Text: Travis Montgomery, “Turning East: Poe’s 1831 Poems and the Renewal of American Verse,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 2011


­[title page:]

Turning East:
Edgar Allan Poe’s
Poems (1831), the Orient,
and the Renewal of
American Verse

Travis Montgomery

University of Mississippi

­[front matter:]

This pamphlet is based on a lecture delivered at the 84th Commemorative Program of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, October 1, 2006

Copyright © 2011 by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.

Rather than creating an excessive number of footnotes, most repeated page references in the text are given in parentheses, prefixed by the last name of the author, as listed in the bibliography. (If there are multiple works by the same author, a primary word from the title of the individual work is also given.) Because the texts of Poe’s poems used throughout this paper are specifically from the 1831 edition, the parenthetical references to these quotations are prefixed as Poems, followed by page and line notation.

* * * * * * * *

­[page 1, unnumbered:]

Edgar Allan Poe’s Poems: Second Edition (1831) offers an interesting case study in literary borrowing.(1) To illustrate, poems in this collection — which feature a brooding, alienated hero (“Tamerlane”), an impassioned apostrophe to a star (“Al Aaraaf”), and a speaker contemplating ruins (“The Doomed City”) — employ numerous conventions of British Romantic verse.(2) While such appropriations are rather innocent, other borrowings in the volume may seem more disturbing. As Kenneth Silverman observes, some of the poems contain “lines . . . cribbed or lightly reworked from poems by” contemporary British and American writers.(3) These literary “thefts” appear even more suspicious in light of some remarks ­[page 2:] Poe makes in his high-toned essay “Letter to Mr. — ——,” which serves prominently as the preface to the collection. Here considering “only a portion of [his] former volume to be worthy of a second edition,” Poe describes his revision of earlier poems and hopes that the verse in his new edition “may have some chance of being seen by posterity” (Poems, 13, 14). Presenting the 1831 Poems as evidence of his artistic maturity, Poe encourages readers to consider the volume as original work meriting admiration and preservation. Yet how can one reconcile this explicit pretension to creativity with Poe’s frequent reliance on other works?

We may consider a few possible answers to this question. Perhaps in the preface Poe intentionally misleads his readers about the originality of his work. In this case, Poe is a charlatan selling pilfered poetic wares as new material. Or perhaps he does not recognize the contradiction, and if he does not, then he is a victim of self-delusion; thus the borrowings in the 1831 volume reveal his artistic immaturity. Both of these answers are, however, unsatisfactory. In the first place, Poems: Second Edition contains early versions of “To Helen,” “Israfel,” and “The City in the Sea,” classic poems that critics regard as vintage Poe. Thus the claims Poe makes for the originality of his verse in “Letter to Mr. — ——” are not entirely unwarranted. Second, the borrowings and “plagiarisms” in the 1831 Poems may have a thematic purpose, one that critics have yet fully to explore. After all, why would Poe intentionally plagiarize poems that his readers were likely to recognize? To understand, then, the relevance of these borrowings, one should consider them in relation to their cultural context. As he catalogues the poetic conventions of his day and quotes popular poems in this collection, Poe places the 1831 volume within its artistic milieu. But what is the significance of Poe’s engagement with the contemporary literary scene?

The prefatory “Letter to Mr. — ——” provides clues for grasping the meaning of this engagement. In this curious missive, Poe contemplates the peculiar situation of American poets, who, he asserts, face the daunting reality that they are “read, if at all, in preference to the combined and established wit of the world” (Poems, 16). With this declaration, he identifies a literary crisis in ­[page 3:] the nascent republic, where writers labor under what Harold Bloom has more recently called the “anxiety of influence” as they try “to clear imaginative space for themselves.”(4) Poe uses the epistolary preface to his 1831 Poems to open just such a space, challenging the authority of the Lake School tradition exemplified by Wordsworth and his American imitators. In particular, Poe takes issue with the moralizing bent of Wordsworthian poetics, and he repeats Coleridge’s dictum that the “immediate object” of all poetry is “pleasure, not truth” (Poems, 28).(5) As he attacks Lake School sententiousness and ­[page 4:] presents the “first substantial statement on his poetics,” Poe also indirectly criticizes such writers as William Cullen Bryant and Nathaniel Parker Willis, who patterned their verse after Wordsworth’s and popularized an American variety of didactic nature poetry.(6) Through these critical pronouncements, Poe reveals his desire to outshine the accomplishments of previous poets (British and American). Indeed, the individual poet’s longing to produce original work is a major theme of the poems ­[page 5:] in the 1831 volume, and this theme further illuminates the meaning of Poe’s literary borrowings. Taken together, the Romantic conventions and cribbed lines that appear in Poems constitute a map of the transatlantic literary world Poe inhabits, and within this world he collects raw materials for his craft. The cribbed lines, which are foils for the new verse Poe wants to create, have another purpose: in many cases, the revisions are marked improvements on the originals, and as he modifies his sources, Poe demonstrates his artistic skill. In short, he actually uses the borrowings in the collection to present himself as an original poet.

Other devices in Poems also register Poe’s desire to revitalize American poetry. Significantly, six of the ten poems in this collection contain details associated with the Middle East.(7) Poe does not, however, depict any American scenes in the 1831 volume. For example, unlike Bryant and other poets of the American Lake School, he makes few references to native flora and fauna in these poems.(8) Neither does he allude to American heroes and national history. Considering Poe’s interest in promoting American verse, such omissions might seem peculiar. The Oriental images in the collection may, however, reveal Poe’s rationale for not treating national matters in a volume designed to showcase the work of a promising American poet. At any rate, one should avoid labeling these devices as mere decoration; pervasive and prominent, this material demands critical attention. With references to the Middle East appearing throughout the text, ­[page 6:] “the Orient” serves as the controlling metaphor for the collection, and in Poe’s signifying economy, the Orient represents artistic freedom; by upholding “the East” as his aesthetic ideal, Poe effectively rejects “the West,” which symbolizes British and American traditions, including but not limited to Lake School verse, that he finds banal.(9) As Poe suggests in “Letter to Mr. — ——,” Americans have no established literary tradition of their own and may be too reliant on British models to write innovative work. Literary nationalism offers other temptations: membership in an influential literary set and success though facile writings that appeal to patriotism. Poe counsels his fellow writers to resist these allurements, implying that Americans will never produce an enduring body of literature if they succumb to such seductions. In Poems: Second Edition, Oriental figures, objects, and locales function as symbols of poetic transcendence, and they reflect Poe’s desire to surpass the achievements of his literary predecessors and to renew American verse.(10) ­[page 7:]

Poe’s delight in the Orientalist works of William Beckford, Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, and other British authors has long been common knowledge, but American writings about the Middle East, especially Barbary captivity narratives, also influenced Poe’s Orientalism. Domestic interest in Islam was, in the main, a result of the Barbary Wars, which were among the young nation’s first foreign policy crises, and these conflicts inevitably shaped popular attitudes toward Muslims, whom Americans often represented as tyrants and barbarians. According to Timothy Marr, “The recurrent cultural images of Islam circulating during the colonial period and inherited and enhanced by Americans in the early national period frequently stood in opposition to many qualities that citizens of the United States affirmed in their own bid for moral legitimacy as an emerging civilization” (Marr, 10). These images coalesced in a discourse that Marr has termed “American Islamicism,” a phrase distinguishing “orientalist codes” from “Islamic faith”; thus this cluster of Western representations of the Muslim world “reveal[ed] more about the constitution of American imaginations than it [did] about the character of Muslim beliefs” (Marr, 8, 7). As Marr has pointed out, this “oppositional form” of American Islamicism was one of many, but it was the prevailing form during Poe’s early years (Marr, 10). ­[page 8:]

When one considers the influence of the Barbary Wars experience on the average American’s perceptions of the Islamic world, the cultural significance of Poe’s valorization of the Orient in Poems: Second Edition becomes apparent. Cleverly anticipating reader response, Poe sprinkles references to the Middle East, a region much maligned in early national print culture, throughout this collection to signal his radical departure from dominant aesthetic trends in the American literary world. Of course, he does not, in theory, object to writers employing poetic conventions in their verse; to be sure, as a poet, he draws freely from the wealth of Romantic motifs and devices at his disposal. Poe insists, however, that American poets be unconventional in appropriating such material. In other words, he urges fellow writers to fight imaginative enslavement to a literary school or tradition, and with the East/West opposition, Poe dramatizes his struggle to write “through” tradition by creating new verse.

