Text: Pasquale Jannaccone (Translated by Peter Mitilineos), “The Aesthetics of Edgar Poe,” Poe Studies, June 1974, Vol. VII, No. 1, 7:1-13


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The Aesthetics of Edgar Poe

Translated by Peter Mitilineos

Pasquale Jannaccone:

Forgotten Critic of Whitman and Poe

Jannaccone’s nineteenth-century studies of Whitman were in essence unavailable until last year, when Peter Mitilineos brought out a translation of La Poesia di Walt Whitman e L’Evoluzione delle Forme Ritmiche. So also Jannaccone’s “L’Estetica di Edgardo Poe,” written in 1894, was unaccountably forgotten. Published when the author was twenty-three years of age, in the Nuova Antologia (vol. S8, series 3, July 15, 1895), it is presented in English here as one of the more interesting critical discussions of Poe’s poetry and poetics written in the nineteenth century.

Jannaccone’s essay is a bit diffuse, but it progressively develops a set of ideas about Poe’s aesthetic theories from an international perspective. Poe drew his aesthetics principally from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, which itself was a drawing together of the scattered thoughts of the German Romantics. Poe’s is not a system of aesthetics but a series of thoughts on the means of achieving poetic effect. Poe’s counter-argument to Coleridge’s distinction between fancy and imagination (in turn, derived from Jean Paul) is based on quantitative rather than qualitative differences: the four modes of the “combining intelligence” (imagination, fancy, fantasy, humor) are all matters of proportion. Jannaccone briefly remarks on the allied theories of A. W. Schlegel, Friedrich Schlegel, Tieck, Novalis, and Schelling regarding a suggested “undercurrent of meaning” in works of art and mentions Fichte’s theory of irony as a “supreme canon of Romantic poetry.” Poe differs from the Germans, however, in that while the Germans seek a metaphysical idea behind the poem, he was interested in a soul-exalting undercurrent as a means of generating further effects of beauty, what Jannaccone calls Poe’s “aesthetic teleology.” Poe’s specific conception of poetic effect is also based on quantitative calculation, musical effects according to mathematical proportion, since artistic beauty, like the beauty of the universe, is order, measure, proportion, geometry. Poe’s blending of the ideal and the practical, his fusion of poetry and mathematics, is part of his “Americanism,” according to Jannaccone, and the French critics who saw these as irreconcilable opposites in Poe’s temperament were mistaken. Poe’s practical bent even led him to reveal the mechanism whereby he created the illusion of spontaneous composition, all the while knowing that the poetic effect would thereby be destroyed. So Poe. seeker of Supernal Beauty, wove acrostics into his poems and ranked Fouque’s Undine with Shelley’s Sensitive Plant. Jannaccone remarks that Poe’s simultaneous admiration for Shelley’s most idealized work and Fouque’s work on the ill-humors, silly caprices, and low jealousies of an unhappy marriage “delineates the whole personality of Poe,” which can also be seen in his joking treatment of those very German critics from whom he drew his aesthetic theories. These ideas have some currency in recent Poe scholarship. — Editor

Translator’s Note

Pasquale Jannaccone is known in Italy primarily as an economist. In the 1950’s, when I undertook to translate for Professor Gay Wilson Allen Jannaccone’s 1898 work Walt Whitman’s Poetry and the Evolution of Rhythmic Forms ( Washington, D.C., NCR Microcard Editions, 1973), I did not know whether Jannaccone was still alive. I was also puzzled to find only books on economics under his name in various libraries. Nevertheless, I made an effort to get in touch with him and succeeded. I learned that he was indeed both an economist and a man of letters, as well as an eminent member of the Roman Senate. To quote Professor Allen’s “Introduction” to Walt Whitman’s Poetry.

Pasquale Jannaccone was born in Naples May 18, 1872. He received a “Laureato” in law from the University of Torino in 1893, and subsequently served as Professor of Political Economy at the Universities of Cagliari (1900), Siena (1904), and Padova (1909); then at Torino as Professor of Statistics (1915) and Political Economy (1931-42) He was also President of the Academy of Science in Torino (1945-55), President of the Italian Society of Economists (1950-55), and in 1950 was elected to life membership in the Senate of the Italian Republic. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that he wrote La Poesia di Walt Whitman e L’Evoluzione delle Forme Ritmiche before beginning his brilliant career in the Social Sciences and politics, but he was a man of many talents. (p. 11)

When I informed Professor Jannaccone that I had translated his Poesia di Walt Whitman into English, I found him eager to see both my work and its publication in the United States, and he immediately put into my hands his Walt Whitman’s Thought and Art (published with the Poetry) and “L’Estetica di Edgardo Poe.” The ensuing essay is my rendition of the last named work. I regret that I was not able to complete it, or the Whitman studies, before he died. In the following work, Poe’s original wording has been reinstated for Jannaccone’s translations and spelling, italics, quotation marks, and punctuation have been made to conform to current American usage.


The clamor over Edgar Allan Poe and his work has not yet spent itself. While in America and England, the devotion of certain generous individuals, who never grow weary of assembling anything that can shed light on his character and clear it of the stains with which Rufus Griswold’s malice sullied it, is still strong, in Europe, even the wonder — the curiosity, the varied comment over [page 2:] his work — as over something perennially new, refuses to subside.

Nevertheless, even after so much that has been written by sundry critics, after Baudelaire and Hennequin, to mention but those to whom Europe’s public most owes its awareness of the American author, something further, it seems to me, remains to be said concerning his aesthetic doctrines and his principles of criticism, to both the one and the other of which he gave, in his country, a new and a higher direction.

That truly not infrequent eventuality in the history of literature has recurred with Poe wherein the renown of a writer remains linked in his descendants to that portion of his work which he himself held as of minor account. To Poe, who proudly congratulated himself on the originality and loftiness of his poems to the point of believing himself to be the first and noblest of American poets (1), it befell to be scarcely remembered any longer but as the author of the grotesque and the arabesque.

And not only by the commonality of readers: eminent critics and intelligent admirers as well, while acknowledging the high ideality of his poet’s soul, have been lured into considering him solely in his tales, and into neglecting almost completely his poetic manifestations. Whenever they wrote about his aesthetics, they turned their minds to studying the extraordinary impression that his frightful stories leave on the spirit, the exterior means he availed himself of in order to produce them and the innate faculties which put him in a position to make use of such means; but they took no account whatever of the aesthetic doctrines through which he intended to rejuvenate American poetry.

The reason for this neglect can be sought also in another fact. Edgar Allan Poe, whether because of his enigmatic personality, or because of the mistakes and the uncertainties which clustered around his life, or because Baudelaire, who first painted his image to Europeans, was pleased — ignoring many things, omitting many and misrepresenting many — to create a being totally like himself, was always deemed to be a writer not merely singular but altogether new and apart. He seemed to the majority like a strange plant sprouted in the virgin soil of America by virtue of who-knows-what autumnal wind, transporting the seed to it from unknown regions, or like an industrious spider who does not bring the material for his work from the vastness of surrounding nature, but from his own viscera.

Now, it is useful to bring together Poe’s aesthetic doctrine, collecting, arranging, integrating, and explaining and correcting, one by means of the other, the various fragments in which it is dispersed. The essay on “The Poetic Principle” should no longer be held in higher account than its actual merit: it is no more than a mosaic, splendid of color, of the principal aesthetic ideas of the author already expressed at other times, joined with tenuous bonds and sewn together with visible ligatures. The living sources from which one should draw are the critical essays written in reference to the various magazines and the particular notes, such as the “Marginalia” and the “Addenda.” [column 2:]

And it is even more useful to trace from some one of those opinions whence it reached Poe’s intellect, and to spy into the way he acquired it and modified or adapted it, imprinting on it the seal of his own originality (2).

Poe says in the thirteenth Marginalia (3): “Were I called upon to define, very briefly, the term ‘Art,’ I should call it ‘the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.’ The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of ‘Artist.’”

