Text: E. Arthur Robinson, “Current Interpretations of Poe: Existential or Transcendent,” Poe Studies, December 1972, Vol. V, No. 2, 5:57-59


[page 57, column 2:]

Current Interpretations of Poe:
Existential or Transcendent


Richard P. Veler, ed. Papers on Poe: Essays in Honor of John Ward Ostrom. Springfield, Ohio: Chantry Music Press at Wittenberg University, 1972. 236 pp. $5.95.


A Festschrift honoring John Ward Ostrom’s contributions to Poe scholarship is richly merited, as few investigators of Poe proceed far without consulting Ostrom’s meticulously edited volumes of Poe’s Letters. Indeed, the second footnote in the present studies is fittingly a citation to “The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom.”

Papers on Poe: Essays in Honor of John Ward Ostrom contains seventeen articles that follow Richard Beale Davis’ warm tribute to John Ostrom as man, writer, scholar, and teacher. The essays are chiefly of two types, those surveying large areas of Poe’s writing and those limited to a particular poem, story, or biographical relation. Their variety, as Richard P. Veler observes in the Foreword, is appropriate to Professor Ostrom’s versatility. Moreover, together they represent the major, often conflicting interpretations of Poe in recent criticism; and observation of these contrasts, with each view presented effectively in itself, is perhaps the dominant value offered by the Papers as a whole.

For example, Eric W. Carlson’s lead essay, “Poe’s Vision of Man,” argues against “an essentially unsound emphasis on death and destruction as his major themes” and proposes “quite another central unifying theme: the quest for rebirth of mind and soul and thereby the realization of a new unity of being.” Carlson describes Poe’s vision “from three perspectives: the Neoplatonic or Paradisaical, the Existential, and the Psycho-Transcendental, which see life in terms of the Past, the Present, and the Present-Future, respectively”; and these three also represent, though less precisely, chronological stages in Poe’s vision. One finds here a penetrating analysis of those “apocalyptic” moments suggested in many of Poe’s writings. Carlson devotes as much space, however, to the “existential fables” (which are essential to his full theory) as to the third “perspective” which stands in more need of explication and support. One is left with questions; Carlson places the Maelstrom vision with his second “perspective,” for instance, and highlights “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” within the third, ending an extended discussion of the latter by questioning, “Is this apocalyptic scene [the final collapse] merely gratuitous Gothicism or does it hint that the psychic and the transcendent are finally related?” — apparently assuming a choice limited to these alternatives. Nevertheless, Carlson’s approach to Poe is more affirmative than many we have seen and I find it both healthy and welcome.

The perspective Sidney P. Moss chooses differs widely from Carlson’s. His richly allusive essay, “Poe’s Apocalyptic Vision,” assesses Poe’s “major fiction” not in relation to his life or to American literary history but against the flow of world literature. Moss states his assumptions clearly: “that alienation is the condition to which man is most prone” and that preoccupation with this condition [page 58:] has vitally influenced past dreams of amelioration and modern awareness of man’s plight. Historically, Moss avers, Poe should have followed Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Beckett. “For Poe,” he writes, “carried the theme of alienation and victimization to its ultimate conclusion — that man is totally helpless in a universe he has abandoned all hope of understanding.” Hence “The Pit and the Pendulum” may be seen as his “fable of man’s condition” and “Ligeia” as the inability, by narrator and reader alike though in different ways, to find meaning in that situation. Thus Poe represents a polarity to the humanism of classical literature — a position in strange contrast to the classical vision of such a poem as “To Helen.” But Moss is writing, ostensibly at least, only of the fiction. To a degree, his argument is circular since he begins by defining Poe’s “major fiction” as those tales which bear upon the “great subject” of modern literature (in Allen Tate’s words), “the disintegration of the personality.” But this is only to say that the essay is all of a piece. Despite repeated use of the term “major,” one may insist that Poe’s imaginative world is more complex, in important ways, than the essential aspect discussed. Moss’ essay is brilliant in conception and execution and may well become a classic expression of this interpretation of Poe’s fiction.

As might be expected, there are partial correlations between the essays. Moss’ major theme resembles Carlson’s second or Existential “perspective,” in which “Man [isl an alien, fatefully un but not of the Universe.” Moss points out that the sense-data of the narrators are “extensions of the mind, the weird landscapes and fantastic interiors of the projective psyche.” Similarly, Clark Griffith in “Poe and the Gothic” observes that Poe’s main advance beyond the earlier Gothic consists in his turning from exterior to interior sources for his effects. Other than “The Masque of the Red Death” and Pym, Griffith declares, he knows of “none of the horror tales in which the perceiving mind does not seem much more nearly the originator of the terrifying than it is a mere passive witness.” As a natural result Poe’s tales are better unified and gloomier than the eighteenth-century Gothic. These insights bring up the much vexed questions of the relative extent of participation by Poe’s narrators and the degree of symbolism to be read into their perceptions. For example, to Griffith the narrator, making “a kind of symbolic homecoming,” is the key to the “House of Usher” since his mind “brought into the landscape” the initial “power” of terror that dominates the tale. Such an argument can be made to cut both ways, for the landscape exists (however imaginary in fiction), and yet is usable for art only within a reacting subject (whether reader or character). As Poe declared, in the “perfect” plot all elements are interdependent, are equally cause and effect.

