Text: Patrick F. Quinn, “The Critical Mind of Edgar Poe,” Poe Studies, December 1980, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 13:p-p


[page 37, column 2:]


Claude Richard. Edgar Allan Poe: Journaliste et Critique. Etudes Anglo Saxonnes, I. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck, 1979. xxxvi + 963 pp. 150 fr.

I find it impossible to begin a review of this book without at once calling attention to its extraordinary bulk. It is a very large volume. The 963 pages that make it up are large, and a large amount of print appears on them, especially on the 200 or so pages that provide the reference and explanatory notes. The book weighs three pounds net, paperbound, and it measures 23/8 inches across the spine. But so well manufactured is it that my many rummagings back and forth in it have had no effect on its solidity. Simply as a physical artifact it is impressive, and so it seems quite appropriate that the last printed page of the volume is reserved to identify the four men at the university press in Montpellier who in various ways assisted in its production.

But their labors, immense as they no doubt were, cannot be seen even collectively as on the same scale as those of its author. How many years — or decades, probably — Claude Richard was engaged in the research organized and presented here, how many filing cabinets were filled before the writing of this book could be started, the author does not say. So I shall say only that the magnitude of his work reflects the austere ideal of thoroughness with which he evidently went about it. A commensurate review would therefore be one of more than customary length, prepared ideally by a reviewing task force representing different kinds of interest and expertise. Only in that way could the abundant content of the book receive the attention it deserves.

In this review a more modest program is undertaken Much will be left out. I am not going to scrutinize Richard’s extensive bibliography and complain about the presence of some trivial items and the absence of some important ones. I will not touch on the sharp difference of opinion that exists between Richard and Gay Wilson Allen on the subject of “The Rationale of Verse”; nor will I evaluate the strictures, some of them rather harsh, made on the important earlier study of Poe as a journalist and critic, that by Robert D. Jacobs. I am also going to ignore Richard’s seven appendixes, although two of them are of more than peripheral interest: Appendix V, which argues that Poe himself was the writer of an unsigned review of the 1854 Tales; and Appendix VII, which examines Baudelaire’s understanding of Poe. Positively, my main effort will be to summarize the substance of the book and to isolate what I see as its two main themes or propositions. I shall then focus on the more basic of these two propositions and explain why I have difficulty accepting it.

Richard’s main text consists of four chapters and a [page 38:] conclusion. Chapter one leads off with a cautionary note: for various reasons Poe could not always play the role of fearless, uncompromising critic. Sometimes he had to waffle, and so contradict himself. Hence in assessing his work one must exercise “the very greatest prudence” (p. 14). But when the contradictions, sometimes flagrant, are sorted out, Poe’s thought in what Richard calls its underlying “luminous coherence” (p. 15) becomes clear. Surveying Poe’s work as editor and reviewer between 1835 and 1845, Richard discerns in it “Poe’s fundamental contribution to American criticism” (p. 38), namely, his insistence by precept and example that an art, or, better, a science, of literary criticism is possible if founded exclusively on aesthetic principles. Chapter two takes up in authoritative detail the professional “temptations” which Poe in his career as a journalist found hard to resist. He was, for example, constantly tempted to shock, astonish, in some way to stir up his readers; and he knew that one sure way of doing this was to expose plagiarism. His ability in expose journalism made him, according to Richard, “the first of the muck-rakers and the inventor of the scoop” (p. 86). This chapter is itself an expose of Poe’s expedient changes of position as determined by conditions in the literary marketplace and who his employers were (pp. 162-168). A “sincere” critic? Not always. But, Richard observes, in that respect Poe was hardly different from his journalistic contemporaries. Unlike them, however, and presumably herein lies his importance, Poe “developed a literary theory that has influenced several generations of European artists” (p. 183). As entry into his account of that theory, Richard in his third chapter draws up an exhaustive inventory of Poe’s literary tastes and discusses how they were formed, how they were first aired implicitly in the Folio Club tales, and how they were later expressed in his critical writings. As always with Richard, the details are profuse, but the ones I found memorable seemed to bear on just two points. One, minor, is that Poe’s literary interests were surprisingly narrow. Drama especially, whether Greek, Shakespearean, or classical French, he was indifferent to. The other, major, point is that Poe took a very dim view of what he considered ornamental, artificial writing, valuing instead what he saw as natural, probable, sensible. Accordingly, he could not take the Gothic mode seriously (p. 335).