Let it not be believed forthwith that Poe’s thought anticipated the realist formula: “art is the reproduction of nature through a temperament.” As much distance as divides the materialistic concept of temperament, a resultant of atavistic instincts and of personal experiences, from the more ideal conception of the soul — divine afflatus, mirror of everlasting beauty — so much separates the two formulae. And while in that preserve of the French novelist the voluntary modification on the part of the artist of the material which nature offers is at the same time, through the ambiguity of the last words, both affirmed and excluded, in that of the American poet this modifying element in the work of art is expressly required. “We can,” continues the Marginalia note, “at any time, double the true beauty of an actual landscape by half closing our eyes as we look at it. The naked Senses sometimes see too little — but then always they see too much.”

Here, then, is the task of the soul in artistic composition: to tone down the too vivid colors, to hide a little the too explicit forms, to purify whatever is still too earthly, to veil with the uncertainty of dreamed things the too clear sensations, to illuminate this indistinct vision with one’s own internal flame — pallid ray of a superior light. For the reason that the simple beauty of created nature is not enough for the immortal essence of man. To repeat the forms of natural beauty, Poe says further in the essay “Longfellow’s Ballads” (4), is a “source of delight. But this repetition is not Poesy. He who shall merely sing with whatever rapture, in however harmonious strains, or with however vivid a truth of imitation, of the sights and sounds which greet him in common with all mankind — he, we say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a longing unsatisfied, which he has been impotent to fulfill. There is still a thirst unquenchable, which to allay he has shown us no crystal springs. This burning thirst belongs to the immortal essence of man’s nature. It is equally a consequence and an indication of his perennial life. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is not the mere appreciation of the beauty before us. It is a wild effort to reach the beauty above. It is a forethought of the loveliness to come. It is a passion to be satisfied by no sublunary sights, or sounds, or sentiments, and the soul thus athirst strives to allay its fever in futile efforts at creation. Inspired with a prescient ecstasy of the beauty beyond the grave, it struggles by multiform novelty of combination among the things and thoughts of Time, to anticipate some portion of that loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain solely to Eternity; and the result of such effort, on the part of souls fittingly constituted, is alone what mankind have agreed [page 3:] to denominate Poetry.”

No conception of art, perhaps, has ever reached higher peaks of ideality.

How many have not already desperately revealed the way the mind of the artist can be troubled by visions extinguished almost before the first gleam has been emitted, by swift and soon forgotten ideations, by lightning flashes of a beauty which no material form can confine!

O sweet illusions of Song,

That tempt me everywhere,

In the lonely fields, and the throng

Of the crowded thoroghfare!

I approach, and ye vanish away,

I grasp you, and ye are gone But ever by night and by day,

The melody soundeth on. (5)

But no one as yet had elevated artistic conception to mystical ecstasy, ineffable rapture and unutterable torment! No one as yet had assigned the human intellect so painful a task, to consume itself in a struggle always vain and always renewing itself. Because this “supernal BEAUTY . . . is not afforded the soul by any existing collocation of earth’s form — a beauty which, perhaps, no possible combination of these forms would fully produce.”

Nevertheless, although the first cause and the final end of poetry, the sentiment of an incomparable and everlasting beauty and the desire — not to incorporate it (that would be too insane a desire) — but at least to reflect it in the forms that the human mind produces be so high, to composition must suffice the only forces and the sole means which the intellect possesses: forces sound, means measured and natural and a mind lucid and conscious of what it desires.

“There is no greater mistake” (6), he says, “than the supposition that a true originality is a mere matter of impulse or inspiration. To originate, is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine.” This sentence, which was written while dealing with the art of composing critical essays for the magazines, is later extended to every species of composition, “The Philosophy of Composition” being the proof and example thereof.

The poet brings together, arranges, selects, finds; but lucidly and consciously. The soul tries “to satisfy this thirst by novel combinations among those forms of beauty which already exist — or by novel combinations of those combinations which our predecessors, toiling in chase of the same phantom, have already set in order. We thus clearly deduce the novelty, the originality, the invention, the imagination, or lastly the creation of BEAUTY (for the terms as here employed are synonymous), as the essence of all Poesy” (7). The artist, therefore, is not God, who creates with a whiff of His breath, he is not a sibyl who pronounces fatidical words between spasms of sacred fury, he is not a seer through whose lips speaks a divine voice, he is not a madman who in his delirium composes forms and modulates sounds which his own thought does not ken, but a workman, calm and patient, who knows how to realize the particular form of beauty which he desires to bring to life, the effects he intends to produce — and with these, measure, sounds, colors and ideas. [column 2:]

“The Philosophy of Composition,” however much it might be the kind of essay that cannot be spared the adjective “funambulatory,” with which Baudelaire and Barbey d’Aurevillys gleefully qualify the American poet, is the most lucid expression of Poe’s intentions, the living example of how much, to his way of thinking, the artist should do. “The Raven,” and the letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning bear witness to this, roused, even in the highest English literary circles, not easily given as a rule to the praise of American literature, a sense of admiration and wonder. Owing to the facility of the verse, the fluid harmony running through the strophes, the crescendo of scary impressions and the unity of concept and theme, “The Raven” will seem to whoever presently reads it as a poem written under the stimulus of a sudden inspiration, in a moment of the most lively sensibility. And yet the poet has handled his subject with the greatest coolness. He did not feel that sadness radiating there, but has deliberately willed it as the tone most adapted to the manifestation of beauty: that gloomy nevermore which returns in every strophe with a retinue of other mournful words is not the desperate cry that erupts from the breast, but the word wisely chosen for its sonorous vowel and the consonant which satisfactorily lends itself to emphasis and prolongation; that sweet figure of a dead maiden that “rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore” perhaps never lived, not even in the heart of the poet, who weeps for his lost mistress solely because the death of a loved person is the most poetic of topics.

But the whole of “The Raven” and the whole of “The Philosophy of Composition” would have to be quoted and commented on, and the poet himself escorted here, if one wanted to show how every sensation, every sentiment, every idea, even when it seems most authentic and spontaneous, has been conceived and prearranged by the poet to produce in the reader that “intense and pure elevation of soul . . . which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the ‘beautiful.’”


The idea which Coleridge took from the Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics (9) of Jean Paul Richter, the most bizarre of German spirits, and posited as the foundation of his aesthetic doctrine, the distinction, that is, between fancy (Einbildungskraft) which combines and imagination (Bildungskraft) which creates, is several times and at length combated by Poe (10). Between the two, he says, there is no difference, not “even a difference of degree. The Fancy as nearly creates as the imagination, and neither at all. Novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations. The mind of man can imagine nothing which does not exist: if it could, it would create not only ideally but substantially — as do the thoughts of God. It may be said — ‘We imagine a griffin, yet a griffin does not exist.’ Not the griffin certainly, but its component parts. It is no more than a collation of known limbs — features — qualities.”

But if these same limits, which everything human possesses, also determine imagination and fancy, it should not therefore be maintained that these two are one and [page 4:] the same thing. The creating mind (not of forms, be it understood, but of the final result, beauty) can, according to Poe himself, manifest itself in a work of art with greater or lesser intensity and with a different disposition. Hence there exist imagination, fancy, caprice (fantasy) and humor, each of which gives to the work a distinctive coloration and rouses in the soul of the reader a different impression. “The Imagination is the artist of the four. From novel arrangements of old forms which present themselves to it, it selects only such as are harmonious; the result, of course, is beauty itself — using the term in its most extended sense, and as inclusive of the sublime. . . . It is this thorough harmony of an imaginative work,” and here the aesthetics of the object runs parallel to the aesthetics of the subject, “which so often causes it to be undervalued by the undiscriminating, through the character of obviousness which is superinduced. We are apt to find ourselves asking ‘why is it that these combinations have never been imagined before?’” When this question does not present itself to the spirit, when to the novel is added the unexpected and harmony is rather neglected, when the combination is not only rare but strikes us as “a difficulty happily overcome,” the result then appertains to the fancy; and although, absolutely, it is less beautiful than a purely harmonious effect, it, nevertheless, generally pleases the majority.

