Text: Edwin A. Greenlaw, “Poe in the Light of Literary History,” Johns Hopkins Alumni Magazine, June 1930, 18:273-290


­ [page 273, unnumbered:]


William Osler Professor of English Literature, Johns Hopkins University

IN A well-known Baltimore restaurant is a room adorned with mural decorations which advertise the bases of the city’s fame. The list is a long one — the appliances, the conveniences, the instruments of civilization which first came into being here. The records, mainly, are of material accomplishment — inventions, things in which Ben Franklin would have taken a more curious interest, no doubt, than Poe. They speak of a city fertile in conjecture and invention. Baltimore, they say, may not have the tallest office building, or the hugest hotel; it may not be the greatest railway center, or enjoy the most days of sunshine, or make the largest number of automobiles, but look at the things which Baltimore invented or made or did first, before any other of the sisterhood of our cities.

These things are well enough; it is right that we should be reminded of them, even in a restaurant, as aids to comfortable digestion. And perhaps among the thousands of diners there may be some who think also of other claims that our city’s history has upon us who dwell within it. In addition ­[page 274:] to our contributions to science and industry, to the development of commerce, to the furtherance, through our oldest railway, of that western march which was taking on new momentum a century ago, we also have memories brought by a deeper history. A recent American poet has expressed his belief that the past is a dust heap. That is true only in one sense, for we know whenever we visit an old-world city that the past is not dead, that it has its claims. We know that there are shrines sacred to the memory of the history of the human spirit, that these shrines symbolize matters of greater moment than size or wealth or primacy in invention. They bring quickening and healing power to the generations that pass while they alone remain. Baltimore, too, has such shrines, one of them the sacred ground where we stood a moment ago and where we now hold our brief meeting. Let us now praise famous men.

Among the varied claims of our city’s past history upon us today there is one aspect which I find neglected. It is not merely that we should find place and time to pay honor to the poets and artists and scholars who have enriched the cultural life of the city and the nation. It is not that in Poe and Lanier, both associated with Baltimore during important periods of their lives, we honor men of letters who added beauty and richness to the book of American literature. It is that these two great men who once walked our streets, perhaps neglected and unnoticed, certainly not valued save by a few, men without apparent influence in those struggles for commercial and financial progress which Baltimore, like her sister cities, placed above things of the spirit, nevertheless represent certain eternal principles which Baltimore and these sister cities, and the nation of which they are a part, must some day take into account. In saying this I am not thinking merely of the place of poetry in a commonwealth; of the poet, as men of old regarded him, as the lawgiver; of his work, as Sidney characterizes it, as the most ancient of learnings. I am not thinking, even, of Shelley’s passionate plea for recognition of the place of poetry in reform, of the ­[page 275:] attention which he held that lawmakers and prosperity builders should give to those who have already “a predestined existence among posterity, whose words are Eternity warning Time.” No such high argument is our subject here. Rather is it the more sober argument of literary history, pedestrian, fact-loving, yet devoted, like poetry and science and all the learnings, to the finding and the interpretation of truth. Literary history is concerned with the province of poetry as a part of the history of the human spirit. Here and now, we are concerned with a paragraph or two in that great volume, the questions raised by our contemplation of Poe and Lanier, who did not indeed invent poetry for Baltimore, but who illustrate certain things which, as I have said, Baltimore must take into account.


At first sight, literary history has little to add to what is already known about Poe. Biography is by no means the only, or even the most important of the functions of literary history, but even here it is not likely that many new facts will emerge about Poe’s life, or that such facts as may emerge will greatly affect our knowledge. His life was romantic tragedy, and no doubt will be re-told according to the methods of the new biography, with which literary history has nothing in common. Again, literary history is concerned with criticism, or at least with the history of criticism, but in Poe’s case, once more, there is little to be added. His relation to the short story, to detective fiction, to the lyric; his theories of the proper themes for poetry, of the length of a poem; his definition of the art he practiced, his hatred of the didactic, his deficiency in range of intellectual interests — all these are matters well-known. One cannot discuss his sources or his learning, as one discusses the sources and the learning of Dante or of Milton. Attempts have been made to show that he was not cut off from interest in the human phantasmagoria by which he was surrounded, that he really took normal human interest in life, but these attempts have ­[page 276:] not been altogether convincing, and it is certain that we do not look to him, as we look to Emerson or Hawthorne or to Walt Whitman for interpretation of the noble experiment of free government as it was being essayed in the America in which he lived. Indeed, Professor Parrington, in his monumental history of American thought, has compressed his comment on Poe into two pages, while he gives to John Pendleton Kennedy, who was also associated with Baltimore, eleven pages. While he praises Poe’s faithfulness to a creed of pure art in the midst of the Jacksonian chaos, and shows the impossibility that an America mad for territory and wealth should have appreciated the investments in the misty mid-region of Weir that Poe threw on the market, he holds that the final evaluation of Poe belongs to the psychologist and the belletrist, not to the historian of thought.

