Text: Edmund Clarence Stedman, “Introduction to the Poems,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Stone and Kimball, vol. X, 1895, pp. xiii-xxxv


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[page xiii:]

INTRODUCTION TO THE POEMS

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SMALL as is the body of Poe’s metrical work, relative to that of his prose, and in comparison with the amount of verse written by any other American poet of his rank and time, it has sufficed to bring about certain obvious results. First of all, it has established him in the minds of the common people, not as the critic or the tale-writer, but as a poet, and as a poet who, from their notions of his life, was almost the last of those fulfilling old-time traditions of the character. Since the date when the “Raven,” let us say, got into the school-readers, — and that was within five years after its appearance in the “American Review,” — the public conception of its author has been that of a poet. We have found in the Tales the fullest expression of his genius. These, to his own mind, were his most significant creations. But such is the distinction of poetry that its mere form is taken by the people as the ranking warrant of never so industrious a prose-writer, if he is the author of a few, but veritable songs. This royal prerogative of verse, in point of impression made, and of the attribute with which its author is invested, exists by a law as irrespective of relative mass, and quite as sure, as that of the “hydrostatic paradox” which makes a thin column [page xiv:] of water balance the contents of an acred reservoir. Thus it has resulted that Poe is, and doubtless always will be, gazetted as “the poet.”

It may also be said of his verse that it has led to more difference of opinion than that of our other poets, one alone excepted. A few lyrics — possibly his most individual, though not necessarily his most imaginative and essentially poetic — are those for which he is widely lauded. The succession has been endless of zealots who, on the score of the “Raven,” the “Bells,” and “Annabel Lee,” set him above poets of whom they have read very little. And he has been the subject of a long-standing dispute among authoritative writers here and abroad, some of whom pronounce him one of the two, or at the most, three American poets really worth attention; while others, of the philosophic bent, regard his verse as very primitive, and its maker as a ballad-monger. Upon the latter class, composed of both realists and transcendentalists, the host of sentimentalists has retaliated, and so a discussion has gone on to the present day.

But neither zeal nor prejudice can put aside data, in view of which dispassionate critics have for some time been in accord as to the nature of Poe’s lyrical genius and the resultant quality and value of the following poems. It is clear that they are slight and few in number, but no more slight and few than the relics of other poets, ancient and modern, which have served to establish fame. It is seen that they are largely wrought out from the vague conceptions of the romancer’s youth: that he began as a poet, so far as he was anything but a wanderer, and that, notwithstanding his avowal that poetry was his passion and not his purpose, he had will and ambition enough to put in [page xv:] print, once and again, the germinal verses which were brought to such completeness in after years; that throughout life his expression confined itself to one mood, almost to a single key, his purpose not being sufficiently continuous to save his rhythmical gift from prolonged checks to its exercise; finally, that the distinctive feature of his work is found on its artistic and technical side, and is so marked as to constitute his specific addition to poetry, and to justify full consideration. All, in fine, must look upon his verse as small in amount and restricted in motive, and consider his forte to be that of a peculiar melodist, — the originator of certain strains which have been effectual. However monotonous, they have not, like other “catching” devices, proved temporary and wearisome, but have shown themselves founded in nature by still charming the ear and holding their place in song.

