Text: xxauthorxx, “xxtitlexx,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. ???-??? (This material is protected by copyright)


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Students of Poe’s tales have looked at them in divers ways, but not often enough have they thought of them in terms of their intellectual context. Mostly, Poe is seen as the isolated voyager of Walt Whitman’s dream, the “slender, slight, beautiful figure” standing alone on the deck of a yacht flying uncontrolled before a storm, “apparently enjoying all the terror, the murk, and the dislocation of which he was the centre and the victim.”(1) Yet however dislocated Poe the man may have been, his literary ideas grew from and belong to his age, and they can best be understood as they relate to that age. My purpose, then, is to consider Poe as a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau: in 1836 Emerson’s Nature appeared;(2) in 1845 Poe published “The Purloined Letter”;(3) and in 1854 Thoreau published Walden.(4) However different these three works may appear to be, each is a central statement of its author’s ideas at the time when it was written; taken together they exhibit a marked similarity of purpose, as though those who wrote them had departed from a common point and had then journeyed in the same general direction. Seen in this context, Poe’s principal tale of ratiocination offers itself for analysis more readily than might otherwise be the case.

Such a proposition is Poe-like in the sense that it shocks by asserting the unexpected and improbable. Although it is possible to discover the transcendental scent in a Poe poem, in one of his heavenly colloquys, or in his Eureka, what has one of his tales of ratiocination to do with Emerson and his fellow idealists, or they with it? Is it not true that Poe invented the detective story for the casual amusement of mystery enthusiasts and then bequeathed the genre to Doctor Conan Doyle for exploitation? Is it not also true that Emerson and Thoreau pursued objectives far higher on the Platonic scale than mere amusement when they wrote their philosophical exhortations? If so, can we in good conscience elevate to the same lofty plane a work that is, looked at in the light of common sense, just a detective story?

Just a detective story! The lengths to which we will go to avoid giving Poe and his fiction the serious consideration that they deserve are amazing. The blame for this insistent trivialization falls first on Poe himself, of course, for writing some silly, ranting letters and, perhaps, for publishing his tales in popular magazines rather than through one of the more elegant Boston presses. Second in order of culpability come Rufus Griswold and others of Poe’s contemporaries who damned his works by damning the man. For a third villain, there is Henry James, [page 131:] with his prohibition against enthusiasms for Poe. Since then, we have continued to take Poe lightly by refusing to believe that he meant what he said — by attempting to force his critical and fictional statements to mean something other than what they purport to mean, that is(5) — by patronizing him, referring to him by frivolous names such as “Edgar,” “Edgarpoe,” and “Hoaxiepoe,” for example,(6) and by applying to his works such terms of dismissal as “just a detective story,” implying that literature that entertains, as the tale in question certainly does, must of necessity be insignificant.(7) With the reader’s permission, then — and the reader must join me temporarily as well as giving me his permission — I intend to do the opposite, to take Poe perfectly seriously, whatever critical risk that ingenuous stance may involve. Let us look at his criticism as though he really meant what he said in it, and then read his two principal tales of ratiocination, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” as though he intended them to stand at the highest level of his achievement and as though he meant every word that he wrote in them, too. Then I think that we will see that “The Purloined Letter” occupies a central position in his fiction and that it is, indeed, one document among several of the era that speak of things temporal and eternal.

It would be fruitless to deny that Poe hoped that these tales would achieve popular success. To admit that, however, is to say nothing about them that one would not as readily say of Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, or Moby-Dick. To put it another way, his hopes for them were probably identical to his hopes for, let us say, “Usher,” regardless of the fact that they were detective stories. In fact, to use that name at all is to employ an anachronism, for the detective story is not what he created but what others later named his invention after it had been appropriated by a host of popular mystery writers.(8) No, for reasons of his own, Poe simply wrote a rather different and very original pair of Gothic tales, in the process adapting some of Mrs. Radcliffe’s devices for mystification to a purpose of his own. That purpose was to present to his reading public his conception of the model human being.

As might be expected, Poe’s model man is a man of the mind; thus in order to understand that man we must begin with Poe’s statements about the mind, for like Emerson and generations of poets before Emerson, he felt that psychology was a proper subject for critical analysis. “Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions,” Poe wrote, “we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense.”(9) This is the starting point of a rather lengthy and rather well-known discussion of the intellect. Had Poe been a Hawthorne or a Melville, he would have interested himself in the [page 132:] contrast between the passionate, moral heart and the cold, amoral head, but, being Poe, he concerned himself almost exclusively with the head.

