Text: G. Richard Thompson, “Circumscribed Eden of Dreams: Dreamvision and Nightmare in Poe’s Early Poetry,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1984


[title page:]

Dreamvision and Nightmare
in Poe’s Early Poetry


Professor of English and American Studies
Purdue University

[page 3:]

In the late poem “Dream-Land” (1844-49), Edgar Allan Poe evokes a world “Out of Space — Out of Time”:

Haunted by ill angels only,

Where an Eidolon, named Night,

On a black throne reigns upright . . . .

Its dreamscape is of:

Bottomless vales and boundless floods,

And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,

With forms no man can discover

For the dews that drip all over;

Mountains toppling evermore

Into seas without a shore;

Seas that restlessly aspire,

Surging, unto lakes of fire;

Lakes that endlessly outspread

Their lone waters — lone and dead . . . .(1)

The apocalyptic dreamscape is what most of us remember when we think of Poe’s poetry and his prose poems: the imaging of the torment of the bereaved lover in “Ulalume” (1847) as an ice-locked volcano at the South Pole ceaselessly rolling sulphurous fires down its frozen steaming sides; the lurid light streaming hellishly up from “The City in the Sea” (1831); the “flowering” of volcanoes on a newly formed world just “spoken” into existence in “The Power of Words” (1845); the nightmare dream of Arthur Gordon Pym.

Immense serpents held me in their embrace,

and looked earnestly in my face

with their fearfully shining eyes.

Then deserts, limitless,

and of most forlorn and awe-inspiring character,

spread themselves out before me.

Immensely tall trunks of trees, gray and leafless,

rose up in endless succession

as far as the eye could reach.

Their roots were concealed in wide-spreading morasses,

whose dreary water lay intensely black,

still, and altogether terrible,


And the strange trees

seemed endowed with a human vitality,

and, waving to and fro

their skeleton arms, [page 4:]

were crying to the silent waters

for mercy . . . .(2)

A similar dreamscape is found in “Silence — A Fable” (1839). A Demon describes “a dreary region in Libya, by the borders of the river Zaire,” where there is no quiet, no silence.

The waters of the river

have a saffron and sickly hue;

and they flow not onwards to the sea,

but palpitate forever and forever

beneath the red eye of the sun

with a tumultuous and convulsive motion.

For many miles

on either side of the river's oozy bed

is a pale desert of gigantic water-lilies.

They sigh one unto the other in that solitude,

and stretch towards the heaven

their long and ghastly necks,

and nod to and fro

their everlasting heads.

And there is an indistinct murmur

which cometh out from among them

like the rushing of subterrene water.

And they sigh one unto the other.

At the boundary of the water-lilies is a dark forest in continual agitation even though there is no wind. The tall primeval trees rock eternally with a crashing sound.

And from their high summits,

one by one, drop everlasting dews.

And at the roots

strange poisonous flowers

lie writhing in perturbed slumber.

And overhead, with a rustling and loud noise,

the gray clouds rush westwardly forever,

until they roll, a cataract,

over the fiery wall of the horizon.

But there is no wind throughout the heaven.

And by the shores of the river Zaire

there is neither quiet nor silence.(3)

Poe’s announced poetic vision is not of such nightmare landscapes — in fact, it is directly antithetical. The poetic vision described in Poe’s essays is of an indefinitive, indescribable, supernal loveliness. The supernalist harmony of another world, however, is rarely captured in Poe’s poetry, though occasionally we have glimpses of its vague contours [page 5:] in Poe’s first two books Tamerlane (1827) and Al Aaraaf (1829), which comprise all save two of his earliest extant poems.(4) These two volumes are especially instructive in seeing the development, and the destruction, of the mythos of Poe’s poetic world. They are also instructive in placing Poe in the tradition of romantic poetry in both Europe and America.

Poe’s principal European models are Byron, Shelley, and Thomas Moore; and he stands out in America from the Emerson-Whitman school of romantic “ideal realism,” wherein the poet sees the physical world, the concrete “real,” as possessing within it, and as one with it, the spiritual.(5) Poe finds the physical world a prison-house, an impediment to attaining spirituality, a punishment. In this, he is more orthodoxly Christian than, say, Emerson, though his version of the Godhead is aesthetic, not moral. God, for Poe, lies in supernal beauty that transcends the concrete reality of the earthly. Both the supernalist and realist schools of poetry are “transcendental” — but in very different ways — and between these antipodes vibrates the major dynamic of romantic poetry in America.

Within this large dichotomy, there is another dichotomy in Poe’s writings, between the poetic theory and the rendered vision of the poems. Poe’s lecture at the end of his career on “The Poetic Principle” (1848), a summary of the theory he had been developing for twenty years, asserts that the “sense of the Beautiful” is an “immortal instinct” deep within the spirit of humankind and that the “Poetic Sentiment” is an innate desire to apprehend “supernal Loveliness.”(6) The idea that the “ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth” and that every poem should “inculcate a moral” he calls “the heresy of The Didactic” (XIV, 271). A poem conveys whatever “truth” it has through its art, through the poem experience itself. Nothing more dignified or supremely noble exists than a “poem written solely for the poem’s sake” (XIV, 272). Only in the “contemplation of the Beautiful” can we attain “elevation, or excitement of the soul” (XIV, 275; cf. 290). Poe ends with a catalogue of elements that induce the “true poetical effect” (XIV, 290), for which rhythm and song are essential. He moves from, first, the stars, through indefinite objects of nature, vague sights, indistinct smells, and gentle tactile sensations like wind, to the sense of the undiscovered, the distant, the unworldly, concluding with the beauty and love of woman (XIV, 290-91).

Within the poetry itself, as partially illustrated by the opening quotations, is another dichotomy — that between the gentler visionary dreamscapes and the nightmare landscape that rapidly comes to dominate [page 6:] the poetry as well as the tales. At the beginning of his career, Poe had attempted to write ideal poetry of supernal beauty and mystery — indistinct and dreamlike, out of space and out of time — though these early poems are suffused with romantic melancholy and contain the threat of the sinister. In “Al Aaraaf,” Poe evokes a mythic star world beyond earthly space and time.

O! nothing earthly save the ray

(Thrown back from flowers) of Beauty’s eye,

As in those gardens where the day

springs from gems of Circassy —

O! nothing earthly save the thrill

Of melody in woodland rill —

. . . .

O, nothing of the dross of —

Yet all the beauty — all the flowers

That list our Love, and deck our bowers —

Adorn yon world afar, afar —

The wandering star.

In the far star world of “Al Aaraaf,” poetic myths, banished from earthly realities, still have ethereal existence in an otherworldly mid-region, where all is initially counterpoised in static sleep before the call to awake comes from Ligeia, the spirit of harmony. In Part II of the poem, Poe attempts a delicate and indefinite dreamscape:

Young flowers were whispering in melody

To happy flowers that night — and tree to tree;

Fountains were gushing music as they fell

In many a star-lit grove, or moon-lit dell;

Yet silence came upon material things —

Fair flowers, bright waterfalls and angel wings —

And sound alone that from the spirit sprang

Bore burden to the charm the maiden sang:

“ ’Neath Blue-bell or streamer —

Or tufted wild spray

That keeps, from the dreamer,

The moonbeam away —

Bright beings! that ponder,

With half closing eyes,

On the stars which your wonder

Hath drawn from the skies,

Till they glance thro’ the shade, and

Come down to your brow

Like — eyes of the maiden

Who calls on you now — [page 7:]

Arise! from your dreaming

In violet bowers,

To duty beseeming

These star-litten hours —

And shake from your tresses

Encumbered with dew

The breath of those kisses

That cumber them too . . . .”(7)

This dreamy vision through “half closing eyes” of “star-lit grove” and “moon-lit dell,” of fountains “gushing music,” of “angel wings” and the dew-kissed tresses of a maiden, radically contrasts with the nightmare vision of the works just quoted. Yet these images are trite conventions of romantic verse. This part of the poem is not particularly successful in suggesting an ideal world of supernal beauty; characteristically, the more effective is the latter part of the poem, where the star world is annihilated.

But Poe will not, in theory, give up the concept of poetry as the vision (even if glimpsed merely) of supernal loveliness. He pushes the supernalist poetic to its limit in a review (1844) of R. H. Horne’s Orion. He writes that the aim of poetry is to exalt the sensitive reader’s soul into “a conception of pure beauty” by appealing to his

sentiment of the beautiful — that divine sixth sense which is yet so faintly understood — that sense which phrenology has attempted to embody in its organ of ideality — that sense which is basic of all Cousin’s dreams — that sense which speaks of God through his purest, if not his sole attribute — which proves, and which alone proves his existence.(8)

One might feel that poetry used as the only proof of God is taking the spirit of romanticism rather far, even though the romantic age made the poet tantamount to a god. But Poe puts a limitation on the divine powers of poesy.

In his early (1836) review of the poems of Joseph Rodman Drake’s The Culprit Fay and Fitzgreene Halleck’s Alnwick Castle, Poe remarks that poetry has an “intangible and purely spiritual nature” so ethereal that it cannot even be defined. It “refuses to be bound down within the widest horizon of mere sounds,” that is, of mere earth-bound words.(9) Yet, although poetry cannot be defined, it can be recognized:

If, indeed, there be any one circle of thought distinctly and palpably marked out from amid the jarring and tumultuous chaos of human intelligence, it is that evergreen and radiant Paradise which every true poet knows, and knows alone, as the limited realm of his authority — as the circumscribed Eden of his dreams (VIII, 281). [page 8:]

In what ways this “authority,” this “circle” of thought, this “horizon” of sounds, is “limited” and “circumscribed” is the question I wish to explore here in connection with the two kinds of dreams in Poe’s fictive world: the hellscape of the nightmare; and the evocative, indefinite visions of supernal loveliness in his earliest poems. I wish to reexamine the critically neglected first poems, especially those of the 1827 Tamerlane volume, and explore their congruence with the poetic theory variously enunciated over a twenty-year period and more. The visionary lyric impulse of Poe’s earliest poetry gives way rapidly to the dramatization of nightmare. But the theory remains the same, though refined and elaborated: Poetry is an expression of the religious instinct.

First, I shall discuss the features of the theory, the most salient of which is the idea of a transcendent supernal beauty just out of reach, glimpsed merely, by the earth-bound visionary poet struggling with some “ill demon” in himself or in nature. Second, I shall discuss each of the Tamerlane poems in sequence, commenting upon the limitations of the usual biographical readings of them, and arguing for a consistent development of a tension between visionary experience and a double limitation or circumscription of that experience. This tension generates the eventual triumph of the dark imagination in an evocation of the aesthetic process itself in the final poem. This poem is an icon of the nine shorter lyrics of the volume and a direct bridge to Poe’s second volume, Al Aaraaf, in which the sad celebration of the “dreaming” imagination gives way to the final nightmare of total annihilation.


In April, 1831, the New York publisher Elam Bliss brought out Poems by Edgar A. Poe, Second Edition. The volume has a critical prefatory essay, “Letter to Mr. —,” which begins “Dear B——,” probably an invented person, possibly his publisher, Bliss. This is Poe’s first critical statement; in it he states a poetic credo derived in part from Coleridge and, as well, unwittingly identifies what will be the major problems for a full comprehension of his poetry and poetics. These include an uncertain relation of the earthly to the unearthly; the disconcerting presence of flippancy, humor, satire, and irony; and an almost schizophrenic tension between the beautiful and terrifying.

A poem, Poe asserts, is opposed both to a work of science and to a work of romance. [page 9:]

A poem . . . is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.(10)

This particular passage is remarkable for its succinct setting forth of the concerns regarding the nature and function of poetry that will preoccupy Poe to the end of his life: the relation of the true to the aesthetic (pleasure); the implication of the possibility of an undercurrent of the true in the poetic (immediate vs. secondary object); the theory of the necessity for indefinite rather than definite (and therefore earthly) images; the distinction of prose from the poetry of words on the basis of its integration with the musical. Poe’s emphasis on music, as the most abstract and mathematical, the least earthbound of the arts, becomes more insistent in later essays. In addition to this abstract indefinitiveness, however, another element, also indefinite, but terrible rather than supernally beautiful, lurks in the background.

This other element emerges in a roundabout way in “Letter to B——” via, first, a humorous excoriation of Wordsworth, followed by contrastive praise of the fiery darkness of Coleridge. The polemic is quite revealing. Although Wordsworth in youth may have had “the feelings of a poet,” these now “have the appearance of a better day recollected” (VII, xxxix-xl). This remark is doubtless a jab at Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry in the preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800) as powerful feelings “recollected” in tranquillity. The “glimpses of extreme delicacy in his writings,” says Poe, “at best, are little evidence of present poetic fire.” The specific cause of this judgment is Wordsworth’s criticism of what Poet [[Poe]] regards as a beautiful passage in James MacPherson’s “Ossian” poem, Temora (1763). As will be evident in the discussion of the early poems that follows, Poe’s admiration for this passage is absolutely characteristic. Wordsworth, he says, objects to the beautiful beginning of the poem, where “ ‘The Blue waves of Ullin roll in light; the green hills are covered with day; trees shake their dusky heads in the breeze.’ And this — gorgeous, yet simple imagery, where all is alive and panting with immortality — this, William Wordsworth, the author of ‘Peter Bell,’ has selected for his contempt” (VII, xli, Poe’s italics). [page 10:]

Poe then pretends to select a passage from Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” in order to “see what better he, in his own person, has to offer” (VII, xli). Actually, Poe mangles Wordsworth, slightly misquoting, reversing and dropping lines so that mismatched phrases are jammed together:

“And now she’s at the pony’s head,

And now she’s at the pony’s tail,

On that side now, and now on this,

And almost stifled her with bliss —

A few sad tears does Betty shed,

She pats the pony where or when

She knows not: happy Betty Foy!

O Johnny! never mind the Doctor!”

The contrast with the ethereal supernaturalism of the landscape of the Ossian poems could hardly be greater. Poe follows with a second example, from Wordsworth’s “The Pet Lamb,” adding dashes at the wrong places to make the verses look absurd as well as simple-minded. He comments that “no doubt” the description of the lamb tethered to a stone “is all true; we will believe it, we will, Mr. W. Is it sympathy for sheep you wish to excite? I love a sheep from the bottom of my heart . . .” (Poe’s ellipsis).

