Text: Various, “Marginalia,” Poe Studies, June 1973, Vol. VI, No. 1, 6:25-30


[page 25, column 2, continued:]


This column is devoted to brief notes, comments, queries. We wish to provide here an outlet for such items as source notes which do not require the extended argument and proof that customarily attends them, and for items of very special or peculiar interest which otherwise might not appear. Contributions to this column should generally be one paragraph in form and less than a page and a half of typescript, though notes of three pages with as many paragraphs are acceptable.

The Philosophical Pattern of  “A Descent into the Maelstrom”

As a “prose poem” in which Poe “attempted to unify the laws of physical science with those of aesthetic reality” [“Edgar Allan Poe,” in The American Tradition in Literature, ed. Scully Bradley et al. (New York: Norton, 1967), 1, 780], Eureka provides a significant commentary upon the nature of Poe’s fictive universe in “A Descent into the Maelstrom.” The philosophical gestalts of Eureka and “A Descent into the Maelstrom” are built upon opposites, particularly contrary cognitive states, reconciled only through moments of direct, personal, aesthetic, or intuitive apperception. In both works, the principles which rule Poe’s universe and unite science and philosophy are those of attraction and repulsion. It is Poe’s contention in Eureka that matter is manifested to Mind through the operation of the principles of Attraction and Repulsion. Only through a proper understanding of these principles in the physical universe and of what the nature of Matter will be when the principles of Attraction and Repulsion are satisfied or eliminated (“Matter without Matter”) can we comprehend that “Material Nihility” from which alone we can conceive Matter “to have been evoked — to have been created by the volition of God.” The volition of God and the unity of matter are embodied in Poe’s conception of the “Heart Divine” which both contains and sustains all future creation through the operation of the “Divine Will” [Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Harrison (New York: Crowell, 1902), XVI, 185-315] In the fictional world of “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” the maelstrom corresponds, in a number of ways to the “Heart Divine” of the cosmic universe of Eureka. First the maelstrom is composed of and capable of holding in balance opposite or contrary forces. While the “Heart Divine” manifests creation or matter through the opposite forces of Attraction and Repulsion, the maelstrom or vortex is created by the head-on meeting of a rising tidal current with the return-ebb current of the preceding tide. Second, the vortex is subject to “that omniprevalent law of laws, the law of periodicity,” as Poe assumes the “Heart Divine” to be. In general, the reversal of tides — which is primarily responsible for the creation of a vortex — is linked to the relative positions of sun and moon, occurring approximately every six hours. Third, the vortex, like the “Heart Divine,” is capable of regeneration — it can begin again, seemingly from a state of nothingness, and create through its own internal force another vortex which is an entirely new creation [G(erard) H(endrik) M(atthes), “Whirlpool,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1967].

In “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” the principles of attraction and repulsion operate on two levels, the physical or literal and the psychological or symbolic. Literally, attraction draws the “old man” into the vortex and repulsion later expels him. On the psychological or symbolic level, he constantly experiences toward the vortex the contrary states of repulsion and attraction while undergoing the parallel contrary emotional states of fear and hope. When his brother tells him that they are trapped in the “Moskoe-strom,” the “old man’s” initial reaction is one of terror and disbelief. Later, having made up his mind to hope no more for his own safety he overcomes his fear, and terror is replaced first by despair and then by an overwhelming sense of awe at the magnificence and grandeur of the maelstrom. As he [page 26:] is physically drawn into the maelstrom, the “old man” also undergoes a parallel state of attraction which is philosophical in character. He begins to reflect “how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner” and how foolish it was for him to think of “so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power.” Soon he “became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself” and “positively felt a wish to explore its depths” [Works, I, 225-247], even at the sacrifice of his life. The physical laws controlling the development of the maelstrom brought the “old man” to a point at which the psychological principles of attraction to and repulsion from the vortex can grant to him “brief, indeterminate glimpses” [Eric W. Carlson, ed. Introduction to Poe (Glenview, 111.: Scott Foresman, 1967), p. xxiii] into a reality more complex than that of ordinary human experience. The sight of the rays of the full moon penetrating the vortex and streaming “in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss” and the sound of “the yell that went up to the Heavens from out of that mist” constitute an aesthetic or intuitive realization, or, to use a term popularized by Joyce, an “epiphany” — a moment in which the world of the ideal is glimpsed. The intuitive experience .which the “old man” undergoes is, by its very nature, incommunicable. He takes on early in the story the character of an “ancient mariner” figure whose narration of the physical or literal events he has endured can never match the sense of both terror and awe felt in the face of absolute reality [For a discussion of the influence of Coleridge’s poem on “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” see Margaret J. Yonce’s “The Spiritual Descent into the Maelstrom: A Debt to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’” Poe Newsletter, 2 (1969), 26-29]. What he experiences at the pit of the vortex is an intuitive and metaphysical realization of the ultimate, derived from and granted to him through the laws of physical science. As such, it is of the same character as the aesthetic realization of the nature of the universe achieved by Poe in Eureka.