Each of these subdivisions has its own special concern, he said, the nature of which associates it with a distinct type of literary work — all but the moral sense, that is. The moral sense concerns itself with duty, and Poe could think of no form of literature that is primarily associated with duty. Had he conceived of either the sermon or the moral essay as a legitimate literary type, he would not have found it necessary to dismiss the moral sense so summarily, but dismiss it he did.

Taste concerns itself with beauty, and is the sole arbiter of the poem, which is the rhythmical creation of beauty. Unless incidentally, the poem “has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth” (p. 275). Because it enables the sensitive reader to perceive beauty, the effect of the poem is an “intense and pure elevation of soulnot of intellect, or of heart” (p. 197). When elevated through the poem, the soul attains “brief and indeterminate glimpses” (p. 274) — of what? Not of the beauty before us, of the beauty of this world, that is, but of the “divine and rapturous joys” of the beauty above and beyond this world.

The poem, then, is a unique kind of literature that releases us from our normal imprisonment in earthly existence so that we may look beyond it. It does not allow us to scrutinize in detail and to report about what is beyond the material universe, as does Dante’s Divina Commedia; instead, it gives us only glimpses that lack duration and specificity. If after these glimpses we cannot describe with clarity and precision what we have seen, we have at least had the ineluctable ecstasy of the experience of the glimpses. Finally, the vision meant here functions through the imagination, since what we perceive is an abstraction, an ideal seen not through mortal eyes but through the mysterious, occult perceptions of the soul itself.

Prose fiction is the opposite of poetry in every way, so much so that Poe’s tales and poems should not be thought of as being interdependent or cross-referential — a common critical mistake.(10) The pure intellect has as its province truth, and “the object, Truth or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are . . . readily attainable in prose” (p. 198) much more than they are in poetry. Dismissing passion from the equation, as in the present context of little interest to Poe, a prose tale, since it does not elevate the soul, must concern itself with the truth of this world. The visions of truth are visions of the material world around us as seen clearly and specifically with our material eyes; thus the best description of the tale, as Poe perceived it, may be precisely what Richard Wilbur has said it is not, “a provisional arrangement of reality.” Poe’s distinction between the two forms of literature, in the very simplest terms, is this: the prose tale deals factually with the things of this [page 133:] world, the poem imaginatively with the abstractions of the next, though he admitted that the boundary between the two was not really this inflexible.

Not only does Poe warn us of the radical differences between the nature and uses of poetry and of prose fiction, he also defines for us (still ignoring the moral sense) two aspects of mind, and here he looks back toward Emerson — and through Emerson toward Samuel Taylor Coleridge and toward Immanuel Kant.(11) Emerson had written that the mind has two modes of operation, one the lower, the other the higher. The “Understanding” is the ordinary, everyday, worldly function of the intellect that “adds, divides, combines, measures,” while the “Reason” is the higher, intuitive function that transfers the lessons of the understanding “into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that marries Matter and Mind” (p. 23). Emerson’s understanding, then, is identical to Poe’s pure intellect, though Emerson believed that the pursuit of truth was the domain of the philosopher rather than of the writer of fiction; except in the sense of marrying matter and mind, Emerson’s reason is Poe’s taste as, through beauty, it manifests itself in the poetic imagination, and for both men beauty was the domain of the poet. For Poe, the poet gives us those brief, indeterminate glimpses of the world beyond; for Emerson, he functions more materially: the poet “unfixes the land and the sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew” (p. 31).

The Emerson of Nature could not envision glimpses of a separate, perfect world beyond his own, precisely because for him the ideal was to be found not somewhere else but in his usual world. For him nature was perfect; it is our ruined perception that is at fault. It is the duty of the reason to perceive that perfection, even though to the imagination the process might appear to be the exact opposite, a ruined nature being renewed or rearranged by thought. In this seeming difference between the ideas of the two authors lies their similarity, as well, since for both men the poetic imagination can, through an exercise in point of view, free itself and escape the ordinary prison of the context-defined mind so that it is able, in the one case, to glimpse another world, and, in the other, to perceive the perfection of this world.

