetry is “in some points perhaps the best: but it is not for us . . . . It is too cloudy, too tearful, too shadowy, for the beef-eater” (p. 157). Even Coleridge is attacked for being too subjective in his Biographia Literaria, for following the bad examples of Rousseau and Hume by turning “plain flesh and blood matters of fact . . . into a troop of phantoms.”(24)

Blackwood’s preferred matters of fact in fiction too, even in tales of terror and the supernatural. As Margaret Alterton has observed, [page 51:] Blackwood’s reviewers liked to distinguish between German and English tales of terror.(25) The Germans depended on wild and supernatural fantasy to frighten their readers. English horror, according to the Blackwood’s critics, derived from more legitimate sources in nature and real life and was therefore more effective. Reviewing E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales, a Blackwood’s critic asserts that “the horrible is quite as legitimate a field of poetry and romance, as either the pathetic or ludicrous”; but for extended praise he singles out a tale in which the horrible is mixed up with “ordinary human feelings,” in which Hoffmann has “married dreams to realities.”(26) As late as 1847 a Blackwood’s reviewer was still holding fast to “that old predilection in favor of a true story, whenever it can be had.(27) The influence of Common Sense critics, according to Allen, explains why so little fiction appears in the early volumes of Blackwood’s and why in later volumes it is “usually presented in the form of essay, historical anecdote, or factual reminiscence.”(28)

Although the tales of sensation are exceptions to the rule of decorum even in Blackwood’s, they too answer to the demands of Common Sense. The circumstances and sensations they relate are far from ordinary or true to life, but they are usually presented as true, factual accounts of scientific interest. Poe exposes the empirical pretense of the tale of sensation in “How to Write a Blackwood Article”:

The first thing requisite is to get yourself into such a scrape as no one ever got into before . . . . But if you . . . cannot conveniently tumble out of a balloon, or be swallowed up in an earthquake, or be stuck fast in a chimney, you will have to be contented with simply imagining some similar misadventure. I should prefer, however, that you have the actual fact to bear you out. Nothing so well assists the fancy, as an experimental knowledge of the matter in hand. “Truth is strange,” you know, “stranger than fiction” — besides being more to the purpose. (M2: 340)

Mr. Blackwood’s advice to Psyche Zenobia betrays the preference of Common Sense for the actual over the imaginative, and the several Blackwood’s “articles” he recommends to her as models are notable for ie “experimental knowledge” they convey. In “The Involuntary Experimentalist,” for example, a doctor who has been trapped in a fire offers an account of his sensations as scientific evidence of the temperatures man can endure. Such tales, as Margaret Alterton suggests, may be modeled after case studies of sensations in books of [page 52:] medical jurisprudence.(29) These were intended to help prospective jurors understand medical evidence, but they catered to a taste for the sensational by dwelling upon unusual cases of hanging, burial alive, and “suspended animation.” Reviewing one of these books, a Blackwood’s writer exclaims: “We know of no romances half so interesting as the real ‘tales of terror’ to be found scattered over these pages.”(30) Prefacing an account of the sensations of his hanging, the narrator of “Le Revenant” tells us that his “greatest pleasure, through life, has been the perusal of any extraordinary narratives of fact,” especially of calamity and crime, which “have always excited a degree of interest in my mind which cannot be produced by the best invented tale of fiction.”(31)

The pretense to truth in the tale of sensation has philosophical as well as medical implications. The case study of sensations actually goes back to Locke, who anticipated modern psychology by tracing irrational or unnatural associations of ideas to past traumatic experiences or “shocks” of sensation.(32) The Blackwood’s thrillers dramatize such shocks, detailing the sensations of a mind dislodged from reality. Poe clearly demonstrates his awareness of the philosophical consequences of the tale of sensation in his spoofs of Blackwood’s. The question, for example, of whether sensations are merely ideas or evidence of a direct knowledge of the world and the self is humorously raised in “A Predicament,” the tale Miss Zenobia composes for Blackwood’s. Having protruded her head through an opening in the dial-plate of a church clock, she is decapitated by the “scimitar-like minute hand.” As her head drops into the street, she reflects:

I will candidly confess that my feelings were now of the most singular — nay the most mysterious, the most perplexing and incomprehensible character. My senses were here and there at one and the same moment. With my head I imagined, at one time, that I the head, was the real Signora Psyche Zenobia — at another I felt convinced that myself, the body, was the proper identity. (M2: 355-356)