With this brief statement of matters upon which agreement has been reached, something can be said in detail. Poe may not have “lisped in numbers,” but he certainly began as a verse-maker when he began to write at all, as is the way of those who have even the rhymester’s gift. His early measures were nebulous in meaning and half-moulded in form, yet his first three books were made up of such alone. Between the volume of 1831 and that of 1845, an industrious professional term, his work as a poet was mainly confined to the development of finished lyrics from the germs contained in those first vague utterances. Meanwhile his fresh invention concerned itself with prose. A true poet is an idealist; the great one, an idealist taking flight from the vantage-ground of truth and reason. Poe was at least the former, and it would appear that his metrical faculty suffered, as has [page xvi:] just been said, checks to its exercise rather than an arrest of development. Even his would-be realistic tales of adventure are bizarre in motive and treatment; they are not cast in true naturalism. Setting these aside, however, the existence of “Ligeia,” “Usher,” “Shadow,” “Arnheim,” and the like, which fairly may be regarded as prose poems, forbids us wholly to deprecate his halt as a verse-maker, and speaks for the public recognition of him chiefly in his capacity as a poet. That the advance of his lyrical faculty kept pace with, and was aided by, his prose as a running-mate, is shown by the difference between “A Pæan,” 1831, and the “Lenore” of 1845; or between almost any poem, save the beauteous “Israfel,” in the early volumes, and the “Haunted Palace” of 1839. After fourteen years of journalism and fiction, he began, with the “Raven,” a final series of poems, showing the mastery of finish and original invention at which he had arrived, and which he possessed to the last year of his general decline.

Without doubt, a distinctive melody is the element in Poe’s verse that first and last has told on every class of readers, — a rhythmical effect which, be it of much or little worth, was its author’s own; and to add even one constituent to the resources of an art is what few succeed in doing. He gained hints from other poets toward this contribution, but the timbre of his own voice was required for that peculiar music reinforced by the correlative refrain and repetend; a melody, but a monody as well, limited almost to the vibratory recurrence of a single and typical emotion, yet no more palling on the ear than palls the constant sound of a falling stream. It haunted rather than irked the senses, so that the poet was recognized by [page xvii:] it, — as Melmoth the Wanderer by the one delicious strain heard wherever he approached. This brought him, on the other hand, the slight of many compeers, and for this the wisest of them spoke of him as the “jingle-man.” Yet there is more than this, one may well conceive, in his station as a poet.

Not a few, whose border line between high thinking and plain moralizing is often crossed, have been inclined to leave him out of the counting. One of them, extolling Bryant and Emerson, declares that Poe, as an American poet, is “nowhere.” An orator of the Bryant centenary has named a sextet of our national singers, in which the author of the “Raven” is not included. There is an irrepressible conflict between the melodists and the intuitionists. Against this down-east verdict, the belief of foreign judges has been that something worth while was gained by him for English poetry. It has been stated that Tennyson thought him the most remarkable poet the United States had produced, and “not unworthy to stand beside Catullus, the most melodious of the Latins, and Heine, the most tuneful of the Germans.” It would be easy to trace the effect of his tone upon various minor lyrists of England and France, and indirectly upon the greater ones. There were lessons to be learned, if only on the technical side, from his rhythm and consonance. In fact, something is always to be caught by the greater artists from the humblest artisans, as from the folk-song of any race or country.

But is it all a matter of technique? Are the few numbers of Poe’s entire repertory simply “literary feats”? Is “Annabel Lee” merely “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal”? Is its author fairly classed, by one who admits that we need all instruments “in [page xviii:] the perfect orchestra,” as “a tinkling triangle among the rest”? The epithets cited are specimens of many indicating the mood, and what underlies the mood, of those with whom he is antipathetic. Our question involves the mysterious sympathies of sound and sense in lyrical poetry, and these involve the secret of all speech itself. Those who regard Poe as only “a verbal poet” may be assured that the fit arbiter is the universalist. It is not given to all art’s factors to be of equal worth or import. The view of the intellectualists, with their disdain for technical beauty, is limited; no doubt the view of Poe was limited, — most often, evidently, by the impatience of a nonconformist, for he had the critical sense in which Emerson, for instance, was deficient; and the limitations on both sides were greater for the unconsciousness of both that they existed. It is worth noting that when a bard like Emerson “let himself go,” he was more spontaneous, and as a result more finely lyrical, than Poe. On the other hand, Poe’s most imaginative numbers have a rare subtlety of thought, and depend least upon his mechanism.

