Text: George P. Clark, “A German Scholar Interprets Poe,” Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:52-53


[page 52, column 1:]

A German Scholar Interprets Poe

Franz H. Link. Edgar Allan Poe: Ein Dichter zwilchen Romantick und Moderne. Frankfurt am Main: Athenaum Verlag, 1968. 356 pp. Price unavailable. 

In a postscript to “Hans Pfaall” Charles Baudelaire observed that Poe’s mind, though saturated with Americanism, was sometimes “profoundly Germanic” (Lois and Francis E. Hyslop, Jr., eds., Baudelaire on Poe, Carrolltown, Pa.: Bald Eagle Press, 1952, p. 162). However accurate this judgment, Poe apparently had a wide readership in nineteenth-century Germany, where ten full or partial editions of his works had appeared by 1900, according to the bibliography in Stedman and Woodberry’s 1914 edition of Poe. It does not follow, of course, that Poe, or any American writer, was the subject of significant academic attention at this time; only since 1945 has the study of American literature been accorded a position of some importance in German universities. When Jay B. Hubbell published his survey of Poe scholarship in Eight American Anthors (1956), he could cite only two German books on Poe in this century as “of some merit,” both of them published before World War I. In the intervening years, German scholars have produced several book-length studies of Poe’s prose and poetry and a considerable number of articles. In this book, however, by the head of the American Seminar at the University of Freiburg, we now have the first study of Poe’s complete work ever to appear in Germany, and the most comprehensive book on the art and philosophy of Poe to appear anywhere since Edward Davidson’s Poe: A Critical Study (1964). As such it merits more attention than it has thus far received.

Link’s undertaking is an ambitious one. The author tells us in his foreword that he takes it as his task to emphasize “Poe’s often noticed but seldom very exactly stated place between Romantic and Modern.” In addition, “everything important on the subject of the direct influence of the American poet on the principal modern French poetry from Baudelaire to Valery is to be said.” Furthermore, we are told, the study will undertake to show anew what it is thee “lifts Poe beyond his century and binds him to the poets of our own.” The author nowhere offers a definition of either “Romantic” or “Modern” as used in his study. Such a definition would have been useful, for it is by no means clear at the outset [column 2:] set whether Link is concerned with chronological or thematic distinctions, or both. Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson, Jr., editors of The Modern Tradition: Backgrounds of Modern Literature (1965) , faced the problem of such definition and concluded in their preface that “‘modern’ amounts to more than a chronological description.” And they continued: “We no longer completely identify the modern with the contemporary. . . . we become aware of what we must call a ‘modern tradition,’ which reaches well back into the romantic era and beyond.” Since such a conception of the terms could obviously not have worked for Link, it would have been well for him at once to offer his own.

But he has organized his material excellently. A brief, but adequate, introductory chapter on Poe’s life (”truth and legend”) is followed by a long analysis of Poe’s literary theory. The poems are next considered, in chronological order, followed by a discussion of the tales and sketches. A final chapter (”Weltbild “) considers principally the philosophical dialogues and Eureka. A short selective bibliography and an index complete the work. The book runs to more than twice the length of Davidson’s, and by no means all of the difference can be ascribed to Link’s frequent, (and skillful) translations of cited poetry and prose. He simply undertakes to consider more of the poems and tales (and most of them at greater length) than does his predecessor.

Link makes no pretense to originality in his biographical sketch, which is drawn from standard (if generally unspecified) sources. It is with his second chapter that he begins to develop his conception of Poe’s work. The beginning and end-point for Poe’s theory of literature, he tells us (quoting from “The Poetic Principle”), is the concept of beauty as the province of the poem. It is not so much beauty itself that concerns Poe, however, as its effect — not beauty as a thing but as an ideal. This view of the nature of beauty, Link asserts, underlies the meaning of Poe for modern literature.

Poe further anticipates modern poetic theory, we are told, in his belief that it is the task of the poet to so manipulate the tools of his craft as to make the experience of beauty (rather than the poetic artifact) transferable. This requires both genius and skill, not — as in the case of other Romantics — alcohol or drugs. Likewise, in his emphasis upon tonal effects, Poe anticipates the modern lyric. In his use of the word “tone,” as in other aspects of his poetic theory, Poe probably drew upon his reading of Friedrich Schlegel, as he drew upon Wordsworth and Coleridge for his views regarding the creative power of the imagination. Link concludes his chapter with the observation that Poe strove to give words a meaning beyond themselves in order to reach unreachable expression, and in so doing robbed words of their conventional capacity to convey meaning. In this, again, Poe showed the way for a significant part of modern poetry.