Now it is quite true that Poe affords few of the materials which are the delight of the literary historian. If his misty mid-region estates were of small appeal to those who in the 1830’s and 1840’s were exploiting western America, they are also of small use to the student of Celtic origins. Poe has the fairy mistress theme, the mysterious islands, the lands of spectral horror. But we cannot attach them to the folk beliefs which normally form our sources for such imaginings. There is nothing that Miss Weston could use in her discussions of the ritual theory. In fact, Poe’s supernaturalism is as unauthentic as that of Mr. Cabell, but Jurgen gives delight to the medievalist with its travesty of the grail legend, its solar myths, and its subtle awareness of some of the foibles of highly specialized scholarship, while Poe’s medievalism is not even burlesque.

Again, we find in Poe neither the direct references to current American affairs that historians like Mr. Parrington delight in, nor the learning that prompts annotation. Poe read widely, it is true, in limited fields, and there is an air of learning about some of his quotations and allusions. But this learning impresses only those who are themselves unlearned; it has no more authenticity than his fairy land. At ­[page 277:] first sight, his famous essay on the Poetic Principle has something more authentic about it, the praise of the supernal beauty which is the object of the Platonist’s quest, but once more, being examined, it proves false except for the fact that Poe seeks beauty. “Beauty,” however, has no philosophical content for him; he has only the vaguest ideas concerning it; the argument is as specious as that of Walter Pater in the famous suppressed paragraph of his essay on the Renaissance.

And finally, Poe is no realist, and this means, according to one school of literary historians, that his works have no relations with life. This subject I shall return to in a moment; the point that I wish to make here is that neither in his romantic supernaturalism, nor in his show of learning, nor in any easily apparent rooting of his work in human experience, has Poe much to offer the literary historian. Perhaps, then, we should follow Mr. Parrington’s advice and leave him to the psychologist and the belletrist.

These things are said, of course, with no slightest intention of disparagement. Far from it. They mean, simply, that Poe is not good dissertation material. His will not be that form of immortality that has come to those great poets who now look from Elysian or Plutonian fields upon a vast dissertation literature that has grown up about their names and works, not only dissertations upon their works but dissertations upon those dissertations, and dissertations upon the dissertations on the dissertations, and so on, in an endless progeny stretching to the crack of doom. Neither is there disparagement in the failure to find in Poe matter for a new Celtic hypothesis, or in the judgment that even his learning is spectral. Some commentators argue, with a touch of his own railing and cavilling spirit, that while he was a reader, he read only contemporary books and out of the way things, esoteric, strange, occult. Surely one reads what one is called to read, what one likes, unless one belongs to the cult which recognizes only the masterpieces which have been recognized as masterpieces by those competent, like themselves, ­[page 278:] to appraise masterpieces. I do not much believe in such a philosophy. One reads where one finds the food suited to his need. I knew a man, an excellent lawyer, who some years ago became infatuated with the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He gave his nights to it, and parts of his days. He did not use a reading guide, the device of the publishers to enable any man to become educated through the expenditure of fifteen minutes a day on a set of books that they want you to buy. He did not even use the index volume, or any other short cut to organized knowledge. His interests in knowledge were alphabetical. He began with the letter A in volume one, and since he had a marvelous memory, his friends soon noticed not only that he would begin to speak with authority and at great length on any topic from A to And, but also that he craftily introduced topics within these limits on the slightest provocation. We knew when he reached the fourth volume, because his conversation ran from Bin to Cal. His method was a good one, for him. We do not quarrel with it. It is those who resort to outlines, to scrap books filled with great thoughts or professing to give in a few lines the heart of a great book, or to the hour books now being advertised, which are supposed to give you, in an hour’s time, all that you need to know about astronomy, literature, biology, or God, that we object to, or those who have their month’s reading selected for them by a committee of a club. I have no complaint, then, about Poe’s reading, except perhaps that he does not afford, in his sources, dissertation material.