After this mild sarcasm, Poe lapses into heavy ridicule, conceding, ironically, that “there are occasions, dear B——, there are occasions when even Wordsworth is reasonable,” as in the following extract (with Poe’s interpolations) from the preface to Lyrical Ballads:

“Those who have been accustomed to the phraseology of modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to a conclusion (impossible!) will, no doubt, have to struggle with some feelings of awkwardness; (ha! ha! ha!) they will look round for poetry (ha! ha! ha! ha!) and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts have been permitted to assume that title.” Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! (VII, xlii).

He then contrasts Wordsworth with Coleridge, of whom, despite his unfortunate immersion in metaphysics, Poe “cannot speak but with reverence. His towering intellect! His gigantic power! . . . In reading his poetry, I tremble, like one who stands upon a volcano, conscious, from the very darkness bursting from the crater, of the fire and the light that are weltering below” (VI, xlii). This disturbing sense of a fiery and awesome power struggling to emerge from the darkness parallels to a degree the “ill demon” of the visionary poet of the Tamerlane poems, which becomes an interior limitation on the attainment of a full vision of [page 11:] supernal beauty. This ill demon, moreover, seems to be connected with the general inability of humankind to perceive the supernal directly. In “The Poetic Principle,” the section on man’s immortal instinct and unquenchable thirst for beauty above ends with a lament over “our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses” (XI V, 274).

Another facet of the circumscription of the poet’s power is the paradox that the poet’s limitation is also his source of inspiration, as he emulates the indefinitive in an effort to capture the very indistinctness of his dream visions. The problem of the poet is to evoke the indefinite through earthbound words that by their earthly nature are too definite. Poe’s Marginalia note on Tennyson (1844) clearly articulates the paradox. He proposes that, whether on a conscious level or not, Tennyson seeks from profound poetic instinct (“the silent analytical promptings of . . . poetic genius”) a “suggestive indefinitiveness of meaning, with the view of bringing about a definitiveness of vague and therefore of spiritual effect” (XVI, 28). True poetry is musical, ethereal, dreamlike, as delicate as the “breath” of “faery”; it “floats” upon the “atmosphere” of the “mystic.”

I know that indefinitiveness is an element of the true music — I mean of the true musical expression. Give to it any undue decision — imbue it with any very determinate tone — and you deprive it, at once, of its ethereal, its ideal, its intrinsic and essential character. You dispel its luxury of dream. You dissolve the atmosphere of the mystic upon which it floats. You exhaust it of its breath of faery. It now becomes a tangible and easily appreciable idea — a thing of the earth, earthy. It has not, indeed, lost its power to please, but all which I consider the distinctiveness of that power (XVI, 29).

Despite the disconcerting word play on “distinctiveness” in the last sentence, the statement is clear and definite about indefiniteness and perfectly consistent with “Letter to B——” thirteen years before. True poetry is other-worldly; the poet suggests the mystical by the least coarse of earthly matter. The implicit sense of a continuum between coarse matter, refined matter, and rarification toward atmosphere will later be more fully developed, altering to a degree Poe’s sense of duality.(11)

The problem of the relation of the mystical (or supernatural conceived as the “divine”) with the earthly (or natural conceived as the physical) is in fact given fuller development in the same section of “The Poetic Principle” we have already had recourse to. The “immortal instinct” of the beautiful “administers” to man’s “delight in the manifold [page 12:] forms, and sounds, and odours, and sentiments amid which he exists” (XIV, 273). Poe is consistent (or predictable) in his choice of earthly objects. The impalpable is emphasized — sounds and odors — surrounded by abstract “forms” and “sentiments.” There is no sense of touch, weight, pressure, heft — no gravity. Such a choice of objects is hardly the ideal “realism” of Wordsworth or Emerson, much less the revelling in the physical of Whitman.

To release the poetic even further from the earthly, Poe also rejects conventional concepts of truth and morality as legitimate objects of poetry, leaving only the aesthetic, if not solely in and for itself, as that which stands closest to the angelic. Much of the theory of “The Poetic Principle” had been outlined years before in practical reviews of new books, notably in his two-part review (1842) of Longfellow’s Ballads and Other Poems, where Poe vigorously attacks the mob conception of poetry as truthful or moral. Poe claims that Longfellow’s “conception of the aims of poesy is all wrong . . . . His didactics are all out of place” (XI, 67). The “general tendency” of Longfellow’s poems suggests that “he regards the inculcation of a moral as essential,” though there are some “magnificent exceptions, where, as if by accident, he has permitted his genius to get the better of his conventional prejudice” (XI, 69). Longfellow’s “invention, his imagery, his all, is made subservient to the elucidation of one or more points (but rarely of more than one) which he looks upon as truth.” For Longfellow, morality is truth; for Poe, it is a non-poetic conception. He suggests that one cannot “reconcile the difference between the obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth” (XI, 70), a position that he will modify, to a degree, later.

As in “The Poetic Principle,” between the “intellect” and the “moral sense” Poe places “taste.” Aesthetic taste mediates between truth and moral duty — the paradigm of Immanuel Kant in the introductory section of The Critique of Judgment (1793).(12) But while Kant’s notion of aesthetic judgment is abstract and austere, for Poe taste as the divine “sense of the Beautiful” is a “thirst unquenchable” that belongs to “the immortal essence of man’s nature” as a “consequence and an indication of his perennial life” (XI, 7.1). Echoing Shelley, Poe says that this “burning thirst” is not “the mere appreciation of the beauty before us, “but is instead “the desire of the moth for the star” (XI, 71-72). “It is a wild effort to reach the beauty above. It is a forethought of the loveliness to come. It is a passion to be satiated by no sublunary sights, or sounds, or sentiments, and the soul thus athirst strives to allay its fever in futile efforts at creation” (XI, 72). [page 13:]

This striving of the earthbound, unsatisfied soul of man is what gives birth to poetry. “Poesy is thus seen to be a response — unsatisfactory it is true . . . to a natural and irrepressible demand” (XI, 73) that is “inspired with a prescient ecstasy of the beauty beyond the grave.” Poetry “struggles by multiform combination among the things and thoughts of Time, to anticipate some portion of the loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain solely to Eternity” (XI, 72). These remarks are not only another statement of the circumscription of the earthly poet imprisoned in time, struggling to suggest the timeless. They also constitute a definitive statement of the indefinitive supernalist vision of the Godhead: it is not true, not moral, but aesthetic.

“Novelty,” as that which departs from earthly norms, approximates, in its very divergence from existing time-bound, space-bound forms, the release from earthly constraints anticipated in the eternal. “Novelty” results from a creative act of imagination. Novel combinations in poetry attempt to satisfy the unsatisfiable human “thirst for supernal Beauty . . . not offered the soul by any existing collocation of earth’s forms . . .” (XI, 73).

According to Poe, the two chief “attributes” of all definitions of poetry are “Creation” and “Beauty.” The poet “creates” the “beautiful” by constructing a novel “fiction,” as expressed by “the German terms Dichtkunst, the art of fiction, and Dichten, to feign” (XI, 74). Although the emulation of physical entities here on earth is a source of delight to human beings, mere mimetic “repetition” of them does not produce poetry. In a passage that he also uses elsewhere than in “The Poetic Principle,” Poe writes:

. . . just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colours, and odours, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odours, and colours, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind . . . has yet failed to prove his divine title (XIV, 273).

This sounds suspiciously like an anti-romantic manifesto, at least as romanticism is conceived by Wordsworth, Emerson, and later Whitman. Poe seems implicitly to share Emerson’s concept of art as nature intermixed with man’s purposiveness,(13) but Poe’s true poet is set far above ordinary humanity as an elitist seer of the “divine” beyond this world: out of space — out of time. For Poe, it is in the very “struggle” to [page 14:] reach the beauty beyond that we “sense” true poetry, knowing all the while that the effort cannot ultimately be completed by the earth-imprisoned poet.

In these struggles of the soul to achieve novel combinations, it is “not impossible that a harp may strike notes not unfamiliar to the angels” (XI, 75). The metaphor of music, though conventional, is crucial. The “highest possible development of the Poetical Sentiment is to be found in the union of song with music,” as the “old Bards and Minnesingers” understood. That is, although music most nearly approaches unearthly ideal beauty, it needs the addition of words to become Poesy (as Poe says in “Letter to B——”) and satisfy the urgings of the divine in the Poetical Sentiment. Sounds, odors, colors — the least tangible physical attributes — are joined with human “sentiment” in a creative fiction of the imagination. As perception is augmented by words, so words are augmented by the loveliness of music. The “Poetry of words” is not mere combinations of known mimetic forms, but the recreation of forms by the godlike aesthetic imagination of the poet attuned to melody, measure, quantity, accent, rhythm. Poetry is thus “the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” (XI, 75; cf. “Poetic Principle,” XIV, 275).

In this emphasis on the rhythmical, Poe not only hammers home the point that poetry has nothing intrinsically to do with truth or duty. He also establishes the ground for the integration of his poetics with the metaphysics of his philosophical essay on the universe, Eureka. This booklength prose essay, published 1848, the same year as “The Poetic Principle,” Poe calls a “poem” which is (nevertheless) true because the fiction of the universe is beautiful. In this way, and only in this way, can the obstinate oils and waters be reconciled. In the preface Poe writes: “. . . I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true” (XVI, 183). The essay is offered to “the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as the only realities.” To them he presents “the composition as an Art-Product alone: — let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem.” Nevertheless, “What I here propound is true . . . .” Whether Poe would accept Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth Beauty” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” 1820) is uncertain, but he concludes the preface by the reassertion that even though true “it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead.”

In Eureka, Poe proposes a monism that seems at variance with the apparent dualism of his early writings. The created universe is composed entirely of matter, extending outward toward the Godhead in [page 15:] infinite gradations of increasingly rarified matter. This conception has important implications for Poe’s ideas about imagination, fancy, novelty, ideality. Moreover, although for Poe spirit is finally matter, it is by no means clear that the reverse is true; the old dualism between the earthly and the supernal to the earthly remains, the two ingeniously, if not logically, reconciled. Poe’s material spiritualism shares few properties with Whitman’s spiritual materialism.

The mythos of Poe’s “poem” is that of a pulsating universe, alternately swelling into existence and collapsing into nothingness in an eternal cycle of creation and annihilation. This divine pulsation he likens to the systole and diastole of earthly organisms: it is a rhythmic cycle that is the divine “heart throb” of the cosmos. The poet’s rhythmical creation of beauty on earth lifts the earthly from the mundane as he emulates this vast abstract cosmic rhythm.

The problem of the visionary earth-bound poet, seeking to suggest the intangibility of the other world and to achieve harmony with the cosmic rhythm, is clearly dramatized in Poe’s early poem, “Israfel” (1831). The angel sings “so wildly well” that the stars and the moon cease their celestial “hymns” and listen “all mute” to Israfel. He has an advantage over the earthly poet, for he dwells in heaven, whereas in this world:

Our flowers are merely — flowers,

And the shadow of thy perfect bliss

Is the sunshine of ours.

But if the earthly poet could dwell

Where Israfel

Hath dwelt, and he where I,

He might not sing so wildly well

A mortal melody,

While a bolder note than this might swell

From my lyre within the sky.(14)

We can see why writers like Drake and Halleck do not seem truly poetical to Poe. They are too earthbound, too “fanciful” merely, not “imaginative” enough; they fail in their mechanical combinations to suggest the mystical, the ideal. In that earlier review, Poe parodies Drake’s attempt to “accoutre a fairy” by rewriting several lines in which he mechanically substitutes different animal and plant metaphors, one-for-one, with those of Drake’s “Culprit Fay,” concluding that “the only requisite for writing verses of this nature, ad libitum, is a tolerable acquaintance with the qualities of the objects to be detailed, and a very moderate endowment of the faculty of Comparison — which is the chief [page 16:] constituent of Fancy or the powers of combination” (VIII, 293-295). The difference between the poems of Drake and Halleck and those poems that are truly poetic, such as Shelley’s Queen Mab, Coleridge’s Christabel, Milton’s Comus, Dante’s Inferno, is the difference between mere “Fancy” and true “Imagination.”(15) Imagination, Poe writes with Shelley in mind, is the “soul” of poetry and springs “from the brain of the poet, enveloped in the moral sentiments of grace, of color, of motion — of the mystical, of the august — in short of the ideal” (VIII, 301).

Moreover, just as conventional concepts of truth and virtue are excluded from Poe’s poetic, so also are passionate emotions. Agreeing with what he takes Coleridge’s position to be, Poe writes that the poetic imagination may modify, exalt, enflame, purify, or control “the passions of mankind,” but in poetry there is no “inevitable” or “necessary co-existence” of true imagination and the passions. The passions are earthly, while poetry is spiritual. Just as truths are not the main object of poetry, neither is emotion. Only if beauty is the main object can truth enter in. So also the only worthwhile “passion” is the divine passion of poetry, abstract, intellectual, rarified, unearthly.(16) Poe has apparently rejected all the major theories of the nature and function of poetry (or beauty) except the abstract idealism of Immanuel Kant, which he tries to take even farther into the infinite and divine.

Poe uses two phrenological terms to get at the essence of true poetry. The functions of “Veneration” and “Ideality” both point to some power or realm superior to our present earthly condition. Poetry, he says, is “the sentiment of Intellectual Happiness” on earth and “the Hope of a higher Intellectual Happiness hereafter,” and he singles out Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (1817) as the poem most nearly describing these aspirations and possessing such ideality (VIII, 282-283). The poem, in fact, provides a gloss on Poe’s theory of poetry as well as on many of his early poems. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” opens with an indefinite landscape upon which “floats” a mysterious “unseen Power.” The imagery is of shadow, moonbeam, flower, wind, waterspray, and distant mountain:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power

Floats unseen among us, — visiting

This various world with as inconstant wing

As summer winds that creep from flower to flower, —

Like moonbeams . . . behind some piny mountain shower . . . .(17)

This power on “inconstant wing” is perceived only fleetingly:

It visits with inconstant glance

Each human heart and countenance . . . .