Poe was, Richard remarks, “the most narrowly rationalistic critic of his generation” (p. 287). This opinion is complexly enriched by an account of the author’s poetique given in chapter four. Here the argument is that, if viewed retrospectively, in the light of Eureka, Poe’s aesthetic theory is discovered as having a specifically theological context. So seen, the theory takes on some unexpected colorations. For instance: “heresy of the didactic“? A poem can and indeed should be didactic if its theme is “the divine harmony of the cosmos” (p. 474). The aesthetic effect is by no means merely aesthetic, merely an effect it is or it should be the “magic spell” by which the poet makes his reader fleetingly conscious of participating in the life of “cosmic love” (p. 500). To write a poem successfully is to put together a kind of nostalgic pastiche of the one truly creative act, the divine poem of the creation of the universe (p. 515). For a poet to deviate from harmony is “sacrilegious”; similarly, it is “blasphemous” [column 2:] not to obey the very strict laws that govern the creation of beauty (p. 553) . A poem should be, essentially, an “epiphany” for both the poet and his reader (p. 477). And so, as all this vocabulary suggests, the ultimate reason why Poe valued unity of effect and a well-made plot is that to him these formal excellences testified to the beauty and perfection that exist as transcendentals in the supernatural order (pp. 503, 559). Poe’s concern with form then becomes the topic chiefly discussed in the book’s conclusion. The approach here is in the spirit of the Russian formalists and their latter-day avatars in France. From this point of view, and as the major exhibit of the conclusion, Richard analyzes “The Philosophy of Composition.” Far from being a hoax, the essay was, he argues, quite seriously meant when it was written in 1846; and, more than this, it is intelligible now as a prophetic statement of a theory of literature which only began to take shape (under Jakobson, et al.) in the second decade of this century.

Richard’s traversal of “The Philosophy of Composition” is brilliantly done — perhaps too much so! A tour de force, an elaborate flourish coming at the end of a long-sustained and slow-paced inquiry, it tends to draw attention to itself as a self-contained showpiece. However, the very last words of the book’s conclusion — “l‘art de Dieu“ — serve to recall the importance of the theme dealt with in chapter four: in Poe’s mature understanding of the matter, the function of art is, finally, theological. (In Richard’s judgment, even Poe’s ideas about prosody should be understood in this way.) Of similar importance is the theme, or proposition, that is emphasized in the earlier chapters: The mind of Poe was pre-eminently and emphatically sane. As I see it, this may well be the more important of Richard’s two major themes, for it seems to have logical precedence over the other. We are encouraged, that is, to take Poe’s theological aesthetic seriously because it was worked out by a consummate rationalist in whose intellectual history Richard finds “luminous coherence.”

How persuasive is Richard’s version of the mind of Poe? Of the several important questions his book brings up, this seems to me the one worth immediate attention. It is also a question that takes one beyond Richard’s book, immensely documented though it is. In a note which scolds some French admirers of Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Valery for having done insufficient homework, Richard stresses the necessity of their going back and reading “Edgar Poe dans le texte” (p. 641; his italics). Good advice, and I have been mindful of it. But what I have found when turning from Richard’s exposition of Poe’s thought to what Poe himself said dans le texte does not always persuade me that Richard’s version of Poe as the embodiment of “la raison raisonnante” (p. 304) is definitive.

Although early on in the book he acknowledges that Poe’s behavior was at times bizarre, he does so perfunctorily, as if to imply that the point, while probably true, is of no particular importance. The point that is of importance, to gauge from how often it is made, is that Poe’s mind was very solidly hinged. Richard never tires of rephrasing this contention. Poe’s thought, we are told, is “clear and pragmatic” (p. 293), and his supreme value “common sense” (p. 296) . The one philosopher he approved [page 39:] of was the deductive analyst par excellence, Francis Bacon (p. 298). Poe’s own metier was that of a “clarifier” (p. 310), relying on scientific point of view and logical method (p. 315). He was a “born logician” (p. 320), who prized preciseness and balance, analysis and system. Why then, if such mental aplomb was his, was Poe sometimes so shrill on the subject of plagiarism? Richard offers several answers. The one he seems to prefer is that a mind so “coldly scientific” (p. 110) as Poe’s could not be content with the hypothesis that chance coincidence rather than purposive design could suffice as an adequate explanatory cause. Exposing plagiarism formed an integral part of Poe’s career since it was one more way in which he could demonstrate that mystery can always be cleared up. It was “not wine but logic that Poe got drunk on” (p. 134). In short, Poe’s mind was securely that of a common-sense rationalist. Accordingly, far from entering, as per the hackneyed legend, “a tortuous path ro breakdown and madness, it followed a route that led from Coleridge to Macaulay” (p. 327).