If we turn now to his life, what do we find for the literary historian as distinguished from the psychologist and the biographer? Little, I fear. The matter has been reduced to a formula. As a literary historian, fond of sources and influences, I trace this formula to Carlyle’s famous essay on Burns, where, you remember, Thomas takes Robert to task for a want of unity in his aims, a hollowness in the heart of his life. Isn’t that familiar, that formula? Burns, we are told in effect, should have gone on plowing up daisies and writing ­[page 279:] about his adventures among the clods; his Tam is a piece of glittering rhetoric, no heart of belief in it; he should never have gone to see the bright lights of Edinburgh and become infected with worldliness and society. Now hear Mr. Van Wyck Brooks on the ordeal of Mark Twain, which follows precisely the same formula. So long as Mark remained within sight and touch of the Father of Waters he was sound and pure, with an authentic voice. But he moved to Hartford, became subject to the desire of his wife to make a gentleman of him, and to the careful tutelage of his friend Warner, who was so horrified by Mark’s epistolary profanity that he feared to keep his letters on the library table lest a fire ensue. So Mark followed the gods of prosperity and conformity, and became an empty voice. This is the formula applied to Poe. There was a love experience that left its mark upon him forever. There was an addiction to drink and drugs that prevented, at one time, the use of a certain history of literature in the schools because his life was told in it. Or there was, beneath the rhetoric and the music of his verse, something deep and sinister. In all this, as in the methods of the new school of biography generally, literary history has small interest.

Even less interest can be taken in the cult of Poe. Cults spring from slightness of intelligence and thrive on lack of knowledge. Sometimes they appeal to lovers of the obscure, to people who think that lack of clearness is proof of superhuman wisdom. So with the Rosicrucianism of the former age; the history of seventeenth century thought is strewn with wreckage of occultisms masquing as philosophy. So with the cult of Browning a generation ago. I was once critic for a Browning club, because I was young, impressionable, flattered, just out of college, just married, needing money. I speak of the matter with regret. But the day of the Browning club is done, and Browning may sometime be restored to his rightful place as a great if perverse poet, not the high priest of a sisterhood. Or take that most amazing of cults, the Baconian, which also thrives on ciphers and ­[page 280:] draws many ciphers into its membership. It sprang up in America, and has flourished in Chicago, where I am told it was once seriously considered by the city council to be advisable to change to Bacon Street the name of a street that had previously, like so many American suburban avenues, honored the name of the Bard of Avon. The literary labors of the city fathers were in this case due to the fact that Bacon, not Shakespeare, was held by certain influential Chicagoans to have been the author of the plays. Whether the change was made or not I cannot say; there would, of course, be a certain appropriateness in giving the name of Bacon to a Chicago street.

So, once more, Poe has been threatened with the danger of becoming a solar myth, the object of worship by a cult. The impulse was in that same provincialism which he so strongly condemned, in this case the desire to tell the world that America had produced a great author. But it has been aided and abetted by the familiar cultist psychology of something mysterious, tragic in his story, or a concealed wisdom in his philosophy. He has been classified, dated, sourced, made a messiah, hamletized. He has become a legend. With these matters we are not here concerned. They will be matter of literary history in the future, as the seventeenth century cults have become matter of literary history, and more recently the Browning cult and perhaps the Bacon cult. That, as I have said, is matter for future dissertations, not of moment for us here today. Yet there are aspects of Poe’s work that require, it seems to me, greater emphasis from the literary historian than they have commonly received. It is not altogether true, I believe, that he is to be released to the psychologist and the belletrist.


Certain relationships with the period in which Poe lived are apparent. It is conventional to look upon him as a rebel, his keynote revolt, to contrast him with the New England school, to look upon him as a solitary, a soul that ­[page 281:] dwelt apart. When we ask upon what grounds he is to be thus card-catalogued, we find them in his attacks on the literati, on the New England cabal, on his disbelief in what be called the heresy of the didactic, and in his proclamation that poetry deals only with beauty, not with truth. But his personalities may be disregarded because they are merely personalities, commonplaces of the history of literature; they spring less from general principles than from petty jealousies, envy, the bitter knowledge that though he was fond of speaking of himself as a Bostonian, he did not belong. That is, they are defects in his personal character, not principles of revolt such as Wordsworth set forth. They may therefore be disregarded by the literary historian, and passed on to the psychologist.