Those persons who, if they care a little for the piano, know no touch of it, fail to understand the sensations excited in others by the personal mastery of a virtuoso over that artificial instrument. Quite as natural is the honest belief of a superior man who applies to Poe’s poetry the epithet “valueless.” Some of it, for reasons not at all enigmatical to the minstrel tribe, is of extreme suggestiveness and value. Certain pieces are likely to outlast in common repute nineteen-twentieths of our spirited modern fiction, while others, though really of a higher grade, may be cherished in the regard of only the elect few. Both [page xix:] these classes are of a lyrical order, either composed or rewritten in his manhood, and undeniably obtaining their audience through the charm of that music absent for the most part from his ambitious early verse. There is no better proof of his natural force and originality, than his acceptance of the fact that all tracks are not for all runners who wear winged sandals. Clive Newcome felt it due to himself to put on canvas his “Battle of Assaye,” which so strangely failed of Academic honors, and the eminent Mr. Gandish, of Soho, kept on painting “Boadiceas” and “Alfreds” to his dying day. Our youug poet, as well, tried his hand once and again at the making of a long romantic poem, and, later, in the production of a blank-verse drama, but had the literary good sense, whatsoever his ill-judgment in life, — and the two often go together in a man of genius, — to perceive for himself that the result was something “labored,” and not worth the labor except for the experience and practice; that “Tamerlane,” “Al Aaraaf,” and “Politian” were the outcome of perseverance, and not written with the zest that ministers to one doing what he is born to do. Of course it takes less will-power to refrain than to persist; but it speaks well for one’s perception, and for his modesty, when he ceases to attempt things for which he has no vocation, instead of mastering them because they are dimensional and because others have gained fame thereby. In “Aurora Leigh” it is counted “strange ... that nearly all young poets should write old!” It would be strange indeed if an artist began in any other way. A young poet is no different from the young sculptor or painter, who first is set to copy from accepted models, save that he gropes his way as his own [page xx:] master and in his own studio, — there being as yet, and happily, no class or school for poets: their Academy is the world’s book of song. Poe, growing up under the full romantic stress, at the end of the Georgian period, and by temperament himself as much of a romancer as Byron or Moore, inevitably aped the manner and copied the structure of poems he must have known by heart. So we have “Tamerlane,” a manifest adumbration of the “Giaour,” and “Al Aaraaf,” that not unmelodious but inchoate attempt to create a love-legend in verse. The last poem, with its curious leaps from the peaks of Milton to the musky vales of Moore, would be a good travesty on one of the latter poet’s pseudo-Oriental romances, if form, scenery, and a conscientious procession of “Notes” could make it so. In his juvenile way, Poe worked just as Moore had done, reading up for his needs, but he mistook the materia poetica for poetry itself. There is a bit of verse in it — the invocation to Ligeia — which is like the wraith of beauty, and here and there are other, but fainter, traces of an original gift. A less self-critical genius than Poe would have gone on making more “Tamerlanes” and “Al Aaraafs” until he made them nearly as well as his masters, and none would care for them, there being already enough of their kind. If he never freed his temper from Byronism, he certainly changed the mould and method of his poetry, until he arrived at something absolutely his own — becoming solely a lyrist, and never writing a lyric until possessed of some initiative strain. When in after years he engaged to write and deliver a long poem, his nature revolted; he found it beyond his power, and he fell back upon the unintelligible “Al Aaraaf” as a [page xxi:] makeshift with the Boston audience. Other American poets have found it equally impossible to fill a half-hour with verse written to order, and have figured to even less advantage on state occasions. Touches of Poe’s natural and final quality are to be found here and there among the fragmentary lyrics in his early volumes, and two of the more complete poems are very striking. “To Helen” is so lovely, though not absolutely flawless, that one wonders it had no companions of its kind. The other is the sonnet “To Science,” originally the prelude to “Al Aaraaf,” and in this volume placed where it belongs. It may be that Poe was so impressed by the gathering conflict between poetry and science, through pondering upon the antithesis drawn by Coleridge. A young romancer, at the outset of the perturbation involved, could not be expected to await with patience that golden and still distant future when, according to Wordsworth’s preface, the poet and the philosopher are to become one. He himself was not without the scientific bent and faculty, but as a poet and recounter his work lay in the opposite extreme.