Three poems published for the first time in the 1831 volume —”Israfel,” “To Helen,” and “The Doomed City” — revolve around Oriental images.(11) “Israfel” contains two references to Islamic culture. The “Israfel” of the title is, as Poe indicates in a footnote, an angelic figure from the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. According to this note, Israfel “has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures” (Poems, 43).(12) Poe introduces a second Oriental image in the fourth stanza, where he mentions “Houri glances” that are “Imbued with all the beauty/ Which we worship in yon star” (Poems, 20, 22-3).(13) In Muslim tradition, the Houris are the lovely virgins in paradise. While “Israfel” and “Houri glances” are both clear references to a key religious system in Middle Eastern culture, one should note that ­[page 9:] Poe does not offer a detailed picture of the Muslim world anywhere in the poem. Thus he does not engage “real” Islamic cultures in “Israfel,” and he primarily employs Oriental images for their exoticism. As Betsy Erkkila observes, “Poe was not so much interested in the Koran or the religious beliefs of the Arabs as he was in ‘the Arabians’ as figures of romantic apartness and otherworldliness” (Erkkila, 48). Yet this exotic vision of the Orient is, in some respects, subversive, for Poe uses it to expose the limitations of poetic principles and verse forms in Britain and America. In their cultural conspicuousness, the Oriental images of “Israfel” reflect the uniqueness of the new American verse that Poe wants to create, a verse liberated from the fetters of Western convention.

Throughout the poem the speaker contrasts the angelic Israfel to the earthbound poet.(14) While Israfel’s music enchants the firmament, causing the “giddy stars” to cease their celestial music and the moon to pause in its course, the speaker, whose powers are confined to the terrestrial sphere, can produce only “unimpassion’d” music (Poems, 5, 26). G. R. Thompson ­[page 10:] perceives a relationship between the earthbound poet of “Israfel” and “unimaginative” poets who “fail in their mechanical combinations to suggest the mystical, the ideal” (Thompson, 15). One can also read the earthbound poet as a writer trapped within an enervating literary tradition. Israfel does not, however, suffer such imaginative confinement. Indeed, he not only transcends earthly existence as an angelic being, but, symbolically, he also surpasses in creative power uninspired British and American poets as a representative of the exotic Orient. In the fifth stanza, the speaker declares that “the laurels belong” to Israfel (Poems, 27). Considering Israfel’s status as an Islamic figure, this assertion is particularly significant; yielding a laurel crown, the Graeco-Roman symbol of artistic accomplishment, to an Oriental poet, the speaker overturns the aesthetic authority of “the West” and invests the truly visionary artist with that authority. Thus Israfel’s cultural “strangeness” or “Otherness” symbolizes the power of the creative poet to overcome the anxiety of influence. Significantly, Poe makes no effort to link Israfel to a real Middle Eastern literary tradition, for doing so would defeat his purpose in creating the angel as a supremely original artist, a poet above any tradition.

The speaker also contrasts the exoticism of Israfel’s music to the dullness of the mortal poet’s songs. While there is nothing definitely “Middle Eastern” about this music, the cultural resonance of “the Orient” highlights the “Otherness” of the angel’s lays. Throughout the poem, the speaker distinguishes the passionate “fire” of Israfel’s music from the “unimpassion’d” song of the earthbound poet (Poems, 14, 26). In the first stanza, the speaker avers, “None could sing so wild — so well/ As the angel Israfel” (Poems, 3-4). Here the poet links the transcendent beauty of the music to the “wildness” or passion of the angelic musician, and the “unusual strings” of Israfel’s lyre, to which the speaker refers in stanza three, mirror the strangeness of the angel’s wild singing (Poems, 16). Unlike Israfel, the speaker can produce only “unimpassion’d” strains. The situation of the earthbound poet who makes only uninspired music parallels the plight of the American writer enslaved to poetic convention and doomed to produce insipid, imitative verse. ­[page 11:]

The speaker connects the “exoticism” of Israfel’s music to the formal eccentricity of the poem itself. Consider, for example, the sixth stanza, where he describes the rhythmic power of this music. For the speaker, the “extacies [sic]” of heaven “suit” the “burning measures” of Israfel’s song (Poems, 29, 30). The “measures” refer to the time or rhythm of a musical piece, and by linking the rhythm of the angel’s song with the angel’s fiery passion, the speaker stresses the individuality of Israfel’s melodies. Poe manipulates poetic forms throughout “Israfel” to imitate the celestial poet’s song, which is formally irregular. Although Poe divides the poem into eight stanzas, Arthur Hobson Quinn observes that “no attempt is made at uniformity in the stanzas” (Quinn, 182). According to Quinn, this stanzaic irregularity complements the piece’s mood(s): “the poem is a succession of outpourings of the spirit and in each stanza the mood, as is proper, dictates the metrical expression” (Quinn, 182). Poe supplements these irregular stanzas with an unconventional rhyme scheme. These formal idiosyncrasies catch something of “Israfeli’s fire,” transcending the prosaic sameness of contemporary verse. At any rate, Poe’s experiments with rhyme and meter manifest artistic precocity, anticipating the technical ingenuity of his mature poetry.(15)

“To Helen” also features a significant reference to the Middle East: the “Nicean barks,” which appear in line two and recall the ­[page 12:] ancient city of Nicaea in Asia Minor.(16) To understand the symbolic import of these Oriental ships, one must first consider the context of the poem. Notice that Poe does not identify the speaker’s homeland. This move may seem curious to some readers, who assume the “Helen” of the title to be Helen of Troy. But if this figure is, in fact, the fabled Greek woman, why does the speaker say that Helen’s “hyacinth hair,” “classic face,” and “Naiad airs have brought [him] home/ To the beauty of fair Greece,/ And the grandeur of old Rome”? (Poems, 7, 8, 9-10). Clearly, a resident of Ancient Greece during the Trojan War would know nothing of “old Rome” in its imperial “grandeur.” Where, then, is the speaker? The last stanza, which, as Paull F. Baum claims, “transports us from the generalized and vague classic setting to the immediate present,” offers an answer (Baum, 294). Here the speaker observes Helen holding a “folded scroll” and standing “statue-like” in a “little window-niche” (Poems, 13, 12, 11). Perhaps this Helen is a figurine representing the speaker’s muse,(17) and hence her “folded scroll” emblematizes ­[page 13:] his literary craft. She is also described as “A Psyche from the regions which/ Are Holy land” (Poems, 14-5).(18) Focusing on the word “Psyche,” Floyd Stovall reads the figure in the window-niche as a symbol for “the soul, which can perceive beauty as truth” (Stovall, 211). Thus as the speaker, who is, of course, a poet, regards the figure before him, he apprehends true beauty, and his soul, the primary organ of poetic insight, is inspired. Arranged thus in the final stanza, these images — the window-niche, the Greek figure, the captivated artist — combine to form a picture of a poet composing an ode and gazing at a small statue in his chamber for inspiration.(19) In this scene, Poe places special emphasis on the role a spiritual response to beauty plays in the creative process.

The significance of Poe’s “Nicean barks” becomes clear when one considers the word in relation to his imaginative celebration of the Orient. In the first stanza, the speaker compares these vessels, which carry wanderers home, to the allure of his muse: “Helen, thy beauty is to me/ Like those Nicean barks of yore,/ That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,/ The weary, way-worn wanderer bore/ To his own native shore” (Poems, 1-5). With this simile, Poe stresses the transporting power of the Oriental ships and the muse, linking the two symbolically. The “Nicean barks,” which derive from a city in the Middle East, and Helen are both vehicles of poetic inspiration. According to the speaker, Helen’s ­[page 14:] beauty returns him “to his own native shore,” the wellspring of his poetic genius. Read in terms of Poe’s East/West dichotomy, the “Nicean barks” perform a similar function for the American poet, and Poe skillfully exploits their exotic resonance. These ships, which are Orientalized, figuratively carry poets out of captivity to convention and restore their imaginative power. Following their unique creative impulses, writers go beyond the confines of tradition just as the speaker in “To Helen” loses himself while contemplating his muse. These acts of transcendence (fleeing the lure of artistic conformity and contemplating true beauty), Poe suggests, paradoxically lead writers back “home,” where they return rejuvenated and full of inspiration. By urging American poets to seek “Oriental” berths for their creative voyages, Poe encourages them to exercise their artistic liberties and to make their own imaginative homecomings.

“The Doomed City,” which Poe premiered in the 1831 edition, contains similar images related to the Orient.(20) A curious piece of ekphrastic verse, the poem conveys the eerie magnificence of a ruined city in the sea, which boasts architectural wonders such as “Babylon-like walls” and “many a melancholy shrine/ Whose entablatures intertwine/ The mask — the viol — and the vine” (Poems, 27, 28-30). By linking these walls to those of Babylon, Poe invests his mysterious city with the Oriental splendor of the Mesopotamian capital, one of the great cultural centers of the Ancient World. According to Dwayne Thorpe, the reference to Babylon, coupled with the poem’s otherworldly atmosphere, indicates that Poe builds “nearly all the imagery of his poem around a single source: the Revelation of St. John” (Thorpe, 396). These images, Thorpe argues, suit both Poe’s “apocalyptic imagination” and the poem’s “nihilistic” picture of death, in which “human values are drowned in the final night,” and no one enjoys heavenly redemption (Thorpe, 398, 399). Thus Poe uses his “Christian source in a thoroughly non-Christian way” (Thorpe, 399). While Thorpe’s reading is valid, it does not exhaust the poem’s interpretive ­[page 15:] possibilities. One can, for example, read “The Doomed City” as another meditation on literary invention. Viewed from this perspective, the poem emerges as yet one more variation on a theme binding the verse in the 1831 volume together: the poet’s struggle to find inspiration for new art.

