Text: E. Arthur Robinson, “Poe as Master Craftsman,” Poe Studies, December 1973, Vol. VI, No. 2, 6:50-52


[page 50, column 2:]


Poe as Master Craftsman

Stuart Levine. Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman. Deland, Florida: Everett/Edwards, 1972. 282 pp. $13.00.

Readers ask, “How serious is Poe?” with the corollaries “In what way is he serious?” and “How should he be taken seriously?” These seem to me the essential questions which Stuart Levine attempts to answer in Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman. Levine focuses on Poe the writer rather than Poe the man, though he levies freely upon the biographical aspects that he finds applicable.

The qualifying words of Levine’s title suggest either a dichotomy or a union, and in this sense, at least, Levine opts for the union: Poe’s best work occurs when the seer (or see-er, usually a narrator immersed in his vision) and the technician function hand in hand. “Generally speaking,” the author observes, “Poe’s formula worked best when the subjective elements were strongest, that is, when the facts of the tale were given to the reader distorted by what Crane would have called the color of the narrator’s mind” (p. 219). The position is similar to that expressed in a contemporary essay by Clark Griffith, whose older influence Levine cites: “So successfully has Poe internalized the Gothic that the old ‘outer wonders’ of the eighteenth century now disappear into the stream of consciousness. They have become the conditions and consequences . . . of a psychic state” (Griffith, “Poe and the Gothic,” Papers on Poe, 1972, pp. 23-24). Levine sets up a “scale” for several of Poe’s stories “running from those in which the narrative is most subjective to those in which the tale is told more from ‘the outside’” and finds “a rough correlation between the degree of involvement and the degree eo which the tales succeed.” The principle may be accepted even though one may not agree wholly with the relative subjectivity assigned to the tales listed.

Levine writes with refreshing frankness, seldom hesitating to express opinions. His procedure is to assemble available material and to note where objectivity ceases and personal predilection takes over. “To say that Poe succeeds,” he writes in discussing “The Man of the Crowd,” “is, of course, to make a subjective judgment: I like the story and think that it succeeds” (p. 229). When evidence appears inadequate, he ends with a personal “guess”: “My own guess is that Poe for most of his career played with these ideas [occult beliefs!, and by the end of his life had come to believe in them” (p. 162). Levine’s criticism combines the formal and the impressionistic. A not uncommon danger of such merging is using each method to bolster the weaknesses of the other, but generally Levine’s candor enables him to draw firm lines between the two or at least to place his own natural biases sufficiently before the reader.

Of major value are a dozen or more perceptive and even brilliant analyses of particular tales, outstanding examples being those of “William Wilson,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” and “The Man of the Crowd.” Levine organizes his study around a succession of critical problems — Poe’s aesthetic theory, the validity of autobiographical “masks,” the influence of the magazine traditions, mysticism, the question of moral themes, and so on — and [page 51:] chooses tales relevant to each. One result is that admirable critiques may be incomplete if regarded as studies of the stories per se, although Levine often informally broadens his commentary.

To each critical unit the author brings a wealth of knowledge, logical inference, and personal statements. One’s reactions to the more subjective judgments are likely to be variable; for example, certain assumptions about Poe’s artistic motivations left me skeptical, while I found ambiguities which the author sensed in Poe’s use of madness largely convincing. Both the tone and the content of the book range from elementary exposition to sophisticated evaluation, making one unsure at times of the intended audience. For the Poe scholar, Levine is most interesting when weighing existing interpretations; he offers illuminating analogies, and the extensive speculations ask the reader to review his present concepts.

One section of Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman is especially useful. In “The Magazine Environment,” Levine accepts the view that Poe was crucially influenced by the medium in which he worked. Acknowledging leads in the publications of Robert D. Jacobs, Sidney P. Moss, Perry Miller, and Michael Allen, he concentrates upon defining his own impressions of the magazines and assessing qualities affecting editorship of the day. Most important, he includes facsimiles of contemporary material: a brief sentimental tale from Graham’s Magazine in 1842, several covertly erotic illustrations, and mediocre music printed in Graham’s Magazine. The documentation is well chosen and is here made readily available to the general reader. It enables Levine to demonstrate both the subject matter and the techniques which Poe found at hand and the superior craftsmanship with which he adapted these to his own writing.

On the formal side, Levine’s treatment of Poe’s aesthetics is complex but may be partially summarized. After describing Poe’s main premises, he accepts Yvor Winters’ dictum that Poe confused beauty as subject matter with beauty as style and form. He argues, however, that the organic unity of “time, plot and texture” of the best tales reveals Poe’s practical grasp of beauty: “often the story which frames the ‘beauty’ in Poe is itself beautiful” (p. 224). This line of thought naturally results in more thorough development of the “Craftsman” of the title than of the “Seer.” Few specialists will find exposition of Poe themes carried beyond that already available, but analysis of craftsmanship is often subtle and distinctive. Levine shows great skill in tracing Poe’s methods of giving form to a story, or of leading protagonisr and reader through stages of perceptiveness in which the terror and beauty of the process of perceiving merge wirh the madness and beauty that are perceived.