Somewhat more important, I believe, are the echoes in Poe of certain conceptions of the English Renaissance. The desire for fame, the worship of beauty, the dreams of an aristocracy of intellect, the pose of melancholy, the conception of a coterie or circle of artists gathered about a beautiful and talented woman, the dream of Eldorado — all these are in Poe, as they are also in the literature of Elizabethan England. Poe wrote on Tamerlane, subject of Marlowe’s first tragedy. He was haunted by Mephistophilis, and, like Faustus, bartered his soul for occult knowledge. He wrote of beauty as passionately as Marlowe, of the doctrine of the philosophy to be found in women’s eyes as eloquently as the youthful Shakespeare. These are only analogues, worthless as sources, indicating perhaps some obscure Pythagoreanism of transmigration and survival.

But Poe also courted fame, keyword to the understanding of the Renaissance. To a friend be wrote, in the high Elizabethan manner, “of love, fame, the dominion of intellect, the consciousness of power, the thrilling sense of beauty, the free air of Heaven” — where shall we find more compact summary of the Renaissance character? To another friend he protested that he wrote from “a mental necessity, to satisfy my taste and my love of art,” and went on to say that Fame ­[page 282:] formed no motive power with him. But he was truthful enough to correct this impression, in the words: “It is false . . . . I love fame — I dote on it — I idolize it — I would drink to the very dregs the glorious intoxication. I would have incense ascend in my honor from every hill and hamlet, from every town and city on the earth. Fame! Glory! — they are life-giving breath, and living blood. No man lives, unless he is famous!”

So, once more, the lines of so many Renaissance portraits, the master cry for personal distinction, the feeling that above all earthly things is the happiness of being king, to ride in triumph through Persepolis. Elizabethan, too, in its reminiscence of the homage paid by poets to such great ladies as the Countess of Pembroke, is his reference to Mrs. Whitman: “Such women as you and Helena, and a few others, ought to be installed as queens, and artists of all kinds should be privileged to pay you court. They would grow wise and holy under such companionship.” Elizabethan also was his melancholy, superficially like that of the sad shepherd Philisides, complaining of love, or of the melancholy Jaques, yet like the true Elizabethan melancholy, rooted in a profound pessimism. Our American Renaissance, in truth, bears many resemblances to its Elizabethan prototype. We are familiar, for example, with the rise of outlandish cults in sixteenth century England — the literalists who climbed to roofs to preach Christ from the housetops; the communists who would overthrow the growing middle class capitalism; the Brownists whom Sir Andrew likened to politicians; the sanctimonious but grasping Puritans satirized by Ben Jonson; all of them phenomena of that strange psychology that swept England in the latter days of the great queen and persisted until the fabric of government was overthrown. Macaulay’s words about the excesses of the Cromwellian age — of fanatics riding naked through the market place, “Fifth Monarchy men shouting for King Jesus, agitators lecturing from the tops of tubs on the fate of Agag,” show how these sects throve. Now hear Emerson, in 1840, telling of a ­[page 283:] convention made up of “madmen, madwomen, men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Come-outers, Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh Day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and Philosophers,” — all of them bent on saving the country, their own souls, and the souls of their fellows, but by methods on which none could agree. The old regime had broken down, in this country as in the England of the earlier time; the leaven of the new democracy was at work, and it manifested itself in queer shapes.

These strange romanticisms were not in Poe, though he represents, to some degree, the sort of thing that produced the craze for mesmerism, table rapping, a phrenology which spread like wildfire. Nor did be have, except in dreams of personal fame, the romanticism of the limitless power of self reliance. No transcendental theories of the oversoul were in him, nor was he responsive to the more sordid romanticisms of exploitation, the twist to Emerson’s doctrine of freedom, of building one’s own world, which Mr. Parrington has outlined. His poem on the gold rush is couched in Elizabethan imagery, the futile quest for Eldorado. Why should the poet go to California, he wrote to a friend; all that is valuable to him is unpurchasable, “nor would I abandon the hopes which still lead me on for all the gold in California.” His quest was not Raleigh’s, for gold in Guiana but Marlowe’s, for beauty and for the dominion of the intellect. “Would it not be glorious,” we read in one of his letters, “to establish, in America, the sole unquestionable aristocracy, that of intellect, to secure its supremacy, to lead and to control it?”