Miss Zenobia further confuses her physical and mental identities when, “to clear [her] ideas on this topic,” she tries to take a pinch of snuff. Her predicament spoofs the epistemological and ontological problems raised by the tale of sensation. Is the mind in direct contact with the world through the senses, or does it operate independently of the world? And where does identity reside, in the senses (body) or the sensations (mind)? [page 53:]

One Blackwood’s reviewer saw the debate about sensations in Scottish metaphysics turning on “the point of juncture between matter and mind.”(33) This is the nexus of the tale of sensation. The Blackwood’s protagonist fascinates us not so much with his horrifying predicament as his account of the sensations it produces. His physical discomfort is usually overshadowed by a tormenting uncertainty about his state of mind or being. His scrape serves primarily to place him in a state bordering between wakefulness and dream, sanity and madness, life and death. Here the connection between his sensations and the external situation producing them fades and his chief terror is of losing hold upon reality. Take “The Man in the Bell,” for example, by William Maginn, which appeared in Blackwood’s in 1821.(34) Caught directly beneath a huge, ringing church bell, the narrator’s fast fears “were mere matters of fact.” He was afraid the bell would fall and crush him, or that the weak floor supporting him would give way and drop him 150 feet to the marble floor below. These fears soon gave way to others “not more unfounded, but more visionary, and of course more tremendous. The roaring of the bell confused my intellect, and my fancy soon began to teem with all sorts of strange and terrifying ideas” (pp. 373-374). The shock of sensations causes delirium, and he is tormented by the prospect of losing his reason utterly and throwing himself in madness from the steeple. Escaping finally, he gradually recovers his senses, though, as Locke might predict, the shock leaves him with a “nervous apprehension” of cathedral bells.

The tale of sensation was the instrument of some pseudophilosophical probing beyond the limits of ordinary experience and Common Sense. The Blackwood’s sensationalist was fascinated by unusual states of consciousness and the visionary powers of mind, by the idea of transcending the tie of sensations to the physical world, but he was wary of the consequences. His protagonist had to be shocked into a visionary state, carried against his will (except those who are being burlesqued) to the brink of some transcendence, only to be returned to the safe and sober realm of Common Sense. Thus, the tale of sensation is not only disguised to seem factual and scientific, but also structured to confirm the priority of fact and reason. The protagonist’s experience is often cathartic, as if the shock of sensation ‘ere administered to purge the irrational and visionary powers of mind. n one tale of sensation, for example, a protagonist who is lost in the catacombs of Paris becomes, like the man in the bell, confused, delirious, fearful of losing his reason, and desirous finally of sleep and insensibility. His sleep carries him instead “from death to life, from

the dreams of weakness, and lapses of insanity, to the full use and animation of [his] faculties.” He wakes a new man, “fearless and [page 54:] serene.”(35) Similarly, in “The Buried Alive,” a protagonist who suffers the horrors of premature burial blithely concludes that an hour after being restored he “was in the full possession of all [his] faculties.”(36)

The rational propensity of the Blackwood’s sensationalist sometimes takes the form of Mrs. Radcliffe’s “explained” Gothicism. Mysterious events and terrifying visions, apparently the result of supernatural agency, are finally explained as deriving from natural causes. A good example is “Singular Recovery from Death,” which appeared in Blackwood’s in 1821.(37) In the guise of a letter to the editor, the narrator relates “the circumstances of an event which some years ago plunged [him] into unutterable horror.” He apologizes for the lack of “those mental powers that might present to others a clear picture of the agonies [he] then endured; but there is often felt to be in the simple truth a power of awakening emotion beyond what belongs to the most skilful fiction” (p. 582). The disclaimer is calculated to give his improbable tale the look of truth, but it is doubly false. He leads us to believe that his sensations and visions were the result of an illness. “The truth is, Mr. Editor, that I had gotten drunk as an owl!” (p. 585). At this point he recapitulates, tracing his sensations to their real causes — the efforts of his friends to sober him up. The narrator offers the second half of the story to establish the scientific validity of the first half — that is, to show how the mind deviates wildly from the truth. “This not only throws an air of probability over that part of the previous narrative . . . but also throws, unless I greatly err, much light on the whole theory and practice of dreaming” (p. 587).