The fancy which insists in its seductive errors changes to caprice (“fantasy”), which delights not only in novelty and unexpectedness but in the want of proportion. “The result is therefore abnormal, and to a healthy mind affords less of pleasure than of pain through its incoherence. When, proceeding a step farther, however, Fantasy seeks not merely disproportionate but incongruous or antagonistical elements, the effect is rendered more pleasurable from its greater positiveness; there is a merry effort of Truth to shake from her that which is no property of hers: and we laugh outright in recognizing Humor” (11).

Elsewhere (12) the essential distinction is combated with the same words, but an idea other than that of measure and proportion is posited as the foundation of the difference between the various forms in which the combining intellect manifests itself: the idea of mysticism in the sense — says Poe — which August William Schlegel and the greater part of the other German critics give to this word.

“It is applied by them to that class of composition in which there lies beneath the transparent upper current of meaning an under or suggestive one. What we vaguely term the moral of any sentiment is its mystic or secondary expression. It has the vast force of an accompaniment in music. This vivifies the air; that spiritualises the fanciful conception, and lifts it into the ideal.” All the works, in fact, which are designated as imaginative “are remarkable for the suggestive character which we have discussed. They are strongly mystic . . . . We will here only call to the reader’s mind the ‘Prometheus Vinctus’ of Aeschylus; the ‘Inferno’ of Dante; the ‘Destruction of Numantia’ by Cervantes; the ‘Comus’ of Milton; the ‘Ancient Mariner,’ the ‘Christabel,’ and the ‘Kubla Khan’ of Coleridge; the ‘Nightingale’ of Keats; and, most especially, the ‘Sensitive Plant’ of Shelley, and the ‘Undine’ of De la Motte Fouque.” [column 2:]

Frederick Schlegel, Bernhardi, Tieck and Novalis are comprised among those other critics (since each German Romantic was at one and the same time a poet, an historian, a philosopher and a critic) whom Poe has not mentioned, finding it sufficient to enunciate the name of the grand pontiff, August William Schlegel. The transcendental idealism of Schelling and the mysticism of Spinoza had led Romantic aesthetic doctrine, always changing in the mobility of “becoming,” to select for itself a supreme norm, in which an objective consideration could temper a little that character of absolute and overbearing subjectivism that Frederick Schlegel had given to it, when he wanted to make the omnipotent “I” of Fichte lord of Art, elevating the theory of “irony” to a supreme canon of Romantic poetry. Hence it was discovered that every beauty is allegory, that writing poetry is an eternal symbolizing, that everything — to the extent that with its appearance it manifests its own being — is, first of all, a symbol of itself; then, a symbol of everything else with which it is in closest rapport, and finally a mirror of the whole universe (13).

But two things, perhaps, Poe was unaware of. And one is that behind Romantic allegory there hides a moral not so vague, so indefinite or so ethereal as he himself had in mind in “The Conqueror Worm” or Coleridge in “The Ancient Mariner” or Shelley in “The Sensitive Plant,” but a moral more concrete and hence more weighty and visible, as is, for example, the one for which he reproaches Longfellow (14), accusing him, not unjustly, of being too imbued with the spirit of German poetry. The words of Frederick Schlegel, “. . . it is the duty of every poem to be didactic, in that broad sense of the word in which it means the tendency toward a profound and infinite import,” should not deceive us. For the Romantics, “a profound and infinite import” is given solely by that dense layer of metaphysical and ethical ideas about love, religion, poetry and the universe from which departs, and to which tends, every manifestation of their intellect. The mind of Poe, on the contrary, is not satisfied with anything but the contemplation of the beautiful. Of the last two poetic compositions which he has recalled to the reader’s mind as among the imaginative, Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant” and the Undine of De la Motte Fouque, he says: “These two . . . are the finest possible examples of the purely ideal. There is little of fancy here, and everything of imagination. With each note of the lyre is heard a ghostly, and not always a distinct, but an august and soul-exalting echo. In every glimpse of beauty presented we catch, through long and wild vistas, dim bewildering visions of a far more ethereal beauty beyond. But not so in poems which the world has always persisted in terming fanciful. Here the upper current is often exceedingly brilliant and beautiful; but then men feel that this upper current is all. No Naiad voice addresses them from below. The notes of the air of the song do not tremble with the according tones of the accompaniment” (15).

The whole difference between the allegorization, the symbolism or the poetic mysticism, as the German Romantics understood them, and Poe’s, which, while believing he was interpreting their thoughts, he posited as the foundation of every true and high poetry, is assembled [page 5:] and explained in this passage. Behind a work of art they sought the idea in itself; the American aesthete, the idea as it might in turn serve as a generator of other poetic impressions and other images of beauty — those, which by dint of reasoning on the functions and aims of art and of its connections with other human phenomena, had led, if I may be allowed the expression, to an aesthetic teleology. This was for the first, the most fervent and most exclusive admirers of art for art’s sake, the poem for the poem’s sake.



Poesy, he says (and the whole essay on “Longfellow’s Ballads” as well as the one on “The Poetic Principle” are no more than the development of this thought), acknowledges no master other than taste. The moral sense and truth, didactical and ethical aims, are extraneous to her; at times she may moralize, but in her own fashion. “She is not forbidden to depict — but to reason and preach of virtue. As of this latter, conscience recognizes the obligation, so intellect teaches the expediency, while taste contents herself with displaying the beauty; waging war with vice merely on the ground of its inconsistency with fitness, harmony, proportion — in a word with [Greek text:] xxxxxxx [:Greek text]” (16).

Now and then, it is true, some German Romantic, his eyes freed from the thick metaphysical mists, knew how to look up at pure beauty: thus (but what a distance still from English poetry!), Frederick de la Motte Fouque in Undine — but the mysticism of some individual member of the group, which Poe mistakenly believed to belong to all the writers of the school, did not please (and this is the second thing he was unaware of) the supreme moderator of the movement, August William Schlegel, who warned that continuing on that road “art would be so much further sublimated that poems could no longer be written, but mere shadows of poetry”’ (7).


The external and sensible qualities in which a work of art should be rich should correspond to the nature of poetry and to the continual working of the combining mind.

The principle that impels the poet is the aspiration toward that supernal beauty which illuminates and kindles his soul; the manifestation of this principle, that is to say, the result at which the work of art must arrive, the effect which it must produce, is the pure elevation of the soul itself, an excitement of the soul independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the heart, or of truth which is the satisfaction of the reason (18).

The true, the high work of art must not therefore be passionate. Passion, in its common meaning, is vulgar and coarse, reveals too much the weakness and the imperfection of human nature to serve as an element of that beauty which is all serenity and harmony. Poetry and passion are discordant: the latter intoxicates the heart; the former, exciting it, elevates the soul (19).

Schiller had already expressed the same thoughts in identical words in his numerous writings on aesthetics. The greatest reproach which he levels at Burger is that of lacking the art of idealizing, by not having pure and whole “that ideal of perfection that lodges in the soul of [column 2:] the poet,” spilling over too often from enthusiasm into delirium, from ardor to rage, in such a way that “the condition of the soul with which one lays down his book of poems in not that harmonious and consoling disposition to which we would like to see ourselves transported by the poet” (20). It is the fundamental principle of the whole study, “On the Pathetic” (21) that the representation of naked passion, pleasure or pain, is therefore a common and low thing; it is a thought that often recurs in the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (22), and especially in the twenty-second, where these words are to be read: “There is a beautiful art of passion, but a passionate art is a contradiction, because the inevitable effect of the beautiful is the freedom from passions. No less contradictory is the concept of a beautiful art that has teaching (didactics) or improving (morality) as its aim, because nothing is in greater opposition to the concept of beauty than giving the mind a settled inclination.”

It would be hazardous, however, to affirm that these thoughts of Schiller and of Poe, expressed in identical words, are one and the same; that they have, that is, quite the same content, and are, so to speak, of one consistency and of a like density: many ideas, many principles, all of them taken from Kantian philosophy, and perhaps unknown to Poe’s aesthetics, surely unrelated, form not only the substratum but the very substance which permeates Schiller’s doctrines (23).