I have thus suggested, very tentatively, certain affinities between Poe and the Elizabethan spirit. But I am very far from suggesting that he was, in the deeper sense, Elizabethan. Rather it was a pale and ineffectual survival, ghostly, like the denizens of his own misty mid region, to be strongly contrasted with that robust and forthright time. His dream of ­[page 284:] an aristocracy of intellect has in it no such searching analysis of the kingdom of the mind, of the new intellectual kingdom which the mind of man was preparing to invade, that we find in the poem to Marlowe’s Faustus, just as his plutonian world is merely spectral in comparison with that abyss into which Marlowe bids us look. The Elizabethans, even in their supernaturalism, were always in touch with reality.

But Poe was not in touch with reality. As we are reminded, I think justly, by Mr. Brownell, he lacks substance, and this remark applies to his imaginations as well as to his ideas. If we ask why, answers will differ. To some it may seem matter of personal limitation and nothing more. He was a solitary artist overmuch occupied with technique, says Mr. Brownell; he substituted definiteness of classification for the drudgery of thought. To Lewis Mumford, on the other hand, he was the literary equivalent of the industrialist and the pioneer; his world was plutonian like the world of Watt and Fulton and Gradgrind; his unreality proceeded from a starved and limited humanity, not his own merely, but that of his time. So Mr. Mumford finds a certain emotional equivalence between Poe’s work and pioneer fact; the terror, the shock of reality to a sensitive mind, a nightmare world like the world of the pioneer.

Now this idea is arresting and provocative, as we have come to expect Mr. Mumford’s ideas to be. But I do not believe that it will stand examination. It is ex post facto. It is colored by Mr. Mumford’s knowledge of the tragedy of pioneer life as set forth by Hamlin Garland. His starved souls are the starved souls of the Spoon River Anthology. But such a theory does not explain Poe; it is an explanation of what may be the truth about the western movement which was under way in Poe’s time but in which the sinister elements were as yet held in solution. The fallacy may be seen if we reverse the order of the topics. Mr. Mumford might justly say that the real hardness and cruelty, the spiritual starvation of pioneer life, when contrasted with the romantic dreams of a return to nature, reminds him of Poe’s plutonian ­[page 285:] world, a world of metal, of nightmare, of terror and cruelty. But that explains pioneering and industrialism; it does not apply to Poe.

For Poe’s imaginary world was his world of romantic escape, like Cooper’s romances, like Irving’s Spain and legendary Westchester. That is, Poe belongs to the early period of American romanticism, the period of reaction against the idealism of the struggle, the party feuds, the political demagogy, the beginnings of industrialism and the exploitation of our natural resources. Irving was an amused spectator of that world, but he strongly disliked it. He satirized the philosophical president and his democratic ideas; he attacked party politics; “this saving of one’s country,” he said, “is a nauseous piece of business.” His true happiness was found when he surrendered to Spanish witchery, to the romantic past of England, to the romantic scenery and legends of the Highlands. If he has more “substance” than Poe, we must look for the reason somewhere else than in the contrast between romantic hopes and the American reality, the sardonic jest of history to which Mr. Mumford refers.


Let me now try to gather up the threads of my story. I have suggested certain analogies between Poe’s ideas and practice and the ideas characteristic of the earlier English Renaissance. These ideas, I have explained, are not to be looked upon as sources or direct influences. They are analogues, or, perhaps, we may look on Poe as a sort of shadowy re-incarnation of some spirit like Marlowe’s in that earlier time. Obviously, the matter has only curious interest unless it is substantiated by other considerations. This I believe may be done, and it will lead directly to the interpretation of Poe which I shall propose.

The American experiment is very commonly considered to be the direct descendant of eighteenth century ideas of democratic freedom and the return to nature. Mr. Mumford, ­[page 286:] as we saw a moment ago, finds History’s most sardonic jest in the contrast between the dream and the reality. The ideas of Burke and Paine, the French revolutionary theory, the doctrine of the innate goodness of man in a state of nature — these are held to explain the origins of our government. The watchwords of liberty, equality, and fraternity, however, were merely words, as Mr. Parrington reminds us, until they came to the test which led to the war between the states. The Declaration of Independence contained dynamite. Its theories were accepted conventionally; the drabness and the cruelty of industrialism and exploitation; were realities contradictory to the Arcadian dream.

