Text: Benjamin F. Fisher, IV, “The Very Spirit of Cordiality,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1978


[page v, unnumbered:]

Prefatory Remarks

I thank you for inviting me to be here. My purpose in delivering remarks about one of America’s foremost writers differs in one marked respect from those of my fifty-four predecessors, as I shall explain in what initially may appear to be a digression. We know only too well the financial difficulties that troubled Poe’s literary career. Thus, we should not find surprising his writing on June 3, 1836, to James H. Causten, who was then in government office in Washington, D. C., concerning the war claims supposedly due to David Poe, Edgar’s grandfather, or his descendants, dating from the American Revolution. The appeal was unsuccessful, and, so far as I know, Causten’s reply no longer exists.(1) Now, long years afterward, I, who am a great-great-grandson of James Hymen Causten, as well as the great-great-great-grandson of Isaac Causten, whose remains lie buried here in Baltimore, appear today to offer whatever assistance I can to the cause of Edgar Allan Poe. Like Poe’s speaker who narrates the prologue to the Folio-Club tales, I hope that I shall “vindicate my character, and the dignity of letters.” Keeping the Folio Club in mind, though dispensing with the “Dunderheadism” symptomatic of that august assembly, I also seek to afford this society “instruction . . . and amusement.”(2)

[page 1:]

The Literary Uses of Alcohol and Alcoholism
in the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe

Alcohol and Edgar Allan Poe were, apparently, inseparable companions, more so were we to accept the chronicles by many of his earlier biographers. I cannot verify, nor can I disprove statements by persons, many of them by no means objective, who claim to have observed Poe in his cups. My business is with what he himself would wish it to be, his literary artistry. In many of his works, most notably in the tales, I detect overcurrents and subtler undercurrents of imaginative creation linked to alcohol and alcoholism — neither relevant to Poe the man. My ideas derive from conclusions about probable intentions of young Poe the writer, as he employed inspirations from many sources and as he turned from verse, his great love, to the writing of prose fiction. I add quickly that my remarks do not set out to be only another source study.

To maintain a continuity among the lectures featured here each year, let us note in passing that Poe’s literary wine-iness affected his coining of words. Some years ago Burton R. Pollin pointed out that Poe originated the name of the comic Bibulus O’Bumper. What is more fitting than that this gentleman should invent, or have invented for him by his creator, names for his wine list in that bizarre tale “Lionizing?” Among those coinages are “Barac” for “Barsac” and, more important, “Grâve,” also without its customary ‘s.’ These spellings are not products of slipshod typesetting; they had previously appeared in another tale, “Bon-Bon,” published in the Southern Literary Messenger for August, 1835, as well as in “The Visionary,” better known to many of us as “The Assignation,” in 1834.

Having stated that mine will not be another source study, I now plead Emerson on foolish consistency to preface and respond to the query: Whence derives Poe’s predilection for wordplay and other types of humor devolving from alcohol and alcoholics? It is old hat to Poe devotees that one of his impulses in getting up that never-to-be published book, Tales of the Folio Club, was satire of the Delphian Club, a flourishing literary organization in the Baltimore of his day. What with records of the club revealing that revelry was often inspired by abundant food and drink, and with their overt attempts to create a mock-heroic classical assembly or symposium, it is no great stretch of our literary imaginations to recall Plato and his symposia structures, as well as Menippius’ satires, wherein eating and drinking, usually in over-indulgence, provided backgrounds for [page 2:] comedy. Petronius, Rabelais, Coleridge, Tom Moore and De Quincey also figure into Poe’s literature of intoxication.(3)

Furthermore, a closer, more obvious, if unstudied, model may be discerned. In a series of delightful novels, Thomas Love Peacock, whose life began long before and continued long after Poe’s few years, featured numerous dinners, replete with choice wines, entertaining antics consequent upon deep imbibing of those wines, and comic wordplay relevant to such intoxicating scenes. Peacock’s impact was sufficiently commanding to permeate the fiction of his son-in-law, George Meredith, whose novels appeared some years after Poe’s death. Peacock’s including a cast of characters drawn from the great names of the Romantic era, particularly Byron and Shelley, would also have been tempting to Poe. The younger writer may indeed owe much more to the elder than has heretofore been suspected.(4) To direct attention once more to alcohol, I note that Peacock’s Reverend Mr. Portpipe (Melincourt), because of his transparently comic name, may be a near literary relative of Poe’s Bibulus O’Bumper. Then, too, Peacock’s wordplay (Headlong Hall) in stating, just after much wine has been consumed, that “Sir Christopher does not seem to have raised our spirits [italics mine],” adumbrates Poe’s like lexical tendencies — unless, of course, Peacock projected into the future and intended his phrase to be synonymous with the current colloquialism “raising a shot.”(5)

Much more than has been previously understood about Poe’s earlier fiction, as he originally planned it, as well as about his more general artistic methods becomes clearer if certain other currents in his works are clarified. Just such a current is his more than passing interest in vinous subjects. One of his first literary notices detailed the excellencies in an American printing of items from Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. Typical of reviewers in his era, Poe quotes entire one of the sketches, “Gin-Shops. “ Significantly, he later combined portions of this piece with those from another sketch by Boz, “A Drunkard’s Death,” as part of “The Man of the Crowd” — itself a tale told by a drunkard monstrous fond of the sound of his own voice. Poe’s familiarity with the lore of the grape during this period also crops up in the preface to his 1831 volume of verse, republished as “Letter to B——” in 1835, the very time he was involved with what he hoped would be his first volume of fiction, in which alcohol and alcoholics were to figure prominently. In the essay Poe noted the old German Goths’ double debates (once while sober, again while drunk) over weighty state matters.(6) To conclude this portion of my argument, I quote from Théophile Gautier’s Les Jeunes France, suivis de Contes [page 3:] Humoristiques, a work of the 1830’s, an ironic statement that could have come from Poe’s own pen: “Nothing is more fashionable than a drunken feast. Every novel that appears has its drunken feast.”(7) This idea about popular literary fads might well be taken as the keystone for a project of Poe’s that simmered in his literary imagination in these same years.