The mock-serious tone of “Singular Recovery from Death” is another feature of the sensationalist’s wary exploration of the subjective and irrational. The Blackwood’s thrillers were sometimes cast as parodies of German romance, mixing sensations with burlesque. Drawn by the wild imagination of Hoffmann and Tieck, the Blackwood’s sensationalist recoiled ultimately from the idealistic or skeptical implications of their fictions. One example that makes clear the philosophical context of the tale of sensation is “The Sphinx. An Extravaganza Sketched in the Manner of Callot.”(38) It parodies E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “Der Goldee Topf” (“The Golden Flower Pot”), which first appeared in Hoffmann’s initial volume of tales, Fantasiestucke in Callots Manier (1814). Hoffmann’s tale is a multilayered allegory about the awakening of poetic sensibility in a young German student named Anselmus. His awakening takes the form of a subtle and disturbing intrusion of the unreal, imaginative, and supernatural into his everyday life, so that neither he nor we can tell where reality leaves off and his visions begin. Hoffmann’s visionary [page 55:] theme interests the Blackwood’s writer only to the extent that it raises questions about the connection between mind and reality.

Anselmus’ adventures begin when he collides with an old apple vendor who curses him. In “The Sphinx” a young student named Arnold meets an old woman who sells canes. She offers him a choice between Common Sense and Romantic Idealism. She has “Old-fashioned sticks! Rational sticks! Sticks for sober citizens!” and “Fancy sticks! Poetical sticks! Romantic sticks! Mad sticks! and sticks possessed with a devil” (p. 441)! Arnold cynically chooses one of the latter which is ornamented with the head of a sphinx and for which, the old hag tells him, he will pay a “mad price.” The consequence of Arnold’s purchase is that he begins to lose hold of himself and his world. He fancies that the Sphinx on his cane is haunting him with the questions “Who are you? and, who am I?” — questions which “would have puzzled Oedipus himself” (p. 446). The Sphinx is ostensibly the cause of Arnold’s encounter with a bewitching countess who lives in a castle full of “the romantic splendours of the Middle Ages,” an experience that completely disorients him:

“Either my senses are the sport of dreams, or this world is altogether an enigma . . . I know very well that I live in the nineteenth century, and that I have studied at the University of Kiel. Common sense tells me that there are neither witches, ghosts, nor fairies, and yet I could almost swear that ever since yesterday noon, I have been the sport and victim of supernatural agency.” (p. 443)

Taking his bewilderment as a sure sign of “a genius for poetry and romance,” Arnold sits down to write a book about his strange experiences, entitling it “Adventures of a Student, a Romance of Real Life, in the Manner of Callot and Hoffmann” (p. 446). His writing, however, only aggravates his confusion about what is real. He begins the book “in the form and language of fiction, but the longer he wrote, the more confirmed was his belief in the truth of his romance” (p. 446). The delusion frightens him with the thought that he is living a “double existence,” one in the everyday world and the other in the world of imagination. To overcome this fear “he would often rush into the busy streets of Hamburg, and endeavor to regain, by rough collision with the world and its realities, some portion of common sense and self-possession” (p. 447).

Like his Blackwood’s counterparts, Arnold’s predicament drives him to “the brink of absolute insanity.” His final sensations are those If being carried by a “boiling labyrinth of waters” to the brink of a Yawning gulf,” from which he cries “an inarticulate shriek of horror” [page 56:] (p. 452). This scrape, however, is merely the climax of a terrible nightmare, from which Arnold awakes in a sweat.

Hoffmann allows his character no such reprieve. Anselmus inhabits a world in which reality and dreams coalesce, in which he is always uncertain about the truth of his experience. There is a consolation, however. In this permutable state of consciousness, Hoffmann suggests, “the sacred harmony of all beings” and “the deepest secret of nature” are discovered.(39) It is the transcendental vision of the Romantic idealist. For the Blackwood’s satirist, however, it is all nightmare and insanity. He is compelled to rescue Arnold from the confusion of dream and reality because, as a man of Common Sense, he believes that the visionary powers of mind distort and falsify the truth. There is no imaginative harmony for the Blackwood’s sensationalist. His fiction represents the world as a duality of matter and mind, reality and dream, truth and fiction, and although he is fascinated by the mind’s independence of reality, he avoids skepticism and idealism by bringing his protagonist back into collision with the world and its realities and to the full possession of Common Sense.