The same similarity of thought brought Poe near to, though not coincident with, Thoreau. Thoreau pictured himself both as the man of understanding living in this temporal world and as the man of reason or poetic imagination able to escape from his own mortality, though the two selves were separate and, it would appear, strangers unable to communicate with one another: [page 134:]

With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the drift-wood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it. I may be affected by a theatrical exhibition; on the other hand, I may not be affected by an actual event which appears to concern me much more. I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it; and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned. (pp. 134-135)

Here the self who is Indra in the sky is so through an act of the poetic imagination that, in the case of Emerson, appears to redispose empirical reality, and that, in the case of Poe, glimpses eternity. Thoreau differs from Poe in an Emersonian way. As Indra in the sky, he is not looking away from this world toward another, but is rather looking at this one from a new perspective such that when the driftwood in the currents of the understanding passes down the stream of time the soul views it as the imagined self.

It is apparent that Poe’s ideas were very close to those of these contemporaries, but it is also apparent that he could not have written a Nature or a Walden. What he could do was to be himself and, through his divisions of the intellect, describe his model man. This man is, as Poe probably imagined himself to be, exceptionally brilliant (and thereby he risks the accusation of madness); he maintains an aristocratic hauteur even though he is a bit down on his luck; and he is rewarded, pecuniarily or otherwise, for a dazzling feat of imagination. Poe’s fast attempt to define him was the creation of C. Auguste Dupin in “Murders.” Dupin is not an exact duplicate of Poe, but he is a character whose Poe-like attributes make him an exemplary figure.

Just a detective story! It can be argued by those who do not take the tale seriously that there is a radical difference between using the highest function of the mind to achieve glimpses of eternity, as does the sensitive reader of poetry, and using it to pursue or defeat criminals, as does Dupin, and no doubt Poe would have been the first to agree, though he would hardly have called the difference fatal. But the [page 135:] difference lies only in the circumstances. Poe was not writing poems through which the reader’s soul might be elevated; he was, rather writing a prose tale to convey a truth about the poetic imagination. For that purpose, he employed a manifestation of that imagination that he knew would be readily understood by readers and that would also have the Gothic entertainment values of horror and mystification.

This tale can be read in two contrasting ways. First, it is a marvelous story of ratiocination about a detective who effortlessly discovers a fact that the Parisian police, acting alone, might never stumble upon, that the murders of the L’Espanaye women were not murders at all, but the motiveless acts of violence of an alternately frightened and enraged orangutan. Understandably, many of its readers love the mystery aspect of the tale, and for that reason Poe was justified in republishing it without major revision. Second, however, it is just what it claims to be, that — is, a set of propositions followed by illustrative examples, the subject of which is an analysis of the intellectual faculties that Poe had spoken of in his criticism. As an argument, it is intended to convey the truth that Poe had said is the province of prose fiction. Unfortunately, looked at in this light the mystery portion of the story is a wretched failure; had not that been so, “The Purloined Letter” might never have been written.

It is often maintained that these propositions were prefaced to the tale only for reasons of deceptive playfulness on Poe’s part (as seems to have been more or less the case with “The Imp of the Perverse”), but in the present study we have agreed to take the narrator at his word in such matters. Dupin’s companion begins his narrative with remarks on the analytical features of the mind — Poe was not yet using the concept of the poetic imagination. These remarks are confusing, so that it is not always certain just what is being equated with what, but it is certain that the analytic mind that the narrator proposes is a close kin to Emerson’s reason. Its method appears to the casual observer to be intuitive and its acumen supernatural, but in fact its ability to disentangle enigmas, conundrums, and hieroglyphics is rational and natural. The opposite mental faculty, the ordinary understanding or calculating power, is not imaginative but fanciful. It deals with complexities, not profundities, and its achievements result from concentration and a retentive memory rather than from an awareness of what observations are important. It is constructive rather than analytical: it combines. The calculating mind may win at chess, with all of the superficial complexities of that game, but the analytical mind is challenged by the profundity of checkers (draughts in the story). The analyst uses the ability of the imagination to shift its point of view to throw himself into the spirit of his opponent and identify with it; in that way, he discovers means of defeating him. In bridge (whist in the [page 136:] story), he does the same thing by observing everything that might betray his opponent’s chain of thought, and thereby infers what cards his opponent holds. This is an employment of the mind even lower than that of criminal detection, but the two are linked: “proficiency in whist implies capacity for success in all these more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind” (p. 178, italics mine).