Christina J. Murphy, University of Mississippi


On the Whiteness at Tsalal: A Note on Arthur Gordon Pym

I suggest that the Tsalalians of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym fear white because their only acquaintance with the color has been with the devastating snow which surrounds their periphery and which some of them, perhaps distant ancestors, have actually encountered [Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Edward H. Davidson (Boston: Riverside, 1956), p. 403]. Their general fear of whiteness, a fear similar to a religious taboo and manifested ritualistically (pp. 383, 390), possibly stems from that previous exposure to the freezing death of the southern snows and ice.

An explanation of Pym’s and Peters’ deepening apathy in the last chapter, as well as of the mysterious white figure in the last paragraph, may also be traced to snow, for it appears to be the puzzling element Pym and Peters move into after they leave Tsalal. The “high range of light gray vapour [appearing] constantly in the southern horizon” (p. 402) parallels the misty sky of a snowstorm. That the vapor gradually whitens as the canoe is showered by “a fine white powder, resembling ashes” (p. 404) also describes a snowstorm. Pym’s comparison of the strange whiteness to a “limitless cataract, rolling silently into the sea from some immense and far-distant rampart in the heaven” (p. 405) poetically evokes a picture of heavily falling snow. Since Pym, Peters, and Nu-Nu are exposed to the polar elements for several weeks, it follows that their physical conditions would be particularly susceptible to death by freezing. Pym insists, for example, that the water around them becomes hotter, a normal reaction to intense cold (like frostbite) wherein sensations are described as burning heat. Coldness accounts as well for their progressive apathy. Pym attributes Nu-Nu’s “drowsiness and stupor” to the native’s reaction to the white handkerchief, but the reader is aware that the enveloping whiteness — especially if one [column 2:] assumes it is snow — must also be a contributing factor. Pym also wonders at Peters: “I knew not what to think of his apathy.” He, himself, is similarly overcome: “I felt a numbness of body and mind — a dreaminess of sensation — but this was all” (p. 404). The white handkerchief cannot explain the protagonists’ state, but a severe snowstorm bringing them near a freezing “kneel of death” can.

It seems possible, then, that the white figure at the end of the Narrative partakes of the reality of the freezing snow and its hallucinatory effects upon the men, while conveying simultaneously a sense of Pym’s surrender to the ineffability of the abyss (cf. p. 397). Moreover, to heighten the pervasive mood of mystery and doom and, thereby, to exemplify his mastery of controlled effect, Poe waits until the final word of the novel for his only direct mention of snow: “And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of snow” (p. 405). That Pym and Peters survive what I suggest is a freezing snowstorm can be explained only in terms of their previous deus ex machina rescues (pp. 252, 277, 344, 380) from what had seemed certain death.

Cordelia Candelaria, University of Notre Dame


A Note on “Annabel Lee”