Horrible predicaments like burial alive and fast-person narration of the sensations they produce, physical suffering and mental confusion, nightmarish visions, and an inarticulate shriek at the brink of death or madness — these were Poe’s stock and trade. Yet one does not have to read too many Blackwood’s tales to see how much more effectively Poe managed his Gothic sensationalism. In substance and technique his best thrillers surpass the best in Blackwood’s. Still, to a great extent, his fiction is informed by the vision of the Blackwood’s sensationalists. Drawn, as they were, to the idealistic and visionary mode of German and English Romanticism, he too frequently falls back upon the rational and conservative position of Common Sense. Despite his reputation as a Romantic visionary and harbinger of the Symbolist Movement, Poe was profoundly influenced by Common-Sense principles and practice.(40)

His Common Sense speaks loudest in his burlesques of Blackwood’s. Although these are usually read as spoofs on the kind of sensationalism Blackwood’s promoted, Poe adopts in them essentially the Blackwood’s manner of scoffing at Gothic extravagance and German metaphysics. Locke, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Godwin, and Coleridge are the frequent targets of Poe’s satire, just as they are in Blackwood’s.(41) In the anomalous “Loss of Breath,” for example, “A Tale Neither in Nor out of ‘Blackwood’” (1835), Common Sense [page 57:] ironically emerges from the narrator’s idealistic speculation about the breath he has lost:

It might have a vapory — it might even have a tangible form. Most philosophers, upon many points of philosophy, are still very unphilosophical. William Godwin, however, says in his “Mandeville,” that “invisible things are the only realities,” and this all will allow, is a case in point. I would have the judicious reader pause before accusing such asseverations of an undue quantum of absurdity. Anaxagorus, it will be remembered, maintained that snow is black, and this I have since found to be the case.(42) (M2: 64)

Satire that displaces idealism and sensationalism with Common Sense is found not only in Poe’s early burlesques of Blackwood’s but in later tales too, such as “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” (1841), “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” (1845), and “Some Words With a Mummy” (1845).

Poe was still imitating the tale of sensation as a mature writer too. “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), as Mabbott suggests, is unmatched in Blackwood’s for “straight” sensations. Poe marshals all the elements — the successive tortures of a dark dungeon with bottomless pit, a slowly-descending scimitar, and shrinking, red-hot walls; the flood of sensations and struggle to retain sanity; the shriek of final despair and the cathartic deliverance. Not only does Poe surpass the effects of the Blackwood’s writers, however; he finds universal significance in his narrator’s predicament, turning the tale into “a fable of man’s condition.”(43) In “The Premature Burial,” read by some as a parody of Blackwood’s sensationalism, Poe mixes sensations and burlesque in the manner of “Singular Recovery from Death” and “The Sphinx.” His narrator dupes us initially by documenting several cases of premature burial to convince us of the truth of his own horrible experience of it. The truth, however, turns out to be a fiction; he has only imagined the sensations of premature burial after waking up in cramped quarters aboard a boat. He is brought back to his senses after a horrible shriek of despair and experiences the catharsis of his Blackwood’s counterparts. The tortures endured “for their very excess wrought in my spirit an inevitable revulsion. My soul acquired tone, — acquired temper . . . I thought upon other subjects than Death . . . . I became a new man and lived a man’s life” (M3: 969).

Poe also relied heavily upon the “explained” mode of Gothic sensationalism, returning to the ken of rational understanding what the Germans left uncertain. The detective stories and other tales of ratiocination are perhaps his most creative extensions of the explained [page 58:] Gothic. As late as 1846, Poe was still getting mileage from this kind of sensationalism. In “The Sphinx,” Poe’s narrator retreats from “the dread reign of the cholera in New York” to his relative’s cottage on the Hudson.(44) He has a fanciful and superstitious nature, and he is particularly susceptible to a belief in omens. His relative, on the other hand, “was not at any time affected by unrealities. To the substances of terror he was sufficiently alive, but of its shadows he had no apprehension” (M3: 1246). This comment precedes his narration of an incident “so entirely inexplicable” as to make him doubt his own sanity. While his thoughts were wandering one day from his reading of superstitious lore to “the gloom and desolation” of New York, he saw out of the window a hideous monster in the shape of a “Death’s Head” climbing a hill. His relative’s unsympathetic attitude and failure to confirm a second sighting of the monster further convinces the narrator that he is either seeing an omen of his death or losing his mind. At this point his relative takes over and explains the phenomenon. The narrator had focused on the hill while staring out of the window and magnified a moth passing about a “sixteenth of an inch distant from the pupil of his eye” (M3: 1251). Ironically, it was the narrator’s attempt to credit his story, his “exceeding minuteness . . . in describing the monster” that enabled his relative to identify it. The narrator’s vision illustrates the capriciousness of sensations and the mind’s ability to deviate from the “truth” of experience. The narrator sees the omen he has been anticipating. His relative, however, proves it to be merely the distortion of a gloomy mind and restores our blithe, common-sense faith in the transigence of reality.