The exotic appeal of “the Babylon-like walls” signifies the transcendent power of artistic ingenuity, which Poe imaginatively associates with the Middle East. In the second stanza, the sheer magnificence of the city overwhelms the speaker: “There shrines, and palaces, and towers/ Are — not like any thing of ours — / O! no — O! no — ours never loom/ To heaven with that ungodly gloom” (Poems, 6-9). Dashes in this passage suggest the halting speech of someone shocked into awe of the Sublime. While the “ungodly gloom” of the city in the sea may terrify the speaker, his fascination overrides his fear, for he proceeds to describe the city’s ruined wonders. This fascination derives from the city’s uncanny Otherness, which, in its haunting strangeness, brings to mind Israfel’s strange music. As the speaker obverses in line 7, the structures in this place are “not like any thing” in the earthly towns of his acquaintance. Significantly, the speaker confines his attention here to cultural artifacts: the mysterious city’s singular architecture. These buildings not only monumentalize artistic achievement — they also embody it. Coded “Oriental,” these structures symbolize the enduring power or truly original art, and as the terrible grandeur of the city with its “Babylon-like walls” amazes the speaker, so, Poe suggests, does the power of bold and innovative poetry transcend the mediocrity of conventional verse.

Through the speaker’s celebration of the city’s weird magnificence, Poe considers the sources of true poetic inspiration. Whereas nature poets (such as Bryant) and celebrated painters of the Hudson River School found their inspiration in native landscapes, Poe does not direct aspiring artists to the American wilderness for imaginative succor. Furthermore, his consistent, even willful, avoidance of conventional nature themes and glib didacticism reveals his distaste for the narrow nationalism and sermonizing tendencies of popular poetry. In the final stanza of “The Doomed City,” Poe underscores his impatience with the fashionable verse of his time. Here the speaker senses “a stir . . . in the air,” sees a “ripple” in the ­[page 16:] surrounding waters, and concludes that the city is “sinking” while an unnatural red “glow” suffuses the scene (Poems, 45, 46, 48, 51). He then anticipates the mysterious city’s fate: “And when, amid no earthly moans,/ Down, down that town shall settle hence,/ Hell rising from a thousand thrones/ Shall do it reverence” (Poems, 53-6). The speaker suggests that although such an exotic metropolis may sink into the sea, the city will still enjoy immortality through Hell’s “reverence.” If this strange place, with its “Babylon-like walls,” represents imaginative art, then the infernal “reverence” Poe mentions in the final stanza has countercultural significance. Following Romantic poets such as William Blake, who reenvisioned Satan as a symbol of human independence and creative freedom, Poe celebrates Hell.(21) Thus “Hell” figuratively offers real literary immortality to poets, while “Heaven,” by implication, grants only transient fame to mediocre writers who parrot others. Poe uses an Oriental image, the “Babylon-like walls” of the city in the sea, to reinforce this symbolic reversal. As he overturns conventional views of Heaven and Hell, he makes the Middle East, a region denigrated among many writers of the early national period for its “barbarous” customs and cultural “backwardness,” his imaginative utopia and the symbolic source of his visionary poetics. With these dramatic inversions, Poe shows his contempt for pedestrian national poetry, the fruit of an imaginative insularity that, in his view, hampers creativity.

In addition to “Israfel,” “To Helen,” and “The Doomed City,” Poe included in the 1831 volume two other major poems featuring references to the Orient: “Tamerlane” and “Al Aaraaf.” Different versions of these poems had appeared previously in Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827) and Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (1829). Considering that the majority of the verse in the 1831 collection is lyric poetry, one may wonder why Poe chose to include “Tamerlane” and “Al Aaraaf,” two long narrative poems, in his third published book. A possible answer ­[page 17:] is that these two poems correspond thematically to other pieces in the new edition. The Oriental images in “Tamerlane” and “Al Aaraaf” — like similar devices in “Israfel,” “To Helen,” and “The Doomed City” — operate as symbols of the poetic transcendence Poe desires, and the two poems speak to his anxieties about the future of American verse. Thus the inclusion of these older works gives the 1831 volume thematic unity.

“Al Aaraaf” overflows with references to the Middle East. For instance, in this poem one reads of “silver winds” from “Circassy,” a region near Turkey (Poems, I: 14); the hyacinth, a flower called “Fior di Levante,” or Flower of the Levant (Poems, I: 91); beautiful “Friezes from Tadmor and Persepolis” (Poems, II: 36); a simoom, which is a powerful desert storm (Poems, II: 165); the “Arabesq’ carving of a gilded hall” (Poems, II: 204); and the Gulistan, a work by “Persian Saadi” (Poems, II: 209).(22) In addition to these details, the title of the poem also signals Poe’s interest in the Orient. His “Al Aaraaf” is vaguely reminiscent of the al-a’raf described in Sura Seven of the Qur’an. According to M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, al-a’raf refers to “the heights of the barrier which will divide the righteous from the damned on the Day of Judgment” (Abdel Haleem, 94). Poe’s “Al Aaraaf” corresponds, in some ways, to its Qur’anic antecedent; in the poem, Al Aaraaf is a star where spirits of the dead await God’s orders, and the angel Nesace, who executes divine commands, governs the souls who dwell there. While this heavenly region is a depot for departed spirits, it differs markedly, in some respects, from the al-a’raf of Islamic tradition. Filled with flowers and bathed in celestial light, Poe’s star is “A garden spot in desert of the blest” (Poems, I: 33). The original al-a’raf lacks, however, such amenities. Additionally, while the Qur’anic people of the heights long for deliverance, the inhabitants of Poe’s star slumber peacefully. These divergences in description suggest that Poe has little interest in faithfully reproducing the Islamic al-a’raf. Modeling his star loosely upon Qur’anic sources and material from Moore’s Oriental romances, Poe gives this fictive world an exotic atmosphere enhanced by ­[page 18:] other Middle Eastern references.(23) These images, like other Oriental devices in the 1831 edition, have symbolic purposes, and Poe uses them to voice his concerns about the literary profession in the Age of Jackson.

The 1831 version of “Al Aaraaf” contains an introduction (Poems, I: 1-29) highlighting Poe’s symbolic differentiation between East and West.(24) This prefatory material reinforces the thematic relationship between “Al Aaraaf” and other poems in the collection, especially “Israfel” and “The Doomed City.” Essentially, the new introduction is an invocation of the muse, Al Aaraaf, which the speaker calls the “Mysterious star” (Poems, I: 1). With this epithet Poe accentuates the exotic power of his astral subject, whose name (Al Aaraaf) links it with its otherworldly Qur’anic counterpart. In his invocation, the speaker apostrophizes the star, imploring the heavenly body to be his “theme” and to “Bathe [him] in celestial light” (Poems, I: 4, 8). A comparison of his world, the earth, with the extraterrestrial glory of Al Aaraaf follows: “Thy world has not the dross of ours,/ Yet all the beauty” (Poems, I: 9-10). The speaker continues, “Little — oh! little dwells in thee/ Like unto what on earth we see: / Beauty’s eye is here the bluest/ In the falsest and untruest” (Poems, I: 16-19). In these passages, the speaker emerges as an earthbound poet longing for imaginative transcendence. Dissatisfied with mundane subjects, he turns to the firmament, where, he believes, true beauty lies, for inspiration. The heavens symbolize the heights of his visionary desire and ambition. Significantly, an Oriental star is the object of these longings. Discovering spiritual beauty beyond the terrestrial sphere, the speaker also transcends the limits of inherited cultural traditions and aesthetic values, luxuriating in the fascinating Otherness of Al Aaraaf, a name derived, of course, from the key text of Islamic spirituality. Thus Poe’s poem discusses two types of transcendence: the discernment of spiritual realities beyond the material world and the poet’s endeavor to rise above literary convention, which is linked figuratively with “the West,” in order to produce innovative verse. ­[page 19:]

In “Al Aaraaf” Poe counsels resistance to imaginative confinement, and the description of this Oriental paradise limns his aesthetic ideals. This marvelous world, brimming with exotic flowers and angelic beings, is an Eden of the imagination. The star also features architectural wonders from the Middle East such as ornate “Friezes from Tadmor and Persepolis/ From Balbec” (Poems, II: 36-7). These structures, which commemorate artistic genius, underline a preoccupation with aesthetic matters in the poem. Commenting on this thematic focus, Floyd Stovall regards “Al Aaraaf” as an allegorical presentation of Poe’s “theory of poetry” (Stovall, 116). “In our allegory,” he writes, “the star Al Aaraaf is the realm of beauty, and the spirits who dwell there are artists, lovers of beauty, whose duty it is to reveal to men the true nature of God” (Stovall, 118). To support this claim, Stovall turns to a passage in which Nesace, the angelic ruler of Al Aaraaf, describes her mission: “By wing’d Fantasy,/ My embassy is given/ Till secresy [sic] shall knowledge be/ In the environs of heaven” (Poems, I: 128-31). For Stovall, this speech indicates that artists, over whom Nesace presides, access divine beauty through the “means” of “fantasy, or the imagination” (Stovall, 119). By revealing beauty to others, artists fulfill their purpose, and to achieve this goal, artists must follow the dictates of imagination, through which individuals attain transcendent beauty.