The child’s vision of reality is, in relation to the larger proportions and understanding of the adult mind, a vision of the grotesque. Time, for example, exists for the child as a present in which, somehow, past and future are simply amalgamated rather than sequential, separate entities. The narrator in “Annabel Lee” says he was a child when he knew and loved his child-bride. From the subsequent workings of his mind, the narrator’s perspective seems to have changed little since that time. He has remained a child, because of inability or unwillingness to change, and this frozen perspective is lent a peculiar strength by the characteristic and simple cadences of the ballad form. The narrator tells his story until stanza three, when, in an attempt to account for the disproportion of his feelings of loss, he creates a child’s explanation for these feelings: the vision of the angel-murderers. As simple as it appears among the lulling rhythms of the poem, the vision is grotesque. To justify the loss, to find some cause proportionate to the effect he has experienced, the narrator must temper his idea of the seraphic with the demonic. He confirms his rationalization of angel-murder by re-asserting it and lending it the weight of common knowledge in stanza four. The final stanzas represent the conflation of time into the ever-present faithfulness and the nightly ceremonial act whereby the narrator tries to overcome the fact of separation he has earlier tried to explain. And the conventionally macabre “sepulchre” and “tomb,” given rhythmic emphasis in stanza six, transform, in context, into the blessed place of union for the lovers, among the soothing, familiar elements of nature. It is toward this unconscious wholeness in nature, in sleep, in death, that the distraught consciousness of the child mind strives through the simple narrative poem.

Julienne H. Empric, University of Notre Dame


“Like Those Nicean Barks”: Helen’s Beauty

The accumulated, impressive criticism on “To Helen” has considered every conceivable literary source for Poe’s famous epithet “Nicean barks.” Milton, Coleridge, Virgil, classical myths (especially the stories of Helen, Bacchus, Psyche, and Ulysses), and classical history (Alexander the Great and Catullus) have been identified as the source for the Nicean barks that carry the wanderer home. [See Edward D. Snyder, “Poe’s Nicean Barks,” Classical Journal, 48 (1953), 159-169; Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas O. Mabbott (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1969), 1, 166-171; The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Killis Campbell (New York: Gordian Press, 1962), pp. 200201.] This scholarship establishes the range and subtlety of Poe’s allusiveness and considerable learning. Edward Snyder asserts that in the composition of this poem there “had drifted [page 27:] through [Poe’s] mind many shadowy recollections of his reading and that it is something better than idle speculation to attempt to identify each of the several cruces” [p. 159]. I should like to add to the discussion of one of these “cruces” by suggesting that the “Nicean barks” to which Helen’s beauty is compared in a simile may refer to a tradition, or figure, in Grecian art that is called a “Nike.” That Poe meant “Nicean” to mean “victorious” and that it is a word formed from ‘Nike,” that is, “victory,” are convincingly argued by Thomas O. Mabbott in his edition of Poe’s poems [I, 167, n. 2]. In Greek sculpture and numismatics, a Nike is a beautiful woman standing on a boat prow, or bark. We know that Poe was steeped in classical lore in the years before the publication of “To Helen”; he doubtless saw or knew of the genre of sculpture of Nike on a boat prow. The tradition dates from a coin minted by Demetrius Poliocetes, of the graceful and beautiful Victory on a prow, holding a trumpet and celebrating his naval battle at Salamis. [Grecian coins and statuary were common in the nineteenth century; Poe could have seen any number of them, including the Nikes, and used them in his poetry. In identifying the epithet “hyacinth hair,” Mabbott p. 170, n. 3, refers to coins and statues having figures with “hyacinth hair.”] The ultimate fulfillment of this tradition in art is, of course, the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

In tracing down the meaning and source of the epithet “Nicean barks,” commentators have generally ignored the exact grammatical sense of the first stanza of “To Helen.” Helen’s beauty is compared in a simile to “those Nicean barks of yore.” In what sense are Nicean barks beautiful, and how can they be compared to the supernal beauty of Troy’s Helen? Only if the lines refer to the totality of a Nike sculpture or coin relief do they make the figurative sense clear and meaningful. It is a complex allusion. The barks stand for or imply the whole ensemble of some Nike (on a coin or in sculpture) like the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which clearly includes the goddess and the boat prow. The boat prow is inseparable from the Nike; it supports her and is essential to an understanding of the meaning and purpose of this genre of Greek sculpture. Note also that Poe wrote “barks,” a detail which might be taken to re-enforce the idea that the numerous Nike sculptures and coin reliefs comprise a genre or tradition of Grecian art which is beautiful in Poe’s estimation and which contributes to his view that Greece is the victorious holy realm of art.