What about Poe’s best tales of terror? It is worth noting perhaps that in “The Sphinx” Poe inverts the situation of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”(45) A gloomy, superstitious narrator accepts the invitation of a common-sense relative to escape the desolation and death in New York. In “Usher,” a common-sense narrator comes to the aid of a gloomy and superstitious friend who lives in a desolate country and decaying mansion. The circumstances of “Usher” make for more dire consequences. In the midst of terrifying desolation, the narrator is unable to perform the function of the relative in “The Sphinx.” Rather than restore Roderick Usher to the full possession of his faculties, the narrator is infected by Usher’s gloom and witnesses strange events he cannot explain. In this tale Poe ventures beyond the safeguards of Common Sense. His Gothicism, as G. R. Thompson argues, is ambiguous. We are uncertain whether to attribute the terrifying phenomena reported by the narrator to natural or occult causes. The uncertainty indicates, in Thompson’s view, Poe’s ironic mockery of the limits of rational understanding and his transcendence to a visionary [page 59:] perspective like that of the German romancers, Tieck and Hoffmann.(46) Poe falls short, however, of the transcendental harmony suggested in tales like “The Golden Flower Pot.” Thompson argues that the vision of the German Romantics was itself double, their desire for imaginative harmony checked by their awareness of a disconnected and absurd universe.(47) It is, however, I think, the ambivalence of the sensationalist that checks Poe’s transcendence, the brakes of Common Sense applied during the dizzying descent (this is how the sensationalist conceives of transcendence) into skepticism, nightmare, and madness. The obtuse Common Sense of the narrator in “Usher” and the obsessive desire of the narrator in “Ligeia” for concrete experience of his transcendental wife serve to distance us from the visionary Usher and Ligeia even as they draw us near, accentuating the disparity between the mundane and the occult, between reason and imagination. In the visages of Roderick Usher and Ligeia, Poe’s narrators confront sphinxes whose mysteries Common Sense cannot explain, but even in these tales the Common Sense Poe assimilated from the Blackwood’s sensationalists is evident.(48)

Much recent scholarship seeks to rescue Poe from his reputation as a writer of popular horror stories by finding philosophical import in his Gothic tales. The trend has merit but in its wake follow two misconceptions. The first is that Poe’s Gothic sensationalism is merely an accoutrement to this themes, a shocking wrapper in which he markets a serious product. The second is that his product is essentially visionary and idealistic (or skeptical in the sense of distrusting reason and the senses). Poe’s debt to the Blackwood’s tale of sensation suggests that his philosophical theme is inherent in his Gothic sensationalism. The tale of sensation provided him a vantage point at the juncture between mind and matter, where he could test the claims of

Common Sense and Romantic Imagination and work out his own ambivalence about the relationship between mind and reality. Moreover, like his Blackwood’s counterparts, Poe seems on the whole to remain under the influence of Common Sense; he is drawn to the visionary transcendence of Romantic Imagination but he can not escape the tyranny of sensations and a penchant for rational understanding and tangible truths.

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1.  “Baudelaire,” French Poets and Novelists (New York, 1878), p. 76. See also Eliot’s “From Poe to Valéry” (1948), rpt. The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor, 1966), pp. 207-208, 212-213. [page 60:]

2.  “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe” (1949), rpt. Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs, 1967), pp. 48-49.

3.  Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison, 1973), p. 104.

4.  The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton Rouge, 1979), p. xii.

5.  Poe praises the Blackwood’s tales in his reviews of “Peter Snook” (1836, 1845) and Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales” (1842), H14: 73-74; 11: 109. Most of the Blackwood’s sources of Poe’s tales are noted in M2 and 3.