(ll. 6-7) [page 17:]

It is indistinct (the hue of evening harmony, clouds in starlight, the memory of music no longer heard) and “dearer” for that mysterious indistinctness:

Like hues and harmonies of evening, —

Like clouds in starlight widely spred, —

Like memory of music fled, —

Like aught that for its grace may be

Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

(ll. 8-12)

This “Power turns out to be the “Spirit of Beauty,” which passes away and leaves humankind hopeless:

Spirit of Beauty . . .

. . . .

— where art thou gone?

Why dost thee pass away and leave our state,

This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?

(ll. 13, 15-17)

For only:

Thy light alone — like mist o’er mountains driven,

Or music by the night-wind sent

Through strains of some still instrument,

Or moonlight on a midnight stream,

Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.

(ll. 32-36)

Poe’s poetic vision is all here: the light of beauty alone gives meaning to the “dream” of life, but it is fleeting and intangible, like mist on the mountains, like the nightwind’s music, like moonlight on water.

At the same time that Poe values indefiniteness and ideality, he also insists on a logical pre-established pattern for the whole work, as in his explanation in “The Philosophy of Composition” of the step-by-step ratiocination by which he constructed “The Raven.” His concept of “unity or totality of effect” (after Schlegel) is noticeably geometrical and mathematical. In 1849, in an expansion of his essay on “Song Writing” ten years before, Poe links the ethereal, dreamlike sense of indefinitiveness in poetry not only with “melody,” but also with the mathematical measurement of music.(18) He even goes so far as to assert that mathematical equality is the root of all beauty, ideas also elaborated in “The Rationale of Verse,” and related to the technique of incantatory repetition to achieve the hypnagogic. As elsewhere, for Poe, the most abstract, the least earthbound, the most purely formal relationship (even to the mechanics of ratio) is identified with the spiritual. Like his basic understanding of the relation of intellect, aesthetic judgment, and morality, [page 18:] Poe’s concept of such pure formal relationship without reference to natural forms is culled from Immanuel Kant, who names it the “arabesque.”(19)

But this carefully pre-planned organization toward an arabesque effect in a poem operates hidden behind indefinitiveness. Once again, the paradoxical problem is to emulate the indefinite vision by definite earthbound means to give the effect of the spiritual. The design of a poem is not in itself spiritual; but pure logical design is at least a step away from earthly circumscription. It is clear in this context why overt didacticism and the use of allegory destroy, for Poe, the poetic quality of the poem: allegory is too heavy-handed, too definite and fixed, too this-worldly. Rather, a truly poetical work will have a mystical “undercurrent” of suggestivity.

By the 1840’s, Poe’s poetic theory had begun to develop in a slightly new direction under the influence of his developing monist philosophy. He had become troubled about the relation of the moral, the imaginative, and the true — or more concretely, about the relation between the poet’s actual “creativity,” his perception of the good, and his working with the actual materials of nature — the givens of the earthly. Some major modifications of his earliest critical positions begin to manifest themselves, though the supernalist aesthetic still dominates. In the Longfellow review cited earlier, Poe suggests that poetry can in fact “inculcate a moral” if handled with a sense of proportion: that is, the didactic element must not override the aesthetic. When the moral dominates the aesthetic, as in most of Longfellow’s works and in most contemporary American poetry, it is a “heresy” against art (and therefore against the divine). The inversion of the usual connotations of “heresy” here is acute, resulting in the memorable phrase “the heresy of The Didactic.” The implicit distinction in “Letter to B——” between an immediate object and a secondary one now becomes a distinction between “the truthful and the poetical modes” of inculcating a moral (XI, 70). The true can only occur through the poetical as an “undercurrent.”

Poe’s concept of the proper function of an “undercurrent” of meaning in a poem, its relation to the “mystic” and to “imagination,” is developed at some length in his 1840 review of Thomas Moore’s Alciphron. Revising his earlier opinion in his Drake-Halleck review, he now criticizes Coleridge’s distinction in the Biographia Literaria between “Fancy” and “Imagination” (“the fancy combines, the imagination creates”). Poe defines a “mystic” work according to the concept of “Augustus William Schlegel, and of most other German critics.” It is [page 19:] “that class of composition in which there lies beneath the transparent upper current of meaning an under or suggestive one. What we vaguely term the moral of any sentiment is its mystic or secondary expression.” It is like “accompaniment in music” that “spiritualizes the fanciful conception, and lifts it into the ideal” (X, 65).

The earthbound artist patiently combines, by logic and laborious attention to detail, in order to create a work suggesting the ideal. Therefore Poe disputes Coleridge’s distinction between the lower faculty of Fancy and the higher of Imagination. It is, Poe says, a distinction “without a difference.” Neither really creates. “All novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations.” A griffin or a sphynx, for example, is a compendium of limbs and features from known animals. In a way, this contention is consistent with his criticism of Drake in 1836, where he substitutes different parts for Drake’s metaphors of leaves, acorns, and so on for his fairy knight’s shield, clothing, and spear. Poe now claims that the imagination is fancy “loftily employed; it is a matter of degree only.

The new definition of imagination as fancy loftily employed may at first seem inconsistent with his contention two years later in the Longfellow review that the true music of supernal beauty is not formed by an “existing collocation of earth’s forms.” The key is in the word “existing.” Neither in the Longfellow nor in the Moore review does Poe say that the poet employs “nothing earthly” — rather, that the poet re-shapes, re-combines, the “existing forms,” transmutes them through his creative imagination (or high fancy). The new definition of imagination reflects the developing monism that results in Eureka, but Poe cannot give up the old sense of the dualistic split between the earthly and the supernal. Moreover, whereas once the struggling and striving seemed to Poe to give rise to the true poetical music, now his sense of the final futility of striving for the supernal intensifies. In the Alciphron review, he argues that vague loftiness of fancy will lift the work into the ideal by haunting suggestions of something just out of reach: “With each note of the lyre is heard a ghostly, and not always a distinct, but an august and soul-exalting echo. In every glimpse of beauty presented, we catch, through long and wild vistas, dim bewildering visions of a far more ethereal beauty beyond” (X, 66). The sense of bewilderment is present from the very first poems, but it has grown stronger. The image of the supernal through long and wild vistas, with a very slight altering perspective, could be seen, not as positive, but as negative, as infinite regress. In fact, such a shift had already taken place, as we shall see, in the poems. [page 20:]

Another philosophically troublesome area for Poe in the 1840’s is the question of how the earthbound poet can transfer the glimpses of supernal beauty to earthbound language, the dream vision to conscious rational analysis. Poe’s resolution to this problem is also ingenious, derived from certain theories of the German natural idealists; at the same time, we find an undercurrent suggesting another version of infinite regress. In a Marginalia note of 1846, Poe writes:

I do not believe that any thought, properly so called, is out of the reach of language . . . For my own part, I have never had a thought which I could not set down in words, with even more distinctiveness than that with which I conceived it . . . the thought is logicalized by the effort at (written) expression.

There is, however, a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt language. I use the word fancies at random, and merely because I must use some word; but the idea commonly attached to the term is not even remotely applicable to the shadows of shadows in question. They seem to me rather psychal than intellectual. They arise in the soul (alas, now rarely!) only at its epochs of most intense tranquility . . . at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these “fancies” only when I am upon the very brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so. I have satisfied myself that this condition exists but for an inappreciable point of time — yet it is crowded with these “shadows of shadows”; and for absolute thought there is demanded time’s endurance.

. . . I regard the visions, even as they arise, with an awe which, in some measure, moderates or tranquilizes the ecstasy — I so regard them, through a conviction (which seems a portion of the ecstasy itself) that this ecstasy, in itself, is of a character supernal to the Human Nature — is a glimpse of the spirit’s outer world . . . (XVI, 88-89).

Such a conception of dreamvisions was widespread in Europe, where poets like Novalis spoke of a condition of “involuntariness,” a psychic, hypnagogic limbo or trance state: the half-conscious mind is open to the subconscious (the gate to the supernal), thus making its mystic perceptions available to the conscious mind.

Adverting again to the concept of novelty as suggestive of the unearthly, Poe suggests that such perception is an “instantaneous intuition” generated by the “absoluteness of novelty” in “psychal impressions” which no ordinary worldly impressions can even “approximate.” [page 21:] “It is as if the five senses were supplanted by five myriad others alien to mortality” (XVI, 89). The poet seeks to control this state of perception, to “prevent the lapse from . . . the point of blending between wakefulness and sleep . . . from this border-ground into the dominion of sleep.” Subsequently, Poe writes, “I can startle myself from the point into wakefulness — and thus transfer the point itself into the realm of Memory — convey its impressions, or more properly their recollections, to a situation where (although still for a very brief period) I can survey them with the eye of analysis” (XVI, 90).

Therefore, he does “not altogether despair of embodying in words at least enough of the fancies in question to convey, to certain classes of intellect, a shadowy conception of their character.” This is the reason that he can say in the same essay that “so entire is my faith in the power of words, that, at times, I have believed it possible to embody even the evanescence of fancies such as I have attempted to describe” (XVI, 89). And this is the reason that the supernal, even the Godhead itself, is revealed to ordinary men through poetry, and through poetry alone.(20) Poe concludes rather wryly with the implication that the poet of words is separate from ordinary human beings — a seer — by disclaiming to be able to judge whether or not the dream visions given to him are common to others. He knows merely that he has had such visions and hopes that one day he will be able to catch them in words.

But it is all still shadow-upon-shadow. The vision vouchsafed the earthly poet is rather dim. Poe’s concept of the shadow-of-a-shadow vision is like the Platonic theory of copies. But it is even more like the concept of veiled reality of the ancient Egyptians and Hebrews. He who would look beneath the veil of Isis and see reality face to face is driven mad. In I Corinthians 13:12, we have the more hopeful Christian version: “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. The limbo state of half-vision is described in “Dream-Land.” The traveller through Dream-Land:

May not — dare not openly view it;

Never its mysteries are exposed

To the weak human eye unclosed;

So wills its King, who hath forbid

The lifting of the fringed lid;

And thus the sad soul that here passes

Beholds it but through darkened glasses.

Not only is human vision, even that of a poetic seer, dim; but also there is something dangerous in trying openly to view in dreams that other world. [page 22:]


The visionary spirit who would lift the veil were wise to look through darkened glass or with half-closed eye. Visions of the Other are purchased dearly. Mere mortals must be careful. Yet for the visionary, who wants to see clearly, this dim vision is agony. The Tamerlane poems present just such half-vision and just such a visionary paradox.

Poe’s combination of mystical world-weariness in the figure of one of superior but dark vision in the early poems is blatantly Byronic. In Manfred (1816-17), for example, we read:

From my youth upwards

My Spirit walked not with the souls of men,

Nor looked upon the earth with human eyes;

The thirst of their ambition was not mine,

The aim of their existence was not mine;

My joys — my griefs — my passions — and my powers,

Made me a stranger.(21)

But this picture of the visionary set apart from ordinary mortals owes as much to Shelley, whose “Sonnet,” known as “Lift Not the Painted Veil” (written 1818, pub. 1824), provides an example of the romantic veil trope and as well provides a gloss on Poe’s Tamerlane figure, whose presence is felt not only in the title poem but also in the nine shorter lyrics of the volume.(22) The principal elements of Poe’s Tamerlane are given concise embodiment in Shelley’s poem:

Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread, — behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.

I knew one who had lifted it — he sought,

For his lost heart was tender, things to love,

But found them not, alas! nor was there aught

The world contains, the which he could approve.

Through the unheeding many he did move,

A splendour among shadows, a bright blot

Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove

For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

(ML, p. 201)

The sense of unreality, the two opposite poles of human destiny (fear and hope), the solitary superior spirit among the many, searching futilely for love and truth, all inform the principal persona of Poe’s volume. [page 23:]

The major themes of Tamerlane involve loss: lost joy, lost love, lost purity, and lost visionary experience of youth. The loss motif is coupled with desire for unworldly dreaming as a refuge from pain, dull reality, or the dimming of the inner vision; with scorn for one’s own worldly pride and ambition; with an indefinite sense of some higher truth and purity residing beyond this world in the realm of the far stars. Hovering about all existence is a vague sinister threat — some “ill demon” — in nature, in the mind, in both.

The title poem comprises slightly more than half the volume. It is a dramatic monologue addressed to a “holy friar” by a dying Mongol conqueror. Having years earlier left his childhood love to pursue his “Ambition,” he has now returned to his village to discover her dead and childhood’s dream flown. Most critics have found it hard to resist drawing direct biographical parallels with Poe’s circumstances at the time, such as his own ambitious pride that caused him so much trouble with John Allan and especially the loss of his “betrothed” — or so he thought — Sarah Elmira Royster. The poem has been persistently under-read, and not only by biographical reductionists. “Tamerlane” has several currents and undercurrents that reflect the specifically literary conventions of romanticism. At its core, the poem is not biographical. It is an apprenticeship imitation of pessimistic romantic poetry, a compendium of conventions drawn from the poetry of mutability in the eighteenth century, from Wordsworth (despite all Poe’s ridicule of him), from Moore, from Shelley, and from Byron.

One rather curious feature of this heavily literary ambiance is the more-or-less Byronic humor in Poe’s employment of what were then the popular conventions of notes and prefaces to volumes of poetry. At the same time that a serious world-weary tone is maintained throughout the main text, a detached, semi-ironic attitude emerges in the notes. In the first note, the “author” addresses the problem of how to account for giving the Tartar conqueror “ ‘a friar,’ as a death-bed confessor.” But Tamerlane “wanted some one to listen to his tale — and why not a friar?” It is, Poe says in a jocular barb aimed at Thomas Moore, “quite sufficient for my purposes,” and there are poetic precedents for such anomalous “innovations.”(23) In the third note, in part defending the use of the word “seraph,” Poe playfully writes: “I must beg the reader’s pardon for making Tamerlane, a Tartar of the fourteenth century, speak in the same language as a Boston gentleman of the nineteenth: but of the Tartar mythology we have little information” (I, 31). The strategem of such notes calls attention to the fictionality of the poem and the fact that [page 24:] it is a poetic creation by “authorship.”