Mention of the interlude, “Ligeia! Ligeia!” recalls the fact that in his early poems and tales Poe liberally drew upon the rather small stock of pet words, epithets, names, and phrases, which he invented, or kept at hand, for repeated use throughout the imaginative portion of his writings. The “albatross” and “condor” are his birds, no less than the raven; and such names as “Ligeia,” “D’Elormie,” “Weir,” “Yaanek,” “Auber,” add an effect to the studied art of the pieces in which they appear. It has been pointed out that his familiars are chiefly angels and demons, with an [page xxii:] attendance of dreams, echoes, ghouls, gnomes, and mimes, for characteriztic service.

There is every reason why the element in his poetry which to some appears so valueless should first be considered. He was indeed, and avowedly, a poet of Sound. From his childhood, things must have “beat time to nothing” in his brain, and his natural bent may have been confirmed by some knowledge of Tieck’s doctrine that sense in poetry is secondary to sound; the truth being, no less, that impassioned thought makes its own gamut, — that sense and sound go together, for reasons which are coming to be scientifically understood. On the latter ground one must surmise that, where lyrical melody is absolute, poetic thought is its undertone, except in the case of a pure fantasia like “Kubla Khan” or the verse of some metrical lunatic — such as more than one of Poe’s imitators proved himself to be. Whether or not music is, as Frederick Tennyson entitles it, “the queen of the arts” whose “inexhaustible spring is the soul itself,” the lyrist who disdains it, and the critic who disdains the musical lyrist, are of an equal rashness. Poe’s own estimate of music was quite as extreme, and perfectly sincere; and with respect to that art, there is no better illustration of its embalming power as an element of poetic expression than the rhythm of Poe’s critical master, Coleridge, — whose haunting cadence, rather than his philosophic thought, enthralled the minstrel group to which he was least allied, and whose “Christabel” disclosed to Scott and Byron the accentual law of English prosody. For Poe the vibrations of rhythmical language contained its higher meaning; the libretto was nothing, the score all in all. Take “Ulalume,” for instance, because so many pronounce [page xxiii:] it meaningless, and a farrago of monotonous cadences, and because it is said to violate Lessing’s law by trenching on the province of music. Surely, if there is any art which may assume that province, it is the art of speech, and this whether in the rhythm of verse or the more intricate and various rhythm of prose. The effect of verse primarily depends upon the recurrence of accents, measures, vocalizations; and the more stated the recurrence, the less various and potential the rhythm; as when the infinite play of waves changes to a current between measured banks: a shallow river

“to whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals.”

Ordered measures compel attention, defining and prolonging efficient notes. To make the sense responsive, as one chord responds to the vibrations of another, — to intensify the average hearer’s feeling, — iteration comes into play. The rhythm of prose is always changing, and, if recognized, cannot be dwelt upon. Ordinary speech is nearest to pure nature, and we are so little sensible of its flexible rhythm as to be arrested by it no more than by sunlight, or by the influx of the electric current at its highest voltage.

It must be confessed, then, that much of the following poetry, judged by this specific element, is secondary in one or two respects. Technically, because it rarely attains to the lyrical quality that alone can satisfy the delicate ear. In verse, as in a keyed instrument, any advance means finer intervals and more varied range. Poe’s sense of time and accent was greater than that of tone. The melody of his pieces oftenest named, though not “infantine,” is elementary — and far from elemental. Its obviousness [page xxiv:] catches the ear; and many, who are moved by it to their full capacity of feeling, see in him their poet, and therefore the best poet. We owe the more subtle quality of his heptasyllabic verse to early reading of the poet that struck the pure lyrical strain as none other since the Elizabethans — who were lyrists one and all. Shelley, whether by instinct, or having learned it from them, and from his Greek choruses and anthology, wrought the charm of broken cadences and wandering chords. Poe at least felt the spirit of Shelley’s monodies, such as the “Lines written among the Euganean Hills,” and added something to it in the “Sleeper,” the “City in the Sea,” and “The Valley of Unrest.”

