Text: E. Arthur Robinson, “The Dual Vision of Edgar Allan Poe,” Poe Studies, December 1977, Vol. X, No. 2, 10:48-50


[page 48, column 2, continued:]

The Dual Vision of Edgar Allan Poe

James W. Gargano, editor. A Poe Miscellany. Topic: 30, A Journal of the Liberal Arts (Washington and Jefferson College), 16 (Fall 1976), [1]-80.

The Fall 1976 issue of Washington and Jefferson College’s Topic: A Journa1 of the Liberal Arts is devoted to A Poe Miscellany under the editorship of James W. Gargano. In its six essays on varied Poe topics, a reader may find some connecting unity in treatments of the duality within Poe’s writing suggested by the theme of the divided self and by such polarities as fact and fiction, appearance and reality, tragedy and comedy, and poetic excitement and depression. Topic is published with the intent of representing the liberal arts tradition in several disciplines, and the present volume has value for both the student of Poe and other scholarly readers.

Perhaps most immediately useful here is a summary, necessarily brief, of each contribution. Burton R. Pollin continues his well-known studies of Poe’s sources in the lead article, “Poe and Daniel Defoe: A Significant Relationship.” Pollin gives major attention to Poe’s 1836 review of Harper’s recent edition of Robinson Crusoe and then traces similar themes in twelve later references by Poe to Defoe or his work. For each of these Pollin presents the pertinent facts and, equally important, analyzes their bearing upon Poe’s major ideas. Poe’s early review of Robinson Crusoe is of interest in several ways: first, Pollin shows that Poe assimilated ideas and restated passages from the anonymous “Biographical Sketch of Daniel Defoe” in the Harper edition; second, basic tenets of Poe’s criticism are expressed in these passages; and [page 49:] third, in some instances Poe distorted or erroneously adapted statements from his source. The ideas Poe associated with Defoe, in the review and often more clearly later, include the use of details to create “verisimilitude,” the author’s ability to “lose” himself in his characters, and somewhat varying attitudes, as Pollin summarizes Poe’s critical statements, toward securing unity through an autobiographical narrator. The first two of these, in combination, lead to consideration of relations between fact and fiction, of verisimilitude amounting to “deception” and “hoax” that includes the pretense of editorship — all pertinent to Poe’s beginning Pym within a year after the review and of course to many of his later practices. I would add that every Poe scholar would do well to read Pollin’s discussion, on pages 6-7, of the “need always to examine the works that Poe was reading . . . before we assign a distinctive critical opinion to him.”

Two essays present detailed studies of Pym. Beginning with Poe’s “magic of verisimilitude” learned from Defoe, J. Gerald Kennedy in “‘The Infernal Twoness’ in Arthur Gordon Pym” cites the wordplay, the “exaggerated gore,” and the inconsistency of detail in the novel in order to place it within the category of works Poe fashioned “with two sets of readers in mind: the unrefined, unwashed reader, whose banal taste had compelled him to write Pym in the first place, and the cultivated, intelligent reader, who could recognize authorial irony . . . .” One of several examples Kennedy analyzes is the discrepancy between two descriptions of the note Pym receives from Augustus. Thus difficulties in reading the work coherently echo its theme of “the deceptiveness and inaccessibility of truth”: “we can never read the invisible message.”

Joseph DeFalco’s “Metaphor and Meaning in Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” finds a key to the controlling metaphor of the tale in its description of Pym’s early schooling under Mr. Ricketts, whose name suggests a pun on the boy’s “nutritional deficiencies” that result in a diseased imagination. Mr. Ricketts is also “a gentleman with only one arm” — the first, declares DeFalco, in a “series of images of ‘dismasting’” that accompany the destruction of the Ariel and the Grampus. The vessels, too, grow in size and significance from the Ariel to the Jane Guy, which “on a voyage of exploration and trade represents Pym’s failure to perceive that the nature of reality cannot be penetrated by mind in any direct way.” In a subtly connected interpretation, DeFalco treats the events of Pym’s adventures in metaphorical and allegorical terms, seeing in Pym’s analogy of the landslide to “the day of universal dissolution” a clue to his “New England Puritan” soul that fears that, “like the brute Tsalalians, he is not to be one of the elect.” Pym’s fall from the cliff becomes a desired sexual plunge “into the arms of his demon lover” Peters, “a creature of his own imagination” that might “as well have been death.” And the primitive canoe, representing a “life-vessel” like the earlier ships, signifies the “new-born and mindless-as-an-infant” Pym with “his own makeshift mast” sailing toward what he believes is a “reconciliation with spirit” in the vision of the white figure, although to Poe, “the supreme fictionist,” this vision betokens “the misguided imaginings of a rebellious Puritan who has undertaken a [column 2:] subjective journey into self and has managed to destroy all of the mental faculties that constitute a self in a real world.” There are more overtones throughout than can be recorded here. I would have welcomed further evidence for bestowing a Puritan soul upon Pym, who for the most part does not seem overburdened with matters of conscience, but the essay presents a coherent and fascinating interpretation which, together with Kennedy’s reading, may be profitably compared to Daniel A. Wells’ “Engraved Within the Hills: Further Perspectives on the Ending of Pym” in the June 1977 Poe Studies.