The objective necessity of dispassion in a work of art, according to the American poet, finds in harmonious minds a support and a correspondence. “Any strong mental emotion stimulates all the mental faculties; thus grief the imagination; — but in proportion as the effect is strengthened, the cause surceases. The excited fancy triumphs — the grief is subdued — chastened — is no longer grief. In this mood we are poetic, and it is clear that a poem now written will be poetic in the exact ratio of its dispassion. . . . Elegiac poems should either assume this character [of a sweet melancholy], or dwell purely on the beauty (moral or physical) of the departed — or, better still, utter the notes of triumph. I have endeavored to carry out this latter idea in some verses which I have called ‘Lenore’ “ (24). And in “Lenore” the poet who at first cannot restrain his tears for the loss of the woman so purely loved:

And, Guy De Vere, hast thou no tear? — weep now or never more!

represses afterwards the bitter ache breaking out in rage against the envious herd, and finally, recovering his serenity, accompanies with song the ascent of the sincere soul to the heavenly spheres.

“Avaunt! — to-night my heart is light — no dirge will I upraise,

But waft the angel on her flight with a Paean of old days!

Let no bell toll! Lest her sweet soul, amid its hallow’d mirth,

Should catch the note as it doth float up from the damned earth.

To friends above, from fiends below, th’ indignant ghost is riven —

From grief and moan to a gold throne beside the King of Heaven! “

Shelley’s “Adonais” must have been resounding in the poet’s ear while he was composing this “Lenore” of his. The worship of Keats must have made dear to Edgar Allan [page 6:] Poe the song which the heart of Shelley intoned to his unfortunate friend; and the sweetness of the melody, the splendor of the images — the first never attenuated and the second never obscured — by the philosophic intention, must have rendered it for him, together with “The Sensitive Plant,” the most admired among the works of the singer of Prometheus. The grief over the lost friend, the indignation against the envious, who, according to the legend, had hastened his death with their savage mockery of “Endymion,” does not move the poet’s spirit to impulses of passion; instead, the fervent fancy summons everything that the young man had loved — and whether hue, odor or sweet sound had molded into thought — to weep around the noble body. Until the plaint ceases. The young man is not dead but is made one with nature, and his voice is poured into the music of the universe, he has become part of that beauty which at one time he made more beautiful.

He is a portion of the loveliness

Which once he made more lovely . . . .

But besides Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the author of “Christabel” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” whose aesthetic doctrines the American poet, as appears from most places in his writings, valued highly at times and opposed at others — according as to how they might happen to gush forth out of that bizarre intellect so totally enwrapped in high English idealism, or as German metaphysics had made them more weighty — had already, in the preface to his own poems, alluded to this transformation of the mind’s emotions to images of beauty. “After the more violent emotions of Sorrow, the mind demands amusement, and can find it in employment alone: but full of its late sufferings, it can endure no employment not in some measure connected with them. . . . The communicativeness of our Nature leads us to describe our own sorrows; in the endeavour to describe them, intellectual activity is exerted; and from intellectual activity there results a pleasure, which is gradually associated, and mingles as a corrective, with the painful subject of the description.”

It is this process, at first an alternation, and later a combination of these two sentiments — the painful and the pleasant, which gives to a work of art a further special character, the tone of a sweet sadness or gentle melancholy. Coleridge, Shelley (25) and Poe, although moved by different considerations, affirm unanimously that all high poetry cannot be other than melancholy; and the words of “The Philosophy of Composition”: “experience has shown that this tone [the tone of the highest manifestation of beauty] is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive to tears,” were certainly not written without thinking of the emotion that the spirit experiences in reading certain of the more delicate poems of Coleridge and Shelley (26).

Clarity and brevity are, finally, further qualities, lacking which a work of art remains imperfect, does not reveal its high principle and does not correspond to its aim.

The words with which Poe, seizing a pretext from the [column 2:] criticism of Orion, a poem of R. H. Home, scourges those writers who to appear profound wrap up the emptiness of their ideas in an incomprehensible jargon, and especially those critics who do not praise any works but those which they call transcendental, are the most violent ever to flow from his pen.

Language serves to promulgate thought, he observes. Whoever does not know how to make himself understood, keeps quiet; and if he, Orphicist or seer, or whatever else he most likes to call himself, believes that his idea, “the idea which by Providence . . . [he is] especially commissioned to evolve — is one so vast — so novel — that ordinary words, in ordinary collocations, will be insufficient for its comfortable evolution,” let him wait until some mesmeric system of communication be invented (27).

The caustic words which Poe addresses to the “transcendentalists” who then held the field almost include Tennyson, in whom was transfused part of the soul of Keats, part of the soul of Coleridge and part of the soul of Shelley, and whom Poe loved and admired over every other poet. From the ruins of Shelley, the noblest, freest and most impulsive of poets, arose a school, a system of rules founded on Shelley — who had no rules whatsoever! — which wanted to imitate his whimsicality without having his profundity or his warmth of feeling; and which interwove into the obscurity, the oddity and the exaggeration even the didacticism of Wordsworth and the metaphysics of Coleridge! Tennyson in his first years belonged to it, but soon his own excesses led him to change and to form for himself a style entirely his own, the truest and purest of all poetic styles. That tinge of quaintness, which has remained with him, very rarely is affectation, never obscureness; on the contrary, it is an element of poetic beauty, according to the judgment of Bacon: “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportions” (28).

The transcendentalists, however, do not know how to make use of this element of beauty and ideality: they make it the absolute canon of every poem, they are obscure even in the description of the sublime and they forget that the plain and direct form and the simple construction of verses are the best means for producing an effective impression (29).

Brevity, no less than clarity, is an essential requisite for producing the poetic effect. For Poe every long poem is a paradox, a contradiction in terms. A poem, he says, deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a physical necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, no longer such (30).

And it is of no avail to bring in support of the opposite opinion the examples of lengthy and celebrated poets. Thus, Paradise Lost is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity — its totality [page 7:] of effect or impression — we read it (as would be necessary) at a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excitement and depression, so that the final effect, through the reciprocal cancellation brought about by the partial, opposed effects, would be absolutely null. On the other hand, therefore, an undue brevity is also damaging to the beauty of a poem: the effect of a composition which is too brief may now and then be brilliant and vivid, but it will never be profound or enduring: the poem must, according to a beautiful image, leave on the soul that soft and steady impression which a seal leaves upon wax (31).

If such is the importance of this element of beauty, it will not appear strange that the poet, when he wanted to compose “The Raven,” had before anything else considered fixing its length, which he believed should not exceed a hundred or so verses (32).


From the general conception of art, observe that we have come down to the laws of composition, and from these, to the external qualities of a work of art. The lines of Poe’s aesthetics have thus been all marked out; only one is missing, and to join it again to those from which it diverges we will have to return to the first considerations on poetry in general.

That sentiment of beauty which is the principle of all poetry can manifest itself in further species of created form: we thus have the various arts, sculpture, painting, music, the composition of landscape gardens and poetry, each of which is the creation of a particular form of beauty. Poe does not pause to consider any of these different forms of the poetic (that is to say, the creative) sentiment but the one which manifests itself in words, that art to which everyday language has limited the term poetry; and from the consideration of the inseparability of the musical element — in the forms of rhythm and rime — from poetic expression, he draws the conclusion that poetry should be defined: the rhythmical creation of beauty (33). So it is written in the essay on “Longfellow’s Ballads,” published in 1842, and so it is repeated in the one on “The Poetic Principle” which appeared seven years later; and it amazes one that the poet, always so careful clearly and precisely to express his ideas, should not be aware of how ambiguous, obscure and false this definition of his happens to be. He who had said that art was the “creation of beauty” and was pleased with this definition of his as being the most novel and perfect, as the one which for the first time coupled to the concept of creation (combination or imagination) — acknowledged by all as a first element of art, and as such consecrated by the very words [Greek text:] xxxx [:Greek text] and Dichtung — the neglected concept of beauty (34), does not add but one, not very adequate, adjective to show the distinction of the species from the genus.