If the poetry of sound, to be real, is also the poetry of sense, it implies a reservation in our estimate of Poe, that we reflect upon structure as a main consideration, and do not at the outset pass from the technique to what the song expresses — to the feeling, the imagination, the sudden glory of thought. We come to this in the end, yet are halted often throughout his later lyrics by the persistence of their metrical devices. In the early verses just named, which he finally brought to completeness, we do find those delicious overtones, and that poetry for poets, which were unwonted to the muse of his country and time. For these one must read the “Sleeper,” — even more, the “City in the Sea,” of which the light is streaming

“Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers

Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers,

Up many and many a marvellous shrine

Whose wreathèd friezes intertwine

The viol, the violet, and the vine.

· · · · · · · · [page xxv:]

“Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

So blend the turrets and shadows there

That all seems pendulous in air,

While from a proud tower in the town

Death looks gigantically down.”

In one, certainly, of these remodelled pieces, the stanzas finally entitled “To One in Paradise,” the spell of Shelley’s “wandering airs” that “faint” is captured for Poe’s momentary and ethereal mood.

The revision of “Lenore,” originally “A Pæan,” involved his first success with the repetend. There is little in the annals of literary art so curious, and nothing half so revelatory of the successive processes in the handicraft of a fastidious workman, as the first complete Variorum of Poe’s metrical writings, which will be found in the Notes appended to the text adopted for this volume. With the exception of “To Helen” and “Israfel,” his early poems grew slowly, “a cloud that gathered shape,” from the formless and sometimes maundering fragments contained in the volume of 1831, to their consistent beauty in 1845. Even as it finally appeared, “Lenore” did not quite satisfy him, and our text now profits by the marginal changes, in the poet’s handwriting, on the pages of his own copy of the “Raven and Other Poems.” Justifiable protests are often heard against alterations made by poets in their well-established texts, but Poe had to change his early verse or discard it altogether, and his after-touches, even with respect to the “Raven,” were such as to better the work. For an example of the repetend, as here considered, we need only take the final couplet of any stanza of “Lenore:”

“An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young,

A dirge for her the doubly dead in that she died so young.” [page xxvi:]

It is just as deft and persistent throughout the “Raven;” as exemplified in the lines so often quoted, upon one whom “unmerciful Disaster”

“Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore:

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore” —

and so it characterizes “Eulalie,” the “Bells,” “For Annie,” and “Annabel Lee,” reaching its extreme in “Ulalume.” The poet surely found his clew to it, just as “Outis” intimated, in Coleridge’s wondrous “Rime;” since, though not unknown to English balladry, it does not therein produce the conjuring effect of which we are sensible when we read: —

“And I had done an hellish thing,

And it would work them woe:

For all averred I had killed the bird

That made the breeze to blow.

‘Ah wretch!’ said they, ‘the bird to slay,

That made the breeze to blow!’ ”

The force of the refrain, a twin adjuvant of Poe’s verse, — as used, for example, in “The Raven” and the “Bells,” — was impressed upon him, most probably, by Miss Barrett’s constant resort to it, of which the toll of the passing bell, in the “Rhyme of the Duchess May,” is a good instance. Apparently, also, he owed his first idea of the measure of the “Raven,” and something of what he would have called the “decora” of that poem, to one or more passages in “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” but only as one musician receives his key from another, to utilize it with a fresh motive and for an original composition. With respect to the repetend and refrain, it must finally be noted that they are the basis of his later manner; that in their combination and mutual reaction they constitute [page xxvii:] the sign-manual, and the artistic reliance, of Poe in every one of the lyrical poems composed within the last five years of his life, the “Raven” beginning the series.