James W. Gargano’s own contribution, “The Disturbed Perception of Poe’s Comic Narrators,” has for its premise the proposition that Poe’s comic tales treat “with a saving attenuation” the same “tragic flaws” in perception that doom the better known protagonists of his Bales of terror. Specifically, Gargano writes of five of Poe’s somewhat less known comic tales, “The Spectacles,” “The Angel of the Odd,” “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” “The Sphinx,” and “The Devil in the Belfry,” selected, as he says, because of a common theme of the narrator’s imperfect vision. Each tale is analyzed to expose the narrator’s naive perception and the absurdities of action consequent upon it. The speaker’s self-revealed confusion, illuminated by the ironies Poe builds into the narration, is psychological and moral as well as often physical, although the degree of final self-knowledge each character gains varies with the tale. Gargano’s focus is kept admirably within bounds, but its suggestions are complementary to the author’s already famous essay, “The Question of Poe’s Narrators.” Aside from a few footnote references and preliminary comments on “William Wilson,” “Ligeia,” and “The Black Cat,” Gargano leaves parallels with Poe’s characters to his reader’s perceptivity. These indeed spring readily to mind, as, for example, a similarity between Usher’s descent through the male line and the absurdly worded descent of the narrator of “The Spectacles” through his maternal line from a great, great grandmother whom his defective vision leads him to “marry,” the potential incest, of course, being comically averted. For Gargano, the underlying issues linking Poe’s comic stories to his tales of terror seem to be, thematically, the relation between the observing self and the real world; artistically, the relation between author and fictional narrator.

Eric W. Carlson returns to the perennial favorite, “William Wilson,” to study an inner duality. Wilson is another of Poe’s narrators whose words imply more than the narrator consciously knows. The first William Wilson tells us that he “fancied” he discovered in his double something that recalled to him his “earliest infancy,” that aroused “wild, confused and thronging memories of a time when memory was yet unborn.” For a moment he associates the double with an “epoch” long before, with “some point of the past even infinitely remote.” But he cannot maintain this awareness and discards his insight as a “delusion.” Carlson, however, seizes upon Wilson’s hint, associates it with other statements by Poe and with mankind’s lasting interest in the alter ego, and suggests that the second William Wilson represents the central or transcendent Self described by Romantic writers and by [page 50:] such psychologists as Carl Jung. Without harmony with this “Self,” successful individuation is impossible, as Wilson discovers. Carlson’s valuable essay is appropriately titled “‘William Wilson’: The Double as Primal Self.”

With somewhat different wording, Dwayne Thorpe in the final essay, “The Limits of Flight: Poe and ‘The Poetic Principle,’” uses this dual vision as a defense of Poe’s poetic and critical theory. In Poe’s view, declares Thorpe, “man is a dual creature, born with a soul which dimly knows that it was nor made for limitations, and which nevertheless meets them wherever it turns.” Chief among these limitations are man’s existence in time and his inevitable death. From this duality spring man’s longing for infinity and supernal beauty and also that “sadness” which taints his ecstatic and all-too-brief glimpses of those states through music and poetry. Somewhat simplistically, to me, Thorpe holds that most critics who stress the supernal longing in Poe’s theory regard him as an escapist or visionary. I believe Thorpe is correct, however, in finding within Poe’s aesthetic a “tough-minded confrontation of the problems of duality.” As a polemic issue, Thorpe’s argument strikes me as semantic to the extent that it depends upon whether one considers Poe’s definition of poetry to include or exclude man’s inability to maintain an intense psychic state. For this dilemma Poe must share responsibility, inasmuch as, riding his idea of brevity, he includes this “psychal” inability as “impatient sorrow” felt in lyric poetry but excludes it as “depression” in epic poetry (there are, of course, additional differences). I should add, however, that accompanying Thorpe’s argument is an exceptionally clear and useful exposition of Poe’s poetic theory.