The issue in these broad essays is the relative significance of the Existential and the Transcendental in Poe’s fiction. Moss depicts Poe’s protagonist in “total alienation” (emphasis mine) whereas Carlson finds Poe’s most “comprehensive Vision of Man” in the “psychotranscendental.” Every reader inevitably comes upon his own emphasis. I myself see two aspects which must be taken into account. First, Poe’s fictional visions of transcendence nearly always accompany an experience of collapse, of fall, or of death. “Unity” at the close of Eureka is identified with “inevitable catastrophe,” and the more heterogeneous, [column 2:] intelligent, sensitive, and aware of Deity a subject becomes, the closer he approaches this inevitable end. Second is the usual brevity of the vision. Carlson posits that Usher’s “gradual . . . psychic awakening” (personified in Madeline) is “rapidly intensified” into a climactic revelation at her reappearance, and that the narrator attains “a final vision” in the “symbolic splitting asunder” of the House. Usher is gifted in human arts and sensitivity, and, if Carlson is right, his fall comes at the moment of his highest intuition. Griffith in turn writes: “We may feel that the next step for Poe’s narrators will be the tomb or the lunatic asylum. During a single, transcendent moment, however, they have had the privilege of calling up out of their very beings a totally new order of reality.” Carlson cites the 1846 “Marginalia” passage of “psychal fancies”; to his comments I would add that Poe here stresses also the “inappreciable point of time” (emphasis Poe’s), at the borderline between wakefulness and sleep, within which he can experience the ecstatic “glimpse of the spirit’s outer world.” By dint of will he has been able, not to prolong the “point,” but to render it conscious by calling himself back into a state of wakefulness. This object is more difficult to attain in the death imaged by sleep, but in his fiction Poe employs all sorts of devices, ranging from mesmerism to catalepsy to metempsychosis, to accomplish exactly that. The question becomes one of evaluarion. Is the transcendent vision itself, for Poe’s characters, a mark of collapse, or is the supernal glimpse worth the sacrifice? Poe’s heroes have little choice, but the critic ultimately must apply his own values.

Like Carlson, G. R. Thompson divides Poe’s fiction into three aspects, bur qualitatively rather than successively. “Each and every Gothic tale written by Poe,” Thompson writes in “Poe and ‘Romantic Irony,’” “can be demonstrated to have at least three simultaneous levels of meaning: supernaturalistic, psychological, and absurdist.” Thompson is concerned most specifically with the third of these, and primarily with antecedents in the German drama of Ludwig Tieck and the criticism of A. W. Schlegel. The simplest meaning of “Romantic Irony” lies in destroying the creative illusion. Thompson describes examples from Tieck’s early drama, of a play containing an “audience” that questions the action of the “play,” of speculation of a play within a play within a play. The effect starts as parody or satire and develops into a merging of the objective and the subjective from which the only escape is in “ironic detachment.” Thompson shows that Poe found in Schlegel’s Lectures not only his well known theories of unity but philosophical grounds for blending the tragic and the comic. Through subtle mastery of all perspectives the superior mind attains ironic transcendence over irreconcilable incongruities. Schlegel defends even fantastic puns and word-plays that may mirror distant truths. Techniques such as these are obvious in Poe’s comic tales, and Thompson argues for their contribution to his major canon.

William Goldburst’s “Poe-esque Themes” defines at least eight Poe subjects — Appearance and Reality, the Double, the Devil on the Loose, Compulsive Self-Betrayal, Plastic Space and Time, Buried Alive, the Supernal Oneness, and the Novel Experience, with some topics containing subdivisions. Conversely, the same analysis stresses similarities because many tales include several of the [page 59:] themes mentioned. Glen A. Omans’ essay “Poe’s ‘Ulalume’: Drama of the Solipsistic Self” is more widely ranging than the title indicates. Beginning with premises similar to those of Griffith’s, Omans observes that while the “transformation of reality” in Poe’s poems and tales may achieve at times a “valid vision of supernal beauty,” it often results in terror and despair when the narrator realizes “the solipsistic nature of his vision” or. in other words, “has not glimpsed a transcendence which proceeds outward from himself through material reality to pure ideal.” In contrast to Carlson, Omans finds this psychic isolation the key to both “Usher” and “Ligeia.” At best there is a “false vision of the ideal” in these stories: “Usher is struck to the floor by his realization of the true nature of his vision. He has willed his sister to death and back to life again, all in the confines of his own mind.” So too in “Ulalume,” where Psyche knows that the new portent will lead only back to the tomb and “the narrator discovers that . . . Iife is empty if one cannot reach beyond the self.” Omans turns finally to biographical application, and does not take into account the possibility of the reader’s experience differing from the characters’, but his ineerpretation is a significant, well-argued one.