In the preface, Poe states that the “greater part of the Poems which compose this little volume, were written in the year 1821-2, when the author had not completed his fourteenth year.” He adds, wryly, that the poems “savour too much of Egotism” because the author has so little experience of the world that he has to write from his own heart. But he disdains to “correct” the many faults of these youthful productions, despite the practice of his predecessors in poetry, and “amend them in his old age.” The eighteen-year-old poet is obviously having some ironic fun here, and the preface is the first of many half-tongue-in-cheek statements about himself and his work. Perhaps these frames around “Tamerlane” are the defense strategems of a newly published author worried about negative criticism. How thoroughly ironic or fully detached from these first poems Poe was cannot be determined, but the editorial frame does suggest at least a degree of bemused Byronic distance in his earliest writings. The problem of humorous and ironic elements in Poe’s poetry has not received much attention; and these elements become increasingly important with each succeeding volume.

Familiarity with the conventions of romantic poetry helps to counter another reductionist reading of “Tamerlane,” namely, that the overriding theme of the poem is the curse of ambition.(24) I suggest that the ambition motif is instead primarily a dramatic device to convey and heighten the bittersweet melancholy of the agonized visionary. Representative of the theme of visionary agony is Canto III, where Tamerlane says, of the beautiful mountains “mists” and “dews,” that his “brain drank their venom” (1. 41). This imbibing of pain from beauty is not only a typically Byronic motif, but also a thematic introduction of the sinister (“unhallow’d”) element that the visionary dreamer has to contend with.

For, with the mountain dew by night,

My soul imbib’d unhallow’d feeling;

And I would feel its essence stealing

In dreams upon me . . . .

(ll. 46-49)

It is certainly striking that the admirer of the landscape of MacPherson’s Temora — with its dusk and mist upon the mountains — should in his first major poem create a “visionary,” who, revelling in the misty vistas of the Targlay mountains, yet comes to “hate the ev’ning mist” because it is in fact “so often lovely” (Canto XVI; discussed below). [page 25:]

As first described, Tamerlane’s “vision” is conventional, seemingly the desire for worldly success, but it modifies in the middle of the poem, in Canto VIII, to something rather occult. As early as Canto II, Tamerlane says that he has inherited shame, “the hated portion” of worldly glory, and that it has shone “a demon-light around my throne” (ll. 23-27). This “demon” light goes deeper than mere ambition. The undercurrent of the poem emerges from the unearthly, visionary dream that sets Tamerlane apart from other mortals; this is his curse.(25) In Canto IV, he tells of falling asleep as the mountian mists turn to rain and as light flashes from a hovering cloud. He dreams of the earthly laurels of conquest. In an inversion of convention (but in emulation of Byronic convention), it has been the storm that has “cradled” him to sleep (l. 71); and as the storm ceases, Tamerlane awakes.

And as it pass’d me by, there broke

Strange light upon me, tho’ it were

My soul in mystery to steep . . . .

(ll. 72-74)

The “strange light,” like the image of the sudden breaking of a harp string in other of the Tamerlane poems, is a “token” of the mystical experience, in sleep, during the storm. This experience, whatever it is exactly, alters his simple child’s heart.

For I was not as I had been;

The child of Nature, without care,

Or thought, save of the passing scene. —

(ll. 75-77)

One way he has altered is that mundane “passions” have usurped his innocence and tenderness. He claims that other men have mistaken his “innate nature” because of his worldly conquests and attributed to him an “iron heart.” Actually, he says, he is as tender as a woman; and in his youth there was “one” who saw, even when his passions burned most intense, the central tenderness of his nature (ll. 80-87). This “one,” we eventually learn, is named Ada (unnamed in later versions).

Here begins a lengthy development in the poem of the dual concept of passion as good and evil, pure and impure, each associated with the imagery of fire. In Canto VI, Tamerlane says that he feels he has lost heaven for the passion of ambition (l. 107); this worldly passion has destroyed the pure passion of innocent love. In youth, his love for “her” was a pure passion that “angel minds above / Might envy” (ll. 112-113 j cf. “Annabel Lee,” 1849). He asks himself why he left the sinless “shrine” of “her young heart”: and instead determined to “Trust the fickle star within” (ll. 114-119) when he “saw no Heav’n, but in her [page 26:] eyes” (l. 125). The conventional shrine metaphor will shortly become an allusion to the altar fire of the goddess of “virtuous” love. The star within in Canto VII of Tamerlane will become a recurrent image of a star without, in the skies, or apparently so, in the shorter lyrics of the volume, though what is within and what without is the persistent question of the volume.

The distinction of the two passions continues in Canto VIII, one of the most interesting in the poem for its odd assortment of subject matter and tone: depth of self-pity on Tamerlane’s part, undercutting humor on “Poe’s” part, and description of visionary experience that actually foregrounds a theme of epistemological anxiety. It is at the very point when Tamerlane bewails his having given in to ambition (ll. 145-149), when “no purer thought/ Dwelt in a seraph’s breast” and no purer love was his to have, that Poe sticks in the jarring note on Boston gentlemen and Tartar mythology (l. 152). Tamerlane’s pure passion Poe describes in images of fire, which he associates with the “imaginary altar” of the “deity presiding over virtuous love.” Upon this altar “a sacred fire was continually blazing” (I, 3l, n. 4 to l. 156), imagery which prepares an indirect transition to the fire imagery of the “divine” love immediately following (ll. 153-158). As mentioned, such imagery is elsewhere in the poem negatively associated with ambition, as in Canto IX, where Tamerlane speaks of the “fiery passion” of his pride (ll. 203-204). Here, however, the pure love of Tamerlane and the girl produces a “mystic flame”:

For passionate love is still divine:

I loved her as an angel might

With ray of all the living light

Which blazes upon Edis’ shrine.

(ll. 153-156)

In this pure love, Tamerlane “felt not” the world’s “share of pain” (ll. 159-164); in fact, he says he had no real existence except in his passion for her. For in that period of youthful, pure love, the world was visionary. All was an undefined delight of bright and happy beauty. He felt joy in its:

. . . bodied forms

Of varied being, which contain

The bodiless spirits of the storms,

The sunshine, and the calm — the ideal

And fleeting vanities of dreams,

Fearfully beautiful! the real

Nothings of mid-day waking life —

Of an enchanted life, which seems, [page 27:]

Now as I look back, the strife

Of some ill demon . . . .

(ll. 164-173)

The “fearfully beautiful,” visionary experience, twisted by Tamerlane into worldly ambition, is ultimately and doubly a curse — the promptings of this “ill demon.” Subsequently, all that Tamerlane felt or saw or thought became confused with memories of her “unearthly beauty” in a waking dream of joy departed.

After some initial imagery in Canto X of the “crown” of a high mountain, which looks down “Afar from its proud towers / Of rock and forest” on the “dwindled hills,” Tamerlane says that he

. . . spoke to her of power and pride —

But mystically, in such guise,

That she might deem it naught beside

The moment’s converse . . . .

(ll. 224-227)


. . . in her eyes

I read (perhaps too carelessly)

A mingled feeling with my own . . . .

(ll. 227-229)

Tamerlane had thought that “the flush on her bright cheek” would “become a queenly throne” (l. 231), and it was in that cursed hour that the thought of leaving her came to him, almost as an act of perversity: to “follow my high fate,” to “gain an empire,” and to “throw down / As nuptial dowery — a queen’s crown . . .” (ll. 237-244).

The next seventy-one lines (a third of Canto XI; all of Cantos XII-XIV) were dropped in the second publication of the poem. In these omitted verses, Tamerlane tells how he planned to deceive Ada by telling her that he was going on a “feigned” journey, that is, one of short duration. As he travelled, he says, he mused on an earthly “agony,” which, though “ideal,” may still be the “worst ill” of earthly “mortality.” For the visionary spirit, earthly “bliss, in its own reality,” is:

Too real, to his breast who lives

Not within himself but gives

A portion of his willing soul

To God, and to the great whole —

To him, whose living spirit will dwell

With Nature, in her wild paths, tell

Of her wond’rous ways, and telling bless

Her overpowering loveliness!

(ll. 306-314) [page 28:]

To such sensitive visionary spirits the very beauty of nature is an agony because it is finally less than the vision of the seer. Natural beauty is “a more than agony” to Tamerlane, whose “failing sight will grow dim” with its gaze upon “that loveliness around”: the sun, the sky, the misty light of a pale cloud. Although everything looks “all bright,” it is yet “Dim!” (ll. 315-324).

This paradox of “dim” vision proceeding from a more intense inner vision amidst the “bright” images of earth Tamerlane explains as “flight on Earth to Fancy giv’n,” for which “There are no words — unless of Heav’n” (ll. 322-326). The natural images of beauty cause the visionary’s mind to see beyond the earthly with the power of imagination; and the words needed to describe the vision of supernal beauty can only be those of God. The vision of so much more than what the earth can give, in and of itself, does not last but grows instantly dim. The mighty world conqueror cannot rest easy in this world because it is inadequate to his vision, but his vision fails. Such is the paradoxical curse of the visionary.

With Canto XV, Tamerlane comes back to the present and to earth, remarking that Samarcand is “queen of earth,” the “pride / Above all cities.” The first phrase suggests his secret ambition for Ada (his “queen”), the second his own pride (ll. 327-330). The motifs of the ruined city and crumbling architecture are conventional in the literature of mutability from mid-eighteenth century through Volney’s Ruins (1791) to Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (1818) and beyond; and Poe returns to the convention in such poems as “The City in the Sea” (1831) and “The Coliseum” (1833), as well as in “Al Aaraaf” (see ll. 159-177ff.). Tamerlane’s quest for a name among men is indirectly mocked by reference to Genghis Khan as nothing but “a name,” which is here “Zinghus” (1. 338), and by his own triple-name as a “fiction”: Tamer the Lame is Tamerlane, Timur Bek, and Alexis the lover. Earlier (note five, to Canto XII) Poe had written “That Tamerlane acquir’d his renown under a feigned name is not entirely a fiction” (I, 35), a gloss that circles back on itself. In Canto XV occurs the second reference to the “venom” (initially drawn from the mountain mists) of the desire for “Power” (1. 345); and Tamerlane now asserts, despite his earlier assertion of human tenderness (which he also refers to as “weakness”) that “Nothing have I with human hearts” (l. 346).

In the last two cantos, Tamerlane quickly recapitulates his leaving Ada, his dissatisfaction with worldly success, and his return in “sullen hopelessness of heart” (1. 369). This return, ironically, takes place amid ambiguous images of summer sun (1. 367, 1. 384). Symmetrically [page 29:] returning to those mountain mists that introduce the main theme early in the poem, Poe has Tamerlane now say that a “soul” can, or will:

. . . hate the ev’ning mist

So often lovely, and will list

To the sound of the coming darkness (known

To those whose spirits hark’n) as one

Who in a dream of night would fly

But cannot from a danger nigh.(26)

Hating what is lovely in nature, the visionary, possessed of an ill demon, sees the light of the silvery moon on the path as an ironic chilly smile (cf. “Ulalume”) and a “portrait of one after death” (1. 380). In the past,

There rose a fountain once, and there

Full many a fair flow’r raised its head:

But she who rear’d them was long dead,

And in such follies had no part . . . .

(ll. 401-404)

Tamerlane has betrayed his burning, pure passion of divine love (for woman) by his impure passion for worldly laurels. The naive dream of her waiting with passive endurance for his triumphant return has turned to ashes. To Tamerlane, rightly or wrongly, the very act of “hoping” for renewal, as in a flower’s regeneration in the flowing waters of a fountain, is a vain human construct; the one dead has no part in these romantic “follies.”

Poe’s 1829 poem, “Alone,” provides a succinct statement of the troubled vision of the Tamerlane figure. The parallels with the passage earlier quoted from Byron’s Manfred are clear.

From childhood’s hour I have not been

As others were — I have not seen

As others saw — I could not bring

My passions from a common spring —

From the same source I have not taken

My sorrow — I could not awaken

My heart to joy at the same time —

And all I lov’d — I lov’d alone —

Then — in my childhood — in the dawn

Of a most stormy life — was drawn

From ev’ry depth of good and ill

The mystery which binds me still —

From the torrent, or the fountain —

From the red cliff of the mountain —

From the sun that ‘round me roll’d

In its autumn tint of gold — [page 30:]

From the lightning in the sky

As it pass’d me flying by —

From the thunder, and the storm —

And when the cloud that took the form

(When the rest of Heaven was blue)

Of a demon in my view —


The nine shorter lyric poems of the rest of the volume (under the title “Fugitive Pieces”) have seemed equally if not more personal to critics; but they too are primarily self-conscious manipulations of literary conventions.(27) Especially prominent is the theme of the intertwining of lost love with the infinite regression of all perception into one dream behind another. Even more prominent than in “Tamerlane” is the paradoxical celebration of the dreaming imagination, wherein visionary perception is always combined with a “dark alloy” that is “powerful to destroy.”

“To —— ——” (later titled simply “Song”) is generally thought to be autobiographical. An onlooker sees a bride blush, which raises a fiercer flame in him, suggesting a lost love. The division between the earthly and something beyond the earth is faintly suggested by the Byronic weariness of the lines that assert that the “kindling light” in the maiden’s eye

Was all on Earth, my chain’d sight

Of loveliness might see.

(ll. 7-8)

There is an unsubstantiated story that Poe, ignorant of the circumstances, visited Elmira Royster on the night of her wedding, asked to dance with her, was grief-stricken on learning he had come to her wedding party, and disappeared into the night. Elmira Royster married after the volume had appeared, but it is possible the incident could have taken place during her engagement party. It is possible too that Richmond friends invented the story to go with the poem. In any event, the dramatic situation is fairly conventional for romantic poetry and parallels Tamerlane’s lament for the loss of Ada.

The progression from a fairly straightforward statement of young passion to an intermixture with a sad celebration of the dreaming imagination is evident in the next poem, titled “Dreams.”

Dreams! in their vivid colouring of life

As in that fleeting, shadowy, misty strife

Of semblance with reality which brings [page 31:]

To the delirious eye, more lovely things

Of Paradise and Love — and all our own!

