Text: Edmund Clarence Stedman, “Introduction to the Tales,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Stone and Kimball, vol. I, 1894, pp. 91-121


[page 91:]



THE reader who chanced in youth to come upon one of Poe’s finer stories is not likely to have forgotten its impression on his unjaded sense of mystery and beauty. Nor are there many who in mature years, and in this heyday of the short story, first become acquainted with the “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque,” but must realize the power of their conjuring charm. Taken together they are the fullest exhibit of their author’s genius, if not the highest; and if the highest is to be seen in his poetry, which fairly may be debated, the prose tales with their greater volume and diversity lose nothing in comparison.

Poe is often, and correctly enough, termed a romancer. Certainly he was a writer of ornate, yet vision-bred and illusive, legends of some dreamland of his own, and not a novelist observing our everyday world. His rarest tales have the quality of pure romance, and otherwise his inventive prose is concerned with incident and adventure rather than with the portrayal of human character. This of course, since he was a poet, and few of the breed are novelists. The personages of their fiction are servitors required for its mechanism, and seldom individualized within their respective types. Now and then a novelist, [page 92:] — Thackeray, for instance, — has written delightful minor poetry, out of the music and humor and intellectuality of a rich nature. Those who have done more are exceptions, of the universal cast. Poets with the novelist’s gift are for the most part dramatists, using the dramatic form at times when the spirit of the stage is not at odds with that of literature. As for the narrative-poets, it is only a Chaucer or a Browning whose men and women are much more than illuminated figures. Hugo is strong in poetry, fiction, and drama, but his prose stories for the most part were created of romance aforethought. Other French poets of the time have shown artistic deftness equally in lyrical verse and in prose, and to these Poe is more nearly related. His note is his own, yet the modelling of his work allies him still more closely to these writers, who also have been devoted, like him, to the conte, or short story, and exquisite in its production. It will be remembered that as a lyrist he thought the expression “a long poem “was a misnomer, and that a poem, like any other work of art, must be enjoyed as a whole and at one sitting. In prose, correlatively, and aware of his own forte, he limited his best efforts to the short tale. Hawthorne went no farther, in his tentative period; but Hawthorne, while he seemingly lacked the ear and impulse for lyrical expression, passed on to the creation of extended romances, — even to fictions which, though very ideal, partook somewhat of the cast of the true novel. His best short stories, such as the “Birthmark,” the “Artist of the Beautiful,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and the Province House series, all thoroughly romantic whether legendary or otherwise, rival those of Poe, [page 93:] yet differ from them in the moral purpose of their allegory. There is no such purpose, overt or covert, in more than three or four of Poe’s, but an artistic passion vibrates throughout their design.

Probably one must go back to the German romanticism for something of his method, but the distinction is plain that he was a romancer and not a romanticist. This could not be said if he had written nothing but the tales which are as ideal as those of Tieck, the colloquies more subtle than Herder’s and with the Platonic flavor of Berkeley’s “Alciphron,” and a treatise like “Eureka,” — of which a germ appears in a single phrase of Novalis. But his romance is of the mixed type. He entered the range of the long story, though no more as a romanticist than as a novelist; simply as a narrator of fanciful adventure, and with no literary purpose other than, like De Foe, to hold the reader by the verisimilitude of actual experience. This is as near as he came to naturalism, while in his longer and shorter pieces of this kind his imagination suddenly gives out, and he is unable to make a finish, or to dispose of his actors. He resorts to melodrama, and the climax is lurid, phantasmal, and ruinously out of keeping.

All this stamps him as a poet, sent back in a rather forlorn condition, after excursions in the visible world, to his own uncharted domain, and not able readily to find the entrance-gate. Whether at home or wandering, however, he always has one force in reserve, — a mental power which some might think abnormal in a singing poet and child of the imagination. Yet a ratiocinative gift befits the poet who is both seer and maker. To be an artist first and always requires a turn for induction and analysis. Poe was quite within [page 94:] the liberties, constructing his tales of ratiocination and pseudo-science, although the poet may be concealed from one reading these alone. To avert such a mischance, the author of “The Purloined Letter “is at pains to show the reader that the poet and mathematician often are one, — that the poet-artist must be a mathematician with the analytic gift. This is in a sense as true as that the man of science is aided by imagination to rise from step to step of discovery.