It is surely the metaphorical meaning — a route from “mysticism” to logic — rather than the literal meaning, that matters here. Even so, would it not be more correct to cite the name of George Combe instead of that of Macaulay? In his review of the latter’s essays Poe measures Macaulay’s mind against Combe’s and finds it demonstrably inferior. The style of a truly “profound thinker” (that is, Combe) is logical only up to a point and for a purpose: “he reasons to discover the true” (Works, X, 158). Diametrically different, Macaulay argues merely to make a case. For all his talent, Macaulay is classified by Poe as “not a genius” (p. 319), whereas Combe presumably was one, in Poe’s opinion, and Combe’s “laws” seemed to Poe superior to the allegedly “‘clear, simple, common-sense philosophy of Plato’ ” (Works, XII, 165). Thus it appears that Coleridge was not the only one left behind as Poe’s thought developed. Plato, too, is found intellectually limited. The palm is awarded to Combe, “than whom a more candid reasoner never, perhaps, wrote or spoke” (Works, X, 158).

One wonders what Richard makes of this evaluation. I find it absurd. But I have done no more than riffle through Combe’s major work, a phrenological treatise on The Constitution of Man. Richard, who seems to leave no stone unturned, presumably has read it, and he may have found it deserving of Poe’s high praise. I assume also, as do most people, that an interest in phrenology is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection. The fact that Poe remained interested in rather than consistently skeptical about the reigning pseudoscience of his day, and hence in its popular exponent, George Combe, strikes me as prima facie evidence of the pseudoscientific cast of Poe’s mind. Since Richard speaks of Poe’s “coldly scientific” bent, he must read this evidence differently. How this may be done is not explained.

Nor is it shown how an appraisal of Poe’s “coldly scientific” mind, with its insistence on preciseness and balance, may be squared with the fact that in his reviews Poe expressed himself — not always, of course, but disconcertingly often — in an imprecise and unbalanced way. The hyperbole of the encomium given Combe is not uncharacteristic. Poe had the habit of overstatement. Here are [column 2:] four instances. Coleridge, he wrote, is the one man “who, of all writers, living or dead, has been the most successful in writing the purest of all poems” (Works, VIII, 284). Of the novelist Bulwer-Lytton, “He is unsurpassed by any writer, living or dead” (Works, VIII, 223). Of Thomas Moore’s Alciphron, “We could not point out a poem in any language which, as a whole, greatly excels it” (Works, X, 70). Of imagination in The Old Curiosity Shop, “It pervades every sentence of the book. We recognize its influence in every inspired word” (Works, X, 153). These affirmations are no more than effusions, which, resistant to any show of proof, are the reverse of scientific.

Consistent with his view of Poe as first and last a raisonneur, Richard speaks of the “very rigorous” (p. 378) review Poe wrote of Bryant, of the “rigorous way” (p. 583) in which Poe’s best reviews were organized, the review of The Old Curiosity Shop, for one, with its “rigorous logic and dazzling analysis” (p. 8) . But in going back over Poe’s reviews I am surprised by their lack of rigor. The workmanship seems simply careless. Thus in the Drake/Halleck review Poe denies the charge that he customarily dealt in generalities. Yet his tendency ro do just that surfaces in his very denial: “In our reviews we have never, if we remember aright, advanced in any single instance an unsupported assertion” (Works, VII, 2S0) . Even in the review in which this is said, some unsupported assertions can, inevitably, be found. What is unexpected, and not inevitable, is Poe’s way of supporting one assertion simply by introducing another, itself in need of support and not getting it. A notable instance occurs in “The Philosophy of Composition” when Passion, along with Truth, is declared to be antagonistic to Beauty. Why? Because Passion involves a certain “homeliness.” Poe supports this assertion by saying that “the truly passionate will comprehend” what he means, and so substitutes the rhetoric of an ad hominem argument for a reasoned discussion.