The reader’s role is illustrated again in two surveys of Pym. Continuing his source investigations in “The End of Pym and the Ending of Pym, “ J. V. Ridgely finds historical and philological parallels which hint at the ultimate discovery never directly revealed by Pym: that an ancient race of very large white people had reached the southernmost region of the earth, leaving behind a lesser “shady” people who feared whiteness. William Peden in “Prologue to a Dark Journey: the ‘Opening’ to Poe’s Pym” analyzes Pym’s brief adventures in the Ariel as a foreshadowing of the violence, the terror, and the surreal that follow: “a dark voyage from which there is no return, an existentialist trip from nothingness to nothingness.” Both the methods and the conclusions of the two studies are divergent. Peden bases his symbolic explication upon Poe’s premise of the “preconceived effect” which gathers all details into “one pre-established design,” from which it follows naturally that the action and tone of the opening can be used to illuminate the more ambiguous ending.

What conclusions can reasonably be drawn from such variety in the reading of Poe? One can suggest first the desirability of a degree of critical humility. Professor Peden modestly admits that circumstances attending Pym make it presumptuous for the modern critic to “do much more than hazard a timid suggestion.” Critical debate and fresh insights of course are needed, but it seems futile to assume that such perceptions will change many favorite opinions or that interpretations praised by a number of experienced critics are total misreadings. It strikes me as preferable to recognize that, for whatever causes — whether from deep within Poe’s personality and aims or stemming from a certain archetypal quality of his fantasies — Poe is simply not the same Poe to all readers. If this is a paradox, that paradox is latent in his critical theory. After citing Poe’s doctrine of the “preconceived effect” Peden adds: “Pym has meant many things to many readers, which is perhaps the ultimate proof . . . of its greatness.” This postulate may be true but it would not, I think, favorably impress Poe, who reiteratedly claims that “the soul of the reader [column 2:] is at the writer’s control” during “the hour of perusal.” Indeed, “establishing . . . a] preconceived effect” which is “many things to many readers” comes close to being a contradiction in terms. The anomaly, however, is Poe’s not Peden’s. One might expect that emphasis upon “effect” would lead to a relativistic theory in which the varying constitution of readers would count strongly, but Poe takes the opposite line, protesting in his “Exordium” against “a charge of variability in laws that cannot vary — the laws of man’s heart and intellect — for these are the sole basis upon which the true critical art is established.” Thus we have Poe’s repeated requirements that the reader of the tale of “effect” possess a “mind . . . [that] contemplates it with a kindred art” and at the same time place his “soul” wholly “at the writer’s control.” The paradox is to expect the recipient to contribute so much and yet no more. The answer for Poe may have been the assumption, in Emerson’s words describing “genius,” that “what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.” And certainly if Poe’s “effect,” however “preconceived,” is to be reconstructed at each perusal, he is justified in demanding a skillful reader as well as “a skillful literary artist.” In recent decades, at least, Poe has found many readers with a kindred art, but not even his genius could foresee how extensive and various would be their individual contributions to his “preconceived” effects. This method of reading Poe, I believe, as the present Papers on Poe testifies, will surely continue.

A considerable range of specialized studies is included. Alice Moser Claudel has traced religious and classical symbols in “The City in the Sea,” and Burton R. Pollin the numerous allusions in the two-part Psyche Zenobia stories. Donald Barlow Stauffer examines the contemporary theories of phrenology and Poe’s use of terms drawn from them, often obscure to modern readers and of special importance in relation to Dupin. James Roy King describes evidence of Poe’s influence on recent Japanese literature, and Allen J. Koppenhaver adapts “The Cask of Amontillado” as the libretto of a one-act opera presented at Wittenberg University. Four papers concentrate upon biographical issues. Arlin Turner surveys the personal and professional relations between Poe and Simms, while William H. Gravely, Jr., combines fact with speculation in thoughtfully analyzing one of the more unfortunate episodes of Poe’s life accurately defined by his title, “Poe and Thomas Dunn English: More Light on a Probable Reason for Poe’s Failure to Receive a Custom House Appointment.” William Coyle reports a curious attack on Poe in 1864, in which one John Frankenstein takes a ghoulish retaliation for a slighting review of his paintings two decades earlier, erroneously attributed, Coyle believes, to Poe. In lighter vein is John E. Reilly’s carefully researched “Ermine’s Gales: The Poems Jane Locke Devoted to Poe,” where we see Poe pursued rather than pursuing in his last hectic years.

A worthy tribute to John Ward Ostrom, Papers on Poe is well edited and printed. The Index is unusually full, identifying characters and citing general concepts as well as names. The author of “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” would be pleased that the text is printed on wholly recycled paper.

E. Arthur Robinson, University of Rhode Island


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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[S:0 - PS, 1972]