The variety and amount of his poetry both increase if we accept the highly sublimated “Romances of Death “as poems in their way, just as we recognize in the design of other stories that everything is ordered by an artist bent on psychological effect. The opening group, indeed, if put forth by a modern writer, might be christened “Pastels,” or “Impressions,” or “Petits Poemes en Prose.” The inevitableness with which all the tales of real quality have crystallized themselves, in the present edition, into a few distinct groups, affords some ground for wonder that they now are permitted to do so for the first time. The two divisions in this volume notably accord with the fitness of things. They are composed of the prose-poems just mentioned, and of his scenic and dramatic romances. Each group as a whole seems a work in itself, symphonic through the co-relation of its parts. “Shadow,” — that introvarious euphony, that ominous music of some immemorial Eld, neither of Greece nor of Chaldaea nor of Egypt, but intensely wrought from the boding and the magic of them all, — and “Silence,” that demonic fable of the prehistoric Libyan waste, — these marvellous discourses well may form the prelude and epilogue of the opening series, itself subdivided into mundane and supramundane conceptions, [page 95:] fantasies of Death in Life and of Life after Death. The tone is unique, melodious, fateful, the chant of some mystic ritual, to the artifice of which the soul is quickly attuned. The successive numbers are each perfect in its way, and the way, however romantic, is like nothing else in our own literature. The complaint as to its monotone is a form of the demand that one man of talent shall be like the others, and proceed from short to extended masterpieces after the wonted process. Many people, like children, wish the game always to be played in the same way. Let us take an artist as he is, and for what he is. It was the felicity of Poe to give us the psychology, the drama, the awe and mystery, of the “Fall of the House of Usher “and “Ligeia,” and the strange melody and perfume and color of “Eleonora.” His resources of imagination and construction are at their full in these bits of absolute art. “Usher”is developed with a method cognate to that of Browning’s “Childe Roland,” and proceeds as relentlessly, yet with beauteous episodes, to the sullen end. In “Ligeia,” “Morella,” “Berenice,” and the rest, the characters are nothing: the high-born ecstatic dames and maidens move through stately halls, or linger in the gardens of mist-haunted vales; they are “such as one in pictures sees,” and come from very far away. Poe would not have known what to do with less impalpable characters. He was so constituted that a portrait on the wall, the mere suggestion of a being that had been, incited his passion and fantasy more than the imagining of a being still in life, — that is, in the eerie life of his legend. He pursued, by choice, the very shadow of a shade. All, so far as it belongs to any time or place, is mediaeval, and thus again in [page 96:] the spirit of romance. It was Preraphaelite, in a sense, before the “brotherhood” achieved a name; for their cult, whatever its artistic crusade, was a cry out of the heart of feudalism, — that shattered progeny of Uther, lying as if in death, yet ever dreaming its dream.

With reference to Poe and the German romanticism, it is to be noted that friendly critics taxed him with “Germanism and gloom.” To this he rejoined that “terror is not of Germany, but of the soul.” He defied them to recognize in the Tales “that species of pseudo-horror which we are taught to call Germanic, for no better reason than that some of the secondary names of German literature have become identified with its folly.” He was in the main right as to the collection of 1840, unless the climax of “Berenice “brings that tale within the province under ban. Nevertheless, there is pseudo-horror to be found in certain of his pieces, and enough of Ernst Hoffmann’s method to suggest that the brilliant author of the “Fantasiestiicke,” whether a secondary name or not, was one of Poe’s early teachers. Hoffmann’s romance, like Poe’s, was of the mixed type, a departure from pure romanticism, and in the “Weird Tales “there is perhaps more of everyday concern than in the “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.” His most eccentric legends abound in German naivctd and domesticity. He drew charming mortal heroines. His Seraphinas, Annunciatas, Antonias, are the warm and breathing dames and donnas, while Poe’s Eleonoras, Ligeias, and Morellas are the tapestry-figures, of mansions to which the younger romancer held his title by succession. Still, while Hoffmann was wholly of the Vaterland, and Poe a misfitted American, if the one had [page 97:] died before the other’s birth, instead of thirteen years later, there would be a chance for a pretty fancy in behalf of the doctrine of metempsychosis — which both these writers utilized.

Among authors of the penumbral cast, from Hoffmann to Leopardi, Baudelaire, and the monodist of the “City of Dreadful Night,” — men whose records show that it is wise to confine the fever of romance to one’s written page, — the temperaments and lives, even the features, of Hoffmann and Poe seem to be most nearly of the same type. Hoffmann was the more answerable for a disordered life, since he had the three arts of music, drawing, and letters, at his command, and could turn his hand to anything. He was often successful, and knew the good and bad of adulation, but the one thing he could not bear was success. Poe was equal to neither fortune. Both writers evaded prolonged effort, and brooded on the same themes — such as insanity, catalepsy, somnambulism, the Doppelganger tradition, metempsychosis, conscience, terror, the weight of destiny and doom. Art was their common religion; but Poe regarded it the more seriously. Both — and in this they follow Tieck — exalted Music as the supernal art.

A reader of Hoffmann finds certain properties of the “House of Usher” and “Metzengerstein” in “Das Majorat; “in the ancestral castle of a noble family, on a wild and remote estate near the Baltic Sea, — the interior, where the moon shines through oriel windows upon tapestry and carven furniture and wainscoting, — the uncanny scratchings against a bricked-up door, — the old Freiherr foreseeing the hour of his death, — the ominous conflagration, — the turret falling of its own decay into a chasm at its base. [page 98:] But Poe opposes a truer ideality to Hoffmann’s verisimilitude. “Das Fraulein von Scuderi” contains a suggestion of his analytic method, which, however, in the quest for the assassin of the Rue Morgue throws both sentiment and legendary quite aside. the “Assignation “derives from Hoffmann’s “Doge und Dogeresse,” and the tableau with the Marchesa is a radiantly poetic variation upon the balcony scene in the earlier tale. Hoffmann’s spell was unquestionable, and not without its hold on the Puritan author of the “House of the Seven Gables.” Poe and Hawthorne have been called the last of the romancers, yet each was under the law of his environment. We have it in the swallow’s song,

“That bright and fierce and fickle is the South

And dark and true and tender is the North.”

Poe certainly had the Southern and cavalier temperament, through all his wanderings, but Hawthorne, with more than Southern pride, had ethics and endurance bred in the bone.