Tales of the Folio Club, which I mentioned above, was a collection of fiction, framed, on the order of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, within the context of a literary gathering. Convening monthly, Poe’s group were to enjoy late dinners, ample drink, read “brief prose tales” of their own composition, and criticize those tales in open discussion. He ultimately expanded, or claimed that he expanded, the project to include seventeen tales, the total reported to Harrison Hall, a Philadelphia publisher, in September, 1836.(8)

I believe that much of the hilarity in this comic collection would have resulted not merely from the critiques, which, Poe stated, would burlesque criticism, but also from drunken storytellers reading tales about drunken characters. This tactic at times consisted of obvious presentations of sodden cavortings, at others of less obtrusive, slyly insinuated wordplay. In the light of his finally detaching individual tales from the framework, I think that we may assume an increasing complexity within Poe’s artistic consciousness. That is, many of these tales yield simultaneous, compatible comic and serious readings. Remembering his ceaseless revisions, particularly in the earliest tales, to which he ever after remained faithful, we can see that he did not stop altogether at parody or satire. Poe’s humor, or what many readers of past times believe is only his feeble grasping after humor, has engendered heated disagreements. Into these controversies I wish to interject some mediating opinions of my own.

The wine list in the revised version of “Bon-Bon,” appearing in the Southern Literary Messenger for 1835 and intended, too, as part of the Folio-Club volume, was adapted from that astoundingly popular best-seller of the day, Benjamin Disraeli’s Vivian Grey. In part Poe intended to draw attention to the Folio Club’s continual burlesquing of Disraeli, witness additional passages of this nature in other tales like “The Duc De L’Omelette,” “Lionizing,” and “King Pest.” Advancing well past mere source adoption, however, Poe’s genius could readily refashion this alcoholism among the ridiculous into artistry of far greater ambiguities. Most obviously, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” and “The Assignation” are pivotal between those tales first published in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier during 1832, on the one hand, and such later works as “Ligeia,” “Usher,” and “The [page 4:] Masque of the Red Death,” on the other. The later pieces are generally heralded, if I may be allowed, because of their soberer qualities.

To return to Tales of the Folio Club, we remember that the speaker in the prologue, who presumably later read “Lionizing,” was first welcomed into the group “with a great show of cordiality.” That same “cordiality” would reappear in several subsequent tales, and in reappearing would function in punning fashion because of associations with drinking and drunkenness. Other wordplay of a similarly intoxicating value comes to light in tales out of the Folio Club, as I hope to make evident.

If “Raising the Wind” heads the tales of the Folio Club, it understandably offers scanty alcoholic meaning or innuendo because of its very beginning placement. The next tales in the collection, “The Visionary” (later “The Assignation”) and “Siope — A Fable,” as I detail elsewhere, quickly raise our consciousness to perceive the comic implications of drink.(9) In “The Visionary” we derive amusement from contemplating a bibulous Tom Moore reworking in fictional form his famous Life of Lord Byron, telling us how it “shouldst be,” not how it was. Moore’s and Byron’s bouts with the bottle being literary commonplaces in Poe’s day, humor of an unmistakably alcoholic brand courses through this tale of surface passion and intrigue. The first version opened with two introductory paragraphs that sound much like drunken hyperbole and obfuscation when read aloud. These sections Poe wisely deleted, but two other revisions indicate his attention to the powers of Bacchus in this tale. First, when the Byronic host taunts his guest, the bewildered Tom Moore who equates with Mr. Convolvulus Gondola of the Folio-Clubbers, for being “drunk” with the magnificence of his surroundings, can it be mere chance that Poe inserted: “here his tone of voice dropped to the very spirit of cordiality?” In this tale of verbal and pictorial repetition — that abounds in mirror motifs, portraits that mirror characters in the tale, persons who look like statues and statues that resemble persons; that moves by means of staccato, echoing phrases — we should attend especially to this addition because of its recalling the gondola scene, in which our “Byron” welcomes our “Moore” with “great apparent cordiality.” Comedy of a decidedly liquor-ish sort rears its head. Also, in serving his guest Johannisberger rather than Barsac, another switch through Poe’s revision, the hero properly maintains his every-inch-a-man character. Johannisberger is a more robust, “masculine” wine in comparison with Barsac. Poe’s other [page 5:] alterations turn this tale into what ultimately reads as a far less hilarious piece, taken away from the club context.

Just so with “Siope — A Fable,” better known as “Silence — A Fable.” The monotonous recurrence of situations and phrases may originally have parodied the manner of young versifier Edgar Poe, whose appearance generally goes with that of “the very little man in a black coat” numbered among the Folio Clubbers, and whose early poems adumbrate in theme and form the entrancing, but terrifying wasteland world of “Silence.” If those echoing rhythms in the tale were created in a vein of mockery to approximate speech patterns of a drunken young Poe reading a weird tale, they work just as effectively, if with another aim, as the tale stands alone. Then, they create an eerie hypnotic melody. Like the subsequent verse of Swinburne, these literally enchanting sounds attempt to lure the narrator-victim into the wasteland world of psychic barrenness, symbolized in the Demon’s recital, by means of music so melodic that he will temporarily pay little heed to the terrors it describes. No wonder disparity arises between those reading “Silence” as a great prose poem and those who hear in its language nothing but sheer trash, created by an Edgar Allan Poe too carelessly aping the Bulwer-Lytton of the minor tales or the Coleridge of “The Wanderings of Cain.” Maybe Mr. Snap’s bottle, noted as circulating among the Folio Club toward the end of the prologue, assisted mightily in the creation of this eerie piece.