Subsequent details in the poem seem to be tied to Poe’s Nike and bark. The “Nicean barks” may relate to the “desperate seas” referred to in stanza two and anticipate details of Helen’s beauty (“hyacinth hair,” “classic face”) already implied in the Nike sculpture, a beauty which, like the bark, will deliver the speaker from these desperate seas. Finally the “Nicean barks” may anticipate the “statue-like” bearing of Psyche of stanza three. It seems that Poe’s imagination is a quicksand of shifting mythic, historic, artistic, and literary relationships, and that several references to the classical past flow into this provocative, complex poem. As Nike, Helen suggests a triumphancy, statuesqueness, and beauty that refer to the heights of artistic achievement and to ideal form in the Hellenistic Period of Greece. In these ways is Poe’s “Nicean barks” an evocative, rich, complex, meaningful figure, or epithet, for Helen’s beauty.

Mario L. D’Avanzo, The City University of New York, Queens College


Poe and The Manuscript

Occasional similarities in three of Poe’s tales to works published in The Manuscript suggest that Poe may have been indebted to that periodical, published in New York in 1827 and 1828. [The Newberry Library copy lists the publishers of Volume I (1827) as G. & C. Carvill and Bliss & White, and of Volume 11 (1828) as G. & C. Carvill and Elam Bliss, who also published a second edition of Volume I in 1828. Bliss, of course, published Poems by Edgar A. Poe in 1831.] Poe’s “The Angel of the Odd” and the Manuscript essay “Conversations with Thomas Paine” [11, 3364] are similar most significantly in plot. In each work, a [column 2:] skeptic is visited by a preaching adversary who argues for the validity of something which seems incredible (the idea of divine revelation in “Conversations,” the reality of “singular” occurrences as evidence of the omnipresence of an unorthodox deity in “The Angel”) . Each visitor picks up a newspaper which contains an extract from an English periodical. The room of each host is in disarray, reflecting the state of its occupant’s mind. “The Providential Release” [Manuscript, 11, 65-88], which immediately follows “Conversations,” also seems relevant. Like Poe’s dreaming narrator of “The Angel,” its protagonist (an American soldier trying to escape the enemy) seems to be “labouring under the influence of a horrible dream, and had not the power of awakening and shaking off the delusion” [11, 77]. During his escape he has various accidents, as does Poe’s narrator. Finally he is convinced that a divine guardian protects him. Poe’s distressed narrator is asked to believe in a guardian angel too, but in a highly unorthodox one; instead of protecting the narrator, Poe’s angel causes accidents. Also of interest is the line from Cowper’s The Task which Poe quotes in his tale (“This folio of four pages, happy work!” [Book IV, 1. 50]). The line begins the epigraph for the essay which introduces the first number of The Manuscript. The echoes of parts of The Manuscript in two other tales are fainter. “Morning on the Wissahiccon” (later entitled “The Elk”) resembles “Trenton Falls” in The Manusscript [I, 75-84] in the opening comments (not uncommon, of course) about the relative merits of European and American scenery, in the Romantic description of the natural scene (a winding stream with precipitous banks), and in the ensuing narrative which draws attention to a particular precipice which is the site of the principal event. Finally, “The Oblong Box” is like “The Reward of Avarice” [Manuscript, II, 1-16] in the figure of a traveller with an unusual attachment to a mysterious, heavy box.

Gerald E. Gerber, Duke University


A Spurious Poe Letter to A. N. Howard

It would be far pleasanter to announce the discovery of an unknown Poe letter than to disprove the authenticity of one which has received tantalizing mention for almost forty years. Considering the speciously rich content of the letter of December 7 1846, allegedly written by Poe to A. N. Howard as catalogued by a large state library, it seems necessary to record the background of the item as well as the proof of its being a forgery. The first reference appears in the Southern press, probably through the publicity accorded it by its discoverer. The Durham North Carolina Herald-Sun of June 9, 1935, reports that James H. Whitty of Richmond has found a letter “hitherto unknown” and “believed written” by Poe to “A. N. Howard, editor of a magazine, the New York Mirror.” (My thanks are owed to David K. Jackson, who responded to my inquiry with the newspaper text.) Next, in a brief review of J. W. Ostrom’s checklist of Poe’s letters, David K. Jackson mentions the letter with a caution about its authenticity [American Literature, 13 (1941), 283]. Via a reference to Jackson’s note, J. W. Ostrom lists the letter in the “Check List” to his 1948 edition of Poe’s Letters giving it a bracketed question mark, symbol for “questionable authenticity.” The item itself is listed, without identification as a manuscript letter by Poe in American Literary Manuscripts [Joseph Jones, ed. (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1960), p. 298], presumably reported by the New York State Library Manuscripts and History Section, at Albany. It was there that I was able to examine and have it copied for further study; Mr. James Corsaro, Assistant Librarian, told me that it was accessioned in 1949 with no present trace of its provenance. I have no doubt that it came indirectly from the estate of Whitty, who died in 1937.