6.  Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (New York, 1969).

7.  Ibid., pp. 20-33. On the American imitation of the Blackwood’s model, see also Frank L. Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1741-1850 (New York, 1930), p. 393.

8.  Poe’s Fiction, p. 73.

9.  The nine straight tales are “Remarkable Preservation from Death,” 2(1818); “A Night in the Catacombs,” 4(1818); “Adventure in the Northwest Territory,” 10(1821); “The Buried Alive,” 10(1821); “The Man in the Bell,” 10(1821); “The Last Man,” 19(1826); “Le Revenant,” 21(1827); “The Murderers Last Night,” 25(1829); and “The Iron Shroud,” 28(1830); the eleven that mix sensations and burlesque are “Singular Recovery from Death,” 10(1821); “The Suicide,” 16(1824); “The Metempsychosis,” 19(1826); “The Man With the Nose,” 20(1826); “The Barber of Gottingen,” 20(1826); “Who Can It Be,” 22(1827); “The Man With the Mouth,” 23(1828); “The Sphinx. An Extravaganza,” 24(1828); “Singular Passage in the Life of the Late Henry Harris, D.D.,” 29(1831); “The Bracelets,” 31(1832) [See E. Kate Stewart’s demonstration in the present volume of Poe’s debt to this tale by Samuel Warren.]; “The Involuntary Experimentalist,” 42(1837).

10.  Even in the banner year, 1821, four tales of sensation compete with nine others of a more realistic kind, mostly of sea adventure. In only one other year, 1826, are there as many as four tales of sensation and three of these are of the burlesque variety.

11.  Poe and the British Magazine Tradition, p. 32. As Mott suggests, American magazinists preferred to pirate the less sensational works of Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Bulwer, Marryat, and Mrs. Hemans. A History of American Magazines, pp. 307, 356-363, 398, 504-505, 615-617.

12.  Most of these features are imitated or parodied, for example, in the influential Knickerbocker Magazine, and one or more of [page 61:] them can be found in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, The New-England Magazine, and Graham’s Magazine.

1301: 57-58. In The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (Cambridge, Mass., 1933), Killis Campbell argues that Poe sets forth in this passage the four kinds of tales he was writing. I agree with Allen, however, that there are really two kinds indicated, the burlesque, which encompasses the first and third type Poe defines, and the tale of sensation, which encompasses the second and fourth type. Poe and the Magazine Tradition, pp. 30-31.

14.  “Edgar A. Poe,” The Recognition of Poe, p. 26.

15.  On Poe’s unsuitability as a magazinist, see William Charvat, The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800-1870 (Columbus, Oh., 1968), p. 86.

16.  The Origin of Poe’s Critical Theory (1925; rpt. New York, 1965), p. 99. Alterton, however, is not so much concerned with the philosophical implications of the tale of sensation as she is with identifying it as a source for Poe’s theory of unified effect in fiction (p. 30).

17.  The predominance of Common Sense in Poe’s America is confirmed by I. Woodbridge Riley, American Thought from Puritanism to Pragmatism and Beyond (New York, 1915), pp. 118 139; Merle Curti The Growth of American Thought, 3rd. ed. (New York, 1964), pp. 157-158, 228; and William Charvat, The Origins of American Critical Thought (1936; rpt. New York, 1968), pp. 2758.

18.  See for example “The Metaphysician” and “Philosophy of Consciousness” series in Blackwood’s, 39(1836); 41(1837; 43(1838); 45(1839) respectively; the essays in The Knickerbocker Magazine on “Intellectual Philosophy,” 7(1836); “The Eclectic,” 8(1836); and “The New Philosophy of Mind,” 15(1840); Orestes Brownson’s essays on “Synthetic Philosophy” in the Democratic Review, 11(1842); 12(1843); and the essays in the North American Review on “Brown’s Philosophy of Mind,” 19(1824); “Stewart’s Moral Philosophy,” 31(1831); “Cousin’s Philosophy,” 35(1832); “Kant and Philosophy,” 49(1839); and “Philosophy of Cousin,” 53(1841).

19.  The Imagination as a Means of Grace: Locke and the Aesthetics of Romanticism (Berkeley, 1960), p. 25. For my discussion of Locke and the Common Sense reply to his epistemology, I am indebted to Tuveson pp. 16-41, and S. A. Grave’s The Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense (London, 1960).