We now arrive at that sensational tale related by Mr. Solomon Seadrift, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” a perennial anthology item, although generally used with no thought about Poe’s original intents in the tale. If a reader were already attuned to Poe’s hoaxing and joking in a spiritual vein, this fifth Folio-Club tale might furnish a capstone for a cluster of stories by drunkards about their own kind because the sixth, “Metzengerstein,” so far as I can perceive, contains little to suggest a reading for intoxicating discoveries. Ostensibly, “MS. Found” chronicles, from a first-person viewpoint, a voyage fraught with perils of hurricanes, supernaturalism, and, finally, death for the narrator as the giant ship carrying him goes down in a great whirlpool. With the correspondence between the club members and the narrators of the tales they have composed, this story-teller, the double of Mr. Solomon Seadrift, provides an excellent example of a drifter in himself. But what a drifter — one whose pretensions to logical, rational wisdom amidst an ever more irrational set of circumstances suggest that his is a tale as tall as those mountainous waves towering awesomely above him. Wise as Solomon indeed! [page 6:]

His opening statements assert a disdain for superstition, adding that his ensuing pages contain truth and not incredibility. That all is not what it appears to be, though, is hinted in the motto: “A wet sheet and a flowing sea.” Long before Poe’s day, “wet” and “sheet” were familiar slang terms for booze and its affects. One need not always be “three sheets to the wind” to be thoroughly sodden. And, verse from Cunningham though this motto be, it was apparently carefully chosen.(10) Poe later substituted a French squib when the tale was removed from its original framework.

Such an alteration would also mute some implications in the title. The manuscript mentioned there may originate in Mr. Seadrift’s and, paralleling him, his narrator’s bottle — one upon the Folio-Club table fathering, as it were, the other. Like many another drunkard’s tale, this one begins plausibly enough. That a ship should set sail from the far east, bound on a southerly course, we would not question. We might, however, question closely the series of increasing wonders and improbabilities detailed by our diarist, for such is the format of his manuscript. Can we, for instance, accept as literal what purports to be the calm, seemingly detached method of composition that supposedly occupied this sailor? Are we actually to view him, as he tells us we should, writing away as casually as if he were in his study, when all around him seas rage fiercely, two vessels upon which he ships sink, and presumably supernatural sailors comprise the crew of the spectral vessel? Dare we believe that a wave is a million times larger than a giant ship atop it? I suspect not, and my suspicions are bolstered by subtle wordplay, ever so unobtrusively reinforcing the comedy hinted in the motto. First, the “million” becomes a “hundred” in revision, allowing us to ponder instead of chalking off the size as mere fantasy. Next, our adventurer tells us that he has “imbibed the shadows of fallen columns at Balbec, and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin.” As I interpret it, because of that word’s customary associations with drinking, the imbibing our good chronicler has experienced implies something far more tangible than a mere shadow for his consumption. Moreover, “ruin” is a slang term for inferior gin, and the three ancient ruined cities were all centers for pagan worship that entailed drinking to excess. The essence of the grape may be unintentionally conveyed as a basis for this tale in a moment when a state of in vino veritas dominates our narrator’s faculties. This character, after all, resembles his literary ancestor, Coleridge’s ancient mariner, and, as the late Lionel Stevenson pointed out, that old sailor reveals as much about his own inner being as about the plot proper of his story.(11) [page 7:] Instead of the much-less-easy-to-define disturbance in that old man’s psyche, Poe’s character’s predicament is more credible if we allow for his being intoxicated. The dizzying, sickening, terrifying sensations animating the closing of his tale are believably those of one going under to intoxication, as well as conveying hair-raising stimuli so sought after in a chiller of the genuine Blackwood’s variety.(12)

A revealing alteration of circumstances and character transformed “The Bargain Lost,” a tale from the 1832 Courier, into “Bon-Bon,” which title dovetails with the food-drink motifs inherent in the Folio-Club project for which it was revised. The first version featured a Venetian locale and a different name for the hero. The anglicized French in the second functions in pun fashion, because it is the surname for a French restaurateur whose soul Satan wishes to add to those choice morsels provisioning his hellish table, as well as the true French for a candy or sweet. In far more good-humored circumstances, this tale anticipates the increasingly sodden pair of antagonists in “The Cask of Amontillado.” In “Bon-Bon” we witness the devil, a persona for Mr. De Rerum Naturâ, the disguised Satan among the Folio-Clubbers, thinking of securing Pierre Bon-Bon’s soul for perdition. Both characters are seasoned philosophers and devotees of fine wines, as is evident in their drinking Mousseux, Chambertin, and Sauternes, all superb French beverages, each consumed in proper sequence from a sparkling light through a sweet dessert variety. Their joint precipitation of bottle after bottle down their near quenchless throats facilitates the repetitious loquacity in the fictional rhetoric of the tale. If we do not close our ears to Poe’s verbal by-play, we may hear in Satan’s reading of his composition to the intoxicated Folio Club another pointed “Englishing” of the French city of Rouen into “ruin,” precisely what he hopes to perpetrate upon Bon-Bon.

To preclude accusations of attempting tricksy-cutesy readings of my own into Poe’s texts, I note that he puns likewise upon the verb “usher” in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and upon “grave” for “Grâves” in “The Cask of Amontillado,” to cite the obvious. I have previously expounded the colloquial meaning of ruin; I re-emphasize that connotation here and note that it recurs, more overtly, in “King Pest.” To perceive ruin as the appropriate setting for “Bon-Bon” is to remember that both Satan and his potential victim are ruined, so far as their respective eminences go, by the end of the tale. That alcohol foils or ruins the devil, while allowing his equally drunken quarry to escape the fate of the intemperate, according to the evangelical anti-alcohol tradition popular in Poe’s day, cleverly heightens the [page 8:] comedy. With Bon-Bon’s first name Pierre as a tip-off, we may detect Poe’s humorous bent as he dramatizes for the gluttonous, bibulous Folio Club the classic debate between St. Peter and the devil over a soul, here Peter’s, or Pierre’s own. The rollicking battle, really no battle at all, for a spirit while the opponents themselves are highly “inspirited,” if I may say so, was perhaps designed to elicit mirth from the audience met to hear the tale, as well as to create chuckles among knowing readers of Poe’s volume.