Than young Hope in his sunniest hour hath known.

(ll. 29-34)

The speaker wishes his young life were a “lasting dream,” even if it were to be of eternal sorrow, for such would be preferable to the “dull reality” of the “waking life” with its “chaos” of pain and passion. There can be no higher heaven, he continues, than a dream eternally continuing.

But should it be — that dream eternally

Continuing — as dreams have been to me

In my young boyhood — should it thus be giv’n,

‘Twere folly still to hope for higher Heav’n!

(ll. 9-12)

In lines that faintly echo Bryon’s “The Dream” (1816; see I, 19-21) and Childe Harold (1812-18; see III, xiv, 1-3), he recalls a continuous dream of childhood where he revelled with imaginary beings “of mine own thought.” Only once since, has the visionary dream seized him in its spell before it passed as the cold night wind.

‘Twas once — and only once — and the wild hour

From my remembrance shall not pass — some power

Or spell had bound me — ‘twas the chilly wind

Came o’er me in the night and left behind

Its image on my spirit . . . .

(ll. 19-23)

Yet happiness exists only in these dreams with their shadowy “strife / Of semblance with reality.” There is more in our imagination than in our sunniest hour of earthly reality.

But the protective dream is imbued with the hint of sinister threat in visionary experience in “Visit of the Dead,” which develops the idea in the previous poem of a “power” or “spell” that seizes the dreamer and leaves its image imprinted upon his spirit. The poem presents a solitary moment of “secrecy” — a momentary epiphany that recurs and finally will not pass — imprisoning the dream-seer. It takes the form of a vision of being surrounded by the spirits of the departed in a dark night, where stars do not actually shine but have “red orbs, without beam. “These beamless orbs tactilly impress one like a burning, clinging fever.

The spirits of the dead, who stood

In life before thee, are again

In death around thee, and their will

Shall then o’ershadow thee — be still: [page 32:]

For the night, tho’ clear, shall frown:

And the stars shall not look down

From their thrones, in the dark heav’n;

With light like Hope to mortals giv’n,

But their red orbs, without beam,

To thy withering heart shall seem

As a burning and a fever

Which would cling to thee forever.

(ll. 7-18)

Although this vision itself will pass, as stars fade with daylight, the thought will not. But when the breath of God is still and not even the faintest wisp of cloud is stirred by any breeze, that moment will act as an enchantment and will be a symbol of an interior secret. What this secret is remains indefinite.

The 1839 version of the poem changes the imagery of the stars fading in daylight to dewdrops in the grass and asserts that neither the thought nor the vision will pass; the speaker is caught in unending stasis.

Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish —

Now are visions ne’er to vanish —

From thy spirit shall they pass

No more — like dew-drop from the grass.

(ll. 19-22)

In the mind, the hanging mist and shadow remain:

The breeze — the breath of God — is still

And the mist upon the hill

Shadowy — shadowy — yet unbroken,

Is a symbol and a token —

How it hangs upon the trees;

A mystery of mysteries! —

(ll. 23-28)

The later version not only emphasizes the sense of static entrapment, but also what had originally been located within the mind is expanded to seem to include, though ambiguously, external nature. This strategy inverts the same matter in “Tamerlane,” while yielding the same ambiguity.

The star imagery of “Visit of the Dead” becomes a paradoxical playing with light and heavenly bodies in “Evening Star,” the next poem, which reverses the situation of Thomas Moore’s “While Gazing on the Moon’s Light” from Irish Melodies (1807-34). Moore’s speaker looks for a moment away from the moon’s paler light to the bright stars but finds them too lone, distant, and “proud.” Poe writes that, at midnight, in the “noontide” of summer, the pale stars shine through the [page 33:] brighter but colder reflected light of the moon seen in both sky and water. The moon makes “slaves” of the planets but has too cold a “smile.” A tacit relation that may be significant is that the moon is itself a slave of the earth, subject to its gravitational pull. A shroud of cloud passes, and the speaker turns to the “proud evening star” in its “glory afar” and admires the “distant fire” more than the colder and lower moonlight, apparently opting for the more other-worldly. But there is an undercurrent of circumscription of the visionary yearning, if not an outright undercutting of it.

If the “evening star” is the traditional one, it is the planet Venus and thus identified with the goddess of love; the surface implication is that the fieriest “passion” is the more distant, aloof, and unearthly. This seems consistent with the theme of release from earthly love in the other poems, but we are faced with the paradox that the speaker misidentifies the planet Venus (a moon-slave) as a star, so that the seeming distant star is merely an optical illusion of freedom from the earthly pull. Venus is as much a moon-slave as the other celestial bodies (and thus also within the earthly pull) and like them coldly lit by reflected light merely. The level of ambiguity increases with the added paradox that the evening star at night’s end is also the morning star and identified with Lucifer. By this reading, there is a vague satanic threat in the quest for a higher, stronger passion, as physical nature and mental or spiritual perception all turn problematic. These themes and images are consistent with the rest of the Tamerlane volume and culminate in “Ulalume” in 1847.

The succeeding poem, “Imitation,” takes the implicit regressive or successive structure of “Evening Star” the next step, especially in one of its later permutations. So thoroughly altered are the related passages from the 1831 revision of “Tamerlane,” the 1829 Al Aaraaf poem “To —— —— (“Should My Early Life Seem”), and the 1849 poem “A Dream Within a Dream” that T. O. Mabbott prints the later two in the Harvard edition of Poe as essentially separate works. But the interconnections among them are revealing — for by 1849 the insinuated circumscription of the visionary power of the poet has become an overt statement of infinite regression into one dream after another.

Let us take up the earliest text first. The “imitation” indicated in the title is of Byron, again of “The Dream” and Manfred, where Byron makes reference to “beings brighter than have been” and to feeling, not seeing, with the eye. The speaker of “Imitation” says that his early life seems a sea of pride, but also a mystery and a dream. That dream was informed by a waking but wild thought of unseen beings. The punctuation [page 34:] of lines 7-10 produces a contradictory ambiguity (confirmed by other versions). The dream was fraught with the “thought “of “beings” that “have been” but which his “spirit hath not seen.” It is unclear whether his visionary spirit has not “seen” these beings or his mortal existence has prevented his vision of them. The succeeding lines seem to express the wish that he had not had the thought of these beings and would protect other mortals from the “dreaming eye.”

A dark unfathom’d tide

Of interminable pride —

A mystery, and a dream,

Should my early life seem;

I say that dream was fraught

With a wild, and waking thought

Of beings that have been,

Which my spirit hath not seen.

Had I let them pass me by,

With a dreaming eye!

Let none of earth inherit

That vision of my spirit . . . .

As reproduced in the Mabbott edition, the poem says that the speaker would protect earthly men from the curse of his visionary spirit, for his “worldly rest hath gone” with the vision (l. 17). In the facsimile Tamerlane, the period given by Mabbott is a comma; punctilious attention to the proper mark yields rather different readings. Moreover, Poe slightly revised these lines in a poem from the 1829 Al Aaraaf, “Should My Early Life Seem” (“To ——— —”) the title line of which is line four of the Tamerlane poem just quoted. The revised lines 7-10 read:

There are beings, and have been

Whom my spirit had not seen

Had I let them pass me by

With a dreaming eye

(ll. 9-12)

Here the speaker seems to say he would not have seen these beings if he had let them pass, and it is not clear whose “dreaming eye” it is, or if the dreaming, if his, would have prevented his perception of them. There is in the revision, slight as it is, an implicit theme of illusion within illusion as yet incompletely worked out.

But, whatever the meaning, in “Imitation” the speaker says he is beyond caring, even though his peace of mind will “perish” along with a thought he “then did cherish” (ll. 19-20). Traditional interpretations throw into high relief the problem of reading biographically. The genteel reading is that Elmira Royster is the cherished thought that passes away [page 35:] along with his worldly rest. Although this reading is somewhat confirmed externally by the fact that Byron’s “The Dream” is about his youthful pursuit of Mary Chaworth, whom he failed to win, as Poe failed to win Elmira, the biographical reading reductively undercuts the poem’s evocation of vague mysterious anguish. It ignores the carefully developed Byronic persona of the entire volume: the then cherished thought is of “beings” that the youthful afflicted visionary spirit wanted to see.

Just how far the loss of Elmira Royster is from the real thematics of the poem may be illustrated by examining Poe’s exploratory re-uses of related lines in the several poems mentioned above that lead to his 1849 poem, “A Dream Within A Dream.” The 1849 version also tends to confirm the reading offered here of “Evening Star” as a poem insinuating visionary illusion. The first paragraph of “A Dream Within A Dream” asserts (or seems to) that it does not matter whether we lose hope by being visionary or ordinary; for everything is veiled, an illusion within a illusion:

. . . my days have been a dream;

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

(ll. 4-11)

The second paragraph intensifies the visionary’s anguish over not being able to penetrate illusion. He stands “amid the roar / Of a surf-tormented shore,” holding grains of sand that creep through his fingers to the deep while he weeps (ll. 12-18). He cries out:

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

This is a generalized epistemological question recurrent in romanticism; it is rather difficult to find Elmira here.

The epistemological theme is also implicit in the earliest version of these lines, which occur in the 1831 revision of “Tamerlane.” The vague idea of “hope” (l. 5) in “A Dream Within A Dream” is in the 1831 “Tamerlane” the conqueror’s quest for “peace.”

If my peace hath flown away

In a night — or in a day — [page 36:]

In a vision — or in none —

Is it, therefore, the less gone?

(F-text; Canto XXIV, ll. 239-242)

These earlier lines are much clearer because they are specific to Tamerlane’s situation. The later separate poem gains considerably in indefinitive ambiguity, resulting in the romantic lament over one illusion within another. Other differences are manifest in the dramatic character of Tamerlane. He too (like the abstract speaker of the later poem) holds particles of sand that creep through his fingers and sees the inability to hold them as symbolic. But his attitude is defiant rather than merely lamenting.

How bright! and yet to creep

Thro’ my fingers to the deep!

My early hopes? no — they

Went gloriously away,

Like lightning from the sky —

Why in the battle did not I?

(F-text; Canto XXIV, ll. 247-252)

Whatever parallels may or may not exist between Elmira and Tamerlane’s Ada are subsumed by romantic convention and dramatic situation.

Mabbott is right to observe that the 1827 Tamerlane poem “Imitation” and the 1849 poem “A Dream Within A Dream” are different works; but to say that they have little in common is inaccurate. We have already noticed the coincidence of lines between the 1829 Al Aaraaf poem “Should My Early Life Seem” and the 1827 Tamerlane poem “Imitation” and the change of punctuation that increases the ambiguity of the “dreaming eye.” In 1831, these lines from “Imitation” and “Should My Early Life Seem” have become part of “Tamerlane” (e.g., Canto XXIV, ll. 239-242). It is clear that “Imitation” and “Should My Early Life Seem” were woven together in some early version of the large text of Poe’s first poems as part of one dream fabric. The third section of the 1829 “Should My Early Life Seem” continues with the figure that is the main image of the 1849 “A Dream Within A Dream”: the speaker standing on “the weather-beaten shore” with particles of sand sifting through his fingers. The main difference between 1829 and 1849 is that the earlier lines maintain a defiance (in the face of thunder, lightning, and war), muted in similar lines in the 1831 “Tamerlane” (F-text). In the 1829 “Should My Early Life Seem” a fourth section concludes: [page 37:]

But they tell thee I am proud —

They lie —. . .

. . .

Nor Stoic? I am not:

In the terror of my lot

I laugh to think how poor

That pleasure “to endure!”

What! shade of Zeno! — I

Endure! — no — no — defy.

(ll. 29-30; 35-40)

This defiant Byronic figure becomes the weeper of the 1849 “A Dream Within A Dream,” in which “the weather-beaten shore” also becomes the intensified “surf-tormented shore.” The illusion within illusion theme implicit in the early visionary poems of 1827-31 becomes insistent in the last poems. In the context not only of romantic convention, but also of Poe’s own poetry, “Imitation” in the 1827 Tamerlane volume has little to do with Elmira Royster and a good deal to do with the curse of the visionary spirit.

Maintaining similar images of heavenly bodies, the poem that next follows in the Tamerlane volume is “In Youth Have I Known One with Whom the Earth” (sometimes known as “Stanzas”). This poem returns to the themes of passion and pride and visionary experience, but readers have found it one of the most opaque that Poe ever wrote.


In youth have I known one with whom the Earth

In secret communing held — as he with it,

In day light, and in beauty from his birth:

Whose fervid, flick’ring torch of life was lit

From the sun and stars, whence he had drawn forth

A passionate light — such for his spirit was fit —

And yet that spirit knew not — in the hour

Of its own fervor, what had o’er it power.


Perhaps it may be that my mind is wrought

To a [fever] by the moonbeam that hangs o’er,

But I will half believe that wild light fraught

With more of sov’reignty than ancient lore

Hath ever told — or is it of a thought

The unembodied essence, and no more,

That with a quick’ning spell doth o’er us pass

As dew of the night-time o’er the summer grass? [page 38:]


Doth o’er us pass, when, as th’ expanding eye

To the loved object — so the tear to the lid

Will start, which lately slept in apathy?

And yet it need not be — (that object) hid

From us in life — but common — which doth lie

Each hour before us — but then only bid

With a strange sound, as of a harp-string broken

To awake us — ‘T is a symbol and a token,


Of what in other worlds shall be — and giv’n

In beauty by our God, to those alone

Who otherwise would fall from life and Heav’n

Drawn by their heart’s passion, and that tone,

That high tone of the spirit which hath striv’n,

Tho’ not with Faith — with godliness — whose throne

With desp’rate energy ‘t hath beaten down;

Wearing its own deep feeling as a crown.