The forger has studied the handwriting of Poe very carefully in order to imitate his most elaborate style of calligraphy of that period; this style may be seen in the 1846 “Valentine” to Mrs. Osgood and that of 1847 to Mrs. Shew, both reproduced in Mabbott’s 1969 edition of the poems. All the elaborate capitals, such as the “n” and “h,” are found in it. My sole doubt concerns the consistently open loop of the top part of [page 28:] the cursive small “g,” which Poe always carefully closed in his formal writing of the period (although not in earlier specimens). It is a masterly copy of Poe’s writing. The forger or an accomplice has also constructed a “tale” of tantalizing allusiveness for its content, which can merely be summarized here. Dated December 7, 1846, it is sent merely from “New York” to “A. N. Howard Esq’., 16 Cedar St., New York,” called on the cover “Sugar House” and further designated as “Friday 3 P.M.” The writer explains a delay in receiving Howard’s original letter through being unable to call at the “Post Office” because of a severe cold. He acknowledges Howard’s accuracy in observing a deletion in the recently published “Cask of Amontillado,” caused by too great a resemblance between the general alarm in Fortunato’s household over his absence and something “obvious” in “The Case of M. Valdemar.” However, only the “irrelevant” first paragraph has finally been omitted. Then, via this letter, hand-delivered by “Miss Howard,” he invites Howard to come out to Fordham, “say on Sunday afternoon.” Howard will be alone except possibly for “Mrs. G. or Dr. Stewart,” after his “meeting services.” Next he mentions encountering “our old friend Evans of Sartain’s” who asked whether Howard still wished to pay — 1,000 for a half interest in his “project.” Finally, he thanks him for “the criticism of Mrs. Sigourney’s space in the ‘literati,’” a series which only “H. W. L.” thus far has protested — a protest “which you have undoubtedly read.” In a postscript he promises Howard a copy of his ‘Valdemar” tale. In pencil are two annotations, not in Whitty’s hand (samples of which Mrs. Mabbott has kindly shown me), identifying Mrs. G. as Mrs. Gove, “daughter of Dr. Wm. Gove” (actually she was daughter of William Neal) and H. W. L. as “Longfellow.”

Patently this is a forged note. There could be no possible resemblance between the two tales, especially since the writer contradictorily denies any major changes in the published form of the first; no “Dr. Stewart” was ever associated with Poe, nor does there appear to be a minister of that name who could visit Poe, in any of the contemporary professional lists. Sartain, Poe’s old Philadelphia friend and associate on Graham’s, had not yet started his Union Magazine, and there is no “Evans” connected with either man, nor is it likely that the enormous sum would be so lightly mentioned by Poe. Mrs. Sigourney receives no space in the “Literati Papers” and Longfellow is renowned for his public silence concerning Poe’s charges. Neither the archives of the city of New York nor Doggett’s New York Business Directory for 1846-47 (and all other years) reveals any “Sugar House” at 16 Cedar Street nor any A. N. Howard; similarly, neither the mastheads of the Mirror nor the literature on New York journalism reveal any editor of that name. Significantly, the difficulty of forging a postmark is met by the device of having “Miss Howard” deliver the letter. Carelessly, the writer failed to observe that December 7 was a Monday, not a Friday. The writer found at least one other purchaser for his skilled imitations; Colonel Richard Gimbel lists as a Poe forgery his own “Howard” letter from Poe, of December 9, 1846, referring to proposed corrections in “Usher” although he read the second initial as an “h” rather than an ‘n” [item 149 in his list of Poe exhibits, “Quoth the Raven,” Yale University Library Gazette, 3 (1959), 139-189]. Concerning other Poe letters to this “Howard” gentleman, “caveat emptor.”