I have taken this tale out of sequence (it supposedly stood third in Tales of the Folio Club) to place it closer to “The Duc De L’Omelette,” which resembles it in many ways. Hints of giddiness and intoxication flit through passages of this second selection detailing the high links of Satan and one of his victims. The Duc, modelled after the fashionably foppish image of the idolized author-editor Nathaniel Parker Willis, dies, fittingly, from a sensibility overwrought at being served an improperly prepared bird, an exotic ortolan. De L’Omelette’s spirit arouses in Satan’s palace, amidst dizzying and bewildering sights and sensations, which distorted consciousness continues through a card game — rouge-et-noir most likely, to reinforce the ties of this tale with Mr. Rouge-et-Noir in the Folio Club — with Satan, who is eager to win the Duc’s soul as his prize. Willis’s journalistic columns, and several of Lady Sydney Morgan’s books, also a target of Poe’s travesty, abounded in details of gala fêtes and wine expertise. Our narrator informs us that we must not suspect drunkenness in the Duc, but instead attribute his peculiar speeches to effects of overmuch incense. But this very protestation, I think, would lead us to believe otherwise. With the palace scene so reminiscent of that in “The Assignation,” with its overwhelming splendors, and with a passing mention of Satan’s “taking wine” during the card game, we could interpret these passages as a side glance by the tale’s creator at previously read materials within the Folio Club. Hammond’s idea that this gentleman’s tale of the previous month was voted worst is pertinent here. The story’s mimicry of Lady Morgan and Willis’s styles, within the club framework of intensifying drunkenness and senselessness may, because of its falling late among the selections, have been intended (A) to parade before us one more drunkard’s tale, which its disjointed, repetitious, hyperbolic dialogue reinforces, and (B) to send a volley of needling toward the readers of “Bon-Bon” and “The Assignation” read earlier. In its manner, “The Duc De L’Omelette” may achieve yet another purpose. Its calling attention to tales told respectively by caricature figures of Satan and Tom Moore implies that such fictions as theirs could be [page 9:] read with a face-value impact only by drunkards to drunkards. Such a tactic is plausible in a story-teller sensitive to month-old criticism of his own “art.” I more willingly adduce these theories because of the flippancy evident in the game scene. A particular phrase of verbal whimsy stands out: “De L’Omelette placed his hand upon his heart.” Which heart — that on the table or that in his breast? We could ask the same question about the earlier manuscript found in the bottle: whose, the dead narrator’s floating upon the ocean or one from the Folio Club’s table? Such verbal wit provides clues about the less obvious, but definite, comedy underlying the surfaces. In “The Duc De L’Omelette” we witness Poe’s achievement of the genuine grotesque, as he deftly mingles humor and terror.

That same grotesque comedy underlies “Loss of Breath.” An obvious hit at the Blackwood’s tale of sensation, it less blatantly throws out innuendoes that inebriation may affect the narrator. With a motto from Moore, and a reference to Mark Antony’s treatise on drunkenness, it is likely that Poe intends to lead us once again to contemplate the effects of the grape.(13) In such a tale as this, drunkenness alone may account for making what is implausible seem plausible. And what better could originate from such a personage as an intoxicated Mr. Blackwood Blackwood himself!

“King Pest” and “Lionizing” number among the concluding pieces in the original version of the Folio-Club volume, although we must not forget that “Epimanes,” which lies between these two, also drops minor hints concerning wine — a song mentioning drinking and a description of the sodden King Epimanes himself. “King Pest” and “Lionizing” feature gatherings of pretentious individuals, those in the former obviously inebriated, those in the second much less so, if at all, although their dialogue, patterned into elaborately stilted structures by the narrator may mimic the equally pretentious, and doubtless much thicker, speeches which by now would typify those circulating among the Folio Club. “King Pest” presents a cast of drunks, cavorting in an atmosphere redolent of pestilence and death. Queen Pest, with her huge figure likened to a “puncheon of October beer,” looks like liquor — perhaps an effect of the continual pushing of the bottle among the assembled litterateurs, whose far gone state may dictate her appearance as they try to listen to the tale. The Folio-Club antics may be mimed by those of King Pest and his court, as they appear to Legs and Tarpaulin, two drunken sailors who stumble in among them. The King states flatly that his court has assembled “to examine, analyze and thoroughly determine the indefinable spirit [a pun?] the incomprehensible qualities and nare(14) — of those inestimable [page 10:] treasures of the palate, the wines, ales, and liqueurs of this goodly metropolis,” to further their own cause and that of death. Recalling that the express purpose of this particular meeting of the Folio Club was to amuse themselves, may we not realize an image of unquestionable similarity in “King Pest?” I think so, especially because of the flood of ale that draws the tale to its close, a helter-skelter, pell-mell conclusion that could very neatly parallel the adjournment of the Folio Club as its most perceptive member snatches the manuscripts and dashes away to ready his exposé. That departure can well equate with “death” for the self-important gathering of pretentious litterateurs.