And he says “rhytmical creation of beauty” while evidently he should have said, “creation of beauty by means of rhythm”; because the rhythm which he has in mind is not that law which governs every physical or psychic manifestation, but is solely a proportionality and correspondence of sounds; and, further, it is not as an attribute of creation that he wishes to talk of it but as an element of the special form of created beauty. [column 2:]

But even so modified the definition cannot be accepted. It is not rhythm alone which gives to the poetry of words its individual aspect; it does not give it, one can say, even to music! And if some particular musical manifestation, like “The Ride of the Valkyrie” (Max Nordau allows it), could be called the creation of beauty by means of rhythm, the same thing could not be repeated for any poem whatsoever, because one has no right to take account solely of the musical element to the complete detriment of the ideological.

Neither did Poe, I believe — and my regrets for this to the symphonic poets — desire to assert such a thing. Already, alluding to the philosophy of composition, we have noted how much care the poet would put into selecting certain ideas in order to arrive at the poetic effect. And what further? Does he not himself declare that “music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music”? (35)

However, the subtle genius of Poe had erred only apparently: that notion of poetry is not, I believe, a definition but the recapitulation of a definition. It was Rufus Griswold, collaborator of the poet and defamer of his memory, who wrote in the preface of a work of his, The Poets and Poetry of America, a species of historical anthology of American literature: “The creation of beauty, the manifestation of the real by the ideal, ‘in words that move in a metrical array,’ is poetry.” And Poe, in the recension of the work, said that Griswold’s was the only true definition of that which had thousands of times been erroneously defined (36). He may have wanted to render the formula more brief and pithy, and, as often happens, he took away from it truth and clarity to the extent that he gave it color and suggestive power.

But it is not, on the other hand, possible to disregard how much importance the musical element possesses in the poetry and the aesthetics of Poe. Length of verses, alternation of rimes and sonorousness of words are for him objects of study and care on which he places special emphasis with an evident sense of obligation, and to which he applies his industry in order to extract from them effects that are novel and harmonies that have not been previously heard. “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” “The Bells,” “The Sleeper” and “Annabel Lee” give rise to unexpected impressions of fear, sadness and anguish solely by the wise selection of sounds, the unforeseen return of rimes and the doleful repetition of verses no longer expected by the spirit. And all of this is a matter of calculation and mathematical reason. Gone is the absurd accumulation of self-contradictory laws which classic prosody has derived from the study of the major poets; gone are the metaphysical disquisitions of the aesthetes. “Nine-tenths [of the subject] . . . appertain to mathematics”! Just as the human intellect finds gratification in gazing at the geometrical harmonies of a crystal, and the pleasure proportionately grows and becomes squared or cubed on discovering newer correspondences of angles and of lines, so the soul finds delight in the succession of equal syllables and feet and verses, or in the regular alternation of unequal ones and the measured pulsation of rimes rendered more pleasing by the unexpectedness of some of them. [page 8:]

The essay, “The Rationale of Verse,” postulates the principles of the new prosody, all number and quantity, before which the accentual metrics of the poet of “Christabel” do not find any favor (37).


Beauty is order, measure and proportion; only an ordered, proportioned and well-balanced mind therefore can compose its forms. In place of an aesthetics of the object, Poe gives us an aesthetics of the subject, which is remote from, and at variance with, the reveries of the German Romantics which he saw reiterated in the Biographia Literaria and which had made of the poet a madman, a visionary, a sorcerer or a god (38).

“The highest genius,” he says in number XXIII of “Fifty Suggestions” (and he anticipates the latest psychiatry), “is but the result of generally large mental power existing in a state of absolute proportion — so that no one faculty has undue predominance.” Genius is “necessarily, if not universal in its manifestations, at least capable of universality; and if, attempting all things, it succeeds in one rather better than in another, this is merely on account of a certain bias by which Taste leads it with more earnestness in the one direction than in the other.” Next, there is talent, which is the proportion of mental faculties which are not extraordinary; and finally, we have that “factitious ‘genius’ — that ‘genius’ in the popular sense — which is but the manifestation of the abnormal predominance of some one faculty over all the others — and, of course, at the expense and to the detriment of all the others — is a result of mental disease, or rather of organic malformation of mind: — it is this and nothing more. Not only will such genius fail, if turned aside from the path indicated by its predominant faculty; but, even when pursuing this path — when producing those works in which, certainly it is best calculated to succeed — will give unmistakable indications of unsoundness, in respect to general intellect” (39).

Here we do not have the metaphysical language of Kant, for whom genius is “that innate talent by means of which nature lays down the law to art”; or even “the exemplary originality of the natural talent of a subject in the free exercise of its intellective faculties” (40); here we do not have the confused notion of Jean Paul which in genius sees none other than the sleep-walker climbing in a lucid dream to the dizzy heights of reality; nor the mystical Schwarmerei (41) of the German Romantics and Coleridge, for whom genius solved the riddle of the universe. But, on the other hand, if to genius is denied so much supernatural profundity, there is not denied to it universality, in the manner of Kant and later of Schopenhauer — who only in art recognized promising soil for the germination and the fructificarion of this gigantic tree.

It is a fact that Poe’s ideas concerning genius are not only different in themselves from Kant’s, Richter’s, Coleridge’s and the Romantics’, but that they belong to a different order; because while the latter ones explain the action of genius, his determine the conditions; but this is precisely the value of the American aesthete, his having come down from metaphysical abstractions to physiological and psychological observations. [column 2:]

And the solution which he has given is marvelously confirmed by modern psychiatry, in which, though the vexata quaestio, as he himself called it, is still being debated, it is nonetheless maintained that genius is not always a pathological manifestation of the psyche, as Lombroso would have it pursuing Moreau de Tours’ idea, but that one must distinguish between geniuses who are sane, harmonious, well-balanced and for that reason capable of universality (Goethe is the example most frequently adduced), and geniuses who are sick, degenerate and unbalanced — or better, individuals of genius in whom the unequal development of the mental faculties disturbs the normal functions of the psyche (42).

“An objection will be made — ” continues Poe, “that the greatest excess of mental power, however proportionate, does not seem to satisfy our idea of genius, unless we have in addition, sensibility, passion, energy.”

“The reply is,” he adds, “that the ‘absolute proportion’ spoken of when applied to inordinate mental power gives, as a result, the appreciation of Beauty and horror of Deformity which we call sensibility, together with that intense vitality, which is implied when we speak of ‘Energy’ or ‘Passion.’” It is in this exquisite sense of beauty that Poe finds the cause of that irritability for which the vatum genus has been famous since the most ancient of times.

This poetic irritability has no reference to temperament in the vulgar sense, but simply to an unusual clarity of perception regarding what is not just; a clarity which is nothing more than the consequence of the vivid perception of right, of justice and of proportion; in a word of [Greet text:] xxxx [:Greek text].

“A wrong — an injustice — done a poet who is really a poet, excites him to a degree which to ordinary apprehension appears disproportionate with the wrong. Poets see injustice, never where it does not exist, but very often where the unpoetical see no injustice whatever” (43).

Thus, perhaps, that idea of the sanity of the true genius, arrived at by psychologists through the analysis of the psychic faculties and the observation of the manifestations of genius, flashed through Poe as a corollary to that eurhythmic concept which he had of nature and of beauty (44).

It is for this reason that it is not inappropriate to place these ideas among those which constitute his aesthetic doctrine. But not for this reason only, because, as has been hinted above, there is an evident correspondence between these two ideas concerning the mind of the great artist and those concerning the perfection of a work of art. That imaginative work which he places above all others must have, it will be remembered, as its chief characteristic, harmony in the elements which compose it; and it will be remembered that the passing of this supreme form of beauty to other, inferior, manifestations was marked precisely by a greater preponderance and nimbleness of the fancy, from which a healthy mind draws more pain than pleasure.

The harmonious and proportioned work, the work without any blemish or defect or weakness, the perfect and beautiful work in one word, finally, does not — contrary to general opinion — seem impossible to Poe. Those [page 9:] unevennesses which are rarely lacking to a work of art are indications of those unevennesses in the spirit, of that alternating vicissitude of exaltation and depression to which the artist is subject. This mutable disposition of the soul, which is the characteristic trait of genius, comes from a continuous vacillation between ambition and a contempt for it. “The ambition of a great intellect is at best negative. It struggles — it labors — it creates — not because excellence is desirable, but because to be excelled where there exists a sense of the power to excel in unendurable.” But give to genius a continuous and strong stimulus and you have harmony, proportion, perfection — terms which in this case are synonymous (45).