One major aspect is surprising. Poe’s poetry as a developed subject is totally omitted from the book. I find little explanation other than a statement that the poetry is less “mature” than the prose. “A sophisticated reader can demolish most of the poetry,” Levine declares in his concluding paragraphs, adding, “Yet there are some very good poems.” My complaint is that, in fairness to the reader, such a radical delimitation should be indicated in the title; one hates to think of the student hours spent futilely searching for subject matter the book implicitly [column 2:] promises to offer.

Following Levine’s lead in “guessing,” one can speculate on another reason for his omitting a study of the poetry. As a whole he pays little attention to differences between Poe’s theories of poetry and of fiction (which do, of course, have much in common). In his review of Longfellow’s Ballads, Poe holds that “moods of beauty” belong to poetry and “all else” to prose, and he repeats the distinction in the 1842 Hawthorne review, adding that “Truth is often, and in very great degree, the aim of the tale” “When, indeed,” he writes in “The Philosophy of Composition,” “men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effectC they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul . . . which is experienced in consequence of contemplating ‘the beautiful.’” As theory this leaves much to be desired, bur such in general I take to be Poe’s idea when he attempts to be exact, though like most of us he often refers to a subject itself as being “beautiful.” Levine quotes from a list of natural objects at the end of “The Poetic Principle” which, he declares, Poe says “true Poetry . . . is embodied in” (p. 10). But actually Poe writes that these are “simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect,” and, lest the distinction between beauty as subject matter and poetic beauty as effect is not thus sufficiently defined, he adds that the Poet “recognizes the ambrosia which nourishes his soul” in the list quoted. Although Levine refers to “supernal Beauty,” he does not to my mind give sufficient weight to Poe’s concept of beauty as effect nor to the division he makes between the functions of poetry and fiction.

Levine presents an effective unit on Poe’s mysticism, which he more often terms rhe “occult.” He concentrates upon the Colloquies, laying a groundwork for considering moral themes in “William Wilson” and “The Imp of the Perverse.” He is much concerned with how seriously Poe took his own intellectual statements, and after considerable weighing finds some of Poe’s deepest meaning in the Freudian triad of “creativity, sexuality, and the death-wish” implied in “The Imp” (p. 209). He mentions Eureka briefly in relation to the “assertion of the interconnectedness of all things” as its “occult thesis” (p. 158). These chapters are highly rewarding. I would have been interested in further discussion of Eureka; its world-view including the cycle of dispersion, fall, and rebirth and the climactic man-God identification could have added another dimension to an already brilliant disquisition on “The Imp,” and possibly even have saved aspects of Pym.

The handling of The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym is for me the one nearly complete failure in the book. Technical infelicity is Levine’s primary accusation: “The veriest hack writer,” he says, “can turn out . . . a piece more unified” (p. 238). My objection is not so much to his conclusions (Pym being open to a wide range of evaluation) as to the telescoping of his formal and personal modes of criticism. For example, he discounts “an impressive argument . . . on symbolic grounds” (which he does not specify) that could be made for the ending of Pym because “it does not strike one as a great passage when one first comes upon it” (p. 245). His “guesses” at Poe’s motives in writing various parts become obsessive. [page 52:] The reader ignorant of Kaplan’s modern interpretation, he says, “can only assume that Poe was trying hard, as he wrote the last chapters, to think of something to do with the whiteness, and that, unable to devise anything, decided instead to intensify what he had on hand to a pitch which might be a little impressive, and let it go at that” (p. 245). He does find “patches of perfectly good writing,” and most readers will agree that “Pym runs off in too many directions” (p. 241). The formal criticism too develops unexpected holes. The hoax element, which proved functional for Poe elsewhere, here “seems merely an unhappy attempt to salvage something from a job poorly done” (p. 249). Even repetition, a mainstay of Poe’s technique, becomes suddenly a weakness because no connection between the two burials alive (actually there are more) is suggested: “indeed, one half suspects that Poe, when he wrote the second, had forgotten the first” (p. 246) — as though Poe, master of arabesque duplication, habitually underlined structural effects. As a consequence of this presentation, I feel an unconscious irony when Levine congratulates himself near the end that his “structural analysis” and “reader response” so completely mesh. It is unfortunate that he devotes the central portion of his concluding chapter to an extended attack of this nature.

Despite shortcomings, much of Levine’s study is finely wrought. There are many passages of particular value, such as descriptions of the borderline between sleep and wakefulness, expressionism in Poe’s fiction, the concept that elite art grows out of popular art as well as vice versa, analysis of magazine influence on brevity and intensity, explanations of contrasting tones in Poe’s work, musical analogues to his technique, and unusual recognition of his appreciation of nature. The book apparently aims at judgments; its primary function may be polemic. Since Levine stresses Poe’s magazinist tradition, one may appropriately note that there is also a professorial tradition, within which Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman deserves inclusion on “reserve lists” to stimulate discussion among good students of Poe.

E. Arthur Robinson, University of Rhode Island


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