In summary, Topic: 30 merits careful attention by Poe scholars. Its essays arouse reflection on fundamental questions in reading Poe — perhaps the best service any contemporary “Miscellany” on this author can offer. As such stimulation varies with readers, I shall illustrate arbitrarily with one or two brief lines of reflection growing out of, but not limited to, these essays. Burton Pollin, for example, urges the need to relate Poe’s critical theories to his reading at the time, a proposition requiring only slight enlargement to include the literature of the day. Pollin shows that Poe echoes the “Biographical Sketch” of Defoe in his concept that “in verisimilitude, lurks ‘deception.’” Pollin also notes that Poe’s 1844 notice of Cooper’s Ned Myers discusses that novel and Sir Edward Seaward’s Narrative as compositions offered to the public “in the same manner” as Pym, a book of “sea adventures purporting to be edited only by Mr. Poe” while “in reality his own composition.” One may suspect that writers and the reading public were becoming accustomed to this practice. Similarly, guessing at the true authorship of early Scott and Cooper novels and of other works published anonymously or pseudonymously was a common public game. Did Poe play versions of these games as the literary “thing to do,” or to vent personal scorn and pique toward his readers, or from a combination of causes? There is his 1849 statement, quoted by Pollin in connection with a reference to Robinson Crusoe, that the deception of some readers by his “Valdemar Case” was an unintentional result of its verisimilitude. And one observes that the “surface” theme of [column 2:] Pym is virtually identical with its “undercurrent” of meaning, namely, the unreliable relation between appearance and reality. Such a line of reflection suggests that although we can never discount Poe’s possible personal motivations, artistic concerns and the literary practice of his day may have a strong bearing upon his use of the “deception” that lurks in the technique of verisimilitude.

Another issue suggested by the essays in this collection involves the relationship between author and fictional narrator. This relationship is, of course, of cardinal importance in Poe’s fiction because of his predilection for first-person narration. Pollin cites Poe’s early recognition of the key elements of this issue in the 1836 Defoe review, which asserts that “the author of Crusoe must have possessed, above all other faculties, what has been termed the faculty of identification — that dominion exercised by volition over imagination which enables the mind to lose its own, in a fictitious, individuality.” Poe is obviously aware that one cannot simplistically equate the “individuality” of a fictional character with the personality of the author who creates him. Here I would also call attention to Poe’s historical position, in that novelists from Fielding to Thackeray felt a necessity to enlighten readers on distinctions between biography and fiction and to defend themselves against assumptions that their characters’ views were their own. Thus before Mark Twain’s experiments with the voice of Huck Finn and Henry James’ with restricted points of view, Poe was aware of and attempted solutions for the artistic problem of creating first-person narrators who must be held largely within their dramatic roles and yet intimate to the reader ideas beyond their complete ken. Historical perspective shows Poe’s high place in the development of fiction, which Carlson, Gargano, Kennedy, and DeFalco, while not writing primarily on technique, support in analyses revealing the complex ironies in Poe’s narratives.

Finally, Dwayne Thorpe defines a major duality in Poe as the contrast expressed in his poetic theory between man’s highest longings and his temporal existence: “There is no escape from mortality.” William Wilson momentarily senses, aghast, the duality between his sense of individual identity and, in Carlson’s words, the Primal Self that goes back “infinitely” into the human past. Carlson also notes a parallel reference to primal memory, “distant in the by-gone time,” in Eureka: all creatures, Poe declares, are “more or less conscious Intelligences; conscious, first, of a proper identity; conscious, secondly and by faint indeterminate glimpses, of an identity with the Divine Being of whom we speak — of an identity with God.” In possibly the boldest “limit of flight” of Poe’s imagination, this duality, he “fancies” in concluding Eureka, may fade as man’s individuality gradually merges, within the distant future, into the One that constitutes the greatest Primal Self of all, the “Divine Being.” There is, I suspect, a basic congruence between this idea and the process by which the author’s mind, as Poe stated in 1836, may “lose its own, in a fictitious, individuality.”

E. Arthur Robinson, Professor Emeritus, University of Rhode Island


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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[S:0 - PS, 1977]