It is not granted us, however, to arrive at this noble result solely by means of that faculty which is commonly called genius, but there is a need for a constructive ability as well, based in part on a great power of analysis of the desired effects and of the work required and in part on qualities strictly moral, like patience, concentration, attention which is focused constantly on one aim, independence and contempt for every opinion which is nothing but an opinion; and especially, for energy and industriousness. Without these practical endowments there can be no work of genius; and this is why, while men called geniuses are so numerous, works that merit such a high attribution are so few: well did the Romans, very acute observers, know it, for whom the highest value of an epic poem or any similar work was its being written industria mirabili or incredibili industria (46).

These words confirm, illustrate and terminate what we have already said when speaking of the coolness or impassiveness of the work that goes into art. Objective and subjective characteristics, external ones and internal ones, the quality of the created work and the quality of the creating mind now correspond with one another, now blend with one another, always explain one another. It would almost seem that between the intellect of the poet and the work of art Poe had rediscovered that perfect reciprocity of adaptation which, ignorant of biological laws, he observed with great astonishment in the physical order, and called divine. With that same ingenuousness with which in Eureka (47) he asked himself whether whale-oil was abundant in the polar regions because there the human body in order to maintain its animal heat has need of a strongly nitrogenized nutriment, or else whether it be the only thing needed because it is the only one which is found there — and declared that he had not been able to give himself a satisfactory answer to the captious question because the universe, a divine work, is a perfect plot (48); with the same ingenuousness he perhaps thought that the lofty work of art must necessarily be bright and harmonious because the mind which produces it is furnished with these qualities, and, on the other hand, the mind must be full of brightness and harmony because these are the qualities which are required in a work of art — without one’s being able to say which of the two necessities might be prior to the other.


Poe’s aesthetics are the most succinct mirror of his being. [column 2:] Today, a particular school of psychology — how acute I do not know — is accustomed with great boldness, from the examination of artistic manifestations, directly to ascend to the determination of the physical and psychic state of the authors, without separating case from case, without any preliminary research on the constitution and the functioning of particular intellects and with scanty biographical investigations — as if artistic temperament and individual character were one and the same thing and the work of art raw material issuing from the mind like mineral from the bowels of the earth rather than an elaborated product, and as if the Schillerian distinction between a naive and a sentimental poetry were not eternally true (49) (two types which presuppose diverse conditions of environment, intellect and sensibility, require a different creative process and result in manifestations disparate in nature) . Today, this statement may appear to the supporters of this psychological method as the vulgar expression of a well-known truth and to its adversaries as a thoughtless concession to the usual bad practice.

But not so: it is only from the knowledge of Poe’s character which has been revealed to us by his biography and from the comparison of his thoughts and his sent). meets expressed in varied guise that this statement issues.

Whoever knows anything of the vicissitudes of the unfortunate American writer knows how in him ideality of principles and practicality of aims were blended, how in his being poetic disposition and mathematical reason — with a slight predominance now of one and then of the other — did not conflict but fused into each other. And this coexistence and agreement of faculties, which normally are held to be antagonistic and irreconcilable, do not manifest themselves only in Eureka, where the beauty of the universe is made to spring solely from its geometric construction, but are invoked by Poe himself as a constituent element of the highest intellects.

“That we [Americans],” he says (50), “are not a poetical people has been asserted so often and so roundly, both at home and abroad, that the slander, through mere dint of repetition, has come to be received as truth. Yet nothing can be farther removed from it. The mistake is but a portion or corollary of the old dogma that the calculating faculties are at war with the ideal; while, in fact, it may be demonstrated that the two divisions of mental power are never to be found in perfection apart. The highest order of the imaginative intellect is always pre-eminently mathematical, and the converse.”

In these words Poe declares his intellectual kinship with the American people, with that people with which Baudelaire (51) and Barbey d’Aurevilly (52) and whatever others followed them and aped their judgments, such as Peladan (53) and Mallarme (54), were pleased to describe him as being in an implacable and continual struggle, as if he were of another race or even another nature.

Baudelaire, especially, we have already noted, would take a bitter pleasure out of making Poe a creature in his own image and likeness, with the same vices, the same abnormalities, the same intemperances and the same hatreds. Barbey d’Aurevilly, changing his old ideas in his later articles, was perhaps the first to throw light on [page 10:] Poe’s Americanism, and he exaggerated as much in one direction as Baudelaire had exaggerated in the other, showing him to us as nothing more or better than a literary Barnum, a cunning seeker and expert exhibitor of new and strange things for the satisfaction of the avid curiosity of his fellow-citizens.

But everyone knows how the coupling of practical endowments to sentiments of the ideal is one of the most prominent characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon people, in whom the sharp practices of commerce and the fever of industry have not extinguished the poetic sentiment, which, on the contrary, has launched from English soil some of the most ardent flights toward the heavenly regions of the ideal.

It certainly has not escaped the reader who has followed this exposition of the American poet’s aesthetic doctrines how the series of ideas has been palpably descending from the high spirituality of the essence of poetry, to the materiality of the mechanism of composition and finally to the artifice of searching for the effect.

The notion of poetic beauty which Schelling, and with him Jean Paul Richter and August William Schlegel, had said — and Coleridge, drawing from their works, had repeated — to be “the infinite finitely represented” and the notion that the task of art is “to encompass finite nature with the infinity of the idea” remain unchanged in the aesthetics of Poe, who certainly had taken them from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. Unchanged, however, in their general sense, not in the elements composing them. Because that beauty of which the German aesthetes speak is not the same thing as the beauty for which the soul of the American poet thirsts: one is a metaphysical concept; the other, a sentiment which a man claims from his divine origin; one is the cold expression of a philosophic idea — the other, ecstasy and vision. There is a passage in the essay on “Longfellow’s Ballads,” not only repeated but stressed in the one on “The Poetic Principle,” in which this mystic sentiment of beauty from which Poe derives every poem, assumes almost the appearance of a hallucination.

“It is in Music, perhaps,” he says, “that the soul most nearly attains that end upon which we have commented — the creation of supernal beauty. It may be, indeed, that this august aim is here even partially or imperfectly attained, in fact. The elements of that beauty which is felt in sound, may be the mutual or common heritage of Earth and Heaven. In the soul’s struggles at combination it is thus not impossible that a harp may strike notes not unfamiliar to the angels” (55).

And in the essay on “The Poetic Principle”: “It is in Music perhaps that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it strugglesC the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels” (56).

This beauty, therefore, not only is not the metaphysical entity of the German philosophers, but it is something mystical, supernatural and superhuman; it is something even more ideal than that mysterious power to which [column 2:] Shelley intoned his hymn (57).

The awful shadow of some unseen Power

Floats though unseen among us, — visiting

This various world with as inconstant wing

As summer winds that creep from flower to flower, —

Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,

It visits with inconstant glance

Each human heart and countenance

Like hues and harmonies of evening, —

Like clouds in starlight widely spread, —

Like memory of music fled, —

Like aught that for its grace may be Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

This beauty which Shelley celebrates is wholly intellectual; he senses its presence in every created thing, and its light does not rain from the empty heavens; instead, while the ardent American poet connects the sentiment to the divine origin of man, he sets the eternal splendor against the perishableness of everything else, human and divine.

“The names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven, remain the records of their [men’s] vain endeavour” to find an answer to the eternal and painful questions; but, “frail spells,” they do “not avail to sever, from all we hear and all we see, doubt, chance, and mutability.”

Thy light aloneC like mist o’er mountains driven,

Or music by the night-wind sent

Through strings of some still instrument,

Or moonlight on a midnight stream,

Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.

The burning fever in the soul of Poe soon subsides, however, and the poet becomes the subtle thinker and the patient calculator. Then he no longer bestows ideality to thoughts, but seeks rather to free them of every kind of haziness, to posit them lucidly and firmly so that he can avail himself of them with that same care and that same mathematical rigor with which the clever chess player uses his pieces. And like the latter he has his mind constantly directed to the solution and the effect, and toward these he concentrates every move.