This is why the true expert at bridge can also be an expert detective like Dupin. By throwing himself into the spirit of the criminal and identifying with it, the detective can know everything that the criminal knows and thereby, by winning the struggle between his mind and the mind of the malefactor, solve any crime. This is what the major portion of the narrative that follows the preface, the commentary on the earlier propositions, the narrator calls it, fails to do. Its first part, the slight mystification in which Dupin traces the narrator’s associative chain of thought from its origin in a collision with a fruiterer to its end in a reflection on a recent stage play, comes close to an instance of mind struggling with mind, it is true. The narrator is not struggling in return against Dupin, for he is unaware that the game is being played, but in all probability that doesn’t matter. As an illustration, then, the episode is generally satisfactory. It is in the so-called murders that the major failure occurs.

What possessed Poe to illustrate the workings of the analytic faculty of mind by pitting Dupin against an orangutan? How could the great detective struggle mind against mind with a mindless beast whose motives were brute rage and alarm and who could not, because of his lack of understanding of the meaning of right and wrong, be accused of committing any crime at all? It seems likely that Poe invented the case of the L’Espanaye women because it defied the normal expectations of police officers: when people are killed, it is the usual practice to search for persons who have killed them, while Poe’s plot allowed Dupin to demonstrate that ordinary expectations must be abandoned when they contradict existing circumstances. However, if the plot allowed Dupin to do that, it did not allow him to struggle mind against mind with a criminal: as an illustrative example, then, it illustrated either nothing at all or else something other than what required illustration.

Two clues suggest that Poe understood the corner into which he had painted himself by having Dupin’s mind do battle with a broken nail rather than with a suitable opponent, and that he attempted to do something about it. The first attempt to conceal the failure is the deceptive advertisement through which the owner of the ape, a common sailor, is lured to Dupin’s quarters. Apparently, it was meant to salvage the illustration of mind struggling with mind, but it fails for two reasons. First, the sailor is not a criminal and is, indeed, so incurably peripheral to the story that he might have been omitted [page 137:] without damage to the plot. Second, the newspaper notice that brings him into the story is not a master stroke of an analytic mind but rather the routine trickery of a confidence man.

Having failed to repair the illustration here, Poe tried again by causing Dupin to declare about the Prefect of the Parisian Police, “I am satisfied with having defeated him in his own castle” (p. 197). But it is again true that the Prefect is not the criminal but, rather, a most unpromising (for the purpose of this case) law enforcement official whose appearance in the tale is limited to one sentence at the end. Mind struggling with mind means a combat between two minds, and nothing else; in this instance, it means detective at grips with criminal, whereas Dupin has merely won a footrace against the police official to see which of two persons working on the same side of the law can reach the solution to the puzzle first. It is not even certain that, acting alone, the Prefect could ever have reached the finish line.

Somehow, I cannot say just how, this failure appears to be connected to a large conceptual confusion in the term “analysis” in the initial propositions. Is it one quality of mind or is it a combination of two different ones? For Emerson and Thoreau, the understanding and the reason co-existed, so that one man could utilize both qualities: thus Emerson could be poet and philosopher at the same time and Thoreau could at once be driftwood and Indra. That was because for them the temporal and eternal worlds were coaxial, to use Emerson’s idea, and therefore neither was “beyond” the other. But because he was not a transcendentalist, and did not think like one, for Poe the temporal world was here and the eternal world was there “beyond.” Thus his tendency in the case of his criticism was to assign separate and contrasting elements of the mind to the two and in the case of this ratiocinative tale his tendency was to give the faculty of analysis to his detective and the ordinary understanding to his policeman. The two men are at opposite intellectual poles from one another and therefore, a perfectly comprehensible logic might maintain, they should exhibit opposite aspects of mind. In this opposition, the Prefect’s understanding is mundane and Dupin’s analytic mind is characterized by the single attribute of unworldliness.