Two or three of the earlier pieces are distinguished from the rest by the vision, the ideality, the intellectual purpose, which alone can devise and perfect a work of art. “Israfel” came nearer to completeness at once than his other youthful poems, except the fortunate little cameo, — “Helen, thy beauty is to me;” and the Variorum shows relatively few changes from the text of 1831. As a rapturous declaration of kinship with the singer “whose heart-strings are a lute” it is its own excuse for any license taken in forcing a passage from the Koran. Some of the lines are transcendent:

the “ecstasies above

With thy burning measures suit:

Thy grief, thy joy, thy hate, thy love,

With the fervor of thy lute:

Well may the stars be mute!

“Yes, Heaven is thine; but this

Is a world of sweets and sours;

Our flowers are merely — flowers,

And the shadow of thy perfect bliss

Is the sunshine of ours.”

The more “Israfel” is studied, the rarer it seems. The lyric phrasing is minstrelsy throughout — the soul of nature mastering a human voice. Poe did well to perfect this brave song without marring its spontaneous beauty; young as he was, he knew when he had been a poet indeed.

An equally captivating poem, in which we have the handling of a distinct theme by an imaginative artist, is that most ideal of lyrical allegories, the “Haunted [page xxviii:] Palace.” Its author’s allegorical genius was as specific, in both his verse and his romantic prose, as Hawthorne’s — less varied, but at times more poetic. This changeful dream of radiance and gloom, rehearsed by the dreamer in his purest tones, unites, beyond almost any other modern poem, an enchanting melody with a clear imagining, to celebrate one of the most tragical of human fates. The palace, at first risen “like an exhalation” from the meads of Paradise, is now but the shattered and phantasmal relic of its starry prime, and of its inhabitants with their dethroned monarch, the sovereign Reason. Its once lustrous windows, like the distraught eyes of the Cenci, exquisite in her bewilderment, are now the betraying emblems of a lost mind. Still another piece with a defined theme is the “Conqueror Worm.” This has less beauty, and verges on the melodramatic border that is the danger-line of a romanticist. Piteousness is its motive, as so often in the works of Poe, and its power is unquestionable as we see it framed, in the story of Ligeia, like the “Haunted Palace” in that of the fated Usher. The skilful interblending of these poems with the doom and mystery of the prose romances, and that of the stanzas, “To One in Paradise,” with the drama of a Venetian night in “The Assignation,” render it a question whether the three stories, each so powerful in its kind, were not written as a musician might compose sonatas, to develop the utmost value of the lyrical themes. They do this so effectively as to strengthen the statement that Poe’s record as a poet goes beyond his verse bequeathed to us. The prose of his romances, at the most intense pitch, seems to feel an insufficiency, and summons music and allegory to supplement its work. [page xxix:]