We may attempt a prose version. The speaker says that in youth there was one (obviously himself) who secretly communed with nature, especially the supraterrestrial, drawing from the sun and stars a “passionate light.” But he did not understand fully what it was that had such “power” over his spirit (at least in his hour of fervor, a point taken up in a moment). Perhaps, he says, it is madness, but he will “half believe” that the experience (the “wild light”) was visionary, that it was the unembodied essence of thought that with a quickening spell passes over us and awakes us to some other realm. Mabbott observes of the original spelling “ferver” in line 10 that Poe may have intended “fever,” an idea also presented in “Visit of the Dead,” as we have seen. He prints “ferver,” however, since the idea of fervor may have been intended; but if so, it is misspelled, while the themes of the Tamerlane strongly suggest “fever.” The progression in stanzas one and two from “fervid” to “fervor” to “fever” is suggestive of intensification and also helps gloss the problematic last three lines. Another possible typographical error yields an interesting ambiguity. Mabbott corrects line seven of the first stanza from

And yet that spirit knew, not in the hour

Of its own fervor, what had o’er it power

to the line as given above (“that spirit knew not — in the hour”). That is, Mabbott reads Poe’s intention to be that the spirit does not know, in its fervorous hour, what the power over it is. In the original as printed, the spirit does know what has power over it, but not in the hour of its [page 39:] fervor. Close as the two readings are, they are different enough at the most abstract level of Poe’s metaphysics and aesthetics that the “correction” should not stand.

In any case, the epiphanic moment wherein we sense deep meaning in common things startles us like a broken harp-string. The sense of startled awakening is symbolic or suggestive of what is to be in other worlds. The moment of epiphany is itself a form of beauty. God gives this symbolic moment to those who would otherwise suffer a fall because of their passion and their pride, their egoism. The syntax and pronoun reference of the last two-and-a-half lines is imprecise, but the sense seems to be that such proud spirits have tried to beat down the “throne” of divinity by wearing their own feeling as a “crown.” They have striven not against God or with faith, but with their romantic aspiration toward the godly. They suffer the malady of Tamerlane, but on a higher level. Tamerlane, to his regret, settled for an earthly “throne” and an earthly “crown.” Here, these high human spirits do not seek earthly success, but are yet restless, feverishly seeking the supernal vision, the throne and crown of the visionary. The beauty of nature offers these superior but afflicted beings an indefinitive revelation of the unearthly. But it is circumscribed, a glimpse merely, a “token” of what is to be in “other worlds.” God gives this fleeting vision only to those who would otherwise fall from the happiness of earthly life (perhaps like Tamerlane) and from the grace of immortal life by their own superiority and “desperate energy.”(28)

The ante-penultimate poem, “A Wilder’d Being from My Birth” (later titled “A Dream”), again deals with the indistinct relationship of a dream of a “joy departed” and a “waking dream of life and light” that has left the speaker broken-hearted. Daylight reality seems a dream to one who is absorbed by a past dream of joy. That past dream (like a star beam) is what comforts his present lonely spirit. The star beam metaphor is developed as faint and trembling from afar. But, he asks, what could be “more purely bright” in the midst of the light of the day-star, the sunlight of “truth”? The paradox of the purer brightness of the faint, far star fading in the sun-star daylight of “truth” picks up the images of “Dreams,” “Visit of the Dead,” “Evening Star,” and “In Youth Have I Known.” The word “truth” would seem to be ironical, meaning the dull reality of the earthly daylight world, not the higher truth of the unworldly.

The penultimate poem, “The Happiest Day — The Happiest Hour,” continues the same theme of joy departed, now transmuted again to “power” and especially “pride,” which has poured “venom” [page 40:] on the spirit, as in “Tamerlane.” The poem is highly repetitive, though incremental, and perhaps the most incantatory of the volume. In the last two stanzas, the speaker remarks that if the now lost hope of pride and power were restored along with the pain felt even in youth, he would refuse that ambitious dream of youth:

For on its wing was dark alloy

And as it flutter’d — fell

An essence — powerful to destroy

A soul that knew it well.

(ll. 21-24)

The poem is sometimes read biographically, once again with reference to Elmira Royster. The reading is that since Elmira had been cruel to her fiance before, she might be again, because the relationship contained some destructive force. Such a reading, however, as with “Imitation,” considerably reduces the general applicability of the poem to a vision of life and neglects the introspective speculation that something within the speaker is itself possessed of some ill demon, a point considerably more consistent with the rest of the poems.(29)

The final poem, “The Lake,” has been generally regarded as one of the two best of the short “Fugitive Verses.” It is certainly a significant piece. In addition to its lyric evocation of a dark dreamscape of the mind, it brings the themes of the volume — both the undercurrent of visionary dreaming and the undercurrent of the circumscribed powers of the poet — to an appropriate resolution. The ill demon of the imagination triumphs over itself by creating out of its own adversity a doubly visionary poem.

The poem is said to describe an actual place, the Lake of the Dismal Swamp in Virginia, whose waters are poisonous.(30) The biographically-oriented reading has the poem the embodiment of a local legend of the ghosts of two lovers who roam its shores. But it probably owes much to two poems by Thomas Moore: “A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp,” based on his visit to Virginia in 1803, and “I Wish I Was By That Dim Lake,” set in Donegal, Ireland. The Virginia legend is that a bereaved lover, maddened by his loss, is deluded into believing that the girl is not dead but is lost in the Dismal Swamp; he disappears, apparently having gone in search of her. The speaker of Poe’s poem says that in “youth’s spring” he haunted a spot that he “could not love the less,” for [page 41:]

So lovely was the loneliness

Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,

And trees that tower’d around.

(ll. 4-6)

When the black night throws a pall on that spot (and over all things) and when the wind passes in “stilly melody,” then

My infant spirit would awake

To the terror of the lone lake.

(ll. I1-12)

The “loneliness” itself is lovely, partially because of the faintly intimidating if not outright sinister wildness of a lake circumscribed by masses of black rock and towering trees. As the stasis of night brings the sounds of silence, the solitary visionary spirit responds more actively to the sinister element. The “terror of the lone lake” is also a “tremulous delight,” a “feeling undefin’d,” springing from a “darken’d mind” (ll. 14-16). The indefinitive takes the form of a thought of death in the “poison’d wave” and leads him to think the depths of the lake a “fitting grave” for one who could find “solace” in the scene by dreaming, one whose “wild’ring thought” could make an “Eden of that dim lake” (ll. 21-22).

The poem is sometimes read as a direct statement from the speaker about his own darkened mind. But it is more complex. If the legend applies, as it seems to, the speaker in his own mind makes the waves of the lake an appropriate symbolic grave both for the lady seeking solace from earthly anguish and for the lover who transformed it into an imaginary Paradise where he preserved the memory of his lost love, thereby becoming another ghost of the lake. The awakened imagination of the speaker, creatively sharing the delusion of the lover while maintaining some distance from him in his dramatized imagining of him, can also transmute terror and sorrow and death into loveliness: the complex response to the physical scene results in the poem itself. In one sense the double imagining is like a dream of a dream. More generally, the ambivalence of nature, of the creative mind, of pain and joy are the things that make a poet. “The Lake” in its slighter and much different way deals with the same subjects as Walt Whitman’s great poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”: love, separation, death, and the poetic process. The poem appropriately concludes the volume with the imaginative re-creation of a lost love and a bereaved lover, by a youth who in dreaming of them finds in life and art a terror that is yet a delight. [page 42:]


The next stage in the evolution of Poe’s poetic world, the poems of the 1829 Al Aaraaf volume, will darken the visionary experience even more. As mentioned, Al Aaraaf is a star, where the “spirits” of poetic imaginings have a temporary existence, in a limbo region between heaven and hell. It contains both the terrible and the beautiful:

Spirit! that dwellest where,

In the deep sky,

The terrible and fair

In beauty vie!(31)

The introduction to Al Aaraaf, “Sonnet — To Science,” works in a way similar to that of “The Lake.” The speaker laments the impossibility of employing the old poetic myths now that “science” (the rational aspect of the mind) has destroyed such dream-imaginings with its peering vulture eyes. But in the sestet of the poem, in some of Poe’s finest lines, the speaker re-creates those images, in the very act of lamenting their passing, so that the poem becomes a celebration of the poetic imagination, triumphing over its predication of the destruction of poetry.

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?

And driven the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?

Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Poe wrote his publishers, Carey, Lea, and Carey, that the dramatic world of the title poem was derived from “the Al Aaraaf of the Arabians, a medium between Heaven & Hell where men suffer no punishment, but yet do not attain that tranquil and even happiness” which “they suppose” to be found in heaven. He continues that he has located this realm in “the celebrated star discovered by Tycho Brahe which appeared & disappeared so suddenly” in 1572-74. Tycho had described in De Nova Stella (Copenhagen, 1573) the star’s appearance near a rectangle of four other stars in the constellation of Cassiopeia (which accounts for the four suns in the sky of Poe’s “Al Aaraaf”). The star seemed brighter than Venus and changed colors from white to yellow to red to leaden. After sixteen months it faded from view; while in its red phase, it generated terror that the end of the world was at hand.(32)

This star, Poe writes, “is represented as a messenger star of the Deity” on “an embassy to our world.” He remarks that “one of the peculiarities” of this star world is that those who choose it as their [page 43:] “residence” after death “do not enjoy immortality” but “after a second life of high excitement, sink into forgetfulness, & death . . . .” Poe adds that the idea is taken from the story of Job, who said that he would “not live always.” He has, he says, “imagined some well known characters of the age of the star’s appearance, as transferred to Al Aaraaf,” principally Michaelangelo. Other Renaissance figures will, he suggests, be incorporated into a later version; but Poe seems never to have brought to completion the full design of the poem, though he returned to its cosmology in several prose pieces (Collected Works, I, 92, 97).

In George Sale’s translation of the Koran (1734 — cited frequently in one of Poe’s favorite works, Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817) — the “Preliminary Discourse” provides a further gloss on Poe’s poem. Sale observes that in the Mahometan conception of Âl Âaraaf there is a veil between the blessed and the damned, and that at the median point between the two conditions men will stand and “call unto the inhabitants of paradise” and yet not “enter therein, although they earnestly desire it.” They will also look at those souls in “hell fire” and plead that God not place them there with the “ungodly people.” This point of division between the blessed and the damned some Mahometan writers “imagine . . . to be a sort of limbo.” Among the inhabitants will be “angels in the form of men.” Other writers “place here such whose good and evil works are so equal that they exactly counterpoise each other, and therefore deserve neither reward nor punishment,” though on the last day of judgment they may be permitted into paradise “after they perform an act of adoration” (Collected Works, I, 95-96). This seems to be the situation at the opening of Poe’s poem, where Nesace, the ruling angel of the star, bathes in the light of four suns and prepares to pray.

“Al Aaraaf” itself balances, with more overt tension than the Tamerlane poems, the benign with the apocalyptic — moving from the drowsy dreamscape of the spirits of flowers, nymphs, and music floating upon the air — to a vision of desolation and ruin as red winds burn and go out in the heavens — to a vision of the God-ordained destruction of earth — to a vision of the final destruction as the star extinguishes. In Part I, Nesace’s silent prayer rises to heaven with the fragrance of flowers. The prayer expresses the obedience of the star angels to God in seeking beauty rather than truth, for beauty belongs to the higher heaven. Although the form of God is unknown, it is hinted at by the form of man, whose mind is made in his image. Nesace waits for a “sound of silence” which all nature speaks in tune with what “dreamy poets name the ‘music of the spheres’ ” (ll. 124-125). But upon “the startled ear” [page 44:] falls the “eternal voice of God” commanding her to “wing to other worlds,” and bring warning to those proud star realms which threaten to fall like the guilty race of earth.

All Nature speaks, and ev’n ideal things

Flap shadowy sounds from visionary wings —

But ah! not so when, thus, in realms on high

The eternal voice of God is passing by,

And the red winds are withering in the sky!

(I, ll. 128-132)

Part II opens with a description of a mountain temple. The “enamell’d head” of the mountain, towering into “the sunlit ether” at sunset, when the moon is at its zenith (ll. 1-8), catches the ray

Of sunken suns at eve — at noon of night,

While the moon danc’d with the fair stranger light —

Uprear’d upon such height arose a pile,

Of gorgeous columns on th’ unburthen’d air,

Flashing from Parian marble that twin smile

Far down upon the wave that sparkled there,

And nursled the young mountain in its lair.

Of molten stars their pavement, such as fall

Thro’ the ebon air, besilvering the pall

Of their own dissolution, while they die —

Adorning the dwellings of the sky.

(II, ll. 9-15)

A “dome” of “linkéd light from Heaven” sits on the columns; it has a “window of one circular diamond” that looks “out above the purple air” (II, ll. 20-23). “Rays from God” shoot “down the meteor chain” and hallow “all the beauty” of the star world scene “twice again” (II, ll. 24-25). The aesthetic inadequacy of earthly nature is implied in lines that hint that mortality lurks in Al Aaraaf as well:

But on the pillars Seraph eyes have seen

The dimness of this world: that greyish green

That Nature loves the best for Beauty’s grave

Lurk’d in each cornice, round each architrave . . . .

(II, ll. 28-31)

Ruined monuments of the earth are invoked in association with the inevitable punishment of God:

Friezes from Tadmor and Persepolis —

From Balbec, and the silly, clear abyss

Of beautiful Gomorrah! . . . .

These were once beautiful, but “the wave / Is now upon thee . . .” (II, ll. 36-39). Punishment and destruction are anticipated, as a sound [page 45:]

. . . stealeth ever on the ear of him

Who, musing, gazeth on the distance dim.

And sees the darkness coming as a cloud —

Is not its form — its voice — most palpable and loud?

(II, ll. 44-47)

The ominous sound, however, brings “a music with it “and “the rush of wings” (1. 49) as Nesace enters the temple to sing summons to her subjects. She invokes Ligeia, the music of the harmony of nature, to awaken the sleeping spirits of Al Aaraaf.

While the spirits gather, two lovers hold back, failing to hear the summons clearly because of their earthly passion for each other. One of these, named Angelo, is the spirit of the earthly artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. Angelo bends his “dark eye” upon earth and tells his lover, Ianthe, that such monuments as the Parthenon recall to him that there is more beauty in the intellect than in physical passion and that he half wishes “to be again of men” (l. 226). Ianthe asks:

“My Angelo! and why of them to be?

A brighter dwelling-place is here for thee —

And greener fields than in yon world above,

And woman’s loveliness — and passionate love.”