Those ideas, which through Coleridge he took from the German writers, we will scarcely recognize any longer. And not because they are changed, but because of their different disposition; as is appropriate to eminently practical spirits, he does not make every idea depend on a single principle, but, instead, he makes all of them aim at an identical goal.

And towards this, the effect, Poe applies all his industry, with an admirable acuteness, but with a persistence which sometimes gives rise to annoyance and suspicion. So strong in him, evidently, was this demand for the effect that he could not restrain himself from demonstrating the tricks and the machinery, in the same way as he had disclosed the complexities of cryptograms and unmasked Maelzel’s chess-player contrivance.

But did he not know that the whole effect of “The Raven” would be lost to the reader who knew its genesis beforehand through “The Philosophy of Composition”? And did it not occur to him that the effect of the other poems would also be destroyed by the suspicion that they too were the result of a mere calculation? He was [page 11:] certainly not unaware of these things — and the evidence of this is the “Marginalia” note in which he said, almost dolefully, that distinctly to see the mechanism of a work of art is no doubt itself a pleasure, but a pleasure which can be enjoyed only in the exact ratio in which the delight willed by the artist is lost (58). But at the same time he could not resist the temptation of making a display of such an exceptional faculty and of creating an impression with the strange and the unexpected. And this blind vanity regarding his own calculating faculties and constructional abilities goes so far as to make him condescend — him the flawless poet, the aesthete who in poetry espies the reflection of a supernal beauty — to putting together the very difficult and unusual acrostics which are hidden among the verses of “To Valentine” and “An Enigma”! (59)

A similar ratio of ideality and of practical reason is to be found in the distinction between imagination and fancy, which, at one time is sought in mysticism and symbolism, and at another in a subtle dose-measuring of the mental faculties. And further: by the side of Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant,” the most delicate poem ever written by a human mind, Poe’s does not hesitate to place as a highly imaginative work the ingenuous tale of the German baron — and then he desires to explain the symbol, taking note of the ill-humors, the silly caprices and the low jealousies in the various vicissitudes of an unsuccessful marriage — as if such were precisely the intention of the author of Undine, to the point of maintaining that the admonishment of Undine to Huldbrand, “‘Reproach me not upon the waters, or we part for ever,’ is intended to embody the truth that quarrels between man and wife are seldom or never irremediable unless when taking place is the presence of third parties”! (60)

Is this the whole ideality of the tale, and does nothing more palpitate in that undercurrent, which should be rich in profound and eternal purports, but a life so mean? And Undine, the nymph rising from a spray of water, the ingenuous figure that smiled to the poet out of old legends and many times with her song brought peace back to his heart (61), is she nothing more than the image of a wayward woman?

Truly, it was not worth Frederick de la Motte Fouque’s trouble searching Theophrastus Paracelsus’ pages and studying there how elemental spirits can acquire a soul by uniting themselves to a human creature, to reveal to us nothing other than such a vulgar side of life!

These few strokes delineate the whole personality of Poe, not only a hard-to-please visionary, as Baudelaire would have it, and not a narrow speculator in a new industry, a man engaged in literature, and nothing more, as Barbey d’Aurevilly maintains.

And in addition, not an intellect almost miraculous, without forebears and without traditions.

Coleridge reproduced in England the manifold German soul and was a perfect likeness of the first German Romantics. He preserved, however, unaltered, certain purely national traits, and his curious and complex temperament of theologian, philosopher, poet and social reformer exercised a very great influence on the younger poets, upon Shelley especially. But the poet of Prometheus [column 2:] knew how to give to the new aesthetics an interpretation which was altogether his own, or better, he created an aesthetics belonging entirely to himself, free of every pre-established system or doctrine, in which the splendor of the images, the melody of the sounds and the profundity of the thoughts hide every doctrinal materiality from the mind of the listener.

Poe was the crier of the new message in America, where the old English literary tradition was still alive the school of good old Pope and good old Goldsmith. Literature, if not the actual soil of America, was still in fee to England, and the people, too occupied in seeing to their political and material needs, left this part of their life to be nursed by the old enemy. English criticism dictated laws and was proud and contemptuous; from the three Lake poets and from the first German Romantics it had extracted new principles of judgment and rigidly applied them. Poe desired to liberate his country from this bondage and to establish an American literature and criticism; and he sought for this purpose to reanimate aesthetic doctrines with new ideas and new explanations and adaptations of previously known concepts.

The Biographia Literaria, the work in which Coleridge gathered together the scattered aesthetic doctrines of German Romanticism, tempering them with his ideality, is the center around which he moves. From there he extracts his materials, but one at a time, without order, almost without nexus, and then he elaborates and transforms them, leaving on each the stamp of his own intellect. From this gathering of many systems there does not issue one system, but a series of thoughts and rules which follows just one thread, the search for the poetic effect.

On the other hand, Poe’s leaning toward Shelley is obvious. In him the American aesthete admired, besides the high ideality and the richness of the images of beauty his independence of every law and his abandonment to song. Sometimes, it is true, he seems to place Keats or Tennyson above Shelley, and the reason for this preference can be easily traced to a greater elaboration of the poetic form of these two authors and in the absolute absence in their work of any philosophic intention or social preoccupation whatever, in which, on the contrary, Shelley’s songs abound. But the vacillation is of short duration, because Shelley’s direct influence reappears ever stronger and more intense. It appears — and this is a most peculiar trait — in his criticism rather than in his poems. Running over the critical essays and dwelling upon the poetic passages which he praises and admires most, often with the warmest expressions, one immediately senses how the spirit of “divine Ariel” hovers over the verses selected. These are for the most part verses in which one cannot say whether nature has, in the manner of “The Sensitive Plant,” been rendered human or been made divine — not in her entirety, but in each of her manifestations: herbs, flowers, wind, waters and forests acquire a shape and a voice, sentiment and life. Or else they are verses which in the most beautiful images idealize human emotions or deeds; or which, as is often customary with Shelley and the major poets, draw from physical and external life elements [page 12:] not previously regarded to describe with lucidity and vivacity the joys, anxieties and changes of our inner life.

But Poe cannot reach what he esteems so highly in the poems of others. Since artifice, and further, the ostentation of artifice, forbid him even the appearance of Shelley’s spontaneity (which Shelley so valued) (62), so, partly innate egoism and partly deliberate cool-headedness deprive his poems of that warmth and that life which only a feeling for nature and an interest in everything that is human and universal can give. Leaving “The Raven” aside, which by his own confession is not the best of his poems, which is, instead, the one which in technique and intentions approaches rather that inferior form of art which his tales reflect — where is that poem of Poe’s that could be called richly imaginative in the sense he means, which combines, as he sets the task of every lofty work of art to do, “the original with that which is natural — not in the vulgar sense (ordinary) — but in the artistic sense, which has reference to the general intentions of Nature “? (63)

The distinction which he has made between an imaginative, a fanciful and a fantastic work can be applied, to his prejudice, in saying that his poems belong not to the first but to the second or the third category, and that in them the search for the novel and the unexpected, the preoccupation with difficulties happily overcome, prevails over the profundity of the thought and the magnitude of the meaning.

As a critic and aesthete Poe desired to tear up the network of aesthetic-metaphysical systems, but he did not know how to extricate his own self from them; he was among the first, perhaps, to desire to institute a positive criticism of works of art proceeding from the effect produced on the spirit of the reader, but he did not sufficiently work out the principles and the requirements thereof.

With regard to the new direction given to aesthetics by the German Romantics, whose influence he felt through Coleridge, Poe’s position is not clear-cut, either as a supporter or as an opponent. But the German soul must have been completely alien to him; he laughs at Kant (64); he taunts Novalis, the sick dreamer, with being an essentially prosaic intellect (65); he accuses the over-profound criticism of August William Schlegel of having contaminated American drama (66); he reproaches Germany for the presumptuous vanity of her criticism (67); he exclaims: “It is difficult to conceive what must have been the morbidity of the German intellect or taste when it not only tolerated but truly admired and enthusiastically applauded such an affair as ‘The Sorrows of Werther’ “ (68).