This is why Dupin criticizes Vidocq (a police official through whom Dupin comments on the police in general) for being too worldly, for conducting his investigations in the bottom of the well and in the valleys: that is, for doing police work as it is usually done (p. 186). Vidocq impairs his vision, Dupin says, by holding the object too close, while to see a star one should avoid looking directly at it. In contrast to Vidocq (or the Prefect, we might as well say), Dupin inhabits a world of celestial imagination, which Poe symbolizes by a darkness in which the mortal eyes of the understanding are useless but the [page 138:] metaphorical eyes of the imagination are brought into play. Dupin is “enamored of the Night for her own sake” (p. 179), and after sunrise he shutters out the daylight and uses only the weakest of tapers for reading. Dupin exhibits a “rich ideality” or immateriality (p. 180): so far from inhabiting the usual world of events, the narrator says of both of them, “We existed within ourselves alone” (p. 179). From time to time Dupin’s mind actually recedes from this world as much as does the soul of the dead M. Valdemar in the later tale: thus when he retraced his analytic thought processes for his companion, Dupin’s manner became frigid and abstract (p. 180) and his “voice, although by no means loud, had that intonation which is commonly employed in speaking to some one at a great distance” (p. 187). At such times, his eyes, vacant in expression, regarded only the wall. Yet a detective cannot be confined to another world and still be successful at his profession, because he must function in terms of crimes committed in the upstairs apartments of this world. This is apparent in the fact that from the description we are given of Dupin’s usual habits, his daylight visit to the crowded and gruesome setting of the L’Espanaye tragedy presents itself as a bizarre freak. Indeed, an alternative conception of the analytic faculty is implicit in a much different, bipartite Dupin who is occasionally suggested in the tale. He is a Janus who is both of this world and beyond it, as in the narrator’s fancy that there is a “double Dupin-the creative and the resolvent” (p. 180). This would be a man who, although not quite Emersonian, could follow the example of Emerson by simultaneously using both the understanding and the reason, and who would thereby be associated simultaneously with the two separate worlds that Poe envisioned.

This confusion, added to the logical failure of the first tale, made necessary a second attempt to explain the features of mind of the model man. The concept of the analytic mind had been misleading at best and at worst wrong, since for the most part it had been conceived as a single faculty different from and opposed to the calculating or combining mind. In the interval between the composition of the two tales Poe came to understand that his double Dupin was the correct one, that crimes are committed in only one world, our world, and that those persons who would solve them must, in addition to the otherworldliness that gives their minds ascendency over others, have intellectual capabilities that allow them to function in the here and the now. The difference between Dupin and the Prefect would have to be that the detective would have an additional capacity of mind that the policeman would not share.

“Analysis” is mentioned only once in “The Purloined Letter,” and then only as a faint echo of its centrality to the earlier tale, but the idea of calculation persists as a way of suggesting Emerson’s understanding, [page 139:] though the term “mathematics” has been substituted for it. As Dupin puts it, “The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity” (pp. 232-233). The mind that so reasons deals with relation and with finite truths. Associated with form and quantity, this mind necessarily concerns itself with things, that is, whatever has shape and extent or duration, or shape or extent or duration. All things, including seeming anti-things such as voids, fall by definition within the province of the mathematics, as here defined, and since time is measurable, that too is included. Whatever is in the world or the cosmos, whatever is temporal or mortal, and whatever lies outside of “the abstractly logical,” according to Dupin, (p. 232), belongs in the category of things with which this aspect of mind deals: animals, buildings, stars, food, precious stones, light-years, and most of what many people know and all that some people know, that is. This is the faculty that, like the pure intellect, comprehends all fact, all empirical reality. Because this reality is empirical, it is known to the mathematical mind through the senses, and so it is best seen when exhibited in the brightest light. The intellect of the Prefect is exclusively of this kind. Confronted with the problem of a stolen letter, he believes without pondering the matter that it must be hidden from view behind, under, or within something, since in the mathematical understanding of things objects can only be concealed where the light reflected by them will not reach the peering eye. Thus his instruments of search are his eyes, aided by microscopes, gimlets, and probes.