Doubtless Poe himself felt that he was at his highest mark in the empyreal studies, — those which relate to absolute and spiritual existence. His Monos and Una, Eiros and Charmion, are disembodied shades, or, rather, points of sheer intelligence, whose thoughts or lines of light flash symbols which the poet translates into mortal tones not wholly wanting the celestial charm. After these discourses, the tales of Old- World Romance bring us back to mortal passion and deed; at least, their tragedy does not borrow from the supramortal, except in the “Masque of the Red Death “and “Metzengerstein.” The seven legends, each with the note of its own time and [page 99:] country, unite with a certain prismatic or diatonic effect. Each probably came from some trace discovered in its author’s reading; the “Red Death,” it may be, from the introduction of a corpse at the revels, as chronicled by a noble of the Regency. the “Pit and the Pendulum,” an inferior piece, is reminiscent of more than one English story, but noteworthy for its analysis of sensation after torture. More splendor and abandon and terror are compressed within the briefest of masterpieces, the “Masque of the Red Death,” than would furbish forth the whole of “Vathek “save its final chapter. the “Cask of Amontillado “paints with a few strokes all that has been conceived of Roman pride and vengeance. The man who gave us these, and withal the intense color and sentiment of the “Assignation,” was an artist indeed.

The Tales of Conscience, with the extraordinary confession of William Wilson at their head, show that the artist was a psychologist as well, although his insight was applied almost solely to the morbid processes of remorse and guilty fear. As we turn to his other stories, classified in the following volumes, it appears that some injustice has been done to his versatility, plainly owing to the monotone of his poems in verse and prose. The man is to be envied for his working hours, if pitied for his struggles and distraught career. He enjoyed the play of his mind as thoroughly as an athlete putting his thews to the test for the delight of action. This dreamer figures as the most alert of journalists in the banter and extravagance of minor pieces; he is an adept at laborious hoaxes and queerly elaborate imaginings of scientific experiment. We find him, most of all, pluming himself [page 100:] upon the intricate trail-hunting for which he developed such a bent in his creation, — by the “Purloined Letter,” the “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and the “Mystery of Marie Roget,” — of the far too vital school of police fiction. At the other extreme, and when most in earnest, he fails — as who indeed must not? — to solve the secret of the Absolute. Yet, considered neither as sound physics nor as metaphysics, how suggestive all this mass of fiction and speculation! The writings in which he becomes tedious, and often seems to labor, are tales of preposterous adventure, notably that of “Arthur Gordon Pym.” This was not a very early work. As his juvenile efforts were poetic, so his second published tale was “Berenice,” which has the qualities of his mature romance. After the “MS. Found in a Bottle,” his first tale of incredible experiences seems to have been “Hans Pfaall.” Despite the reflection of Irving’s mock-style at the beginning and end of this piece, it has enough vraisemblance to hold the reader thoroughly, and the author carries his assumptions — as unwarrantable as those of Locke’s “Moon Hoax,” which he criticises roundly — by inventing incidents that divert attention at the critical moments of his sleight of hand. This is one of his neat processes in other work of the kind. Of his sea-tales the best that can be said is that they are not far out as respects the navigation and handling of old-time sailing craft, and indicate some touch of seamanship, or else a rare assimilation of matters then common in “narratives “of voyages, shipwreck, and perils of the deep. He understood a sail-boat when he wrote “Pym,” and had plenty of the square-rigger’s lingo at his tongue’s end. One can imagine an eager, quick-witted boy [page 101:] on his early Atlantic passages, taking in enough of the

“ — mystery of the ships,

And the magic of the sea,”

to serve him cleverly in after-life. Yet “Pym “is wearisome from its length and for the overworked trick of minute detail. On the other hand, such a study as the “Man of the Crowd “reveals the true faculty of observation, — the same faculty which, exercised in newspaper-service, has had much to do with the rise and advance of a modern school of fiction. As an adroit narrative, of interest to young and old, with novel adventure and perfect convergence to the chief incident, the “Gold-bug “displays a fine combination of romantic and realistic methods. But for impressive maintenance of tone, and the absolute plausibility of both a theory and an intensely dramatic conception, — the two suggested by a curious law of physics, — “A Descent into the Maelstrom” is the nonpareil among the adventurous wonder-tales. There is scarcely a word of it without value, and it is finished to perfection. As to the detective-stories, the “Purloined Letter,” though the shortest, is by far the most effective and most worth the attention of a select reader.

For this versatility, partly due to a weakness for impressing others with his many-sidedness, the vouchers are essays in the different classes of his work, — and with no great discrimination in favor of any one of them, — from the beginning of his fertile period to its untimely end. He took zest in turning from one field to another. And, in truth, the question of opposing methods in art resolves itself to this, — that romance or realism, or any other mode of the [page 102:] day, will not fail of its intent, if there is power behind it. The variety of Poe’s output was increased also by the conditions of his life. Admit, if you choose, Baudelaire’s claim that this country was “only a vast prison which he traversed with the feverish agitation of a being made to breathe in a rarer world,” and that his “inner life . . . was but a ceaseless effort to escape the influence of this antipathetic atmosphere.” Then it must be owned that the situation enforced a professional activity, and in more directions than one. It often may have dulled his nobler mood, but it gave us some of the pieces that attracted most attention here and abroad, and that excited the peculiar interest in the man and his writings which time seems only to prolong.