After such a fracas, “Lionizing” reminds us that no matter how polished civilized society appears to be, that polish only veneers violence — just the sort of violence that highlights many of Poe’s other tales. The narrator here, granted, may be intoxicated, as his odd formations of dialogue suggest. He does tell about his “half dozen drams” taken each morning, a potential give-away as to the odd language pervading his tale. He also introduces Bibulus O’Bumper, mentioned earlier, whose wine list, lifted from “Bon-Bon,” recalls for one last time Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, as if to remind us that the Folio-Clubbers have not ceased to admire and emulate his manner. Or, maybe, with their equally ceaseless devotion to the bottle, the men of the Folio Club can do no better when it comes to “literature” of their own making. No wonder that an initiate, not completely intoxicated by their procedures, decides to publish representative writings to show their “Dunderheadism” to the world.(15)

I have devoted much space to discussing only a handful of Poe’s tales, although I could just as well have turned my attention to others. For example, “Shadow — A Parable” centers on a group of Greek mourners gathered near the coffin of their dear friend, the late young Zoilus. That name has become the cognomen for a carping critic, and the presence of a dead critic within a group drinking and being merry in their own way, hysterically, that so much suggests the Folio Club itself, may give us pause to consider carefully this little tale. To strengthen the aura of intoxication-as-comedy here, our narrator tells us that his name is “Oinos,” the Greek for “one” and “wine.” He quickly directs our attention to flasks of “the red Chian wine,” used most likely to maintain more than a single variety of spirits among the mourners. His adding, though cursorily, that they sang songs of Anacreon again brings to mind Tom Moore, for that worthy was nicknamed Anacreon Moore because of his translations of the ancient poet’s songs coupled with his personal propensity for [page 11:] “spirits,” not all of them of the shadowy variety! This tale surely appears as a fiction within a fiction vis-a-vis that group whose compositions usually mingled horror and humor framed by intoxication.

“How to Write a Blackwood Article,” as well as its sequel, “A Predicament,” might also be a drunkard’s creations. The Signora Psyche Zenobia learns from Mr. Blackwood that The Confessions of an English Opium Eater were penned not by De Quincey, but by his own pet baboon, Juniper, while that great artist was drunk. Can the name and the intoxication hark back once more to gin! Surely the Confessions is a work about intoxication, although not inspired by alcohol. Maybe this cursory comment points to a covert source for the ramblings of the mouthy Signora herself.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, itself an outgrowth of James Kirke Paulding’s advice to Poe that he write a novel, combined with the young author’s personal interests at that same time, drops clues about drunkenness, inside and outside the narrative proper, as another key for unlocking meaning in that book. Drink within and without the tales themselves also underlies that delightful piece “The Angel of the Odd,” with its narrator who refuses to credit his angel’s originating in one of those bottles whose contents are drained by the close of his tale. Comparable to the lamp falling on Bon-Bon’s head at the climax of his tale, our present narrator takes his lumps, figuratively from the Angel of the Odd, and literally from dashing his head through wine bottles in the throes of a mighty drunk. With his aching head nearly buried in the cold ashes on his hearth, his is meet penance for defying the powers of his “angel,” who is conjured up because of his drunkenness, yet whose powers of the odd or unpredictable our narrator attempts to circumvent.

There is also the tale of Hans Pfaall, whose recounting of wonders may be scientific literature, although its reliability gives way because of the hero’s alcoholism being noted toward the end. William Wilson helps himself to strong liquors and, in consequence, greater moral degeneracy, no matter how sober a symbolic structure also underlies his history. In “The Man of the Crowd” the giveaway is the revelation that the narrator has spent his day in a pub. Credibly, he displays a drunkard’s fortitude, or temporary fortitude, in pursuit of his quarry, about whose person he sees, or says he sees, strange and foreboding accoutrements. Nearly as much printers’ ink has flowed into critiques of “The Cask of Amontillado” as the pipe of wine proffered by Montresor to Fortunato could contain. With doublings so much a part of Poe’s tales, “Cask” can be interpreted as a grim [page 12:] reworking of “Bon-Bon,” and ruin, though of a much less hilarious brand than in the early tale, prevails, both for Fortunato and Montresor. Pursued and Pursuer are dead drunk, or, more nearly, drunk dead, physically and morally, by the time Montresor ends his narration. The irony of his accurate dramatization of half-century-old vents, which depends inescapably upon nuances about and because of intoxication, is comedy entirely beyond the dimension of “Bon-Bon.”

Similar in kind, if different in degree, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” “ ‘Thou Art the Man!’,” and “Hop-Frog” reveal horrifyingly disastrous results from over-indulgence in spirits. Violence pervades these tales, and in all intoxication teams up with destructive impulses of the partakers. “Tarr and Fether” is milder in its implications than are the others. With a serious theme of contrasting sanity with insanity, it offers comedy in remarks about drinking, hinting ever so subtly that the narrator grows drunker and drunker. Hence, he is a fitting target for the beating he receives when the keepers break in to restore order among the mad patients of their Maison de Santé. Beholding our unstrung narrator, how could they help but suspect that he, too, might be insane? He certainly is gulfed into confusing sanity and madness, and the “heady” Clos de Vougeot may contribute to his “madness.”

When parodying the detective story form that he himself had fathered, Poe remodelled the situation in “Shadow” to suit the revelation scene in “Thou Art the Man!”. There, the drunken revellers enjoy themselves in the presence of a corpse, but this corpse comes out of a wine crate to sober them quickly. Once again, the lust for liquor turns into a gruesome comedy as the rout produces confirmation of Old Charley Goodfellow’s guilt, a just downfall for a murderous toper. Like Goodfellow, although with a reverse twist, the dwarfish Hop-Frog, forced to drink by the thoughtless king, who also flings a glass of wine into the face of Tripetta, Hop-Frog’s beloved, perpetrates a hellish tarring and feathering of the monarch and his ministers. He is sober when he sets fire to these men, whom he persuaded to submit to disguising themselves with tar and flax to resemble apes. If this tale allegorizes Poe’s own intemperance in some measure, I confess to complete incomprehension of autobiographical revelation.(16)

Poe’s literary employment of alcohol and alcoholics is, then, part of his straddling classic and romantic tradition, as is clear from his own artistic handling of some age-old materials. His amalgams of the humorous with horrifying, or potentially horrifying, situations [page 13:] and characters produces a genuinely grotesque art. As my own power of words wanes, I must rely again on Poe’s, citing “Bon-Bon” once more: “There are few men of extraordinary profundity who are found wanting in an inclination for the bottle.” From the Folio Club, whose purposes I have assayed to clarify, through the rest of Poe’s career as a fictionist, we can not escape the very spirit of cordiality.