Now this study of American fact against eighteenth century revolutionary idealism is interesting, and I have no mind to call it in question. But it is not the whole truth. It should not blind us to the fact that there are equally important analogies between our early history and the English Renaissance out of which, we must never forget, America came into being. That is, American history, even our national history, does not start with the Declaration of Independence and its eighteenth century sources. I do not wish to interrupt my argument in order to dwell upon this point. I need only remind you of Renaissance romantic theories of intellectual power, of power over nature, of the relief of man’s estate which was to bring prosperity and drive out poverty and disease; of the power of the human will, the right, in good Emersonian doctrine, of the individual to build his own world. And I remind you that the period was marked by an expansion of territory, used both for exploitation and for colonization, precisely correspondent with the march of the pioneer who sought to occupy and to exploit the vast territories of western America, and furthermore that this territorial expansion of which our westward pioneering was but the continuation, involved, in the earlier time as in the later, tragedy, spiritual starvation, terror, and cruelty. There is always contrast between dream and reality, between dreams of primitive nobility, a return to nature, of escape ­[page 287:] from the limited world of every day experience to a larger and newer and fresher world, on the one hand, and the grim reality that pioneers know. Longfellow was attracted by Indian life and legends, but he got his materials from his dreams and his books. He said that it would be glorious to have Fremont’s experiences in the far west, but “think of the discomforts of the journey.” Culture and pioneering are forever two different things.

But this is not all. In the literature of the later Renaissance in England, we find disillusion and doubt. Not so much is said of the religion of beauty in woman, and what is said becomes cynical or worse. Witness Shakespeare’s later plays, to use a familiar body of material, his rejection of the romance, of kingship that Marlowe had sung; the nemesis that attends the will to power; the indictment of prosperity that Bradley holds to be the theme of Lear; the bitterness of the sonnets. England was not an Arcadia after all. The dreams of Marlowe had faded into the light of a bitter reality.

There is a difference, then, between the earlier Renaissance and the later. Now this earlier Renaissance, not the later, is not only in Emerson — the building of a world, the limitless powers of the individual, the aristocracy of intellect, the supernal light drawn from the oversoul, the religion of beauty — all Elizabethan, every line, but also it is in Poe — the thirst for ineffable unutterable beauty, the religion of beauty in women, the deep but romantic melancholy, the preoccupation with death, the vague aspiration toward intellectual aristocracy, even the dabbling in occultism, strange knowledge to be gained through traffic with infernal powers. Poe corresponds exactly with the earlier Elizabethan romanticism save in one point only — the narrowness of the field he occupied, the lack of substance in both imagination and ideas, the constriction in place of the limitless exuberance of the greater Elizabethans. For this, I believe, there is explanation.

For the fact is that while the earlier Elizabethans were infatuated with the large and romantic ideas so characteristic ­[page 288:] of their time, and with the new exuberance of expression which made it seem possible to express these large ideas in swelling verse, both qualities uncritical, Poe merely recognized the ideas, responded to them vaguely, saw, as the Elizabethans saw, the beauty of beauty and the beauty of verse that should enshrine that beauty, and proceeded to fix this attention on the manner, the technique of his art. The ideas he did not pursue, or when he pursued them, as in Eureka, he fell into the obscurity, the preposterousness of the worst Elizabethan pseudo-philosophical prose poetry. He is not a Platonist; he failed to realize that poetry is more than a technique; the richness of thought as well as the boundless expression of the Elizabethans was not in him. But he had intellectual and critical curiosity, rare and astonishing phenomenon in an America, chiefly critical only about religious and political dogma, and it is for this reason that we chiefly honor him.

Let me illustrate by referring to his hatred of the didactic. The poem, he says, has nothing to do with truth. Or, truth may slip in unawares, but if she keeps her place we shall not object. What troubles him, however, is not truth but moral. He is confused. On occasion he speaks of truth as fact, precisely as Bacon does. And his Eureka is proclaimed not only as a prose poem but as a book of truths which is to be valued “for the Beauty that abounds in the Truth.” This evident confusion as to the relationship between beauty and truth seems to illustrate clearly the contention that I make, that Poe was not merely a rebel, in the ordinary use of the term, against convention. He praised Longfellow, most persistent of moralists. He saw, though vaguely, the matters with which poetry has to deal, — its stuff, its basis in thoughts and ideas. But he did not pursue these ideas. He saw only poetical subjects, the poetical subjects of the early Elizabethans, but he stopped to examine his art, the means by which poetry is to treat these themes. In this he rose at a bound above the provincial and the merely conventional. His fatal limitation was in the fact that you must ­[page 289:] first be possessed by your theme, that your theme cannot be a topic such as a Freshman chooses for his composition, and that the art, the technical perfection, must follow upon this possession. Dante, Milton, the masters, knew this truth. Richard Blackmore, in Milton’s day, knew the rules of his art, imitated, pilfered, studied technical perfection, but we read Malory and Spenser on King Arthur, not Blackmore.