Although Stovall comments admirably on Poe’s poetics, he does not consider the relationship between the allegorical message of the poem and the Middle Eastern images pervading “Al Aaraaf.” These devices illuminate not only Poe’s aesthetic views but also specific cultural problems that Poe tackles in the 1831 volume. By filling the poem with references to the Orient, which serves as a metaphor for inspired art, Poe reminds readers of the primacy of imagination. While a poet may draw on literary conventions and treat any number of subjects, the imagination, for Poe, is paramount, and it must drive the creative process. Declaring allegiance to the imagination, Poe eulogizes the Orient in “Al Aaraaf,” and in so doing he makes a powerful cultural statement. In the wake of the Barbary Wars, he takes the Islamic Middle East, which to many nineteenth-century Americans was synonymous with cruelty, despotism, and ignorance, and uses it ­[page 20:] to represent his poetic ideals. While he does not condemn poets in the young republic for treating national themes, he objects vehemently to harnessing artistic impulses for political or didactic purposes. Passionate in his defense of creative freedom, Poe insists that no affiliations, political or cultural, can supersede the imagination, which alone can secure literary immortality.

“Tamerlane,” the final piece in the 1831 collection, tells the story of a man who, in his youth, abandons his true love, Ada, in pursuit of military glory. While Tamerlane was an important figure in the history of the Islamic world, “Poe took little from historic and dramatic sources” in his depiction of the fourteenth-century Muslim conqueror (Mabbott, 1: 24). Indeed, the hero of Poe’s poem bears little resemblance to the authentic Tamerlane; the poem contains no accounts of battles or military campaigns and includes only a few scattered geographical references to real locations. One need not judge, however, Poe’s selection of Tamerlane as hero arbitrary. Like Israfel’s cultural strangeness, Tamerlane’s Otherness as an Islamic figure serves Poe’s poetic purposes, and by identifying his hero with the Orient, Poe highlights the transcendent power of Tamerlane’s imagination. While Tamerlane, the speaker of the poem, never refers to his military prowess, he does compare his “giant-like” mind with the power of a “heavy wind” near the mountains of Taglay (Poems, 61, 60). The description sets forth the superhuman power of Tamerlane’s imaginative faculties, and significantly, Poe focuses here on his hero’s creative power, not his military might. As a result, Tamerlane seems more poet than warrior.

Playing down the conqueror’s military career in order to highlight his imagination, Poe employs Tamerlane, a figure notable to Western readers chiefly for his cultural Otherness, as a symbol for the imaginative poet. Identified with “the East,” Tamerlane represents the truly creative artist who transcends a drab literary tradition, which “the West” signifies. Thus Poe’s characterization of Tamerlane is, in some respects, similar to his portrayal of Israfel, and as the poem’s speaker, Tamerlane demonstrates his imaginative powers in rich, lyrical language and in marvelously evocative descriptions of landscapes and dreamscapes. Commenting on the highly musical qualities of “Tamerlane” and other early poems, Arthur Hobson Quinn ­[page 21:] claims that the verse contained “a lyric fervor that had not appeared before in American poetry” (Quinn, 129). Poe further establishes Tamerlane as a poet figure in stanza V, where the conqueror recalls a dream from his youth. In this vision, he imagined a “man . . . shed[ding]/ Laurels upon” him (Poems, 62-3). The reference to the victor’s crown here is delightfully ambiguous. In Ancient Greece and Rome, the laurels were awarded not only to successful military leaders but also to winners of athletic and literary contests. Associating Tamerlane with the laurel crown, an emblem of physical and creative excellence, Poe underscores his hero’s symbolic status as a poet. The laurel crown is, of course, a powerful image in “Israfel,” which poem also employs the image to celebrate inventive verse.

The Oriental conqueror ultimately represents, whatever else he might be, the imaginative writer who fails to maintain his/her artistic integrity, and one can read “Tamerlane” as a parable of the visionary’s corruption. Such a reading would certainly be in keeping with other allegorical approaches to the poem. For example, some critics interpret “Tamerlane” as “a personal allegory” of Poe’s own ill-fated relationship with Sarah Elmira Royster of Richmond, a woman Poe left behind and ultimately lost in his quest “to conquer the world” (Mabbott, 1: 24). In his preface to Tamerlane and Other Poems, Poe hints at such an interpretation: “In Tamerlane, [the author] has endeavoured to expose the folly of even risking the best feelings of the heart at the shrine of Ambition” (qtd. in Mabbott, 1: 22). If “Tamerlane” is to some degree a personal confession, then the narrative frame Poe chose for the poem is quite appropriate. The speaker of the poem is the dying Tamerlane himself, who confesses “the sin/ Unearthly pride hath revell’d in” to a priest (Poems, 4-5).(25) In ­[page 22:] light of Poe’s perceived self-identification with the titular hero of the poem, readers should consider how “Tamerlane” reveals Poe’s concerns about the American writer’s place in the transatlantic literary world. Read in this interpretive vein, the poem offers a warning to young writers, and Tamerlane’s overreaching symbolizes the failure of the poet with creative genius whose inordinate desire for literary recognition prompts him/her to write popular but uninspired verse. While Poe certainly wanted fame and the financial security it provided, he was not unaware even at the beginning of his literary career of the dangers that unbridled poetic ambition posed for American writers who struggled with the anxiety of influence. In “Tamerlane,” Poe cautions fellow poets against writing derivative verse and ignoring their own creative impulses.

Ruthless in the pursuit of fame, Tamerlane plays the Gothic villain who rides roughshod over social mores. Witness Manfred’s treatment of Hippolita and Isabella in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto or Ambrosio’s predatory sexual behavior in The Monk. As these characters pursue their dark desires, they suppress stirrings of conscience, denying their obligations to others. Beckford’s Vathek is, of course, a villain cut from the same cloth, and the evil caliph repeatedly rejects Qur’anic injunctions to protect the innocent, to rule justly, and to guard against greed as he indulges his lust for wealth and power.(26) Repudiating true Islam, Vathek performs a cultural about face, violently tearing himself from his religious roots. Thus deracinated, he resembles the tortured Byronic heroes that so fascinated Poe.(27) Indeed Beckford’s caliph seems to be a model for Poe’s own Tamerlane, a figure similarly alienated from his ­[page 23:] homeland. That Poe knew Beckford’s Vathek is clear, for he quotes from the book in “Landor’s Cottage” and mentions some of the novel’s characters in an 1845 review of George Jones’s Ancient America. The central character of Poe’s poem also shares qualities with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, another Gothic villain avant la lettre. In Marlowe’s play, the conqueror Tamburlaine, reckoning himself a god, famously declares worship of “Mahomet” folly and orders the burning of sacred books (Marlowe, Part Two, V.i: 177-85).

Before his ambition for temporal fame overwhelmed him, Tamerlane found the natural surroundings of his homeland awe-inspiring: “For in those days it was my lot/ To haunt of the wide world a spot” near “a wild lake with black rock bound” (Poems, 79-80, 83).(28) As he recalls, the sight of this “lone lake” filled him with “terror” that “was not fright — / But a tremulous delight” (Poems, 90, 91-2). The “tremulous delight” to which Tamerlane refers is a typical emotional response to the Sublime in Romantic poetry. In many poems from this tradition, the transcendent beauty or Otherness of the natural landscape or seascape fills the poet with awe. To illustrate, in stanza 179 of the fourth canto of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the inherent majesty and power of the “deep and dark blue ocean” overwhelms the speaker hero, who feels impotent before such a mighty force (1603).(29) In “Tamerlane” the hero responds similarly to the Sublime, and significantly, Poe adopts Oriental imagery to stress the singular beauty of the lake and its environs. Tamerlane describes the pine trees surrounding this lake as “sultan-like” (Poems, 84). Clearly, this place has few affinities with the American scenes in Bryant’s ­[page 24:] poetry. Moreover, the curious description of Tamerlane’s childhood haunts has little connection to Near Eastern or Far Eastern topography. While Poe does not attempt to portray any actual landscape in “Tamerlane,” he uses the exoticism of the scene to comment on the proper object of poetry, suggesting that sublime rather than mundane subjects inspire the truly creative poet. For Poe, conventional subjects are suitable for “earthbound” versifiers who are incapable of producing truly original works of art. Tamerlane, who functions symbolically as a poet figure, rejects the true inspiration afforded by the Sublime when he leaves his home in pursuit of fame and fortune.