(II, ll. 227-230)

The “world above” is ambiguous, meaning on the surface [[of]] the earth floating in the sky above them, but also suggestive of the more ethereal world above or beyond Al Aaraaf. Ianthe thus reenacts the Eden story by trying to tempt Angelo to ignore the goddess’s summons and remain in the transitory world of Al Aaraaf. At this point, Angelo recalls a sensation of falling, rather than rising, to Al Aaraaf at the moment of his death. He also, he says, had a perception of the earth hurled into chaos; in this moment of apocalyptic destruction he and she came to this “Dread star!”

It is unclear who speaks the penultimate paragraph, but it is likely Ianthe’s response. The spirits are likened to the “fire-fly of the night”; they simply come and go without asking any reason beyond the “angel-nod” of Nesace, who, in turn, is responding to some summons from her God. Time, it is said, never unfurled a wing over a fairer world than earth, but when Al Aaraaf’s beauty appeared in earth’s sky, the star and the earth trembled reciprocally before the guilty “heritage of men.” The two lovers then seem to fall towards eternal sleep, not having responded to Nesace’s call:

Thus, in discourse, the lovers whiled away

The night that waned and waned and brought no day. [page 46:]

They fell: for Heaven to them no hope imparts

Who hear not for the beating of their hearts.

(II, ll. 261-264)

“Al Aaraaf” is a mid-world in a series of infinite regressive dreams of a higher reality — a half-realized Platonic idea of absolute Beauty. The divine is known only through beauty via the imagination, which is the godlike part of man. But even in this “deep sky,” as in the yet deeper heaven, the “terrible and fair, / in beauty vie,” in an eternity of which we feel but the shadow. The spirit beings whom God’s messenger, Nesace, has known have only dreamed of God’s “Infinity” as a “model of their own” (I, ll. 104-105; cf. ll. 35-37). Through beauty (Nesace) and harmony (Ligeia) the will of God is indefinitely communicated to man. Understanding of such things is but faint on earth; earthly science confuses truth and falsehood; and fuller knowledge is refracted, through death, from God’s infinity. Although the poetically imagined world of the angels hints of the true beauty, even in this star world, passion, which is too earthly for pure poetry and beauty, intrudes. The intrusion of earthly love destroys the two half-human, half-angelic spirits of Al Aaraaf.

Thus although the poem creates a cosmology of higher beauty, this world too is flawed; the only release is to sink into oblivion. “Al Aaraaf” is an invented myth codifying the implications of the earlier poems, “Evening Star,” “Stanzas,” and “A Dream.” It anticipates Poe’s later prose-poem dialogues about the creation and destruction of the earth, “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839), “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” (1841), “The Power of Words” (1845). It anticipates as well as his booklength cosmological treatise, also a “prose-poem,” Eureka (1848), in which Poe attempts to reconcile various contraries of existence under the proposition that the fundamental paradox of existence is that annihilation is built into the very springing forth of life in both the individual and the cosmos.

From this point on in Poe’s poetry — except for the rather charming verses addressed to various ladies and a number of self-correcting parodies of romantic poetic excess — the indefinitive visionary aspect will give way almost entirely to the sense of loss, interior torment, infinite regress, and the world of nightmare. The journey from the music and song of blue-bells, fountains, and woodland rills to the landscape of nightmare is an incredibly rapid one — though hardly unlooked for given the implicit nightmare of the earliest poems. There is a very slight remission of the negative in Poems of 1831, especially in the new introduction to “Al Aaraaf,” called “Mysterious Star,” which emphasizes [page 47:] the supernal loveliness of the star world, with its dream gardens and dream maidens. All things, even sorrow, are gentle here: the “truest type of grief / Is the gently falling leaf,” and “sorrow is not melancholy” (ll. 26-29).

But the new “Introduction” to the volume as a whole reverts to the multi-toned Byronic note of the Tamerlane poems, in which satire, sarcasm, self-hate, pride, aspiration, despair are all mixed. This introduction speaks of “eternal Condor years” falling upon the visionary soul of the poet-narrator, robbing him of his ability to see the benign aspects of the world of spirit, so that the few calm hours that come to him must be spent in response to some dimly perceived horror lurking beneath. Despite a wry portrait of the romanticist “dipt in folly” and fallen “in love with melancholy” (ll. 27-28), the new poem contains some of the most notorious lines in all of Poe’s poetry:

I could not love except where Death

Was mingling his with Beauty’s breath —

Or Hymen, Time, and Destiny

Were stalking between her and me.

(ll. 31-34)

These lines have been appropriated by biographical critics, especially those of a Freudian bent, to demonstrate that “Poe” could not love except when the woman was dead or dying. But even a simplistic approach suggests that every time the young “Poe” loved, the loved one was taken from him. Such a reading fails to take into account the conventions of romantic melancholy and veiled vision, the artificed themes of recurrent loss, self-abjuration, and egoistic pride so carefully constructed in the Byronic persona of Poe’s earliest poems. The “voice” of these poems is a fictive construct embodying the torment of the visionary spirit of the romantic poet, torn apart by the vision of possible supernal loveliness in an other world and the simultaneous recognition of the circumscription of the power of poetic vision that earthly existence presents. This is the “ill demon” of the world and the self. The vatic poet is, as we have seen, an uneasy mixture of external and internal, objective and subjective: “. . . drawn / From ev’ry depth of good and ill” is “the mystery which binds me still.”

From the torrent, or the fountain —

From the red cliff of the mountain —

From the sun that ’round me roll’d

In its autumn tint of gold —

From the lightning in the sky

As it pass’d me flying by — [page 48:]

From the thunder, and the storm —

And the cloud that took the form

(When the rest of Heaven was blue)

Of a demon in my view —

(“Alone,” 1829)

The demonic poet-seer takes hints from this world and creates another:

To his lone imagining —

Whose solitary soul could make

An Eden of that dim lake.

(“That [[The]] Lake,” 1827)

The never adequately imaged landscape of supernal beauty, just barely glimpsed in part of “Al Aaraaf,” and merely invoked in Tamerlane and Al Aaraaf, gives way steadily to the nightmare landscapes of “The Doomed City” (“The City in the Sea”), “Irene” (“The Sleeper”), “The Valley Nis” (“The Valley of Unrest”) in 1831. By 1844, the dreamscape of the poignantly titled poem with which we began this study, “Dream-Land,” is of:

Bottomless vales and boundless floods,

And chasms, and caves, and Titan wood,

With forms no men can discover

For the dews that drip all over;

Mountains toppling evermore

Into seas without a shore;

Seas that restlessly aspire

Surging, unto lakes of fire;

Lakes that endlessly outspread

Their lone waters — lone and dead . . . .

It is a world:

Haunted by ill angels only

Where an Eidolon, named Night,

On a black throne reigns upright . . . .

[page 20, continued:]


1.  Except where corrected by the facsimile of Tamerlane reissued by the Baltimore Poe Society, references to the poems are to Vol. I of the Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969); here, I, 343-345, lines 2-4 (cf. 52-54), 9-18. Mabbott in his introduction to the poems comments on the production of vast desolation by the denial of limitations (after A. H. Quinn), notes a similar effect in Paradise Lost, II, ll. 890-896 [page 49:] (after Richard Wilbur), and remarks parallels in Arthur Gordon Pym (q.v. below); other similarities are noted in “Fairyland,” “The Sleeper,” and “Ulalume.” Milton’s lines describe the first view Satan’s legions have of the “infernal Pit”:

Before their eyes in sudden view appear

The secrets of the hoary Deep — a dark

Illimitable ocean, without bound,

Without dimension; where length, breadth, and height,

And time, and place, are lost; where eldest Night

And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold

Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise

Of endless wars, and by confusion stand.

(II, ll. 890-897)

Extensive use of Mabbott’s notes and summary interpretations is made in the present essay (frequently to offer counter-interpretations).

[[Note: There is no facsimile of Tamerlane issued or reissued by the Baltimore Poe Society. Instead, Dr. Thompson is presumably referring to the 1939 facsimile printed by Wirth, of which the Poe Society of Baltimore purchased several hundred copies of remaining stock and sold through the Poe House and Museum until the mid-1980s.]]

2.  Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Ch. II. As all students of Poe know, Poe alone of classic American authors lamentably lacks a modern unified edition. Citations from the longer prose fiction and the essays and reviews are to The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; reprint ed., New York: AMS Press, 1969); the quotation from Pym is III, 28; the prose is here broken into rhythmic lines as read at the 61st annual Baltimore Poe Society lecture, October 2, 1983.

3.  Collected Works, II, 220-221, here broken into rhythmic lines (though, obviously, there are other possibilities).

4.  Tamerlane, perhaps the rarest book in American letters, exists in only a few paperbound copies, one of which was auctioned for over $120,000 a few years ago. The other two complete poems are “Oh, Tempora! Oh, Mores!”, a satire, and “To Octavia”; see Mabbott, I, 5-6, 14-15, for the extant fragments of others. [[Update: another copy of the 1827 Tamerlane was auctioned from the William E. Self collection on December 4, 2009 for $662,500, a record sale price for an American literary work.]]

5.  The phrase “ideal realism” is Coleridge’s, from Chapter XIII of the Biographia Literaria (1817): “. . . ideal Realism, which holds the same relation in abstruseness to Plotinus as Plotinus does to Plato” (Selected Poetry, and Prose of Coleridge, ed. Donald A. Stauffer [New York: Modern Library, 1951], p. 262). The Coleridge-Plotinus-Plato relation is complex and important for an understanding of romantic aesthetics. The present essay on Poe and supernalist aesthetics is part of a longer work on American poetry, and the framing argument is here truncated. In discussing “the chain of realities” in Ennead III.viii, Plotinus sets up a four-fold reality, from the primal, all-encompassing One at the top of a vertical chain, through Intelligence, Soul, and Matter, thus doubly complicating Platonic dualism. Although not totally consistent, Plotinus generally regards the world of sense experience as an impediment to the soul’s attainment of the One. Section 11 of III.viii contains passages that succinctly describe the shaping matrix of Poe’s aesthetics and metaphysics. Intelligence, writes Plotinus, “is the most beautiful of things. It is illuminated by a pure light and shines with a pure splendor; it contains the intelligible beings of which our world, in spite of its beauty, is but a shadow and an image.” This idea of multiple worlds in Byron, Shelley, and Poe is discussed in the main text momentarily. The world of Intelligence, Plotinus continues, “lies in full resplendence because it contains nothing unintelligent or obscure or indefinite”; as Poe would have understood this, the definitiveness of the world of Intelligence is opposed to the imprisoning realm of sense matter, which generates the soul’s dissatisfaction with indeterminate glimpses of Intelligence, and through it of the One. Plotinus continues: “Wonder seizes him who sees it and who enters it properly and becomes one with it. Just as the view of heaven and splendor of the stars lead one to seek [page 50:] and think of their author, so contemplation of the intelligible world [i.e., of form and connection, not matter] and the admiration it induces lead one to seek its author . . . .” (The Philosophy of Plotinus, ed. and trans Joseph Katz [New York: Appleton-CenturyCrofts, 1950], pp. 57-58). One way in which “ideal realism” is more “abstruse” than the philosophy of Plotinus is that the romantic task of the soul is to enter into and become one with both the realm of Intelligence and the realm of Sense Matter simultaneously, thus participating in the One. The passage in Coleridge is preceded by a discussion of “transcendental” vs. “transcendent” (after the German distinction) in Ch. XII, and followed by the famous definitions of the “esemplastic” power of the “primary” and “secondary” Imagination as opposed to Fancy. In addition to these specifically romantic influences, there should be added Milton, of whom Poe was quite appreciative, despite his criticism of the length of Paradise Lost.

6.  Complete Works, XIV, 273-274. The poetic sentiment and supernal loveliness may manifest themselves (itself) in music, architecture, and landscape gardening as well. Although beyond the scope of the present essay, significant connections exist among Poe’s landscape tales, “The Island of the Fay” (1841), “Morning on the Wissahiccon” (1844), “The Domain of Arnheim” (1847), “Landor’s Cottage” (1849); the cosmic apocalypses, “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839), “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” (1841), “The Power of Words” (1845); other tales employing major architecture-landscape settings and motifs; and landscape-architecture poems additional to those discussed in the present essay, such as “Fairyland” (1829), “The City in the Sea” (1831), “The Sleeper” (1831), “The Valley of Unrest” (1831), “The Coliseum” (1833), “Sonnet-Silence” (1840), “Dream-Land” (1844), [[and]] “Ulalume” (1847).

7.  Collected Works, I, 99-100, Part I, ll. 1-6, 9-15; Part II, ll. 60-87. Poe’s note to the second passage cites Shakespeare, “Fairies use flowers for their charactery” (Merry Wives of Windsor) and the Egyptian myth that the moon “has the effect of producing blindness in those who sleep with the face exposed to the rays . . .” (I, l. 108). In ll. 80-84, the word play on “inviolate” seems appropriate to the aesthetic purity of the dreamscape untouched by earthly concepts of morality, its only “duty” being that which is “beseeming / These star-litten hours.”

8.  Complete Works, XI, 255-256. The locution “sole attribute” would seem to be a pun on “soul.” For a fine discussion of the relation of Victor Cousin on Poe’s poetic theory, see Glen A. Omans, “Victor Cousin: Still Another Source of Poe’s Aesthetic Theory?” Studies in the American Renaissance (1982), pp. 1-27.

9.  Complete Works, VIII, 281. See the tale “The Power of Words” (1845) for an interesting link between the material and spiritual through words; cf. note 11 below, the discussion in the text of the Marginalia note on words and “psychal impressions,” and the monism of Eureka; cf. note 20 below. For a brief summary of “the war of the spirit with the external world and the quest for Supernal Beauty” in Poe, see Donald Barlow Stauffer, A Short History of American Poetry (New York: Dutton, 1974), pp. 85-91.

10.  Complete Works, VII, xliii. The citations to the critical essays in this section are all to this edition, henceforth cited in parentheses in the text.

11.  These monistic ideas were current in German romantic philosophy, deriving in part from Leibnitz’s monadology and the “law of continuity” (cited by Poe, Complete Works, XVI, 46), and informing the principal treatises on Naturwissenschaft by Schelling and Hegel. Poe’s developing monism, within an essential dualist frame, as he picks [page 51:] up the philosophical ideas in the air of his times, is discussed later in this essay with regard to the connection between Poe’s aesthetics and the philosophy of Eureka (1848).