A still remaining group of sketches, the esthetic, remind us that his creed was formulated early and unchanged in after years. With Shelley he vowed he would dedicate his powers to Beauty. Trusting his own perceptions, in art as elsewhere, he gave his fancy play, and designed like a poet in scorn of the conditioned artificer. Baudelaire found in him “un amour insatiable du Beau, qui avait pris la puissance d’une passion morbide.” At that time, the Anglo-American sense of the beautiful was put at fault by training amid styles, in all objects of use or ornament, which were uncouth and depressing. Poe, divided between appreciation of the antique and his appetite for the riches of the oriental and mediaeval, — at once a Jew, a Grecian, and a Goth, — betook himself, by way of escape from the prevailing ugliness, to decoration and architecture en Espagne. In one direction he had seen what could be done. England excelled in the promotion of out-door beauty, and [page 103:] he knew her landscape-gardening. He also knew the available beauty of nature in our own land, and it is charmingly inwrought with some of his tales. Downing had begun to excite at least an elementary concern in America for rural and landscape architecture. Poe’s imagination, if he had been the Downing or Olmsted of his time, would have bankrupted the lordliest client. the “Domain of Arnheim” is an enchanting dream of what might be attempted by a new-world Kubla Khan. Its invoker could be elaborately simple, too, as in the restraint of “Landor’s Cottage;” yet it is hard to see, with Baudelaire, that he had “une délicatesse exquise de sens qu’une note fausse torturait,” — for his taste was not pure; his sense of perfection, his “finesse de gout,” yielded when his oriental Jinnee made him free of barbaric pearl and gold. The element of strangeness, on which he laid so much stress, is not essential to the highest art, and the grotesque and the bizarre are at most but secondary resources. He perhaps realized his own composite temperament, and the indefiniteness of his knowledge and ideas; yet if it had not been for early malcontents, such as Poe, the renascence of taste would have been longer deferred. As it was, he enjoyed his stage-use of light, gems, fabrics, censers, and everything which constituted, to use his own term, the “decora” of his fiction. To be just, he gave evidence of something more than an uncritical lust for color and furnishings in the Old-World stories, in “Ligeia,” and elsewhere. The incongruous magnificence lauded in the “Assignation “is offset, in the “Philosophy of Furniture,” by a scheme of quiet harmony, for which he used merely the few values that he understood, including the rays of the “astral, not [page 104:] solar,” lamp. His frequent delight in sheer luxuriousness differs from that of the author of “Lothair;” it does not suggest the parvenu, but is primitive and childlike, — or, it may be, akin to that aerial castle-building which gives pathos to Hogarth’s picture of the “Distressed Poet,” lost to the squalor about him, and careless of the dun at his garret-door, as he bends over the manuscript of “Riches: A Poem.”

Throughout the narrative-writings learned references and quotations are thrown in determinedly, bringing to mind the story of a more recent author, who, when asked by a lady if he had read the Book of Mormon, replied, — “Madam! I have read all books.” A reviewer is forced to observe credentials for scholarship so obviously tendered. It was the fashion to precede tales and chapters with mottoes “out of the everywhere.” Poe went far beyond this. Even so light and graceful a sketch as the “Island of the Fay,” preluded by a Latin excerpt from Servius, begins by citing Marmontel, and within the first four pages refers besides to Balzac, Zimmerman, and Pomponius Mela. In nearly all his skits and pot-boilers he delighted thus to stuff his readers and rivals. His irregular nomadic life had made it unlikely that he should be a scholar, in the cloistral sense of the word, but he managed to make a good second to Bulwer, for instance, in putting on the air of one. Although Mrs. Browning, with a woman’s way of turning off his kindly criticism of her own négligements, wrote to Horne that “Mr. Poe . . . sits somewhat loosely, probably, upon his classics,” he had more knowledge of books ancient and modern than most of his compeers south of New England. Where and how did he pick it up? The self-training of genius is always a [page 105:] marvel; and as for that of a working man-of-letters, none but those of the craft may comprehend it. Somehow they do manage to get hold, in youth, of the essential books, and usually of the same books in about the same order, with excursions right and left dependent on chance or specific attraction.

Poe was trained in good classical schools, even to the knack of Latin verse-making, seemingly unpractical, yet out of which so much has come, over and over again, for law and statesmanship and letters. He learned something of Greek, as well, and of French a great deal more. Think of what Greek did for Shelley, and for how few years he was really drilled in it. Poe had five years at Stoke Newington, and as many in a Latin school at Richmond; then private tutors, and a year at the learned University of Virginia, where he at least caught the atmosphere — and to some extent demoralized it. We are told of his regular attendance upon the classes in Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian; but even if he had been studious, as well as facile, we might easily believe that “he did not acquire a critical knowledge of these languages.” Then, after three years of strange experiences, he endured eight months at West Point, where he demonstrated his gift for mathematics. All in all, an imperfect training for an exact scholar, but not a bad series of chances for a genius. After this came the practical facility of the hack-journalist, often inaccurate, but with an instinctively memorized equipment, a reference-knowledge of quite enough for his needs. It must be borne in mind that he did settle down to support his household by newspaper work in that meagre time. Bread-winning meant industry, but he had to write his finer tales as [page 106:] best he could. If there had been the present literary “market,” he possibly would have stayed at home and out of temptation, and have kept his product at the upper standard. This was, after all, his idea of happiness, and again and again he tried to realize it, but as often in vain.