[page 14:]


1.  The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (New York: Gordian Press, 1966), 2.91-93. James H. Causten’s daughter, Alice Eliza, married Benjamin Franklin Fisher, my great-grandfather, in 1865. See J. Willard Brown, The Signal Corps, U.S.A. in the War of the Rebellion (Boston: The U. S. Veteran Signal Corps Association, 1896), pp. 76-77.

2.  Primarily, I cite the Harrison Edition (New York, 1902; repr. New York, 1965) of Poe’s works, although at times I cite publications of contemporaneous date, either because Poe’s frequent revisions produced variants altering his original intents or because R. A. Stewart’s collations in the Harrison volumes are faulty. The prologue, itself somewhat out of line from the manuscript now in the Houghton Library of Harvard University, appears in 2.xxxvi-xxxix.

3.  “Anacreon” Moore, with his personal fondness for alcohol and his paeans in verse to Bacchic pleasures, is accurately delineated in Edmund Berry’s “The Poet of Love and Wine,” Mosaic, 3 (1970), 132-143. Cf. Burton R. Pollin, “New Light on ‘Shadow’ and other Pieces by Poe; or, More of Thomas Moore,” ESQ, n.s. 18 (1972), 166-173. See also Pollin’s Poe: Creator of Words (Baltimore: The Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Edgar Allan Poe Society, and the Library of the University of Baltimore, 1974), p. 77.

I find much pertinent information concerning the other writers in a special issue of YFS, 50 (1974), entitled Intoxication and Literature. Although Poe is not mentioned by name, the other writers I list are, and many of the salient points made about them apply legitimately to my theories about Poe. As G. R. Thompson argues, certain “currents in the air” often too broad for specific documentation are relevant to Poe studies: Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison, Wis.: U. of Wisconsin Press, 1973). See also Alexander Hammond, “A Reconstruction of Poe’s 1833 Tales of the Folio Club: Preliminary Notes,” PoeS, 5 (1972), 25-32; and John E. Uhler, “The Delphian Club . . . ,” MHM, 20 (1925), 305-346.

4.  I cite Peacock in the edition by David Garnett (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963). Peacock’s notes increase our knowledge about how earlier writers realized comic possibilities in drinking scenes, and how they themselves knew about such delights. See Headlong Hall, p. 34 and notes. Other features of Peacock’s fiction that may influence Poe are puns on the writer’s own name (cf. Headlong Hall, p. 66); the mixtures of humor and violence; buffoonery at the expense of the Gothic tradition, replete with repetitions (crucial in such Poe tales as’’Lionizing,” “The Assignation,” “Silence,” and “The Cask of Amontillado”); and the use of transparent names for comic purposes. Another, less general, parallel may exist between Peacock’s almost human ape, Sir Oran Haut-Ton, and Poe’s considerably more fearful orangutan in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” See also Augustus Henry Able, 3rd., George Meredith and Thomas Love Peacock: A Study in Literary Influence (Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1933), pp. 79-87.

5.  Another specimen of such wordplay occurs in Nightmare Abbey, Ch. V., wherein merriment is made of Laureate Southey’s “perquisite of a butt of sack” by means of the name “Sackbut.” Poe may have learned something about wine-y punning from his ever ready model, Bulwer-Lytton, who, for example, puns on “Margaux” as “Margot” in Ch. 17 of Pelham. Cf. The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated [page 15:] Edition, ed. Stuart and Susan Levine (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1976), p. 347. I acknowledge my debts respectively for information about colloquial meanings and expressions, as well as for helpful commentary about wine, to J. S. Farmer and W. E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues, introd. Theodore M. Bernstein (New York: ARNO Press, 1970); and Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine, 6th ed. revised (New York: Hastings House, 1975).

6.  Selected Poetry & Prose of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. T. O. Mabbott (New York: Random House, 1951), pp. 419 - 420. See also Thomas Thornburg, “Poe’s ‘Letter to B——’: A Query,” PoeS, 9 (1976), 54, for comment on potential humor in that epistle.

7.  I cite the edition of 1875 (Paris: Charpentier), p. 219.

8.  Poe’s plans for the Folio-Club format are outlined to Hall in Ostrom 1:103-104.

9.  I detail liquor-ish aspects of these tales in “To ‘The Assignation’ from ‘The Visionary’ and Poe’s Decade of Revising,” LC, 39 (1973), 89-105; and LC, 40 (1976), 121-151; and ”The Power of Words in Poe’s ‘Silence’,” in my edited collection Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies (Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc., 1978), pp. 56-72. I follow the general theories of Hammond, cited in n.3 and in “Further Notes on Poe’s Folio Club Tales,” PoeS, 8 (1975), 38-42; and of L. Moffitt Cecil, “Poe’s Wine List,” PoeS, 5 (1972), 41-42.

10.  Poe’s awareness of intentions conveyed by means of mottoes is evident in his censure of Mrs. Sigourney and Mrs. Hemans for slipshod selections, which don’t foreshadow the contents of the texts they preface, for their works: SLM, 2 (1835-1836), 113.

Anthologists’ uncertainties in regard to “MS. Found” are pointed up in two recent collections. Levine and Levine categorize the tale, along with the fragment of “The Lighthouse,” as “The Beginning and the End.” Harold Beaver includes it in The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin Books, 1976). He gives no substantiation about science-fictional qualities in “MS. Found” in the introduction or notes, although his opening sentence for the notes to “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” (p. 390) may indicate the tenor of critical apercus in regard to both: “Not science fiction exactly. . .”

11.  “^thinsp;‘The Ancient Mariner’ as a Dramatic Monologue,” Personalist, 30 (1949), 34-44.