Thus, in the origin and evolution of verse written before his thirty-fifth year, we find his natural gift unsophisticated, except in the case of a single lyric, by the deliberate methods which he afterwards and successfully employed. If, now, we consider the spirit of all his work as a poet, — it is, in fact, consistent with his theories of poetry in general and of his own in especial, as set forth at the outset, and in time supplemented in the “Poetic Principle” and other essays. His verse is based in truth, as a faithful expression of his most emotional mood — to wit, an exquisite melancholy, all the more exquisite because unalloyed by hope. The compensation given certain natures for a sensitive consciousness of mortality and all its ills involved is that of finding the keenest pleasure in the most ruthless pain. Poe, wholly given to “the luxury of woe,” made music of his broodings. If he did not cherish his doom, or bring it on determinedly, that which he prized the most was of a less worth to him when not consecrated by the dread, even the certainty, of its impending loss. His themes were regret, the irreparable, the days that are no more. His intellectual view of the definition and aim of poetry has been briefly noted in an Introduction to the Criticism, but may properly be considered again. It was not so much borrowed from, as confirmed by, what he found in his readings of Coleridge, Mill, and others, who have discoursed upon imagination, emotion, melody, as servitors of the poet and his art. We have his early generalizations upon the province of song. Not truth, but pleasure, he thought to be its object. The pleasure depends upon the quality of lyrical expression, and must be subtile — not obviously defined. Music, he said, is its essential quality, “since the comprehension [page xxx:] of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception.” To this it may be rejoined that the hearer’s definiteness of comprehension depends largely upon his knowledge of music, both as a science and as an art. On the other hand, many who are sensitive to musical expression will accord with Poe’s maturer avowal that “it is in music that the soul most nearly attains the supernal end for which it struggles.” From the first he was impatient of “metaphysical” verse and of its practitioners. Many years later, he laid stress on his belief “that a long poem does not exist.” This statement had been made by others, but seemed to him a necessary inference from any definition of poetry as the voice of emotion; moreover, it tallied with a sense of his own capacity for sustaining an emotional tide, whether of influx or outflow. In Mr. Lang’s comment, the point is made that this theory or paradox “shrinks into the commonplace observation that Poe preferred lyric poetry, and that lyrics are essentially brief.” Short poems, in lyrical measures, were in truth the only ones in which he did anything out of the common. Thus he restricts an art to the confines of his own genius, and might as well forbid a musician to compose a symphony or other extended masterpiece. We say “the musician,” because music is that other art which, like poetry, operates through successive movements, having as a special function prolongation in time. As for this, all Poe’s work shows him as a melodist rather than a harmonist; his ear is more analytic than synthetic, and so is his intellect, except in the structural logic of his briefer forms of poetry and prose narrative. The question turns on the capacity for sustained exaltation on the part of poet or musician, reader or listener. With respect to Poe’s [page xxxi:] lifelong abjuration of “the didactic,” honor is due his memory; none attacked its abuse so consistently, and at a time so opportune. Declaring poetry to be the child of taste, he arrived at his clear-cut formula that it is the “Rhythmical Creation of Beauty.” If in his analysis of this, — the rhythm of human language being implied, — he had made his last word sufficiently inclusive, the definition would be excellent. But he confines the meaning of “beauty” to aesthetics, and to the one form of sensibility which he terms “supernal,” — that of ecstatic sadness and regret.

In the end, continuing from the general to the particular, he still further limited his supernal beauty to the expression of a single motive, by reasoning toward a theme that must be its highest excitant. This he did most fully in the “Philosophy of Composition,” with the “Raven” for a paradigm. Since, he argued, the extreme note of beauty is sadness, caused by the tragedy of life and our powerlessness to grasp its meaning or avail against it, the tone of beauty must relate to the irreparable, and its genesis to a supremely pathetic event. The beauty of woman is incomparable, the death of a beloved and beautiful woman the supreme loss and “the most poetical topic in the world.” Upon it he would lavish his impassioned music, heightening its effects by every metrical device, and by contrast with something of the quaint and grotesque — as the loveliness and glory of a mediæval structure are intensified by gargoyles, and by weird discordant tracery here and there.

The greater portion of Poe’s verse accords with his theory at large. Several of the later poems illustrate it in general and particular. the “Raven” bears out his ex post facto analysis to the smallest detail. We [page xxxii:] have the note of hopelessness, the brooding regret, the artistic value supported by richly romantic properties in keeping; the occasion follows the death of a woman beautiful and beloved; the sinister bird is an emblem of the irreparable, and its voice the sombre “Nevermore.” Finally, the melody of this strange poem is that of a vocal dead-march, and so compulsive with its peculiar measure, its refrain and repetends, that in the end even the more critical yielded to its quaintness and fantasy, and accorded it a lasting place in literature. No other modern lyric is better known; none has been more widely translated into foreign tongues or made the subject of more comment. While it cannot be pronounced its author’s most poetic composition, nor render him a “poet’s poet,” it still is the lyric most associated with his name. His seemingly whimsical account of its formation most likely is both true and false. Probably the conception and rough cast of the piece were spontaneous, and the author, then at his prime both as a poet and a critic, saw how it best might be perfected, and finished it somewhat after the method stated in his essay. The analysis will enable no one to supersede imagination by artifice. It may be that Poe never would have written it — that he would have obeyed the workman’s instinct to respect the secrecy of art, lest the voluntary exposure of his Muse should be avenged by her — had he not ruminated upon the account given him by Dickens, of the manner in which Godwin wrote “Caleb Williams,” namely: that he wrote it “backwards.” He “first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what he had done.” [page xxxiii:]