To substitute extensive quotations or illustrations in default of analysis was another way Poe had of cutting down on discussion. In “The Poetic Principle” a dozen poems are quoted at length or in extenso; the comments made on these poems are few and thinly platitudinous. In the second-to-last paragraph of the same essay, it is proposed that “a distinct conception of what poetry is” may be attained by reading a list of “a few of the simple elements” which can give rise to poetry. No fewer than forty items are then mentioned, but with no accompanying explanation of how any of them illustrate the principle they are offered as examples of. The same practice of listing rather than explicating is followed in the review of The Old Curiosity Shop. One of its main assertions is that “in ideality . . . the book has never been equalled” (Works, X, 154). Support for the assertion consists only in a list of diverse items — the grandfather’s “whole character and conduct,” “the haunts of Quilp among the wharf-rats,” and so forth. Since the homogeneity of the items listed is neither self-evident nor explained, the meaning of “ideality,” said to be the novel’s distinguishing excellence, remains a blank.

That Poe knew quite well what a rigorous critical method should involve is evident in the dressing-down he gave another critic (Christopher North), whose “capability is limited to a keen appreciation of the beautiful [page 40:] and [a] fastidious sense of the deformed. Why or how either is either [he does not inquire]. He is no analyst. . . . His criticism is emphatically on the surface — superficial. His opinions are mere dicta . . . and are just or unjust at the variable taste of the reader who reads them.” When I came upon this passage, quoted at greater length by Richard (p. 583), it was its ironical appositeness that struck me. North’s failing is that he does not show why. As a practical critic Poe is deficient in the same regard. In the writing of criticism — to apply a rule laid down in “The Poetic Principle“ — “There must be the steady pressing of the stamp upon the wax” (Works, XIV, 269). Poe in his criticism does not press, except when working on inferior wax. Richard puts it this way: “Poe always knew how to show why a work was bad, but he could never ‘demonstrate’ why another was good” (p. 35). Is this not a serious limitation? A critic unable to back up the “why or how” of his preferences must resort, as Poe did, to rhetorical overstatement, to reliance on abstract terminology (for example, “ideality”), to raw lists. It seems to me that these are faute de mieux tactics which would be found uncongenial by a mind fully as logical, methodical, and rigorous as the one Richard attributes to Poe.

Why, then, is this attribution made — and made not by a disputatious arriviste straining to say something different, but made by a scholar whose credentials entitle him to a most attentive and respectful hearing?

It is not an easy question. But a tentative answer occurs to me when I recall Poe’s remark that a work should contain within itself all that is necessary for its comprehension (Works, XI, 78). It happens that Richard’s book complies with this requirement. The first pages of its preface warn that the view of Poe which for a hundred years has been standard in France is emphatically not the view this book will endorse. Richard takes up the matter again in Appendix VII. There, in language sometimes strangely trenchant and severe, he shows how subjective is the image of Poe which Baudelaire drew and promulgated so successfully. Largely unaware of Poe’s voluminous work as a journalistic reviewer, and much too ready to let intuition and fantasy do duty for fact, Baudelaire was bound to distort. The portrait he drew, touched up a bit in this century by the psychoanalytic brush of Marie Bonaparte, Richard repudiates as “a mythical creation in the fullest sense of the term” (p. 908) . This myth’s three main components — Poe the diaphanous aesthete, out of space and out of time, Poe the archetypal poete maudit, and Poe the romantic agonizer, lost in the crevasses of his unconscious — coalesce in the figure of a lame giant of morbid genius in whom the Poe of historical reality — a journalist-critic, cool, calm, and “engage” (p. xiv) — cannot be recognized. It is the case for this Poe that Richard presents. But with such zeal is this done, and so heavy is the emphasis put on what in the “mythical” figure is left out, that the ideal of a balanced view remains elusive. If Richard’s view of Poe should become so widely accepted as to achieve the status of received opinion, it is likely that in place of a myth discarded there will be installed an alternative or counter-myth, a more prosaic one, to be sure, but itself in need of some rectification.

Patrick F. Quinn, Wellesley College


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]