As Tamerlane recounts his past, he also remembers his relationship with his beloved, Ada. When he tries to describe his love to the confessor, Tamerlane finds himself at a loss for words, saying that he cannot “tell/ The loveliness of loving well” (Poems, 102-3). He also has difficulty describing Ada’s appearance, and claims that he “will not now attempt to trace/ The more than beauty of [her] face” (Poems, 104-5). Poe denies his readers a physical description of Ada in the same way that he denies them a detailed picture of the Oriental world he invokes in the poem. This omission suggests that Tamerlane’s beloved cannot be defined in “earthly” terms because she transcends terrestrial beauty, and Tamerlane insists that his devotion to Ada excelled mere passion. In stanza XVIII, he associates this love with purity, describing it as a “spirit given/ On earth of all we hope in Heaven” (Poems, 183-4). By leaving Ada in pursuit of his own fame, Tamerlane exchanges, however, the supernal for the mundane — he lost Ada and “won the earth” (Poems, 192). In allegorical terms, Tamerlane’s abandonment of his beloved for military celebrity represents the poet’s rejection of true inspiration for the transient joys of literary acclaim, or the poet’s sacrifice of originality for marketability.

As he reminisces about his youth spent near the mountains of Taglay, Tamerlane remembers a dream in which he imagined himself enjoying the fruits of martial glory and courtly splendor. This vision powerfully affected him: his “passions from that hapless hour/ Usurp’d a tyranny” within him, stirring his ambition to build an empire through conquest (Poems, 69-70). During his reverie, Tamerlane saw the natural world decked with ­[page 25:] “pageantry of monarchy” (Poems, 51). Describing the vision in detail, he tells of red light emanating from various clouds, which resembled “banners,” and “the torrent of the chilly air,” whence came diverse sounds such as “the crush/ Of empires, with the captive’s prayer,/ the hum of suitors, and the tone/ Of flattery, round a sovereign’s throne” (Poems, 48-9, 64, 65-8). While these military images and sounds appear culturally neutral, Tamerlane does compare the “proud spirit” of his youth to Caesar’s colossal hubris (Poems, 37). In fact, he considers himself a successor to the Roman dictator, asking rhetorically, “Hath not the same heirdom given/ Rome to Caesar — this to me?” (Poems, 35-6). This question is quite significant in symbolic terms, for by associating Tamerlane’s imperial ambitions with a Western figure, Poe connects the warrior’s lust for power to the poet’s desire for literary fame. When he became a conqueror, Tamerlane did not chart his own course; instead, he followed the example of Caesar. This imitation mirrors the literary aping of the British Lake School verse among American poets that Poe criticizes so forcefully in his “Letter to Mr. — ——.”

Under the sway of his ambition for earthly fame, Tamerlane made no attempt to conquer the Western world, but he completely subdued fellow inhabitants of the East. Reflecting on his conquests in stanza XVII, Tamerlane asks his confessor, “Say now, holy father, breathes there yet/ A rebel or a Bajazret?” (Poems, 177-8). As Thomas Ollive Mabbott observes, Bajazret was the name of “the Turkish sultan captured by Tamerlane” (Mabbott, 1: 63). Not only did Tamerlane vanquish the sultan, the supreme leader of the Turkish people, but the zealous conqueror also quashed all insurrectionary efforts to seize power in his realm. This total subjugation of “the Orient” symbolizes the imitative poet’s suppression of creative impulses that are necessary for the production of original work. While such a poet might briefly enjoy the fruits of literary fame, this fame, Poe implies, will not endure. Significantly, the dying Tamerlane admits that although he “wrapp’d [himself] in grandeur then/ And donn’d a visionary crown — / Yet it was not that Fantasy/ Had thrown her mantle over” him (Poems, 167-70). Poe may allude here to the biblical story in which Elisha received the mantle of the prophet Elijah while the latter ascended to heaven in a chariot ­[page 26:] of fire.(30) Acquiring Elijah’s cloak, Elisha could indicate to others that he was the prophet’s true successor. The “grandeur” that Tamerlane girds himself with is, however, a false grandeur, for he did not rightfully inherit the mantle of Fantasy. Poe’s use of “Fantasy” in this passage is particularly revealing. Note that he does not employ here a word related to war and conquest; instead, he chooses a term associated with art and the imagination, reminding readers of Tamerlane’s symbolic importance. As a figure for the poet who fails to maintain his artistic integrity, Tamerlane cannot receive this mantle because his “work” is uninspired, and by crushing “the Orient,” which signifies poetic transcendence, Tamerlane as poet stifled the creative energies that could have yielded imaginative verse.

Near the end of the poem, Tamerlane wonders why he allowed ambition to destroy his relationship with Ada. He imagines their love as a divine being walking through a “holy grove” (Poems, 226). Personifying his ambition, he claims that it “crept/ Unseen” within this grove and then “laugh’d and leapt/ In the tangles of Love’s very hair” (Poems, 235-6, 237-8). This act of desecration, which savors of literary Gothicism, represents the destruction of a pure, Edenic world. In her reading of the poem, Betsy Erkkila devotes special attention to Tamerlane’s Muslim identity. “Taken over by ambition,” she writes, “Tamerlane becomes . . . the Oriental as fiery figure of passion and excess who pollutes and destroys the ‘holy grove’ of’snowy’ whiteness signified by woman, beauty, and pure love” (Erkkila, 47). Erkkila’s interpretation of this defilement is, however, problematic. Throughout the poem, Poe links Tamerlane’s ambition to Western models (especially the example of Caesar), not Oriental excess. In fact, with the exception of Tamerlane, no one else manifests the will to power. In “Tamerlane” the source of Poe’s anxiety is not a destructive Other that threatens the purity of Western culture; Poe seems more concerned about the influence that contemporary models of literary success have on poets eager to blaze trails in the world of American letters. The profanation of Love’s grove in “Tamerlane” does not symbolize the corruption of “the West” through the intervention of rapacious Middle Eastern marauders; indeed, Poe makes it clear ­[page 27:] that Tamerlane fashioned himself after Occidental conquerors. This scene signifies, rather, the destruction of poetic creativity, and Poe suggests that poets who, like Tamerlane, sacrifice their own poetic visions to secure literary fame destroy what should be most sacred to them — their imaginations. Thus “Tamerlane,” which Poe strategically places at the end of the 1831 collection, serves as a cautionary tale for writers of the young republic.

The publication of Poems: Second Edition was a watershed in Poe’s development as a writer. This volume contained not only some of his most memorable lyrics but also an overt statement of critical principles anticipating ideas expressed in “The Poetic Principle” (1850).(31) Moreover, Poe used the 1831 edition to announce his arrival on the American literary scene, where he later exerted a powerful influence as a critic and a key figure in the evolution of the modern short story. The collection was also significant for what it revealed about Poe’s fascination with the Orient: by including in the 1831 volume new poems featuring Middle Eastern images and places, Poe tried to revolutionize literary culture in the United States, and his imaginative identification with the Orient had profound aesthetic and political implications. As he challenged the cultural hegemony of Lake School verse, which often focused exclusively on national themes and relied on traditional forms, Poe considered alternatives to this creative isolationism. To fight the lure of artistic conformity, he advised his fellow poets to “turn East,” to follow their own creative impulses and to limit their dependence on literary models. Unfortunately for Poe, his hopes for a career as a poet came to naught, in terms of money, but the dauntless author redirected his creative energies into fiction writing. In his early tales he continued his celebration of the Orient as a foil for enervating convention, once again avoiding the Scylla of sycophantically emulating British authors and the Charybdis of confining creative endeavors to exclusively national subjects.