12.  Glen A. Omans maintains that Poe is always closer to Kant than is Coleridge, who is generally (but mistakenly) regarded as the major English-speaking romantic exponent of Kantian aesthetics. Coleridge, according to Omans, continually veers toward Hegel — whereas Poe at the time is the only pure Kantian in the English-speaking world. See “ ‘Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense’: Poe’s Debt to Immanuel Kant,” Studies in the American Renaissance (1980), pp. 123-168, and “Victor Cousin,” passim. See also George E. Kelley, “Poe’s Theory of Beauty,” American Literature, 27 (1956), 521-526, and “Poe’s Theory of Unity,” Philological Quarterly, 37 (1958), 34-44; Margaret Alterton, Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (1925; reprint ed., New York: Russell & Russell, 1965). Hardin Craig completed the American Men of Letters series volume, Edgar Allan Poe, begun by Alterton, the introduction to which gives a contextual overview of Poe’s aesthetics (1935, rev. ed., New York: Hill and Wang, 1962). More detailed on critical theory (even though emphasizing the pragmatic) is Robert D. Jacobs, Poe: Journalist & Critic (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), esp. Chs. II, VI-IX, XII-XIII, XV-XVIII. More summary is Edd Winfield Parks, Edgar Allan Poe as Literary Critic (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1964). The most brilliantly original discussion of Poe’s aesthetics in terms of the creation of a poetic mythos is Richard Wilbur’s “House of Poe” (the Library of Congress Anniversary Lecture, May 4, 1959), reprinted in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), 255-277; see also Wilbur’s introduction and notes to the Laurel Poetry Series Poe (New York: Dell, 1959). But Hyatt A. Waggoner, in American Poetry from the Puritans to the Present (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), has a point when he says that Wilbur, like Roy Harvey Pearce, mostly talks “about something else”; that is, Poe’s poems are meaningful “only when read in terms of the myth Poe elaborated in his prose, particularly in Eureka,” and thus Wilbur’s commentary “gives more space to the prose than to the poetry” (p. 137). Waggoner’s brief discussion raises essential evaluative questions about Poe’s poems, Poe as a “minor” poet, and Poe’s “crude” theory of poetry. Waggoner seems to me in the main to be right (though Poe’s theory of poetry is hardly crude), but his strictures in no way reduce Poe’s considerable historical interest — especially in the disjunctive congruence of poetry and poetics. See the concluding paragraph of the Poe section (“Death is at the center of Poe’s dreaming poetry”) for a succinct overview of the tension of poetic and poetry in Poe and Emerson, and by extension Whitman (p. 146).

13.  See the 1836 Nature, Chs. I-III. David Halliburton, in Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973) says Poe regards human artistic endeavor as a necessarily inferior or degenerated mode, a complicated point insufficiently argued by Halliburton.

14.  The phrasing of the 1845 version; Collected Works, I, 176-177, lines 42-44, 46-51.

15.  Complete Works, VIII, 299. Others cited are Aeschylus, Prometheus Vinctus; Cervantes, Destruction of Numanitia; Pope, Rape of the Lock; Burns, Tam O’Shanter; Coleridge, Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan; Shelley, The Sensitive Plant; Keats, Nightingale. It is notable how many of these works contain a demonic element.

16.  A controversy in older scholarship is Poe on the “passions.” On the one hand, Poe talks of poetry as a great passion; on the other, he will make such a declaration as “. . . we agree . . . with Coleridge, that poetry and passion are discordant . . .” [page 52:] (Complete Works, XI, 255; review of Horne’s Orion). But Poe is not really so contradictory about the passions as some critics have suggested. He uses the terms “passion” (usually in the singular), “passionate,” and “ecstasy” to describe the effect of “true” poetry and the generation of such poetry; this, obviously, is a higher passion, the true passion, not mere earthly emotions. The melancholy preface to The Raven and Other Poems (1845) can be read in such a way: “Events not to be controlled have prevented me from making, at any time, any serious effort in what, under happier circumstances, would have been the field of my choice. With me poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion . . .”; “TalesandThe Raven and Other Poems”, facsimile ed., with introduction by Jay B. Hubbell (Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Pub. Co., 1969). Humankind has in fact trivialized the passions: “. . . the passions should be held in reverence; they must not — they cannot at will be excited with an eye to the paltry compensations, or the more paltry commendations, of mankind.”

17.  Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley, ed. Carlos Baker (New York: Modern Library, 1951), p. 367, ll. 1-5.

18.  “. . . that merely mathematical recognition of equality which seems to be the root of all Beauty” (Marginalia, 1849, Complete Works, XVI, 136-140; cf. X, 41-45, 1839, rev. 1849 as “National Melodies of America. By George P. Morris”).

19.  See my discussion of grotesque and arabesque in Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973), pp. 103-110 and esp. p. 227 n2. For some mysterious reason, Poe scholars persist in misunderstanding the meaning of these terms in the romantic period in general and Poe’s use of them in particular, assigning comic tales to the category “grotesque” and serious or sinister tales and poems to the “arabesque.” The term “arabesque” in German romantic criticism means intricate design and derives from the proscription in the Koran regarding the reproduction in art of any natural forms that may have a soul. The Arab artist is circumscribed by that prohibition to a graphic art of mathematical, geometrical, symmetrical, and rational design, approaching organic forms only insofar as vines, tendrils, and foliage are suggested. In this feature, the arabesque becomes entwined in art history with the grotesque, which takes its name from the “grotto paintings” (grottesco) unearthed in renaissance Rome, and which Vitruvius described in the 1st century as a bastard or hybrid style of painting fusing animal forms with plant forms, or organic with inorganic. The German romantic critic, Friedrich Schlegel, applied the term “Arabesque” to the intricate narrative symmetries and frames of the new Roman, which Novalis called the “geometrical novel.” Kant’s concept of the arabesque not only parallels this sense of unearthly, unearthbound, abstract design, but also influenced the romantic development of the concept.

20.  Cf. in this context the opening of Poe’s poem, “To Marie Louise”:

Not long ago, the writer of these lines,

In the mad pride of intellectuality,

Maintained the “Power of Words” — denied that ever

A thought arose within the human brain

Beyond the utterance of the human tongue . . . .

(Collected Works, I, l. 407)

The burden of the poem is to suggest that the beauty of the woman cannot be truly caught in words, that she partakes of the sublime, which can only be suggested, in lines like these:

. . . standing motionless upon the golden

Threshold of the wide-open gate of Dreams,

Gazing, entranced, adown the gorgeous vista, [page 53:]

And thrilling as I see upon the right —

Upon the left — and all the way along,

Amid the clouds of glory, far away

To where the prospect terminates — thee only.

In the Columbian Magazine version, “clouds of glory” is “empurpled vapors,” reminiscent of the vistas of “Al Aaraaf.” Cf. the ambiguous, inconclusive conclusion of the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, with its vision of a human figure at the terminus of a vaporous vista. Roy Harvey Pearce has a suggestive, brief section on Poe in The Continuity of American Poetry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961). Using as exemplary the poems “Dreams” and “Dream-Land,” Pearce writes that Poe’s poems are about “semblances of reality. But caught as he is in semblances, the poet is not yet able to create absolutely. To do so, he must free himself from them. When he does so, he will have made a world of words released from its obligation to take note of such semblances. That world will be significant only by virtue of what is created out of words, not at all by virtue of what those words have ‘really’ meant” (pp. 150-151). This may well be what comes to be Poe’s vision, but in the early poems, Poe seems to conceive of something “out there” beyond physical limitation that the words can “really” capture — or at least suggest. The progress from this early faith to the position of creating fictions is suggested by the present essay, which concludes with “Al Aaraaf.”

21.  See also Byron’s The Giaour. In addition to generalized resemblances to Manfred, cf. the setting in the mountains and the figure of the chamois hunter (see Poe, ll. 42-43; “strife with chamois”); cf. also Manfred’s speech to the abbot, III, ll. 66-78, with the opening address of Tamerlane to a “friar.” It is striking, given the implied situation of so many of his prose tales, that Poe’s first major poem is a death-bed confession in dramatic monologue form.

22.  In the 1831 publication of Poems, Poe incorporates lines from some of the shorter lyrics following the 1827 “Tamerlane” into the new version of the poem. The whole of the last 1827 lyric, “The Lake,” becomes Section VIII of the 1831 “Tamerlane,” with the addition of other lines, and in line 95 the addition of the name of the girl, Ada (the name, incidentally, of Byron’s daughter). For the traditional, one-for-one, rather simplistic biographical readings of the lyric poems of Tamerlane, readings that largely ignore the development of a fictive romantic persona — or of a Byronic “voice” as a literary convention — see the notes and introductions to the poems in the edition of Mabbott and also of Killis Campbell (1917; reprint ed., New York: Russell and Russell, 1962).

23.  Collected Works, I, 26.; all further references to this edition are given in parenthesis in the text; most are to the Mabbott A-text, the earliest; later versions will be labelled by text and canto (e.g., F-text, VIII) as necessary.

24.  This is not only the assumption of the older biographical interpretations, but also of more recent critical studies. David Halliburton, along with his readings of the theme of “envenoming Power” and “foreknowledge” as existential consciousness of “one’s essential powerlessness,” eventually reduces his phrasing to merely “the ambitious dreamer” (p. 61) and “the personification of Ambition” (p. 67). Halliburton has a good discussion of selected lyrics from the Tamerlane volume. Floyd Stovall, in Edgar Poe, the Poet: Essays New and Old on the Man and His Work (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1969), suggests (though acknowledging oversimplification) that the theme of the 1827 Tamerlane volume is pride, while the theme of the 1829 Al Aaraaf volume is escape into dream (p. 205). I argue here that the dream motif (with its dual [page 54:] aspects of terror and beauty) is not only present in the first volume but is the overarching theme; the second volume acknowledges the futility of the quest and presents a vision of apocalypse.

25.  See Halliburton’s discussion of Tamerlane as the victim of the pride-of-power which is also a form of the “servile will”; he is “a victimizer who becomes, inevitably, a victim” (p. 63); this is right as far as it goes; he is also the victim of the “ill-demon” of the visionary self.

26.  “Tamerlane,” ll. 370-375. Poe’s note to l. 373 reads in part: “I have often fancied that I could distinctly hear the sound of darkness, as it spreads over the horizon . . .” (I, 38). Baudelaire was taken with such synaesthesia here and elsewhere in Poe; the same note appears verbatim in “Al Aaraaf,” Part II, ll. 46-47, n.20.

27.  The most important studies of Poe’s poetry include the books by Halliburton and Stovall cited above. In Stovall, see esp. Ch. V, “Poe’s Debt to Coleridge” (note p. 137 for a summary listing of nine points of congruity), and Ch. VIII, “Mood, Meaning, and Form in Poe’s Poetry”; his interpretation of “Al Aaraaf” in Ch. IV is cited below. John Phelps Fruit, The Mind and Art of Poe’s Poetry (1899 reprinted., New York: AMS Press, 1966) is still worth a look, even though it is repetitively organized and skimpily developed; see Ch. II on the “Dreamer” and Ch. III on “Beauty.” Richard M. Fletcher, in the promisingly titled Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe (The Hague: Mouton, 1973), deals with the poetry in Chs. II-III; see also Ch. IV, “The Poe Vocabulary” (though it is primarily on the fiction). Richard Wilbur’s notes to the Laurel Poe bring evidence to bear on his cosmological thesis (cited in note 12). A psychological-biographical study yields unusually good results, especially, I would say, for the tales: Daniel Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972); Chs. II-III are on the poems and the critical theory. Arthur Hobson Quinn tends toward biographical interpretations but is aware of the multiplicity of purely literary conventions emulated in Poe’s work; see Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1941), Ch. VI, “Tamerlane and the Army,” Ch. VII, “Hope Deferred — Al Aaraaf.” One of the best general studies is Gerhard Joseph’s “Poe and Tennyson,” PMLA, 88 (1973), 418-428. General studies of American poetry that treat Poe in some way include: Bernard I. Duffey, Poetry in America: Expression and Its Values in the Times of Bryant, Whitman, and Pound (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1979); Paul Fussell, Lucifer in Harness: American Meter, Metaphor, and Diction (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973); Albert J. Gelpi, The Tenth Muse: The Psyche of the American Poet (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975). See other notes for additional citations. Hyatt Waggoner excludes Poe (except for brief mention) from his American Visionary Poetry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982); see note 12 of the present essay.

28.  Cf. Halliburton’s discussion (pp. 71-75) of the themes of sovereignty and self-sufficiency in this poem.

29.  Cf. Halliburton’s discussion of Tamerlane’s “presence” in other of the Tamerlane poems, as here: “ ‘The Happiest Day,’ another poem about the loss of pride and power, is a kind of ‘Tamerlane’ without Tamerlane” (p. 69).

30.  See Mabbott’s introduction to the poem, I, 83.

31.  Lines 82-85. The theme of the “terrible and fair” is recurrent in Stovall’s essays on Poe’s poetry; his “An Interpretation of ‘Al Aaraaf’ ” (Ch. IV) is, along with Halliburton’s much shorter one, the best discussion of the poem. Cf. Stovall at p. 116 with W. B. Cairns, “Some Notes on Poe’s ‘Al Aaraaf,’ ” Modern Philology, 13 [page 55:] (1915), 35-54. Stovall identifies three “threads” that intertwine to form the “structure” of the poem 1) a religious-astronomical theme prophesying destruction; 2) the symbol of the star world as an “Eden “rather than a “Limbo,” where beings find rest in dreams; 3) an allegory of Poe’s own theory of poetry. Halliburton briefly discusses the “divine aesthetics of the supernal, the “angelic imagination,” and “inferior” human creation, pp. 82-83.

32.  See Mabbott’s introduction to the poem, I, 92, 96-97.



This lecture was delivered at the Sixty-first Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 2, 1983.

© 1984 and 2010, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:1 - CED, 1983] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Circumscribed Eden of Dreams (G. R. Thompson, 1983)