It is clear that he made the utmost of his acquirements, and often utilized them for the professional bear-baiting in which he took delight. Nothing could be more cynical than the summary of his own devices, in the paper “How to write a Blackwood Article.” His sarcastic instructions include “piquant expressions,” for “there is no passing muster,” he says, “without Spanish, Italian, German, Latin, and Greek; “above all, “nothing makes so fine a show as your Greek. “As for current melodramatic topics, he satirizes the “Dead Alive,” the “Confessions of an Opium Eater,” and the “Man in the Bell.” But he was of the company, and could not have selected more typical examples of a vein which it was his habit to work. Even that burlesque strain, “A Predicament,” seems to reappear, made serious by a change of tempo, in the “Pit and the Pendulum.”

Like some other magazine-writers, he was on the hunt for themes. The realists can have themes everywhere at hand, yet we find even them, with Zola at the front, journeying in observation-cars and promising a good report of their travels. Poe’s reading helped him to keep the wolf from the door. His random extravaganzas, among which “Four Beasts in One” is a good selection, — with material suited to an Ebers, and its echo of the fifteenth idyl of Theocritus, — reveal his literary foraging. Some of them read almost like translations; for instance, [page 107:] that picturesque whimsey, the “Due de L’Omelette.” Nevertheless, one obtains an impression from examination of these off-hand and very unequal miscellanies that the satirist had a better equipment than many critics, noting his lapses, have credited him with possessing. His matter, now for the first time awarded a patient editing, often was mangled in the slovenly newspapers and magazines where it originally appeared, and after his death was transferred with scarcely any revision to the pages of his collected “Works.” It is but fair to say that after a fresh scrutiny of his text and citations, with allowance for the printer’s errors, and still more for the author’s too frequent haste, indifference, and physical set-backs, his bookish resources, such as they were, seem to have been cleverly put to use.

The poet-recounter could always fall back upon his resolving imagination. There is no evidence that he visited the countries where the scenes of his Old-World Romance are laid, but he captured the spirit of each until infused with it. In instinct for tone, he stands at the head. Following him up in other directions, we recognize his brain-power, the energy of a strong engine often in need of a steady driver. He was full of speculation, light and serious by turns, concerning the possibilities of science, and had the fine curiosity, if not the temper and habit, of a savant. Nothing of knowledge was alien to him; he had at least a capricious passion for intellectual truth, and a prophetic turn of his own. If there is any less basis for his postulate, in “Mesmeric Revelation,” of spirit-matter than for our later theories, it would be difficult to prove it. The “magnetic “fetch, both absorbing and repulsive, entitled the “[page 108:] Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” almost finds an antitype — whether the outcome of science or of imposture — in a tragedy just reported from Vienna, the utterances and startling death of a young woman under the experiments of Neukomm, the hypnotist. In mechanics, too, Poe’s hoaxes are suggestive, and the airship which he sent across the Atlantic is the prototype of “La France” and of the speedier vessel now building on the same model. His respect for abstruse mathematical laws was intuitive, and he had that development of the head, in the region which the bump-guessing gentry allot to causality, which seems the cranial type of chess-players, mathematicians, and logicians. One wonders how he would have applied the analysis, set forth in his rationale of coin-matching, to our national game of poker, and whether — if the game had been in vogue at Charlottesville, in his University days, instead of games depending more upon chances of the cards — his record would have been one of losses; and again, whether, if the American Stock and Corn Exchanges then had been, as now, the national promoters of speculation, he would have been free, like Voltaire, to devote his higher thoughts to literature, while finding in the law of fluctuations a Fortunatus’s purse. But temperament counts for even more than brain-power, in such matters. Besides, on ‘Change, and doubtless on the turf, the master-spirits see to it that the “calculus of probabilities,” on which Poe lays so much stress, — however surely it may tell in the long run, — is arbitrarily suspended until their designs are carried out. Meanwhile we find that any problem, large or small, excited Poe’s analysis and ratiocination. He had an eye for details, and predicted [page 109:] the era of tall buildings in New York, forty years before the elevator-period. In social and political matters he was an ingrained Tory, and made various forecasts of troubles, under our system, curiously apt in view of modern strikes and rebellions. Foreign writers had done the same, but his ideas seem to be the outcome of his own reflection. In fine, the Tales confront us with no mean intellect, and its possessor could not fail to have opinions that were sincere, whatsoever his conduct of life and expression. Absorbed in his work, the best of the man sometimes came out. We also may admire his stand for the dignity of his profession and of the imaginative gift. It is to his lasting credit that, no matter from what motive, he spoke up proudly and bravely for the quality of the poet’s mind; that he believed the greater faculty includes the less and that the best bard is the wisest, scouting, by the mouth of his favorite Dupin, the Philistine vulgarism that one is more likely to be a fool or a weakling because he is a poet.