Burton R. Pollin, The City University of New York, Bronx Community College


Another Look at Poe’s Dr. Ollapod

A recent note in American Literature suggests a source for the character of Dr. Ollapod in Poe’s “A Predicament” [Burton R. Pollin, “Poe’s Dr. Ollapod,” 42 (1970), 80-82]. Dr. Ollapod is a comic character in George Colman Jr.’s play The Poor Gentleman which was a great favorite in New York and Philadelphia in the 1830’s. Poe took advantage of the public’s awareness of the name and used it in his tale which was published in December 1838. But, as Pollin points out, by the time Poe had revised the tale for publication in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque two years later, Poe was an associate editor of William E. Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, and it would have been indiscreet for him to continue to use the name Ollapod as part of the lampoon, [column 2:] for Burton had portrayed Ollapod on the stage. Pollin feels that by the time Poe used “A Predicament” again — years later in his Broadway Journal — his association with Burton was through and no reason existed not to use the more evocative name. But Pollin’s suggestion, and he mentions it again obliquely in another article [’Poe’s Literary Use of ‘Oppodeldoc’ and Other Patent Medicines,” Poe Studies, 4 (1971), 30], does not take fully into account another important matter. Burton’s role as Ollapod began on September 3, 1834. In March 1835 there began a fairly regular column in the Knickerbocker Magazine, signed ‘Ollapod,’ and written by the editor Lewis Gaylord Clark’s twin brother, Willis Gaylord Clark. These pieces had great popularity in the literary circles Poe despised. In 1835 Poe and Willis Clark had a verbal exchange over the Norman Leslie review [see Sidney P. Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles, pp. 45-62]. Clark’s attack had been personal, and Poe would have remembered it. Certainly Poe, in addition to the stage character, had Willis Clark in mind when he originally alluded to Ollapod. Burton, at that date, had done nothing to Poe, except to help him by popularizing a character whose name suggested presumption, self-complacency, heavy humor, and, above all, long-winded charlatanism. Willis Clark died in 1841 and a few years later his brother edited a one-volume edition of his works, the Literary Remains of Willis Gaylord Clark. The Ollapod papers comprise a large section of this work and in the introduction Lewis Clark specifically designates the stage character as the source of his brother’s pseudonym. Through Lewis Clark’s elaborate “puffing,” the name and its association were thus again held up before the public. At this time Poe was in the midst of his literary battle with Clark and a strike at the dead man was also a strike at his twin. Poe had satirized the Literary Remains in his “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.” in December 1844 [William Whipple, “Poe, Clark, and ‘Thingum Bob,’ “ American Literature, 29 (1957), 312-316, although Pollin in PS, 4, 30-32, views it differently]. Never one to allow good material to languish, Poe could, by redubbing Dr. Morphine Dr. Ollapod, get in a jab at Burton [seeLetters, ed. Ostrom, 1, 129-132; 155-157 about the disagreement between Poe and Burton] and could impugn Willis and, ultimately, Lewis Clark and what they represented. “A Predicament” appeared in the summer of 1845, but it was only preparatory for what was to come the following May — “The Literati.”

A. John Roche, St. Paul’s College


A Note on “The Bell-Tower”: Melville’s “Blackwood Article”

In the mid-1850’s, Melville was striving to revive his popularity as a professional writer. In that struggle, it is not unlikely that he looked to an earlier struggling professional writer for help — to Edgar Allan Poe. Similarities between Melville’s “The Bell-Tower” [published in Putnam’s in 1855 and included in The Piazza Tales, of The Works of Herman Melville (rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963), X, 253-271] and Poe’s duo “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and ‘A Predicament: The Scythe of Time” [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (rpt. ea., New York: AMS Press, 19G5), II, 269-295] suggest that Poe’s stories gave Melville direction and detail for a critical (if wit-laden) comment on the craft of writing. [Note other views by Charles A. Fenton, “‘The Bell-Tower’: Melville and Technology,” American Literature; 23 (1951), 219232, who sees Melville’s primary concern with Bannadonna as an indictment of science and technology, and Marvin Fisher, “Melville’s ‘Bell-Tower’: A Double Thrust,” American Quarterly, 18 (1966), 200-207, who reads the work as “not only a rejection of technological progress but also a fearful response to that other contemporary phenomenon — the institution of Negro slavery” (p. 201) .] For one thing, verbal and dramatic resemblances manifest themselves. The “black mossed stump” of Melville’s opening sentence offers an early clue to “Blackwood.” And an example of Mr. B’s recommended “intensities” is a story called “The Man in the Bell,” the recorded sensations of a man who falls asleep under the clapper of a church bell and who, upon being awakened by a sudden tolling, is then driven mad by the sounds. If Melville’s tale does not reflect a tabulation of feelings, it does feature the advocated “big bell” and several candidates for “the man” in it — the laborer killed during the [page 29:] bell’s construction, the automaton, Bannadonna, and the peasant who attempts to ring the bell at Bannadonna’s funeral.