In Poems, Poe, of course, did not begin to explore the full political implications of his aesthetic dissent, but his early imaginative sympathy with the Orient did lay a foundation for later critiques. In his fiction, Poe used Middle Eastern characters ­[page 28:] to comment on American social problems. According to Malini Johar Schueller, Poe’s “Ligeia,” which tale follows the narrator’s obsession with his first wife, who is Orientalized, is “a critique of the discourses of nationalism designed to consolidate an imperialistic self by the conquest of the Orient” (Schueller, 123). For Schueller, Poe was a practitioner of “subversive Orientalism” (Schueller, 109). In other words, while Poe’s Eurocentric frame of reference limited his ability to engage other cultures, he nevertheless challenged popular “discourses of Near Eastern Orientalism” that influenced Anglo-American efforts to establish national identity through racial and/or ethnic difference. By subverting Orientalism, a system of representations affirming imperial domination of the Other, in “Ligeia,” Poe paved the way for more sustained critiques of American cultural hubris in an age of expansionist politics.(32) Witness his denunciations of national arrogance in “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherezade” and “Some Words with a Mummy,” stories in which Middle Eastern characters voice Poe’s own skepticism about scientific advancement, which many Americans considered a sign of human progress and cultural supremacy.(33) These overtly political tales grew out of Poe’s lifelong interest in the Orient, a region ­[page 29:] that figured prominently in the poems of the 1831 edition, wherein he rejected aesthetic parochialism from both sides of the Atlantic.

* * * * * * * *

Note: After I submitted the original draft of this monograph in the spring of 2009, at least three new articles on Orientalism in Poe’s poetry appeared in print. One of these essays was Robert Oscar Lopez’s “The Orientalization of John Winthrop in ‘The City in the Sea.’ ” The other two were written by Brian Yothers, their titles being “Poe’s Poetry of the Exotic” and “ ‘The Desert of the Blest’: Poe’s Anti-Representational Invocations of the Near East.” As I developed and wrote the interpretations offered here long before I encountered these three essays, I have not mentioned them in my text, but I recommend that readers interested in Poe’s Orientalist imaginings consult Lopez and Yothers, whose studies are included in my bibliography. Yothers and I cover some of the same ground; we both offer commentary on “Tamerlane,” “Al Aaraaf,” “Israfel,” and “The City in the Sea” — and I share Yothers’s notion that “Poe’s invocations of the Near East . . . imply the epistemological inadequacy of any mono-cultural narrative” (Yothers, “ ‘Desert of the Blest,’ ” 59-60). Thus “the presence of the exotic in Poe’s poetry signified for Poe his own efforts to embrace the world,” to transcend national barriers, physical and mental (Yothers, “Poe’s Poetry,” 32).


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1  Poe published two slight volumes of verse prior to the 1831 edition, although Tamerlane and Other Poems (Boston, 1827) probably was not officially distributed, and he dismissed Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (Baltimore, 1829) as a substandard collection. For Poe’s opinion of the 1827 pamphlet, see his introductory note to “Tamerlane” in the 1829 printing. For his assessment of the 1829 text, see his “Letter to Mr. — ——.” This expository letter appears as the preface to Poems: Second Edition (Poems, 13-29), which was, technically, Poe’s third book of poetry. Although original copies of the 1831 Poems are very scarce, with only fifteen known surviving examples, there are two facsimile editions, one edited by Killis Campbell (New York: The Facsimile Text Society, 1936) and a more recent one with an introductory essay by William J. Hecker (Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems 1831, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005). A full copy of the text, with original pagination noted, is also available on the Internet through http://www.eapoe.org/works/editions/poemsc.htm.

2  See G. R. Thompson’s Circumscribed Eden of Dreams: Dreamvision and Nightmare in Poe’s Early Poetry for a brief discussion of Poe’s “principal European models” such as “Byron, Shelley, and Thomas Moore” (Thompson, 5). Killis Campbell offers a comprehensive survey of Poe’s British influences in his introduction to The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Campbell, Poems, xliv-liii).

3  See Silverman (71) as well as his list of some of these perceived borrowings and “plagiarisms” juxtaposing lines from the 1831 volume with passages from Poe’s sources (Silverman, 70-72).

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4  See Bloom (5). Although Bloom describes this “anxiety of influence” in psychoanalytic terms, reading the history of Western literature as a series of Oedipal conflicts, in this study I shall not consider the Freudian implications of Poe’s relationship(s) with his literary “fathers.” Instead, my use of the phrase “anxiety of influence” refers to broader cultural pressures that burdened Poe and his contemporaries. According to Christopher Kearns, a similar tension characterizes Poe’s attitude toward Coleridge, whose ideas and language he borrows in “Letter to Mr. — ——.” This prefatory epistle reveals the complexity of “Poe’s approach to Coleridge,” which is “symptomatic of an attitude hovering uneasily between admiration and an almost Bloomian anxiety of influence” (Kearns, 4).

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5  Silverman detects “flagrant plagiarism” here, noting that Poe “filched” his “definition” of poetry “verbatim from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria “ (Silverman, 70). It is true that Poe does not cite Coleridge in this passage, but it should also be admitted that Poe’s readers would have immediately recognized the source, for Biographia Literaria enjoyed wide cultural currency when Poe’s 1831 volume appeared. As Alexander Schlutz writes, “Poe . . . must have known how obvious the unacknowledged source for the central poetological claim of his own text would be for anybody familiar with Coleridge — who was after all no stranger on the American intellectual and literary scene of the 1830s” (Schlutz, 198). Schlutz offers a sophisticated reading of Poe’s borrowings, which constitute “a conscious usurpation of Coleridge’s voice” (Schlutz, 199). Coleridge was, of course, no stranger to plagiarism, and Poe imitates his predecessor’s practice of occasionally appropriating others’ ideas and language. Schlutz insists, however, that this imitation is not plagiarism pure and simple, for Poe consistently “makes [Coleridge’s voice] his own” by undermining “the ultimate union of poetry and philosophy that was so central for Coleridge” (Schlutz, 199, 201). Insisting on “complete autonomy for art and poetry,” Poe resists mixing poetry and metaphysics, ­[page 4:] and this “position may reflect the unwillingness of the American writer to burden himself with the bulky British ballast of a Coleridgean erudition” (Schlutz, 201). Christopher Kearns also detects “ambivalence” in “Poe’s relationship with the elder poet” (Kearns, 3). See Edgar Poe the Poet, in which Floyd Stovall lists many of Poe’s borrowings from the British poet and thinker (Stovall, 126-74). Jonathan Bate also investigates the Poe/Coleridge connection, noting many of the plagiarisms and tracing Coleridgean themes in Poe’s writings. According to Bate, “The influence of Coleridge on Poe is . . . at its most fruitful precisely where the unknowable is central, where the narrative is driven by a force that is all powerful yet never quite definable” (Bate, 264).

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6  See Ljungquist (9, 8). Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” (1817), a poem representing the best of this tradition, exemplifies admirably the conventions of American Lake School verse. In his meditation on dying, the speaker, a professed nature lover, celebrates the beauty of the natural world and exhorts readers to embrace death by surrendering themselves to the elements. In “Letter to Mr. — ——,” Poe does not condemn Bryant’s poems so much as he criticizes Bryant’s poetics. In 1837, Poe reviewed Bryant’s Poems for the Southern Literary Messenger, praising Bryant the “versifier” and lamenting the poet’s didactic tendencies (Poe, Essays and Reviews, 442). For a contemporary analysis of Wordsworth’s American followers, see James McHenry’s “American Lake School,” which appeared in the March 1832 issue of the American Quarterly Review. The author reviews two volumes of poetry, one by N. P. Willis and the other by Bryant, which embody Wordsworthian poetic principles. McHenry, like Poe, dismisses American Lake School verse as “ a false style” (McHenry, 154). For a study of convergences and divergences in Poe and Wordsworth, see Barbara Johnson’s “Strange Fits: Poe and Wordsworth on the Nature of Poetic Language.” Considering Poe’s response to American disciples of Wordsworth, Johnson focuses on the later poems and critical writings, where Poe reveals his “opposition to the American tradition of long, sentimental, or didactic poetry associated with such figures as Longfellow and Bryant” (Johnson, 38).

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7  These poems are “Israfel,” “To Helen,” “The Doomed City,” “Al Aaraaf,” “Tamerlane,” and “The Valley Nis.” The first five are discussed in detail, but the sixth is omitted from the present study.

8  In The Mind of Poe and Other Studies, Killis Campbell comments on Poe’s tendency to avoid national subjects: “He made little use of American scenery, and he showed scarcely any concern in his more imaginative writings for the every-day affairs of his fellow Americans. He cared little, moreover, so far as his writings reveal, for American occasions, and even less for our native legends and traditionary lore. And nowhere in his writings does he display any whole-hearted devotion to his country” (Campbell, Mind, 100). Campbell nevertheless cautions readers against taking these omissions as evidence of Poe’s ignorance of cultural and political matters, and he opines that “too much has been made of [Poe’s] detachment from time and place” (Campbell, Mind, 100).