Nowadays a literary style is often most in evidence through the effort to make it appear unstudied. Poe’s mastery, like Ruskin’s, is that of sheer intensity, poetic eloquence, and word-painting, in brilliant passages such as the iridescent and cumulative finale of “Arnheim.” But of style in the modern sense, with its outlawry of stock words and phrases, adroit rather than instinctive grace and consonance, and the maintenance of a grade once taken, he was not a master, nor was there any master in his day. Just as little did he achieve Lowell’s “exquisite something called Style, which, like the grace of perfect breeding, everywhere pervasive and nowhere emphatic, makes [page 110:] itself felt by the skill with which it effaces itself, and masters us at last with a sense of indefinable completeness.” To Lowell’s afterthought he did attain, — to the expression of genius found “at last in style, which is the establishment of a perfect mutual understanding between the worker and his material; “since, flamboyant, and accentual to the point of scansion, as the poet-romancer’s expression sometimes became, it answered his exact purpose, and was in the manner natural to one nurtured amid the debris of the Georgian period, and listening there to the cadences of Coleridge and De Quincey. Our young writers, chancing upon estrays from the minor romances of a time so far removed, find them as queer as the crippled odds and ends in a country garret; yet even those are fragments of an ensemble worth as much to its own generation as our modern household equipage to a critical possessor, Poe’s genius, then, with further characteriztics derived from German rhapsody and French art, did express itself in such wise that it is exceptional to mistake a bit of his work for that of another writer; yet its individuality is not so much a style as a method, and not so much a method as a manner. The force of nature sustains it in the rhetorical flights which it would now be bad form to essay. Then, too, we find as many shades of manner as we have found divisions of his work: passages in the tone of old chronicles, much like that inevitably struck by the translator of renaissance poetry — by Rossetti, for instance, in his version of the Vita Nuova; others echoing the hymnic voice of eld; while the romance-tales, almost for the first time in English, profit by the dramatic method and the exquisite condensation which made the French [page 111:] conte, even in Poe’s day, artistically so far superior to the prolix German Erzählung. Yet the legend in the “Oval Portrait “is the counterpart in manner of one in Longfellow’s “Hyperion,” and therefore Germanesque. Again, the grave and elevated tone of the celestial dialogues is half-caught from the stateliest English prose, — the prose of the philosophical divines. All these constituents, several or blended, are well adapted to Poe’s use; our refinement and indifferentism would not serve instead. Entering his wonderland, one must forego the Dervish’s ointment of disillusion, so invidious to the wizard and fatal to the delight obtainable from his enchantment.

Some of the Tales of Conscience are in the manner of Hawthorne, and the two romancers certainly ran neck-and-neck for a time. the “Man of the Crowd” seems written in the Salem custom-house; and anyone reading Hawthorne’s farce, “Mrs. Bullfrog,” might believe it to be one of Poe’s extravaganzas. Poe’s simple narrative style accords with the requirements, the language being journalistic and contemporary. In the hoaxes — the supercheries littéraires — and in his work as a hack feuilletonist, he strikes an irritating note of banter, that of a mental habit often perceptible in the critical sketches yet to come, which is peculiarly his own by so much as “the style is the man.” He was quite as susceptible to infxuence as any of the victims whom he chastened. He caught the trick of De Quincey, in declamatory interpolations such as — “Then — let us bow down, Charmion, before the excessive majesty of the Great God!” and, in the “Black Cat,” — “But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch Fiend!” [page 112:] The opening pages of “William Wilson” may almost be called a De Quincey gambit, and it is curious to read the paragraph ending with the words, “Oh, gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution!”

As a foil to the perfection of a few tales, his everyday looseness can be exasperating. He loads his narratives with enough of “however,” “in fact,” “it should be added,” “to be sure,” and the like, to increase their length appreciably, yet seems unconscious of this special vice. His discursive and ingenious mode of thought drove him to an absurd over-use of the parenthesis, and to such dependence upon the dash, in punctuation, that in self-justification he planned a discourse upon its utility. Between his own monomania and the usage in his day, the task of a logical repunctuation of his literary remains is most trying, yet still more indispensable. His vocabulary was meagre; pet words and phrases constantly recur, and many do service alike in his verse and prose. This is the more strange, considering his frequently incomparable artistic skill; as in the finely abrupt openings, and climacteric endings, of the “Maelstrom,” “Red Death,” “Amontillado,” and Inquisition stories, and in sentences which intensify crises to which he has been leading. Such are the words in “Hans Pfaall”: the “moon — the moon itself in all its glory — lay beneath me, and at my feet; “and such, in the Roman tale, is that last cry of the immured Fortunato, — “For the love of God, Montresor!” The recounter was not wanting, then, in phases of dramatic power, — in those requisite for a playwright of the higher melodrama; but of distinct impersonation and the subtler processes of the human will he had less command, chiefly from his lack of the objective insight. [page 113:] Character did not seize upon his interest, except when marked by traits which he felt to be his own. The most dramatic contrasts, the irony of life, seemed to escape him; his protagonists are obviously in the rapids, themselves foreboding the end. There is nothing in the Tales to compare with the death of Browning’s Prefect, stabbed as he lifts the arras, declaring that “for the first time “no ominous draught saluted him.

The element of human passion, so essential to dramatic force, is also absent, save in its minor chords of sorrow and despair. There are few notes of earthly love; the dreamer’s Eros is all head and wings, as if etherealized from the sculptured genius of a tomb; his ecstasy is that of the nympholept seeking an evasive being of whom he has ghmpses by moonlight, starlight, even fenlight, but never by noonday. Lured as he was by such an ideal, there is not the shghtest trace, throughout his conceptions, of the sensuality, even of the sensuousness, upon which so many of the French writers expend their most artistic gifts of suggestion and charm. Gautier, a kinsman in all else than this, well might characterize his tales as “d’une chastite virginale et séraphique.” As for mortal love, it may be that the poet had found contentment; but his spiritual and intellectual desire looked among the stars.