Still, he often — unconsciously it is true — draws materials from the German doctrines, not always in order to smash them to pieces, but to assemble them and place them as a foundation for the edifice of his own ideas.

Thus, instilling new concepts, renewing old ideas, tempering both the one and the other with the originality of his own intellect, Poe prepared in America the revival of English poetry which already had begun a long time ago on this side of the Ocean.

At almost the same time Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, [column 2:] whom Poe — notwithstanding some slight censure — acknowledged as the first among American poets, was, with his admirable facility and his rich ideality, opening new paths for the poetry of his land and welcoming to it the voices of all the countries of Europe, from Spain to Scandinavia. And a few years after Poe’s work was completed, a new and a stranger voice, Walt Whitman’s, raised the song of the generations of the future.

Poe’s doctrine did not remain without influence on one poet or another. Longfellow, with the advance of years, purified his style and wrote among his Birds of Passage poems which the reader of “The Poetic Principle” would have cited as among the most beautiful and ideal; Walt Whitman, although he could not admire an art in which neither nature nor humanity has a voice, felt the charm of Poe’s melody and found in his doctrine the short and subtle argument which made him repudiate the form of a long and vast poem.

But if Poe has two contemporaries succeeding him, he has just two Englishmen preceding him with whom he can be connected as an aesthete and a poet: Coleridge and Shelley. He does not have the vast but turbid mentality of the former, nor the profound, throbbing heart of the latter, but like both of them, in a country and at a time when an official school reigned uncontested, he broke the chain of old traditions and developed his own singular individuality, to the point of seeming something miraculous in nature and something almost demonic.

Turin, November-December 1894.



(1) Thus, in the essay on “Longfellow’s Ballads” (IV, 351) [See next footnote — Tr.], obviously alluding to himself, he says that in America there exists a youth who has produced poems superior to Longfellow’s; and in the essay on Fitz-Greene Halleck (IV, 437), after having stated that the order in which the [then] living American poets were generally named — Bryant, Halleck, Dana, Sprague, Longfellow, Willis — should have been changed to the following — Longfellow, Bryant, Halleck, Willis, Sprague, Dana — he adds that he would not hesitate to place one or two poets above Longfellow.

(2) All the citations from passages of Poe’s works made in the course of this article have been drawn from The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ingram, 4th ed. (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1890), which restored the critical essays, changed in the preceding editions, to the original imprintings in the various American magazines of which Poe was a collaborator.

(3) III, 356.

(4) IV, 353-354.

(5) Longfellow, Fata Morgana.

(6) “Magazine Writing,” III, 319. [page 13:]

(7) “Longfellow’s Ballads,” IV, 355.

(8) One in the prefaces to his translation of Poe’s works; the other in a series of articles on Poe assembled in the volume Le XIX siecle ( Deuxieme serie) Les Oeuvres et les hammes (Litterature etrangere) ( Paris: Lemerre, 1891) .

(9) Vorschule der Aesthetik. See: Brandl, Samuel Taylor Coleridge und die englische Romantik (Berlin: Oppenheim, 1886), p. 334 ff. Poe is not aware of the German source (Kantian philosophy) of this idea and attributes it simply to Coleridge.

(10) See the essay on “Thomas Moore” (IV, 366), the one on “N. P. Willis” (IV, 414, n.) and the one on “The Poetic Principle” (111, 211) .

(11) “N P. Willis,” IV, 414-416, n.

(12) “Thomas Moore,” IV, 369.

(13) Cf. Haym, Die romantische Schule (Berlin: Gaertner, 1870), pp. 492, 691 95., 773 95., etc.

(14) “Longfellow’s Ballads,” IV, 351.

(15) “Thomas Moore,” IV, 370.

(16) In like manner Shelley says in the Defence of Poetry: “Obscenity which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty of life.”

(17) Haym, p. 857.

(18) See “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition.”

(19) “William Cullen Bryant,” IV, 207; “Amelia Welby,” IV, 230; “The Poetic Principle,” “The Philosophy of Composition,” passim.

(20) See the essay, Ueber Burger’s Gedichte.

(21) Ueber das Pathetilche.

(22) Ueber die asthetische Erzichung der Menschen, letters addressed to the Grand Duke of Holstein-Augustenburg.

(23) Poe, by his own confession (IV, 93), took those ideas from Coleridge.

(24) “Amelia Welby,” IV, 230.

(25) “. . . melancholy which is inseparable from the sweetest melody. The pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself,” etc. (Defence of Poetry).

(26) Thus in “J. G. Brainard” (IV, 170): “the omniprevalent belief that melancholy is inseparable from the higher manifestations of the beautiful is not without a firm basis in nature and in reason.”

(27) “R. H. Home,” IV, 91.

(28) IV, 87, 257.

(29) IV, 169, 231.

(30) “The Poetic Principle,” III, 177; “The Philosophy of Composition,” III, 268; “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” IV, 215, 227.

(31) “The Poetic Principle,” III, 199.

(32) “The Philosophy of Composition,” III, 268.

(33) “Longfellow’s Ballads,” IV, 357; “The Poetic Principle,” 111, 204.

(34) “Longfellow’s Ballads,” IV, 355-356.

(35) “Letter to B.,” III, 318.

(36) “The Poets and Poetry of America,” IV, 315.

(37) “The Rationale of Verse,” III, 219; “Marginalia,” III, 428, 429, 443.

(38) Among so many examples, this passage from Novalis Schriften (Berlin: Reimer, 1837, “Their,” p. 219): “The poetic sentiment has a close kinship with the prophetic and the religious sentiment, [column 2:] and with madness above all.”

(39) “Fifty Suggestions,” III, 484-486.

(40) Kant, Kritik der Urtheilsiraft, part I, I ib. II, paragraphs 46 and 49.

(41) literally, the swarming of bees: genius, and sometimes, fanaticism. Tr.

(42) The noted work of Nordau: Entartvng, is based as much on this distinction as the book of Hirsch: Genie und Entartung (Berlin: Coblentz, 1894), which Nordau sharply opposes.

(43) “Fifty Suggestions,” XXII, III, 484.

(44) Cf. Eureka, III, 177, 185.

(45) “Marginalia,” LXX, III, 385.

(46) “Marginalia,” LXX, III, 385.

(47) III, 177.

(48) III, 177. To this perfect reciprocity of adaptation the writer of tales should direct himself, “so arranging the incidents that we shall not be able to determine, of any of them, whether it depends from any one other or upholds it.” See in this regard also the essay on “Dickens” (IV, 109-129). Poe himself has sought to reach this perfection which he is after in several of his stories, such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Mary Roget,” “The Purloined Letter.”

(49) These terms, of course, are here used in the sense given them by Schiller in the essay, Ueber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung.

(50) “The Poets and Poetry of America,” IV, 310.

(51) In the prefatory notes to the translations of Poe’s Strange Tales.

(52) In the articles cited above.

(53) In the preface to Gabriel Mourey’s translation of Poe’s Poems.

(54) In the gloomy sonnet placed before his own translation of the Poems of Poe.

(55) IV, 356.

(56) III, 204.

(57) “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.”

(58) Marginalia, XIV, III, 356.

(59) III, 23-24.

(60) “Marginalia,” CCXII, III, 462.

(61) Undine, liebes Bildchen du.

Seit ich zuerst aus alten Kunden

Dein seltsam Leuchten aufgefunden,

Wie sangst du oft mein Herz in Ruh!

(62) See the passage in the Defence of Poetry where he speaks of the unconsciousness of poetic inspiration.

(63) IV, 230-231

(64) “Cant” in English means jargon [also, argot and slang — Tr.], whence the play of words in Eureka, III, 94: “and one Kant, a Dutchman [German], the originator of that species of Transcendentalism which, with the change merely of a C for a K, now bears his own name.”

(65) “Marginalia,” III, 357

(66) “The American Drama,” IV, 325.

(67) Marginalia,” III, 387.

(68) “Addenda,” III, 477

(69) Walt Whitman, “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads.”


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