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9  Note on terminology: Throughout this essay, “the Orient” refers primarily to the Middle East, a region that was “the Orient of the nineteenth century: Turkey, Persia, the Holy Land, and North Africa” (Kleitz, 3). The terms “Orient” and “East” remind readers that Poe’s vision of this territory is, to borrow a term from Edward W. Said, “Orientalist.” In Orientalism, Said asserts that “the Orient” is, for many Western writers, “less a place than a topos, a set of references, [and] a congeries of characteristics” (Said, 177). In other words, Orientalism is a way of describing the Middle East that distorts the realities of life in the region’s cultures. This discursive system also consructs “the East” as the cultural antithesis of “the West.” Although I acknowledge the limits of Poe’s engagement with the Middle East, I argue that to some degree he transcends the crude ethnocentrism associated with Orientalist thought.

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10  According to David S. Reynolds, the Orientalia in these early poems, especially “Israfel” and “Al Aaraaf,” evinces Poe’s “intimate awareness of the visionary and Oriental devices of his day” (Reynolds, Beneath, 46). Such “visionary devices” were employed in Oriental tales “to rhetorically defeat gloomy religion, to enjoy the beauties of celestial bliss, and to generate a spirit of cheer in hope” (Reynolds, Beneath, 42). Religious solace is not, however, the aim of Poe, whose Orientalia points “to a nonreligious literary aesthetic” (Reynolds, Beneath, 42). For Reynolds, the early poems “show Poe adopting the visionary mode and at the same time transforming it, guiding it away from didacticism toward psychological reverie and symbolist aesthetics” (Reynolds, Beneath, 44). ­[page 7:] “Ligeia,” “The Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” offer another take on visionary experience, for in these tales “Poe studies the agitated imagination creating visions in the heat of passion, opium, or madness” (Reynolds, Beneath, 47). As Reynolds observes, “Visions in these tales provoke terror instead of comfort — more important, we are never sure whether the visions are real and the dreamer reliable” (Reynolds, Beneath, 47). Thus “Visionary and Oriental images become thoroughly demythologized and secularized when seen through the haze of the irrational” (Reynolds, Beneath, 47). The Oriental tale is, of course, only one of many sources of Orientalia for Poe; Romantic poets and other American writing about the Orient also shaped his artistry. Reynolds does not specify what kind of didacticism Poe inveighed against in the early poems, and he says nothing about how Poe’s invocations of the Middle East are a response to American literary nationalism. Reynolds’s discussion fills only six pages, but his thesis is, nevertheless, intriguing. Certainly, he encourages us to continue investigating the Orient as a recurring symbol in Poe’s writings.

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11  Omitted here is “The Valley Nis.” See note 7.

12  According to Poe, this quotation comes from the Qur’an, but the attribution is incorrect. As Killis Campbell has noted, the passage is slightly misquoted from Sale’s “Preliminary Discourse” (Campbell, Poems, 205).

13  Note on text: citations are from the Facsimile Text Society’s edition of Poe’s Poems (1831) published by Columbia University Press. Numbers in parentheses indicate poetic lines, not pages. Here follow the inclusive pages for the five poems discussed in this chapter: “Israfel” (43-5); “To Helen” (39); “The Doomed City” (49-51); “Al Aaraaf” (81-108); and “Tamerlane” (111-24).

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14  I borrow the phrase “earthbound poet” from Thompson’s Circumscribed Eden of Dreams. At this juncture, I should distinguish Thompson’s analysis of transcendental ideas in Poe’s poems from my own views about transcendence as a major theme in the 1831 volume. For Thompson, Poe was a transcendentalist writer in the sense that he judged “the physical world a prison-house, an impediment to attaining spirituality” (Thompson, 5). This type of transcendentalism bears little resemblance to the Emersonian variety, which presents nature as the primary conduit to spiritual realities. For this reason, Poe’s “transcendentalism” is better understood in terms of German Romanticism, and Thompson reads the early poems as expressions of Poe’s developing aesthetic theory. Thompson considers “the most salient” part of this theory “the idea of a transcendent spiritual beauty just out of reach, glimpsed merely, by the earth-bound visionary poet struggling with some ‘ill demon’ in himself or in nature” (Thompson, 8). While I do not here dispute the validity of Thompson’s argument, I use the term “transcendence” in a different sense. For this study, “transcendence” refers to Poe’s effort to surpass his literary predecessors in imaginative power. I do not, however, regard my essay as a critical response to Thompson. Poe’s poems are remarkably open to diverse interpretations, leaving much room for many readings.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 11:]

15  For a radically different take on “Israfel,” see Barton Levi St. Armand’s “Poe’s Unnecessary Angel: ‘Israfel’ Reconsidered.” Comparing Poe’s “Israfel” with Emerson’s “Uriel,” another poem about an angel, St. Armand makes this observation: “Where Emerson speaks through and for ‘Uriel,’ Poe speaks of, back, and up to ‘Israfel.’ Painfully aware of his own mortality, Poe does not so much want to regain the paradise he pictures as to undermine it, displace it, or annihilate it” (St. Armand, 289-290). According to St. Armand, both poems preach freedom; Emerson’s “Uriel” is “an expression of transcendental freethinking,” and Poe’s “Israfel” conveys the author’s “hatred for a limited, stratified, hierarchical universe” that Israfel represents (St. Armand, 288, 290). Drawing on Gnostic philosophy, St. Armand writes, “Not only does [Poe] subvert the message of his unnecessary angel, he calls for a true gnosis, a poetry of power, which would annihilate the alien ramparts of heaven and wreak a revenge on the stifling demiurge who staffed them with the likes of Israfel in the first place” (St. Armand, 300).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 12:]

16  Eve Célia Morisi also interprets “Nicean barks” as an allusion to this ancient city located in present-day Turkey, but Morisi misidentifies Nicaea as “Constantinople” (Morisi, 21). According to Morisi, the allusion orientalizes Helen, endowing her with “voluptuous femininity” (Morisi, 21). Some critics take a different approach, reading “Nicean” as a neologism derived from the Greek word nike, meaning “victory” (Snyder, 160). The “c” in Poe’s adjective “Nicean” is, however, rarely pronounced as a hard consonant like the k in the Greek nike. Furthermore, Poe jumbles references to the Ancient world throughout the poem, so it is entirely possible that “Nicean” refers to the city of Nicaea, where Christian bishops once convened to settle doctrinal disputes. Critical controversy also surrounds the poem’s speaker, variously identified as Alexander the Great, Ulysses, Catullus, or Dionysus (Snyder, 160-6). See Edward D. Snyder’s “Poe’s Nicean Barks” for a concise history of attempts to interpret the meaning of Classical allusions in “To Helen.” Efforts to determine the specific geographic or literary origins of the “Nicean barks,” which often involve critical hair-splitting about source texts and historical matters, are inconclusive, and readers may be better off trying to solve these puzzles themselves.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 12, running to the bottom of page 13:]

17  According to Hervey Allen, Poe’s foster mother, Frances Allan, admired fine statuary, and she “furnished” her Richmond home, grandly named “Moldavia,” with “busts by Canova of Dante and Mary Magdalene” (Allen, 107). Allen muses that these sculptures “remained in ­[page 13:] Poe’s mind,” inspiring the young poet (Allen, 107).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 13:]

18  In a later version of “To Helen,” Poe revised line 14 to read: “Ah, Psyche, from the regions which” (Mabbott, 1:166). By changing the article “a” to the interjection “ah,” he fundamentally alters the meaning of the line. In the 1831 version, “a” is the first word of an appositive phrase. Thus “A Psyche” refers to the figure in the window-niche. For the later version, Poe blurs the connection between the two, and in so doing he renders the final stanza more ambiguous. Dorsey Rodney Kleitz also detects Oriental elements in “To Helen,” which mentions “Holy land.” According to Kleitz, this region “can be understood to be the traditional geographical area in the Middle East” (Kleitz, 61). Poe’s phrase lacks, however, the definite article, so “Holy land” may simply indicate some imagined place beyond human ken.