The true dramatic faculty, again, is inclusive, lighting its web of life with laughter, though it moistens it with blood and tears. Poe, with his intolerance of dulness and cant, had a keen sense of the absurd, yet was no more of a humorist than any autocrat who tweaks the ears of a blunderer, or any harlequin that twists himself awry and makes droll faces. Even in [page 114:] his wit there is nothing mellow, and not much spontaneity, while his forced humor is of the sort denominated grim, or else grotesque, impish, gargoylean. The strain of banter in his minor pieces seems the effort of one essaying the humorist’s art until the practice of it should make him humorous. If there is any quality that, in Dogberry’s phrase, must come by nature, it is humor, and next to that, wit. Poe’s frequent awkwardness in the display of either was predicable of his self-engrossed temperament.

The revelation of that temperament in these enthralling and often piteous stories lends force to the saying that absolute impersonality is almost unknown in art. This will hardly be disputed, concerning any form of art, when applied to the difficulty of effacing one’s natural style otherwise than by a passing effort. But the saying is meant to apply more broadly; in the case of a writer, for example, to avow that his traits and something of his experience are deducible even from works which are professedly impersonal. There could be few more pertinent cases in illustration than that of Poe, though he had written nothing but the tales composed with purely artistic intent; for in writing those he supplied a notable addition to the list of men of genius whose morbid anatomy needs no other demonstrator than its vivid self-revelation. Their author was a being of extreme physical and spiritual sensibility, proudly reliant upon his mental force, and terribly cognizant of his infirmities; so intent upon the one and the other as to bound a world by his own horizon. The insight that goes beyond self-experience requires an altruism which he did not possess. His consciousness of power underlies the easy assumption of mastery which characterizes his ideality and ratiocination. [page 115:] More notable, and painfully so in view of his career, is the indirect confession of his weaknesses, struggles, defeat. There was a spell on this froward child of art and song, no less than the egoism of a nature demanding that nothing of itself should be forgotten — bidding the world to know it as it was or as its possessor thought it to be. There was less of posing in his case than we have learned to expect from men of romantic genius; his pride, contempt, and caprice, as well as his sufferings, were inherent and genuine. Evidently he was the victim of a neurotic malaise, intensified by frequent excesses, and the theory is credible that he owed to feverish crises some of his most striking notes and fantasies. Such things do come to artists in the watches of the night, in the abnormal tension following excess; but so also come remorse, terror, nervous anguish, the feeling of Nemesis and despair. With all of these Poe was only too familiar. The fear of the old man suddenly awakened, in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” he well had known. The alcoholic and narcotic horrors of the “Black Cat,” the “Ragged Mountains,” and other tales, were the Alastors of a doleful land where gloomed his own valley of the shadow. It often has been noted that “William Wilson” contains a memoir of his childhood; but there, too, the darker side of his spiritual portrait is given. Yet in that tale the hapless author did himself a wrong. With all his recklessness, he was neither vicious nor criminal, and he never succeeded or wished to succeed in putting down his conscience. That stayed by him to the bitter end, and perhaps the end was speedier for its companionship.

As a romancer, then, no less than as a poet, he was [page 116:] his own protagonist, and, indeed, his use of himself as a study breaks out everywhere in trivial matters of allusion. Self-delineation is evident in the portraits of Legrand, Landor, Dupin, and more ominously in those of Usher and the lover of the Marchesa Aphrodite. He plainly ascribes to heredity many of his gifts and failings, and not without a certain aristocratic pride in both. Over all in significance, we find the master-key to his temper and conduct in the adroit analysis of the “Imp of the Perverse.” The selftorturing wilfulness that seized him at his most courageous and ennobling moments, just as it seizes upon a fair woman or a petted child, was beyond his power to exorcise. To that force prompting us to act “for the reason that we should not,” an impulse from which none is wholly free, Poe too often was utterly subjected.

In conclusion, it would be difficult to measure the dynamic value of his genius, if restricted to what can be traced of its effect upon literature. His work was done at a time somewhat unfavorable to the spread of his typical method; but, as to that, it is doubtful whether at any time it would be taken up by clever followers. An ambitious writer does not choose a master whose mode, if followed, will lessen his own claim to originality. This may be one ground for the belief that the greatest writers do not found schools. In the case of Poe it is clear that his manner was too individual for frequent adoption. As to the realistic side of his work, we feel that the contemporaneous seldom interested him, unless so abnormal as to call upon his intellect for an examination of its cause and process.