12.  I cite the original appearance of “MS. Found in a Bottle,” Baltimore Saturday Visiter, October 19, 1833, p. 1. Because the Visiter exists in just one copy, so far as we know, and because this version has not been reprinted since 1833, I append this text at the end of my remarks. [[A second copy of this issue is at the Koester Collection, University of Texas at Austin, and a third in a private collection in New York.]] The collation in Harrison 2.307-313 is imperfect — and not merely because Stewart had no access to the Visiter, for which he gives an October 12, instead of the correct 19, date, an error repeated by other scholars. John C. French also presents an imperfect collation in “Poe and the Baltimore Saturday Visiter,” MLN, 33 (1918), 261-262. 

For assistance in making available this rare Poe document, as well as expediting this study otherwise, I acknowledge gratitude to the Maryland Historical Society, P. William Filby, Richard H. Hart, Alexander Rose, Averil Jordan Kadis of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Mr. and Mrs. Jim Fisher, and Lindsey and Lois Morris.

13.  Poe’s having Shakespeare in mind is elaborated in Levine and Levine, p. 499.

14.  This word echoes the motto of the prologue, which is misprinted in Harrison. [page 16:]

15.  Alexander Hammond, “Poe’s ‘Lionizing’ and the Design of Tales of the Folio Club,” ESQ, n.s. 18 (1972), 154-165. Hammond also sees in this tale comic hits at Bulwer-Lytton, another perennial favorite of Poe’s.

16.  Levine and Levine, pp. 251 - 252, 290.  


ESQ - Emerson Society Quarterly

LC - Library Chronicle of the University of Pennsylvania

MHM - Maryland Historical Magazine

MLN - Modern Language Notes

PoeS - Poe Studies

SLM - Southern Literary Messenger

YFS - Yale French Studies

[page 17, section title; page 18, blank; page 19:]




“MS. Found in a Bottle” appeared often during Poe’s career, although it came out in several unsanctioned printings. Those approved by the author ran in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter (October 19, 1833), the Southern Literary Messenger (December, 1835), Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) and the Broadway Journal (October 11, 1845). Publication without Poe’s express approval occurred in the Newburyport, Mass. People’s Advocate (October 26, 1833), the Gift for 1836 (probably in bookshops by September or October, 1835, if it followed the customary publication route of literary annuals), and, posthumously, in the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner (October 10, 1849). An assessment of the revisions, along with a reprinting of the Visiter text will, I trust, shed light upon Poe’s artistry and make convenient a rare document.

Even if the Visiter version of the tale presents an imperfectly conceived and executed form of this curious and important tale, it shows certain tendencies of young Poe the fiction-writer at work, and as such it is desireable to have it in handy format. Poe’s overt dependence upon Gothic clichés, which were advantageously reworked or eliminated, his debt to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” his attempt to capture an audience through references to the then topical theme of polar exploration, all were not only part of “MS. Found” when it initially appeared, but were inherent in other works of his prentice years. Thus, the Visiter appearance of the tale is important.


As the “manuscript” moved by means of revisions farther and farther from the “bottle” whence it first came before the Folio Club, Poe’s purposes significantly transform. Simultaneously comic and tragic, this tale stands finally as a thoroughly sober piece, so to speak, considerably removed from the spirit-laden atmosphere surrounding Mr. Solomon Seadrift and his fellows. The revisions indicate a general aim toward greater plausibility. Besides tinkering with the motto and the hyperbolic dimensions of the towering wave that we have previously noticed, Poe otherwise improved his style as he achieved [page 20:] more serious implications. For example, the Visiter reads as if the countenance of the spectral captain physically affects the narrator: “it strikes upon my soul with the shock of a Galvanic battery.” Consistent with his statement that terror is of the soul, Poe altered the message to “which excites within my spirit a sense — a sentiment ineffable.” This new rhetoric emphasizes the whole concept of inwardness, the vision of the mind’s eye, that emerges as the substance for a chronicle of a psychological voyage by the story-teller. Refashioned, the recurring sensations of dizziness, sickness, bewilderment, and fear need no longer be coupled with alcohol. The soul supplants the bottle.(1)

Increased psychological symbolism occurs elsewhere. Revising the narrator’s recollections into “indistinct shadows” from “such shadows, as it were” makes “MS. Found” more nearly a companion piece to other works wherein shadows function symbolically, as more than mere properties of hokey terror based upon a diluted Burkean Sublime, like “Shadow — A Parable” and “The Raven.” The Gothic tradition metamorphoses by such means into “modern literature.” Additional reworking accomplished increased emotional realism, and, in grounding the narrator’s fantasies and fears upon thoughts and sensations that are generally comprehensible, reinforces the dictum about terror of the soul. The sailors’ “great” instead of “extreme” amazement, the narrator’s “indefinite” rather than a “nameless and indefinite” sense of awe exemplify Poe’s keenness in keeping his characters in character. That is, incredible though they seem to be, these sensations are actually only too credible because rooted in common human feelings. These same revisions weed out high-flown phraseology typical of the terrorized inhabitants of older Gothic literature. The asterisks added in the 1845 version also enchance [[enhance]] the psychological elements. Such punctuation may be fitting for the diary form of the latter portions of the tale, but it also suggests an ever more uncertain, hesitant consciousness as it intensifies our perceptions of the narrator’s deepening mental chaos. Where else can he go but down?

His words grow more precise in other passages between 1833 and 1845, with noticeable improvements in his sight and hearing. The eerie red light (it is just “light” in the Visiter) originally “rolled, as it were” toward the sailor as he gazes upward. Similarly, he first hears the ocean “shrieking.” In final form the light is “streaming” and the seas “thundering,” maybe to impress us as to how accurate our senses can remain even under terrific pressures, unarguably to apprise us of Poe’s more polished diction. A like upgrading is evident [page 21:] in the narrator’s pondering why the ship is not “swallowed up” instead of “buried up,” a grammatical inaccuracy if ever there was one. It is clear too, when the colloquial “no clouds whatever” becomes “no clouds apparent”; and when the sun’s sullen glow changes from a trite “unaccompanied by any ray” to a more dramatic “without reflection, as if all its rays were polarized.” Poe neatly tightens yet another phrase in cutting “distended or swelled” Spanish oak to a single modifier, the first.