19  Compare this situation to the mise-en-scène in “The Raven,” where the speaker sits in his chamber, which contains a bust of Pallas, as he broods over ancient tomes.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 14:]

20  Poe revised this poem several times, giving it the more popular title of “The City in the Sea” in 1845. Mabbott records the textual history in his edition of the Collected Works (1:196-9).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 16:]

21  Consider, for example, Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (ca. 1794). Richard Wilbur offers a similar reading: “The poem . . . employs Biblical material to present, and at the same time to disguise, an unorthodox of ‘Satanic’ idea: that the poet will refuse any heaven save that of his own dreams” (Wilbur, 32).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 17:]

22  The 1831 “Al Aaraaf” contains an introductory sonnet and two parts. Each section is numbered separately (I and II), and Arabic numerals indicate line numbers.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 18:]

23  For these sources, see Campbell (Poems, 172, passim) and Quinn (156, 160).

24  This introduction is from Part I, not the lines later titled “Sonnet — To Science.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 21, running to the bottom of page 22:]

25  A committed Muslim, the original Tamerlane was no Christian, but the narrative frame of the poem (the deathbed confession) allows Poe to underscore Tamerlane’s feelings of guilt and regret. Poe does not, however, draw much attention to his fictional Tamerlane’s “Christianity.” The confessional frame may derive from Byron, whose The Giaour (1813), one of his Eastern tales, employs a similar device. Byron’s tortured hero is a Christian, a “giaour” or infidel to the poem’s Muslim characters. In The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Killis Campbell lists similarities between The Giaour and “Tamerlane” (148-50 and passim). For Michael Burduck, the narrative frame of “Tamerlane” reveals the author’s interest in Roman Catholicism, and “Tamerlane” ­[page 22:] stands alongside Poe’s other works in which “the Catholic concept of confession plays an important role” (Burduck, 17). Burduck specifically cites “The Imp of the Pervese” and “The Cask of Amontillado” as examples (Burduck, 18).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 22:]

26  See, for example, Sura Eighty-nine, where Allah rebukes the faithless: “You [people] do not honour orphans, you do not urge one another to feed the poor, you consume inheritance greedily, and you love wealth with a passion” (Abdel-Haleem, 420-1). At the day of judgment, these people will, says Allah, be punished (Abdel-Haleem, 421).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 23:]

27  The Byronic hero shares, of course, many qualities with the Gothic villain, and according to Peter L. Thorslev, Jr., “all the elements of Byronic hero existed before him in the literature of the age,” including ­[page 23:] Gothic writings (Thorslev, 12). Benjamin F. Fisher also identifies Vathek and “Byron’s notorious protagonists” as Tamerlane’s antecedents (Fisher, 35).

28  These lines first appeared in the poem “The Lake,” published in the 1827 volume Tamerlane and Other Poems. Poe put a revised version of “The Lake” in the 1831 “Tamerlane” (Mabbott, 1: 84), although this change was abandoned when both poems were next reprinted, as separate items, in The Raven and Other Poems (1845).

29  Citation indicates poetic line from volume two of McGann’s edition of Byron’s poetry.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 26:]

30  See 2 Kings 2: 1-18.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 27:]

31  “The Poetic Principle” was published posthumously in the October 1850 issue of Sartain’s Union Magazine and in Works (1850).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 28:]

32  According to Schueller, Poe also uses “Ligeia” to attack popular notions of “Southern womanhood” represented by Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine, the woman the narrator marries after Ligeia’s death (Schueller, 121). Following Schueller’s lead, Ahmed Nidal Almansour interprets “Ligeia” as a countercultural text, and in his reckoning, the story lampoons transcendentalist excess, associated with the North, and Southern racial oppression, mirrored in the narrator’s attempts to master Ligeia. As Almansour suggests, “Ligeia” points to the arabesque, which is construed as an effort to unify imaginatively a nation divided by region, for the story exposes limits of social models eulogized in various “regional voices” (Almansour, iii). See also John C. Greusser’s “‘Ligeia’ and Orientalism.” According to Greusser, “the narrator in ‘Ligeia’ functions as a kind of Orientalist, who, well-versed in the Eastern arts, transforms his English abbey into a place of imaginative geography for the peculiarly Oriental process of reincarnation” (Greusser, 145-146). Confusing the Orientalized Orient of his mind with the real thing, the narrator deceives himself. Thus Poe’s tale “portrays the intellectual, if not the political, dangers of allowing a paper construct to take the place of that which actually exists” (Greusser, 149).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 29:]

33  For political critique in “Some Words with a Mummy,” consult the following: David A. Long’s “Poe’s Political Identity: A Mummy Unswathed”; Dana D. Nelson’s National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men; Malini Johar Schueller’s U. S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890; and J. Gerald Kennedy’s “ ‘A Mania for Composition’: Poe’s Annus Mirabilis and the Violence of Nation-building.”

­[page 31, unnumbered:]

Works Cited

Abdel Haleem, M. A. S., ed. The Qur’an. Trans. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Allen, Hervey. Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1934.

Almansour, Ahmed Nidal. “The Middle East in Antebellum America: The Cases of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe.” Diss. Ohio State U, 2005.

Bate, Jonathan. “Edgar Allan Poe: A Debt Repaid.” The Coleridge Connection: Essays for Thomas McFarland. Ed. Richard Gravil and Molly Lefebure. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. 254-70.

Baum. Paull F. “Poe’s ‘To Helen.’” Modern Language Notes. 64.5 (1949): 289-97.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Burduck, Michael L. Usher’s “Forgotten Church”?: Edgar Allan Poe and Nineteenth-Century American Catholicism. Baltimore: Edgar Allan Poe Society, 2000.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. Vol. 2: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980.

Campbell, Killis. The Mind of Poe and Other Studies. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1933. Reprinted New York: Russell & Russell, 1962.

———, ed. The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. 1917. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962. ­[page 32, unnumbered:]

Erkkila, Betsy. “The Poetics of Whiteness: Poe and the Racial Imaginary.” Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. 41-74.

Fisher, Benjamin F. The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Greusser, John C. “‘Ligeia’ and Orientalism.” Studies in Short Fiction. 26.2 (1989): 145-9.

Johnson, Barbara. “Strange Fits: Poe and Wordsworth on the Nature of Poetic Language.” The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 37-48.

Kearns, Christopher. “Rehearsing Dupin: Poe’s Duplicitous Confrontation with Coleridge.” Edgar Allan Poe Review. 3.1 (2002): 3-17.

Kennedy. J. Gerald. “‘A Mania for Composition’: Poe’s Annus Mirabilis and the Violence of Nationbuilding.” American Literary History. 17.1 (2005): 1-35.

Kleitz, Dorsey Rodney. “Orientalism and the American Romantic Imagination: The Middle East in the Works of Irving, Poe, Emerson, and Melville.” Diss. U of New Hampshire, 1988.

Ljungquist, Kent P. “The Poet as Critic.” The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Kevin J. Hayes. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 7-20.

Long, David A. “Poe’s Political Identity: A Mummy Unswathed.” Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism: History, Theory, Interpretation. 23.1 (1990): 1-22.

Lopez, Robert Oscar. “The Orientalization of John Winthrop’s ‘The City in the Sea.’ “ Edgar Allan Poe Review. 10.2 (2009): 87-103.

Mabbott, Thomas Ollive et. al., eds. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1969-78. ­[page 33, unnumbered:]

Marlowe, Christopher. Tamburlaine. The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe. Ed. Fredson Bowers. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981. 71-252.

Marr, Timothy. The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.

McHenry, James. “American Lake Poetry.” American Quarterly Review. 11.21 (1832): 154-74.

Morisi, Eve Célia. “The Female Figure in Poe’s Poetry: A Rehabilitation.” Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism: History, Theory, Interpretation. 28 (2005): 17-28.

Nelson, Dana D. National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Essays and Reviews. Ed. G. R. Thompson. New York: Library of America, 1984.

———. Poems. 1831. Ed. Killis Campbell. New York: Columbia UP, 1936.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. 1941. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 1978. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1994.

Schueller, Malini Johar. U. S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1998.

Schlutz, Alexander. “Purloined Voices: Edgar Allan Poe Reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge.” Studies in Romanticism. 47.2 (2008): 195-224.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. ­[page 34, unnumbered:]

Snyder, Edward D. “Poe’s Nicean Barks.” Classical Journal. 48.5 (1953): 159-69.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. “Poe’s Unnecessary Angel: ‘Israfel’ Reconsidered.” Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe: Critical Essays in Honor of Darrel Abel. Ed. G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1981. 283-302.

Stovall, Floyd. Edgar Poe the Poet: Essays New and Old on the Man and His Work. Charlottesville: Virginia UP, 1969.

Thompson, G. R. Circumscribed Eden of Dreams: Dreamvision and Nightmare in Poe’s Early Poetry. Baltimore: Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1984.

Thorpe, Dwayne. “Poe’s ‘The City in the Sea’: Source and Interpretation.” American Literature. 51.3 (1979): 394-9.

Thorslev, Peter L., Jr. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1962.

Wilbur, Richard, ed. Poe. Laurel Poetry Series. New York: Dell, 1959.

Yothers, Brian. “ ‘Desert of the Blest’: Poe’s Anti-Representational Invocations of the Near East.” Gothic Studies. 12.2 (2010): 53-60.

———. “Poe’s Poetry of the Exotic.” Critical Insights: the Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Steven Frye. Pasadena: Salem Press, 2010. 19-33.



This lecture was delivered at the Eighty-fourth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 1, 2006. The lecture was presented in the Edgar Allan Poe Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. It was revised in 2011.

© 2011, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:0 - TEPPRAV, 2006] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Turning East: Poe’s 1831 Poems and the Renewal of American Verse (T. Montgomery, 2006)