Melville seems to follow Mr. B’s advice on the manner of narration. The word order of many sentences of “The Bell-Tower” suggests that Melville was consciously writing in what Mr. B. labeled “the tone elevated.” The second sentence is typical of the tale’s style: “As all along where the pine-tree falls, its dissolution leaves a mossy mound — last-flung shadow of the perished trunk; never lengthening, never lessening; unsubject to the fleet falsities of the sun; shade immutable, and true gauge which cometh by prostration — so westward from what seems the stump, one steadfast spear of lichened ruin veins the plain.” At the close, the tale shifts to “the tone didactic”: “So the blind slave obeyed its blinder lord; but, in obedience, slew him. So the creator was killed by the creature. So the bell was too heavy for the tower. So the bell’s main weakness was where man’s blood had flawed it. And so pride went before the fall.” Occasional passages comply even with Mr. B’s definition of “the tone heterogeneous”: the automaton is to be “more useful than the ox, swifter than the dolphin, stronger than the lion, more cunning than the ape, for industry an ant, more fiery than serpents, and yet, in patience, another ass.”

Further, Melville evidently adapts elements from Psyche Zenobia’s practical demonstration of Mr. B’s advice, “A Predicament”; though, like the “law of art” discussed in “The Bell-Tower,” the imitation is made original. On the time-pieces in the two stories, the victims observe figures of graceful women, presumably Muses. Psyche and Bannadonna are aided to their doom by their slaves, and both by their own wills. In each story a dog senses the truth (Psyche’s Diana “smelt a rat”; a spaniel in “The Bell-Tower” “snuffed footsteps leading to some other world”) before it dies. And both protagonists (in pursuit of their arts) are destroyed in high towers by time-pieces. One imagines that Poe would have been pleased to play Mr. B. to a pupil as superior to Psyche Zenobia as Melville is.

Mildred K. Travis, Arizona State University


Isaac Asimov’s Debt to Edgar Allan Poe

In the same year that Brander Matthews wrote his influential essay, “Poe and the Detective Story” [Scribner’s Magazine, 42 (September 1907), 287-293], Arthur Conan Doyle praised Poe’s ratiocinative and science fiction and said that Poe had covered the limits of the detective story so well that his followers could hardly be expected to find fresh ground which they might confidently call their own [Through the Magic Door (London: Smith, Elder, 1907), pp. 114-115]. This prophecy is only partly fulfilled in the unlikely accomplishment of Isaac Asimov who, with numerous backward glances to Poe’s work, has successfully amalgamated the detective story with science fiction. Such a union is not unnatural, for science and detective fiction have much in common, both usually elevating the idea or plot over characterization and both often presenting the reader with a puzzle to solve. And both have attracted writers of a certain bent from Poe through Doyle to Frederic Brown. Yet science fiction writers have seemed inhibited in the face of the science fiction mystery, because, as Asimov says in the introduction to Asimov’s Mysteries [New York: Doubleday, 1968, p. x] science fiction need not

. . . play fair with the leader. In a science fiction story, the detective could say, “But as you know Watson, ever since 2175, when all Spaniards learned to speak French, Spanish has been a dead language. How came Juan Lopez, then, to speak those significant words in Spanish?

Or else, he could have his detective whip out an odd device and say, “As you know Watson, my Pocket-frannistan is perfectly capable of detecting the hidden jewel in a trice.”

Asimov, however, does “play fair” with the reader in his science fiction mysteries. Clues may be obscured, but they are not omitted. Essential lines of thought may be thrown out casually, but they are there. The reader may be remorselessly misdirected and mystified, but he is not cheated. Unlike many science fiction writers, Asimov heeds Poe’s critical dicta concerning unity, so that he not only weds science fiction to detective fiction, but also demonstrates that such novels as The Caves of Steel (1953) [column 2:] and The Naked Sun (1956) can constitute an acceptable literary form.