20.  Reid’s objection to the philosophy of ideas spawned by Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and skeptically extended by Hume is set forth primarily in An Inquiry [page 62:] into the Human Mind (1764), 1: i-viii. See Grave, The Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense, pp. 11-24, 53-68, 151-183.

21.  Even Edmund Burke, who seeks to justify an enjoyment in irrational compositions of the mind in his Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757, 1758), maintains that such compositions should be modified by good sense and promote a mental well-being (Part IV, vii). Tuveson suggests that Burke’s caution is reflected in Monk Lewis’s self-parody and Ann Radcliffe’s rational explanations of Gothic terror. Imagination as a Means of Grace, pp. 170-171. Nathan Drake, a leading apologist for the Gothic, felt compelled to warn that an imagination “left to revel in all its native wildness of combination, and to plunge into all the visionary terrors of supernatural agency, undiverted by the deductions of truth, or the sober realities of existence . . . will too often prove the cause of acute misery, of melancholy, and even of distraction.” Literary Hours of Sketches Critical and Narrative (Sudbury [England], 1800), p. 52.

22.  Blackwood’s, 28(1830), 244.

23.  “Traits and Tendencies of German Literature,” 50(1841).

24.  2(1817), 5.

25.  Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory, pp. 14-16. Alterton overestimates, I think, the extent to which “the English magazines are filled with discussions of the advantages of the terrible in fiction writing” (p. 13).

26.  “The Devil’s Elixir,” 16(1824), 55, 57. For similar criticism of German romance in Blackwood’s, all calling for realism in tales of terror and the supernatural, see “Phantasmagoriana,” 2(1818); “Some Remarks on the Use of the Preternatural in Works of Fiction,” 3(1818); “A Chapter on Goblins,” 14(1823) [Poe’s familiarity with this article is demonstrated in Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Poe, Blackwood’s, and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’,” AN&Q, 12(1974), 109-110]; “Gillies German Stories,” 20(1826); “Werner’s Twenty-Fourth of February,” 21(1827), and “The Devil’s Doings,” 40(1836). Walter Scott takes issue with the wild imagination of German romance, Hoffmann’s in particular, in “On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition,” Foreign Quarterly Review, 1(1827), 61-98.

27.  “The American Library,” 62(1847), 578.

28.  Poe and the British Magazine Tradition, p. 81. According to Robert D. Mayo, Gothic tales were especially scarce in the magazines because they violated “the canons of ‘truth to life,’ and offended a morality in which the appeal to reason, common sense, and decorum was a conspicuous feature”: “Gothic Romance in the [page 63:] Magazines,” PMLA, 65(1950), 787. The impact of Common Sense on fiction in America is examined at length by Terence Martin in The Instructed Vision: Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and the Origins of American Fiction (Bloomington, 1961).

29.  Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory, pp. 15-16.

30.  “Beck and Dunlop on Medical Jurisprudence,” 17(1825), 352. Warren’s popular series, “Diary of a Late Physician,” and DeQuincey’s famous “Confessions of an Opium-Eater,” are disguised as actual, instructive accounts of medical experimentation or observation.

31.  Blackwood’s, 21(1827), 409.

32.  Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2: xxxiii. See Tuveson, Imagination as a Means of Grace, pp. 34-36.

33.  “Magalotti on the Scotch School of Metaphysics,” 16(1824), 228.

34.  10(1821), 373-375. In “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” Poe’s editor suggests that Psyche Zenobia pay special attention to this tale (M2: 340).

35.  “A Night in the Catacombs,” Blackwood’s, 4(1818), 23.

36.  Blackwood’s, 10(1821), 264.

37.  10(1821), 582-587.

38.  Blackwood’s, 24(1828), 441-452.

39.  The Best Tales of Hoffmann, ed. E. F. Beiler (New York,

1967), p. 70.

40.  Robert D. Jacobs discusses Poe’s debt to the aesthetics of Common Sense in Poe: Journalist and Critic (Baton Rouge, 1969), pp. 19-60.

41.  Blackwood’s had no qualms either about satirizing one of its own coterie, Thomas DeQuincey, whose visionary pretensions as the famous Opium-Eater are spoofed in “Confessions of an English Glutton,” 12(1822) and “Some Account of Himself. By the Irish Oyster-Eater,” 45(1839).