The Prefect cannot understand Dupin — or the Minister — because they utilize an aspect of mind that for him has no existence, the poetic imagination that in this tale takes the place of the earlier analytic faculty. “I have been guilty of certain doggerel,” Dupin says (p. 228), modestly admitting that he is a poet. As a poet, one of his concerns (though it is hardly relevant to this tale) must be the beauty that elevates the soul, but in the practical profession of criminology the faculty is used for a more utilitarian purpose, that of unfixing his mind from its usual confines so that it can invade the mind of a criminal in order to understand the thought processes of that mind. Such an application of the intellect is terra incognita to the prefect, who maintains that poets are very nearly fools and who cannot understand why Dupin would say that matters that require “reflection” (a significant choice of words) are better treated in the dark than in the light (p. 226). Dupin punishes him for his impertinent obtuseness, scorning poets and speaking disrespectfully of Dupin’s “oddities,” by sending him back to repeat his unsuccessful search of the Minister’s hotel, knowing full well that the painfully thorough process will again reveal nothing. [page 140:]

In explaining the poetic imagination as “an identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent” (p. 231), Dupin makes it sound very much like the whist and draughts winning analytic mind of the earlier tale, but it is significantly different. Poe had come to understand that what he had earlier called the analytic feature was actually a combination of two qualities of mind, the mathematical element that attunes the reasoner to the material world in which crime takes place and the poetical imagination that allows him to unfix his thought from the rigidities that hobble the Prefect.(12) Thus Dupin says of the Minister, “As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all. . .” (p. 232).

Retracing the Minister’s crime, it can be seen to demonstrate just these qualities. Upon entering the royal lady’s boudoir, in which she is present with her husband (or so the man seems to be), the Minister sees a letter to her written in the hand of a lover (or so the tale implies). At once he fathoms her secret. Having used his mathematical capability to gather the most relevant observations, he then uses his poetic imagination to read both of their minds. When he determines that she cannot risk drawing attention to the letter, he takes it casually, knowing that she will not remonstrate before her husband for fear that such a course of action would awaken his suspicion.

After committing the crime, the Minister uses the same poetical imagination to decide upon a hiding place for the letter. Identifying his mind with that of the royal lady once more, he concludes that she will appeal for help to the prefect, and further identifying his thought process with that of the Prefect, he discovers what methods of search will be used against him. Therefore, though the Prefect will use perfect methods for discovering a letter hidden in the world of things, he will be at a loss if the game is played in a world of ideas. Having realized this, that is exactly where the Minister plays it. Thus, as in the earlier tale, the plot is constructed around the fact that the method of concealing the letter defies the normal expectations of the police.

Not only is Dupin a poet, but he is also, like the Minister, a mathematician — though the latter quality is implicit in what he says and does rather than explicit in the narrative. To win the victory in the case, he follows precisely the same reasoning processes as does the Minister, except that he is able to carry the mind-readings.an extra step. Identifying his own thought processes with those of the Minister, he follows his opponent’s imagination from the helplessness of the royal lady and the jealousy of her husband all the way to the Minister’s method of hiding the letter.

From the point of this discovery to the point at which the letter is safely in his possession, Dupin maintains a delicate intellectual balance between the mathematics, the material existence of the object, and the [page 141:] poetical, the abstract plane on which the struggle is being waged and he takes steps to upset the Minister’s balance. In order to accomplish the first, he wears green (dark) glasses in the presence of his opponent (p. 234). Whatever other purposes these glasses may have been intended to serve, most important is the fact that with them Dupin can see the light of the ordinary world while remaining enough in the dark to enable him to see imaginatively. In order to accomplish the second, he deprives the Minister of his poetic faculty by arranging a disturbance in the street outside of the Minister’s window (p. 235). When his opponent throws open the shutters and briefly blinds his poetic imagination in the morning brightness, Dupin takes advantage of the moment to retrieve the lady’s letter. By the time the shutter has been closed so that the Minister’s imagination can function once more, the contest has been won and lost.

Thus Poe at last created the illustration of mind struggling victoriously against mind that had eluded him earlier. Almost unnoticed in this victory is the perhaps unexpected fact — unexpected because Poe is rarely thought of as a moralist — that it is won on specifically moral grounds. Since the two opponents are exactly matched as poets and mathematicians, a stalemate is threatened in which each man, privy to the other’s thought process, can counter whatever measures his opponent adopts. Granted this, Dupin’s margin of victory lies in the fact that the Minister is “that monstrum horrendum, an unprincipled man of genius” (p. 236). As a blackmailer who is unscrupulous enough to obtain power by exploiting the weakness of another, he finds himself aligned against the accepted principles of decency and standards of conduct that bring society together in defense of the victim. Dupin’s advantage is that he is aligned with the side of virtue: while the Minister is excluded from essential information — specifically, that Dupin has joined the ranks of his opponents — Dupin is given all of the information about the case with which society can provide him. Had he not had that advantage, it is doubtful that Dupin could have triumphed over his masterful opponent.