Gothic flummeries also disappear when we read, in 1845, that the giant ship “rose slowly from the dim and horrible gulf beyond her” in place of “rose up, like a demon of the deep . . . from the everlasting gulf beyond her.” Needless verbiage (even Poe does not venture “rose down”), a shopworn spectre, and, in the final substitution, a downright error (a gulf of this type is not everlasting) depart. Furthermore, so far as this last correction goes, the 1833 version is inconsistent with the sailors hovering “upon the brink of eternity” mentioned afterward. The “demons” remained in Poe’s imagination, however, because they reappear, appropriately, in an ocean context: “the colossal waters rear their heads above us like demons of the deep, but like demons confined to simple threats and forbidden to destroy.” Such demonism fascinates Poe, and he toys with it elsewhere, for example in “King Pest,” “The Assignation,” “Silence — A Fable,” and “The Raven,” to choose but a few representatives.(2) Second, we need not be told that the huge craft’s bows are “stupendous,” but a tipsy Mr. Solomon Seadrift, in all his “wisdom,” might babble that anyway. It is better suppressed in this passage because it occurs more fittingly elsewhere. Third, in modifying one of the over-abundant appearances of “Simoom” into “blast” verisimilitude accrues by relating that a part, not all, of the storm hits the ship. Because a simoom is a desert wind, not an ocean tempest, we may detect yet another clue, in the Visiter, as to the narrator’s unreliability, whether it typify the alcoholic limitations of Mr. Solomon Seadrift or provide the giveaway (in what may be considered a “straight” version of the tale) that the chronicler’s “voyage” is other than purely nautical. Either he is no seasoned sailor (who wouldn’t confuse the desert winds with ocean storms), or the merging of land and water is Poe’s hint, conscious or not, that we discern symbolic subtleties at work. This passage adumbrated Melville’s analogy between the western prairies and the sea in Moby-Dick.

Another type of revision, change in punctuation and spelling, also polished “MS. Found.” Dashes, those overworked guides to sensationalism, so hackneyed by Poe’s time, give way to more orthodox, [page 22:] precise indicators. Removing capitalization from words like “kraken” and “albatross” clears away another of Poe’s early affectations, as well as muting references to Coleridge as a model for style. Omitting hyphens from phrases like “dusky red” and “lower studding” also presents greater finish.

We must conclude, then, that the 1845 text of “MS. Found” stands as a greater piece of literary art than that of 1833, with all its youthful crudities. A different aura attaches in the last publication to the inconsistencies into which the narrator lapses time and again. But the superstitions that overwhelm him alter in implication between first and last, the earlier stemming from the liquorish surroundings of the Folio Club, the later manifestations being more evidently the stuff of a disintegrating, but symbolically disintegrating psyche. The vortex taking down the giant ship whirls the horrified, bewildered narrator perhaps toward madness, surely to death, but the Gothic as “German” stuff and substance of fiction also swirls downward before the greater soul with which Poe infuses his tale. Kin to “The Assignation,” “MS. Found” pivots between some of the clearly and primarily comic fiction among the first tales and the later, more ambiguous, mainly serious (although brushed with comic touches) productions published afterward, for which Poe is usually best remembered. Even though “MS. Found” remains throughout variant versions a tale firmly linked to those sensations so highly touted by Mr. Blackwood in his prescription for writing an unimpeachable Blackwood article, those sensations acquire greater credibility, as well as artistry, as they evolve into states that any of us could comprehend. Poe’s toning down the exaggerated rhetoric in this pioneer tale places the narrator well within the ken of all. His fears and the horrors that stimulate them are made to originate in realms of plausibility, possible for the experience of an average reader.

[[The full text of from the first published version of “MS. Found in a Bottle” has been omitted, but may be found here.]]

[page 32:]


1.  Possibly Poe wished not to use frequently the galvanism motif because of its more felicitous appearance elsewhere, e.g. in “Loss of Breath.” There, too, he deleted a passage wherein the narrator, newly dropped through the gallows trap, mentions that “a dreamy delight now took hold upon my spirit,” and continues by detailing pleasant opium visions. Such pleasurable sensations don’t harness well with post-execution feelings, we may surmise, and Poe may have reworked both “Loss of Breath” and “MS. Found” at the same time, shuffling materials from one into the other, to the betterment of both. These tales, among many others, may operate upon the principles of dream structures and motifs commonly employed by Poe. In such fiction the exaggeration and improbability featured in strange settings would, figuratively speaking, become “realism.”

2.  I comment upon Poe’s uses of “demons” in “The Power of Words in Poe’s ‘Silence’,” Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies. pp. 61, 64-65, as well as in my 1976 essay on “The Assignation,” pp. 124ff. I readily acknowledge that my thoughts about changes from the Visiter through the Broadway Journal appearances of the tale have been shaped by Donald Barlow Stauffer’s “The Two Styles of Poe’s ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’,” Style, 1 (1967), 107-120.



This lecture was delivered at the Fifty-fifth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 9, 1977.

© 1978 and 1998, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.

The dedication page in the original printing reads:


Mike and Jean Pflum
Jim Rocks
Nancy and Ken Yeich
Calvin and Elizabeth Yost
Who, long ago, assisted my initiation into “The Very Spirit of Cordiality”

and To
Fred, Tootie, Katie, and Fred, Jr.
Who have persisted in helping me to maintain that spirit

And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the spirit.

Ephesians 5:18



[S:1 - VSC, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - The Very Spirit of Cordiality (B. F. Fisher, IV, 1978)