Under these conditions it is equally difficult to judge [page 117:] of his limitations. It hardly can be said that he affected the philosophy of life, or the spirit of art itself, or that he introduced a new class of fiction — except one inspired by the success of what he would not have claimed to be his most enviable work. His vogue among the French writers has long been evident, and was from the first the natural result of his assimilation of their own artistic feeling. The allurement was enhanced by their perception of an added flavor, the indefinite suggestion of something unwonted, gained from a new clime; and this in spite of the belief that “les idées américaines” are nothing more than sentiments “dear to the Philistines of two worlds.” It is true that England made an earlier acquaintance with the American romancer; in fact, his first editions of “Pym “and the “Tales “were brought out in London close upon their appearance in New York. Since his death many editions of his works, either in part or in whole, have been published in Great Britain, all of which, with the exception of one reprint of the poems, as well as all of those in the United States, have followed the imperfect text of the first inclusive collection. Germany, watchful of English literature and inherently romantic, was the next country to reprint the Tales, not only as translated but in their original text. But the genius of Poe was to find the most sympathetic recognition in Paris, where he was really introduced, although selections from his writings were already in the French, by the author of Les Fleurs du Mal — a man so possessed with Poe’s spirit as to force one biographer to declare that the American author held in the intellectual existence of his translator so large a place that it was indispensable to dwell upon it, even apart from the [page 118:] biographical coincidences, in any estimation of Baudelaire’s views; and, again, that the names of the two men were thenceforth so inseparable that the memory of one immediately called up the thought of the other, — for, he adds ingenuously, it even seems at times, “que les idées de I’Américain appartiennent en propre au Français.” Poe’s chief influence upon Baudelaire’s own productions relates to poetry, and is worth attention hereafter, in view of Baudelaire as a precursor of the modern French school. But it is true that Baudelaire moved and talked with no other thought than that of his transatlantic master, and devoted himself to reproducing the latter’s works. This, Gautier says, was what made his own name famous; for in France, he intimates (this was in ‘68), poets are only read in their prose, and through this prose their poems become known. However this might then have been, Baudelaire’s almost complete translations of Poe’s Tales and speculative writings, appearing from 1855 to 1865, are a miracle of accuracy and effective grace. Through his devotion, and with the means afforded by the perfect coordination of the French language, the versions, while absolutely faithful, not only justify Gautier’s statement that they produce the effect of original works, but almost incline us to surmise, with Charles Asselineau, that the text even gains in some respects by such an interpretation. It is not only rendered exquisitely, but properly revised, and on the whole obtains an editing such as Poe, for half a century, has never received in his own country. No later French translations could supersede Baudelaire’s, nor have any been attempted. They have gone through many editions, and are still in demand; the result being that in France Poe is distinctly esteemed. His [page 119:] rating there, as a literary artist, may result somewhat from that trait, common to us all, which made Emerson think highly of disciples who rehearsed to him his own ideas embodied in new terms. It did not take long for Madrid to discover Poe, after Paris had found him out, a Spanish version of his select tales appearing, as Historias Extraordinarias, in 1858-59. The first Italian translation, Raccoiiti Incredibili, was published in 1876. Poe could teach the Continental writers very little in the art of perfecting their own romance. His analytic tales made a great impression. Their ratiocination, applied to the solution of criminal mysteries, captured the Parisian fancy more readily than the quality of his other prose writings. Since then, detective stories of high and low degree have been written in France, England, and America; but no amateur, with a genius approximating to that of “Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin,” has appeared, and had his exploits recounted, in our own or foreign literature.

The romancer, then, figures as the progenitor of our crypto-analytic fiction. As a poetic tale-writer, whose, mind was haunted by artistic dreams, but who flourished in a country where constructive beauty was yet to come, he still excites a more than common interest; although his computable influence is not proportioned to the taking-up of his name, the idealization of his traits and career, in more lands than one. His romances, in truth, were a bright and burning row of cressets set up at the terminus, rather than at the beginning, of a literary era. If there was any impulse to copy them, it was disobeyed under the stress of that incoming naturalism which relegated their phase to an artificial past. Since their authors time, [page 120:] the “short story “has been engrafted upon Anglo-Saxon literature, but scarcely in consequence of his examples; it is not Poe’s short story, not that of the French and cognate schools, — though our writers gain more than Poe’s equipment, from the modern blending of all cults and methods. The short story of England and America is specifically English or American, except as written by the few who are enamoured of the French mode, and who have the desire and the grace to rival it.

What remains, and may be of higher value, is the indirect effect, upon our present literature, of Poe’s theory and career. He started a revolt against “the didactic,” and was our national propagandist of the now hackneyed formula, Art for Art’s sake, and of the creed that in perfect beauty consists the fullest truth. The question of his influence in this wise, upon later enthusiasts, would lead us forthwith into the by-ways of personal confession, of individual experience and result.

The winnow of time, no less, has set apart the writings of Poe from almost the entire yield of those American contemporaries whose lives were not prolonged far beyond his own. These Tales, which now have been examined with the respect due to works that have taken rank in literary annals, were written by an ill-paid journalist, at a time when his own country depended on foreign spoliation for its imaginative reading. When they show him at his worst, his exigencies justly may be borne in mind; if his style seems often formless and disjointed, it must be remembered that he wrote before the days of Arnold and Pater, of Flaubert, Daudet, and Maupassant. He has left us something of his best; and, when all is said, [page 121:] there are few more beautiful harmonies of thought and sound and color than those presented in “Shadow,” “Silence,” and “Eleonora,” or in the “Masque of the Red Death;” nor is there any such a trilogy, in our own literature, of prose romances taking wings of poetry at their will, as “Ligeia,” “The Assignation,” and the “Fall of the House of Usher.” Through all of these, moreover, there is an impression of some dramatic energy in reserve, which, had it not seemed otherwise to the fates, might have enabled this Numpholeptos to escape from out his “pallid limit” of the moonbeam, — even to

“pass that goal,

Gain love’s birth at the limit’s happier verge,

And, where an iridescence lurks, but urge

The hesitating pallor on to prime

Of dawn.”

E. C. S.






[S:0 - SW, 1894] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Introduction to the Tales (E. C. Stedman, 1894)