In his interpretation of the poems, Link shows full familiarity with the work of Mabbott, Brooks, Warren, Campbell, Wilbur, Davidson and other Americans, as well as with that of his compatriots, particularly Kuno Schubmann and Armin Staats. He does not, however, [page 54:] make extensive use of the large body of French scholarly criticism. The thesis of this chapter is that Poe’s particular contribution to the modern lyric is his retreat from objectivity, his emphasis upon tonal structure and his development of the suggestive power of language. In discussing virtually every poem of Poe’s from “Alone” to “Eldorado,” Link could hardly be expected to bring new insights to every line. His effort, however, is always workmanlike and sometimes exceedingly perceptive, as when he observes that if we knew more about the various cruxes of “To Helen” the poem might come to mean less. Of “the glory that was Greece/And the grandeur that was Rome” he says: “In these two lines alone is assured for the English reader the worth of the poem.” His ear for Poe’s tonal patterns serves him well here and also in his comments on concordant and discordant sound effects in “Annabel Lee” and “Lenore.” The world of “Ulalume” he sees as the Satanic world of Walpurgisnacht, not at all the earthly terrain prosaically described by Davidson as lying “between Fordham . . . . and Mamaroneck” (though Link most often quotes Davidson to agree with him). In keeping with his view of Poe as a manipulator of verse, Link appears to believe that Poe gives in “The Philosophy of Composition” a circumstantial account of his composition of “The Raven,” though he acknowledges the question is open. It is a central poem for Link in his interpretation of Poe, for he sees “The Raven” (following Davidson) as “a paradigm for the crisis of the Romantic imagination, which has come to its end and can go no further.” Beyond this, Link observes that from this defeat of the Romantic imagination Poe makes a triumph: “from the grief of the defeat rises his song and with it he soars beyond the Romantic into the Modern.” It is Baudelaire, says Link, who with his “Fleurs du Mal” carries on the song. At the close of this chapter, Link states most explicitly Poe’s bond to the modern world:

Only from the ruins of one’s own world can the world of imagination become possible — a world which itself finally sinks into nothingness.... In the face of this nothing, however, the world of dreams fills itself with demonic forms, and the artistic imagination becomes a dream of Angst. With this, Poe, not just in his later stories but already in his poems . . . . becomes a forerunner of the modern spirit which . . . . believes it can master life simply by the artistic embodiment of its anxious dreams.

Yet for Link it is Poe’s tales, rather than his poems, that deserve first claim upon our attention. These he discusses under eight categories, ranging from “Love and Death” to “Discoveries,” “Science Fiction,” and “Detective Stories.” In every case he is concerned first with the explication of the surface meaning of the work and then with the “hidden” meaning. As Link observes, the possible groupings of themes and motifs in Poe’s stories are so numerous that “almost every study or anthology of Poe employs a different possible arrangement.” Hence, no reader of Link is likely to be persuaded by all of his interpretations, nor does Link agree with every study that he cites. Unlike Davidson, he sees no basis for considering the narrator of “The Man of the Crowd” as a Doppelganger of the narrator. With Kuno Schuhmann he sees “The Tell-Tale Heart” as an early study for “The Black Cat.” He is rather persuaded by Francis B. Desmond’s thesis that “The Cask of Amontillado” is a story a clef whose “hidden [column 2:] meaning” is to be found in the “war of the literati.” “Hop-Frog,” he ventures (aceing upon a suggestion of Arthur H. Quinn), may one day be discovered as a story whose real basis lies in Poe’s intolerance for alcohol, a few drinks of which could excite him, like Hop-Frog’ “almost to madness.” For “MS Found in a Bottle” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Link offers ten-page analyses that lead to their interpretation as journeys into the Beyond, a glimpse of which (and one thinks of little Pip in Moby-Dick) is enough to drive one mad. Poe’s art in narrative fiction, says Link, “is not to reflect reality but to go beyond it into the Unknown, into another world.”

In his final chapter, Link deals with Poe’s view of external nature, revealed in such sketches as “Silence, A Fable” and “The Island of the Fay” and, more importantly, with his reflections on the nature of man, as seen in “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” and Eureka. Poe, Link believes, is an eclectic philosopher who tries to bring the most extreme systems together to form his own. For Poe, man’s creative imagination is only a feeble reflection of the creative imagination of God (conceived Deistically); man himself is a thought of God. In this respect, Link finds, Poe again stands between the Romantic and the Modern. Unlike the former, he sees in imagination the ultimate source of all existence, but, unlike the latter, does not yet accord it full freedom of operation. Link emphasizes the unity of Poe’s work and asserts that while he cannot agree with Poe’s philosophical conclusions in Eureka, it is none the less the crowning of his work, “not alone because it enlarges his poetic theory to a cosmology but because in the essay the greatest room is given for the exercise of the perceptive faculty.” Although he makes the point earlier that “the heart of Poe’s theoretical thought” is the differentiation of the realm of beauty from those of truth and goodness, in his final chapter Link is able to come to terms with Poe’s assertion in Eureka that “Poetry and Truth are one.” While it seems, he says, to be diametrically opposed to the statement in “The Poetic Principle,” “Beauty and Truth are finally for Poe, as for all the Romantics, one and the same thing.” All of his work is a striving for the completion that is not possible in this world of Sehnsucht and Angst.

At the close of his study, Link has not fully succeeded in accomplishing the unduly demanding task that he set for himself. He has hardly said “everything important” on Poe’s influence on French poetry from Baudelaire to Valery, and though he has frequently alluded to Poe’s place “between Romantic and Modern” and to his influence on poets of our own century, he has done so with allusion to few specific authors, Continental or American. Although primarily intended for German students of Poe, the book offers many insights that our perspective denies us, not least of which is an appreciation of the seriousness with which the totality of Poe’s work is now being regarded in Germany. It is a study that well deserves attention on this side of the Atlantic — and early translation into English.

George P. Clark, Hanover College


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