Poe’s faculties as a poet being evidently in full vigor when he composed the “Raven,” its instant success well might have inclined him to renew their exercise. He did produce a few more lyrics, of which two — “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee” — are almost equally well known, and they were written in the last year of his life, the time in which he was least equal to extended work. If his career had gone on, and he had continued, even at long intervals, to write pieces so distinctive, there would now be small contention as to his rank as an American poet. Apparently he never even attempted to compose unless some strain possessed him in that mysterious fashion known to poets and melodists alone; and this most likely at the abnormal physical and mental crises that recur throughout periods of suffering and demoralization.

His interpretative power — which so informs the “Bells” with human consciousness and purpose, until joy, passion, rage, and gloom are the meaning of their strokes and vibrations — is always triumphant when he enters, as in “Ulalume,” his own realm of fantasy, “the limbo of ... planetary souls.” The last-named poem, by no means a caprice of grotesque sound and phraseology, such as some have deemed it, is certainly unique in craftsmanship, and the extreme development of his genius on its mystical side. The date of this piece supports the legend, which one is fain to believe, that it was conceived in his hour of darkest bereavement. The present writer has said elsewhere that it “seems an improvisation, such as a violinist might play upon the instrument which remained his one thing of worth after the death of a companion who had left him alone with his own soul.” The simple and touching “Annabel Lee,” doubtless [page xxxiv:] also inspired by the memory of his Virginia, appeared after his own death with Griswold’s remarkable obituary of him, in the New York “Tribune.” The refrain and measure of this lyric suggest a reversion, in the music-haunted brain of its author, to the songs and melodies that, whether primitive or caught up, are favorites with the colored race, and that must have been familiar to the poet during his childhood in the South.

Little more need here be said of this child of the early century, who gained and long will hold a niche in the world’s Valhalla — not for a many-sided inspiration, since his song is at the opposite extreme from that of those universal poets the greatest of whom has received the epithet of myriad-minded — but as one who gazed so intently at a single point that he became self-hypnotized, and rehearsed most musically the visions of his trance; not through human sympathy or dramatic scope and truth, but through his individuality tempered by the artistic nature which seizes upon one’s own grief or exultation for creative use; most of all, perhaps, as one whose prophetic invention anticipated the future, and throve before its time and in a country foreign to its needs — as if a passion-flower should come to growth in some northern forest and at a season when blight is in the air. His music surely was evoked from “unusual strings.” He was not made of stuff to please, nor cared to please, the didactic moralists, since he held that truth and beauty are one, and that beauty is the best antidote to vice — a word synonymous, in his belief, with deformity and ugliness. His song “was made to be sung by night,” yet was the true expression of himself and his world. That world he located out of space, out of time, but [page xxxv:] his poems are the meteors that traverse it. So far as it was earthly, it was closed about, and barred against the common world, like the walled retreat of Prince Prospero in the “Masque of the Red Death;” and in the same wise his poems become the hourly utterance of that clock of ebony, the chimes from which constrained the revellers to pause in their dancing with strange disconcert, and with portents of they knew not what. His prose at times was poetry, and for the rest its Muse seldom gave place to the sister Muse of song. The prose of poets is traditionally genuine, yet, in our day at least, the greater poets have for the most part written verse chiefly, if not alone. If more of Poe’s imaginative work had been cast in metrical form, it might have proved more various and at spells even rapturous and glad. And if the sunshine of his life had been indeed even the shadow of the perfect bliss which he conceived to be the heavenly minstrel’s, he would have had a more indubitable warrant for his noble vaunt, that Israfel himself earth-fettered,

“Might not sing so wildly well

A mortal melody.”

E. C. S.

 


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:1 - SW, 1895] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - General Preface (E. C. Stedman and G. E. Woodberry, 1895)