Having made his point, Poe had no need to write another such tale, and he did not. He had discovered that rather than two orientations of mind, the calculating and the analytic, there were three, the mathematical, the poetic, and the combined mathematical and poetic. The first confines a person dismally to the narrowness of the purely material universe, and is, unfortunately, the voluntary intellectual limit of many men. The last liberates the genius that is best suited to our world, genius that can win a game of bridge, solve a seemingly insoluble crime, and formulate a theory of the origin and end of the cosmos (or, in twentieth-century terms a theory of relativity). But what [page 142:] of the poetic faculty in isolation, without, that is, mathematical contact with the universe in which it has its corporeal being?

It is just here that Poe departed, not alone from the loyalties that we might have expected of him as a poet but also from the ideas of his transcendental contemporaries. As we have seen, Poe had appeared to be moving closer to them as his ideas changed. At first thrown off the track by the erroneous assumption that there were two principles of mind that were opposed and immiscible, although Emerson was saying that the understanding and the reason can coexist in the same mind, Poe later agreed with Emerson by allotting both functions simultaneously to Dupin and to the Minister. Not only that, but in “The Purloined Letter” he seemed to be moving even closer by causing Dupin to speak in traditionally Emersonian terms: “The material world . . . abounds with very strict analogies to the immaterial; and thus some color of truth has been given to the rhetorical dogma, that metaphor, or simile, may be made to strengthen an argument as well as to embellish a description” (p. 234). How close this statement comes to endorsing the ideas of Nature can be seen by comparing it to Emerson’s own words: “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind . . . . these analogies . . . are constant, and pervade nature” (pp. 19-20). However, one irreconcilable difference kept the two men, if I may be excused for putting it this way, worlds apart.

Despite their seeming agreement, there was always this difference. For Emerson the solipsist, the reason was capable of seeing a perfect world, one without sin or death, restored around him, there, right where he stood in Concord; it was only a trick of the understanding of man, the god in ruins, that betrayed him into seeing it otherwise. The brighter the illumination the better the vision of the reason and the more perfect the world. The eye is the best of artists, he thought, and light is the first of painters. “There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful,” and corpses are included (pp. 12-13). “Disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, mad-houses, prisons, enemies,” will vanish; “they are temporary and shall be seen no more” (p. 45). The only calamity that nature could not repair, he wrote, would be the loss of his eyes (p. 10). “The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opaque” (p. 43). “I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all” (p. 10). This extraordinary confidence in the power of illumination and vision co-operating with the reason depends wholly on Emerson’s belief that all things are coincident, that the “other” world is really this world seen more perfectly. Thoreau agreed. He allied [page 143:] himself with illumination, presenting himself as a morning Chanticleer crowing to awaken his neighbors to the light of the new day (p. 84).

In contrast, Poe’s conception of the worlds here and beyond was without question founded on traditional Judeo-Christian hierarchical patters of thought, however much he may have moved beyond orthodoxy by this point in his life. Wherever the other world might be, the scriptural conception of the disposition of heaven and earth that he had retained from his youth told him that it was not this world, and that one could not find it by using dark-lanterns or microscopes as though it were an object to be seen with mortal eyes. To look at the temporal universe in bright light was to see only the temporal universe.

By respecting the poetic imagination, by remaining in the metaphorical half-light, that is, one could free one half of his “vision” to “see” with the “soul” what otherwise could not be seen, while still keeping a firm hold on the material world in which he lived, and this is the most desirable intellectual state for Poe’s Dupin, his model man. For Emerson and Thoreau, it was preferable to trust oneself wholly to the poetic imagination or reason because they believed that in doing so one would find, like Thoreau’s Artist of Kouroo, that he and his world had become immortal together (pp. 326-327). But for Poe, to lose contact with this world by relinquishing one’s mathematical grasp of it is madness. The mind travels elsewhere while the body remains here, adaptation to the world it inhabits miserably and horrifyingly gone. Like the mast-head lookout in Melville’s Moby-Dick, one must not lose his grip for fear of falling into Descartian vortices . . . or into Usher’s tarn.