42.  Poe appends the following note to a long passage of sensations he deleted from the final printing of “Loss of Breath” in The Broadway Journal (1846): “The general reader will, I dare say, recognise in these sensations of Mr. Lack-O’Breath, much of the absurd metaphysicianism of the redoubted Schelling” (M2: 78). The deleted analysis of sensations is inspired burlesque of [page 64:] Blackwood’s. Whether Poe excised it because of practical considerations, because the subject of his satire had become unfamiliar, or because, as Alterton argues, he had come to consider “the Blackwood method inadequate for effective writing” is uncertain. See Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory, p. 45.

43.  Sidney P. Moss, “Poe’s Apocalyptic Vision,” Papers On Poe: Essays in Honor of John Ward Ostrom, ed. Richard P. Veler (Springfield, Oh., 1972), p. 47. See also David H. Hirsch, “The Pit and the Apocalypse,” SR, 76(1968), 632-652. The “Blackwoods” features may have had antecedents in William Henry Ireland’s Gothic novel, The Abbess (1799). See Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Introduction” to the reprint in the Amo Press Gothic Novels series (New York, 1974), pp. xxiii-xxv.

44.  Poe’s title may have been suggested by the Blackwood’s tale, but they have little in common except the sensationalist’s interest in the relation between mind and matter.

45.  A different sort of inversion, yet still indicative of Common Sense, occurs between “Usher” and “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” and between “Ligeia” and “The Man That Was Used Up.” See Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Poe’s ‘Usher’ Tarr and Fethered,” PoeS, 6(1973), 49; and Thompson, Poe’s Fiction, pp. 83-85.

46.  Poe’s Fiction, pp. 75-77, 88-89. Additional perspectives on Poe’s hoaxing of Gothic features in “Usher” are illuminated in Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Playful ‘Germanism’ in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: The Storyteller’s Art,” Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe — Critical Essays in Honor of Darrel Abel, ed. G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke (West Lafayette, 1981), pp. 355-374.

47.  Ibid., p. 164. Thompson argues that Poe’s knowledge of the German Romantics was thorough and first-hand and that they comprise his “basic intellectual, philosophical, and artistic milieu” — Ibid., pp. 12, 19-38. But a strong case can be made, I believe, that Poe’s knowledge and, more important, his opinion of German Romanticism was gleaned in large part from the pages of magazines like Blackwood’s. Poe seems closer to DeQuincey in his treatment of German writers, at once appreciative and skeptical, imitative and satirical. See for example DeQuincey’s extended reviews of Lessing and Kant in Blackwood’s, 20(1826), 21(1827), 21(1827), 28(1830). A good example of Blackwood’s ambivalence towards the fashion of German literature is “Modern German School of Irony,” 38(1835).

48.  Clark Griffith finds the animus of Poe’s Gothicism in Coleridge’s concept of the imagination. “Poe and the Gothic,” Papers on Poe, pp. 21-27. Eighteenth-century Gothic, according to Griffith, is accountable in terms of Locke’s epistemology, the sensations of terror usually attributed to causes in the external [page 65:] world. Poe shifts the locus of terror to the mind; his Gothic tales dramatize an imagination which, in Coleridge’s terms, “dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates in order to recreate” (Biographia Literaria, ch. 13). In Griffith’s view, the terror in “Usher” is evidence of the narrator’s creative imagination; his errand to his friend is a “symbolic homecoming,” the House and events in the tale a projection of his own psyche. But terror of the mind’s own making was anticipated by Locke, considered a legitimate form of entertainment by Edmund Burke as long as it was not overindulged, and condemned by Common Sense critics. The Blackwood’s sensationalists, moreover, anticipated the shift to psychological terror that Griffith attributes to Poe. Griffith recognizes himself that there is little of the idealism of Coleridge’s harmonizing imagination in Poe’s Gothic tales. Indeed, the dominant image in “Usher” is of destruction rather than creation. The narrator remains curiously detached from the nightmare vision of his own psyche, if that’s what it is, and his escape at the end recalls the catharsis of the Blackwood’s tales and anticipates the narrator’s warning at the end of “The Premature Burial” that “the imagination of man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every caverns. Alas! The grim legion of sepulchral terrors . . . must sleep, or they will devour us — they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish” (M3: 969).





[S:0 - PHT, 1990] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and His Times - Poe and the Blackwood's Tale of Sensation (Bruce I. Weiner, 1990)