It is, however, in a collection of short stories, Asimov’s Mysteries, that his debt to Poe is most obvious. In “The Singing Bell” the mental gymnastics of Asimov’s version of C. Auguste Dupin, the ironically named extraterrologist Dr. Wendell Urth [Like Poe, Asimov is sensitive to names, often using them humorously — the agent from TBI (Terrestrial Bureau of Investigation) who repeatedly requests Urth’s aid is H. Seton Davenport.], are convincing testimony to the eccentric amateur detective’s origin. In addition to his ability to perform astounding feats of analysis, Urth’s love of music and books, his cloistered existence — invariably he is enclosed in his cocoon-like habitat — and his chiding of obtuse policemen are only a few traits that remind one of Poe’s chevalier. “The Talking Stone,” a story in which Urth’s relentless logic leads him to solve a mystery based upon a series of numerals placed conspicuously on the hull of a space ship which has been gone over numerous times by policemen, parallels the plot, the tone, and many of the details of “The Purloined Letter.” In “The Dying Night,” with its clever adaptation of the locked room convention that Poe made famous in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Urth embarrasses policeman and murderer alike through his impeccable logic, and his vast knowledge of astronomical lore. Finally, “The Key” has numerous parallels not only to Poe’s Dupin stories, but also to “The Gold-Bug.” The buried treasure for which murder has been committed is a mind-altering device with potential value and significance far surpassing the gold of Captain Kidd. Again baffled protectors of justice seek the aid of Wendell Urth. From his Dupinesque quarters, “a place of eternal night” with “no sign of any window” [p. 198], Urth solves an ostensibly insoluble seven-part cryptogram using a series of logical propositions and explanations of symbols strongly reminiscent of William Legrand’s [Many of the details of Urth’s solution suggest the alchemical symbolisn. that Barton St. Armand finds in Poe’s story. See “Poe’s ‘Sober Mystification’: The Uses of Alchemy in ‘The Gold-Bug,’” Poe Studies, 4 (1971), 1-7]. The deciphering of the puzzle involves a double, bilingual pun which demonstrates Asimov’s dexterity at the sort of wordplay that delighted Poe. A human skull and Urth’s reference to “Carolina or some other outlandish place” [pp. 199, 204] also figure in “The Key.” Thus Ashnov’s science fiction mysteries contain the kind of minute scientific explanation that is the hallmark of Poe’s science fiction, in combination with most of the elements of Poe’s detective stories. Poe’s influence on one of the two or three most respected and prolific twentieth-century writers of science fiction is significant; for, even though his major interest is as a central figure of Dark Romanticism, it is important to note his continuing influence on popular literature.

Jack D. Wages, Texas Tech University


A Borges Poem on Poe

Jorge Luis Borges, the noted Argentine author, early in life began to read in their original language the numerous American and English books in his father’s library. The works of Edgar Allan Poe were among those that first satisfied his imagination’s need for fantastic literature. The impact of this early exposure can be seen in numerous of Borges’ stories and poems. His critical statements, too, reflect his appreciation of Poe: “It can’t be denied that all which is specifically modern in contemporary poetry stems from two men of genius from North America: Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman. From Edgar Poe are descended Baudelaire, Symbolism, Valery and, in some ways, Joyce; it would be well to add that Poe’s theory is perhaps even more important and procreative than his practice.” The poem below (my translation), collected in El otro, el mismo, shows another facet of Borges’ attitude before the author of his favorite tales of terror and intellect.

Edgar Allan Poe

The pomp of marble, black anatomy

which the sepulchral worms revile . . .

He brought together glacial symbols

of the triumph of Death. He did not fear them.

He feared another shadow, that of love, [page 30:]

the common lot in people’s lives;

he was not blinded by the metal’s glint

nor by the marble of the tomb, but by a rose.

As if within the mirror’s other side,

he faced his complex in the solitude

of the inventor of nightmarish plots.

Perhaps beyond the grave’s divide,

alone and strong, he still constructs

the splendid and atrocious wonders of his art.

Robert Lima, The Pennsylvania State University


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PS, 1973]