At this point, the reader is released from his oath, sworn to willingly or otherwise, to take Poe seriously and to look at his tales in the context of their time. Clearly, Poe cannot always be taken seriously because he did write his share of hoaxes, satires, farcical pieces, and ill-disguised journalism. “Marie Roget” and “‘Thou Art the Man ‘” have been omitted from this study for precisely that reason. Similarly, it would not do to search too minutely for systematic meaning in the earlier Folio Club era pieces written before Poe had attained artistic maturity. Still, a significant body of fiction that should be taken seriously remains.

These are the tales that yield the most to the kind of analysis proposed here. As a writer of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, though admittedly an idiosyncratic one, Poe shared the preoccupations of his contemporaries with psychology, and like them he did not hesitate to wed his ideas about the human mind to ideas about philosophy and religion, nor to attach these ideas in turn to insights about cosmological science. In presenting us with the figure of Dupin, he reminded us that the poet in our world is its [page 144:] unacknowledged legislator; in presenting us with his divisions of the mind, he also reminded us that the poet is the prophet of the world to come.

[page 144, continued:]


1.  Specimen Days, Prose Works 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall (New York, 1963), 1: 232.

2.  Page numbers in the text of this essay refer to Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Robert E. Spiller and Alfred R. Ferguson (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), vol. l.

3.  For convenience, the texts referred to for both this tale and for “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” are those in The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Stuart and Susan Levine (Indianapolis, 1976).

4.  Page numbers in the text of this essay refer to Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton, 1971).

5.  In his Edgar Allan Poe, 2nd. ed. (Indianapolis, 1977), p. 81, Vincent Buranelli says that Poe came to regard the detective story .as an exception to the rule that truth is not the object of literary

art.” That conflicts with Poe’s own ideas on the subject detailed below.

6.  Daniel Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe . . . (Garden City, 1973), passim.

7.  This has been a problem both early and late. George E. Woodberry wrote “That the ratiocinative tales are on a lower level than the imaginative ones hardly needs to be said,” Edgar Allan Poe (Boston, 1885), pp. 150-151. Julian Symons, himself an author of “crime fiction,” argues against all ingenious analyses that would elevate Poe to a level of seriousness higher than that of the Vincent Price film. Calling him a “fine academic property” for scholars, Symons argues that the popular Poe is, essentially, the only Poe. Almost all criticisms of his works, Symons says, are “in varying degrees nonsensical . . . or trivial . . . .” The Tell-Tale Heart; The Life and Work of Edgar Allan Poe (Middlesex, etc., 1981), p. 231. For a view that takes account of Poe combining serious art with fun in the ratiocinative tales, see Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Blackwood Articles á La Poe: How to Make a False Start Pay,” RLV, 39(1973), 418-432.

8.  Symons agrees: “It was not Poe’s purpose to create a new literary form . . . ,” p. 221. [page 145:]

9.  Poe’s critical statements are taken from “The Philosophy of Composition” and from “The Poetic Principle,” both in H14: 193-208, 266-292 — in the present instance, p. 272.

10.  The later Eureka, in which Poe annihilates the distinctions between prose and poetry and between beauty and truth, is another matter that requires separate investigation.

11.  I do not mean to imply here that Poe found Coleridge through reading Emerson, but rather to point out a relationship between Emerson and Poe by noting the common source of some of their ideas.

12.  This idea has been on the tips of the tongues of some critics for years. For instance, David Galloway wrote that “Poe’s ideal was a perfect synthesis of the two modes of intelligence. In

his fiction the closest he came to this ideal was in the creation of the master detective Dupin, a poet who brings to commonplace reality the discriminating eye of the artist . . . .” “Introduction,” Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Harmondsworth, etc., 1967), p. 14. Others who have approached the same conclusion without an adequate understanding of Poe’s conception of his term “mathematics” include Hoffman, p. 107, and Buranelli, p. 81. Buranelli said that “What is needed is the imagination of the poet and the reasoning power of the mathematician,” while Hoffman said of Dupin that “His mind, working by metaphoric analogies, combines poetic intuition with mathematical exactitude.”





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