This leads me, finally, to the inevitable comparison with Lanier, the theme of so many high school and college literary essays. There are two things to say. One is that Lanier saw clearly the crux of the matter when he said that Poe did not know enough. Lanier was not carping at a brother artist. He was insisting, as Sidney and Milton had insisted before him, that it is not riming and versing that maketh a poet, that poetry is a learning and requires learning from its practitioners. There is something both pathetic and magnificent in the story of Lanier’s work in the Peabody Library, work carried on in the spirit of any first year graduate student, and inspired by the new vision which Johns Hopkins University brought into reality. He was reading not for amusement, or for adventure among books, or for critical pleasure alone, but from a set purpose to master as much as he could of the spiritual history of the race as set forth in literature, history, and philosophy. His work was incomplete, but, with Poe’s, it indicates clearly enough the direction in which we are to go, the idea of poetry not only as cultural material but as a fountain of life and a safeguard of civilization.

What I want to leave with you is Wordsworth’s conception of poetry as the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge, the impassioned expression that is in the countenance of all science. What does this mean? It does not mean that rimes help memory, like the devices for remembering the names of the English kings or for fixing a mathematical formula. It does not mean that in the form of poetry one may learn the history of the four ancient monarchies, as Anne Bradstreet, New England’s tenth muse, made possible ­[page 290:] to her readers. It does not even mean, as Sidney and Spenser held, that philosophy teaching through story is pleasant, or that poetry is truer than history because it can show vice punished and virtue rewarded. Poetry, on the contrary, is a distillation of knowledge, its essence, the interpretation of its meaning, the truth passing into belief in which Bacon found the highest human good. It is related to science, to knowledge, so it has a method and is concerned with art, as Poe maintained. It has nothing to do with the didactic, as he saw clearly enough. The eighteenth amendment springs from the didactic impulse. It is not a pedagogy or a theology as the neo-humanists would have us believe. It deals with breath, with spirit, with impassioned expression, with the intangible and imponderable forces that are of greater moment than commissions or naval parleys or Kellogg pacts. Without it, our parleys are of no use. It is international, transcending racial lines. It takes all knowledge to be its province. It must be a part of our new school of international relations. And in the clarifying and making serviceable this new conception of the function of poetry as a knowledge, the emergence into our consciousness of the supreme value of this Bible of the Human Spirit, we shall give due attention to Poe’s detachment, to his freedom from the provincial, to his conception of an international world of art and beauty, and also to Lanier’s supplement of the truth that comes from the love of knowledge, that “comforting and creating fire that fashions men.”



This lecture was delivered by Dr. Edwin Almiron Greenlaw (1874-1931) at the Eighth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society on January 19, 1930. The program was held in the Westminster Church.

The comment about fame, attributed to Poe, is taken from “Reminiscences of Edgar Poe,” by Mary Gove Nichols.

More than eight decades later, Dr. Greenlaw’s contention that “Poe is not good dissertation material” has been demonstrated as utterly without foundation, and certainly untrue given the sheer volume of dissertations and scholarly books and articles that have been written and published about Poe since the time of this lecture. In this statement, Dr. Greenlaw was, perhaps, betraying the limited view of his own times, a view that sometimes still persists in the relative few who would deny Poe a prominent place in the American Canon if it were within their authority to do so (but who chiefly find themselves impotent and infuriated at being overruled by greater powers).

Who the “recent American poet” mentioned but unnamed on p. 274 might be is not known. The observation that “History is a great dust heap” has been generally attributed to Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881).

Dr. Greenlaw, it would appear, was a fan of Wordsworth, and perhaps could not quite see as much merit in the man who said (in his “Letter to B—”) that “as to Wordsworth, I have no faith in him,” and who dismissed the whole school of metaphysical poets with “the most sovereign contempt,” further noting “that they have followers proves nothing.”


[S:1 - PILLH, 1930] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe in the Light of Literary History (E. Greenlaw, 1930)