THE CENTENARY OF POE
WILLIAM PETERFIELD TRENT, LL.D., D.C.L.
Probably not a few of you traveling in Europe have kept your eyes open for evidences of interest in things American, and perhaps in American literature. If you have, your eyes may have lighted, as mine did not many months ago, on a copy of a French translation of some of Poe's tales, wretchedly printed, in yellow paper covers, adorned with a repelling woodcut of the author. I saw my copy in a small bookshop on the Corso in Rome, and standing next to it was an equally unattractive copy of a French translation of some of Byron s poems. The juxtaposition naturally suggested a certain train of reflections. Poe and Byron, although they number more Continental readers than most of the writers that have used the English tongue, are precisely the two writers of commanding position against whom the harshest criticism has been directed by an influential portion of the public of their respective and respectable countries. That this is true of Byron will be admitted by most persons acquainted with modern British criticism. If you doubt it, you may read the pages devoted to the poet in Professor George Saintsbury's volume on English literature in the nineteenth century, pages which leave one wondering just how eccentric a critic may be without losing his reputation. It might be difficult to cull from any American critic of equal standing with Professor Saintsbury utterances with regard to Poe quite so extraordinary as those of the British critic with regard to Byron; but it is easy to show that, like Byron, Poe has been subjected to what, in view of his high position abroad, is an astonishing amount of harsh criticism from his own countrymen.
Emerson, for example, is reported to have called the writer whom many Americans consider the greatest author yet produced in this country, "the jingle man."Poe did write The Bells, and he managed to put a great deal of their "jingling and tinkling" into his poem, or his metrical tour de force if one prefers so to designate it but he also wrote in his youth those stanzas beginning "Helen, thy beauty is to me" which are as magically harmonious, at least in their opening, as any lines I can recall from any other American poet. This haunting, beautiful poem, to the symmetry of which Lowell paid ungrudging tribute, did not suffice to bear Poe aloft into Emerson s Parnassus but the stanzas that compose it have sung themselves a home in thousands of hearts.
Lowell, who has just been cited as a witness for the defense, must also be called by the prosecution. In famous lines, he brought Poe along with his Raven like Barnaby Rudge,
Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.
Perhaps your well-to-do citizen, after a prosperous day and a good dinner, might be inclined, with Mr. Burchell of The Vicar of Wakefte! to cry out "Fudge, fudge" on hearing some one repeat the stanza:
For, alas! alas! with me
The light of Life is o er!
No more no more no more!
(Such language holds the solemn sea
To the sands upon the shore)
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,
Or the stricken eagle soar.
But the man with a feeling for highly emotional poetry and an ear for the rhythms in which such poetry should be couched is not likely, I think, to underrate these appealing verses.
Lowell and Emerson represent, however, a former generation, and so does the notorious ballot for the ten best or favorite American books taken a good many years ago by the weekly journal The Critic, a ballot in which Poe did not even manage to come in at the foot of the poll. But fully twenty years later I find a modern American critic writing about Poe's "unlimited scholarly ignorance" whatever that may mean and it is in this twentieth century that I myself have had to conduct a correspondence with the principal of a school in one of our greatest States who regretted that he could not permit my History of American Literature to enter his school library for the reason not that I had treated Poe too harshly or too favorably but that I had treated him at all. School children, according to my correspondent, ought not to know that such a life was ever lived.
But this, you may say, is too bizarre an experience to be made the basis of any sort of argument. Perhaps so, but it is not my sole experience of the kind. I have also had to correspond with a teacher on the other side of the Continent where to us effete Easterners there seems to be no dearth of the materials for thrilling adventure on the unwholesome effects upon youthful minds of the excitement created by the perusal of Poe's stories. And that I may balance a southern experience with these from the North and West I have had a colleague, a Southerner of great culture and scholarship, whose name would be familiar to many of you, tell me that he had been obliged to decline an invitation to write an essay on Poe because, being a Southerner, he did not wish to undertake the invidious task of showing how badly the author of The Fall of the House of Usher usually wrote. And, coming back to the North, only the other day a colleague said to me, with a slight note of glee in his voice, "I've just read Blank's article on Poe in manuscript, it will appear in the number of - . I tell you, he just rips Poe up the back." I got my colleague to admit, before we parted, that, when writers of Poe's calibre and standing are ripped up the back by modern critics, two features of the phenomenon may be predicated as fairly constant. One is that the rip nearly always follows the line of a previous rip; the other is that, as a rule, the victim's admirers are unconscious of the fact that any ripping has taken place. I submit, in the light of my reading and my personal experiences that we do not need ballots for The Critic, or the Hall of Fame to convince us that, even in this centennial year, Poe's admirers in America have still something of a task before them if they wish, as they must wish, to make his fame in his native land at all commensurate with his achievements, as these are viewed by the world at large.
Yes, there is still much to do, but has not a great deal been accomplished? Not quite sixty years, that is not quite two generations have passed since Poe died under deplorable circumstances here in this city of Baltimore, which, if I may so phrase it, is the center of the mystery which still surrounds his life, and which, in consequence, should be the center of future investigations of his interesting career. When he died in his forty-first year his national reputation was not inconsiderable, though in many respects unfavorable, and, in a small way, the foundations had been laid for his international fame. There were also incipient signs of the formation of a cult. Taking everything into consideration Poe's antecedents and temperament, his financial status, the comparatively unpropitious environment in which he lived and wrote we may fairly hold that in his short life he accomplished as editor, critic, story-teller, and poet a rather exceptional amount of work which produced upon his contemporaries much more than an average impression. In other words, Poe is no exception to the rule that the writers who really count began by counting with their contemporaries. We may hold more than this, however. Many a writer has established for himself by the time of his death a greater fame than Poe had secured by 1849, and then has slowly lost it, in whole or in part, without having experienced two great drawbacks such as speedily fell to the lot of Poe. We must remember that it was his fate to be read for many years in an unattractive edition prepared by a somewhat unsympathetic and perfunctory editor, whose name has been anathema to the poet's admirers, but upon whom it is no longer necessary or even just to pour forth the vials of our wrath. It was also Poe's fate to have that period of detraction which usually follows a writer s death coincide with a period of civil discord and confusion in which literature was bound to suffer and did suffer greatly. After the war was over, the work of material and political reconstruc tion took its natural precedence. It may therefore be said without exaggeration that thoroughly normal conditions for the spread of a writer s fame have existed in this country only for a space of about thirty years.
During these years our sense of nationality has been immensely developed, and we have consequently taken a greater interest and pride in our literature. Poe, with other writers of the past, has naturally profited from these propitious conditions, but here again fate has been some what untoward to him. His early biographers and critics tended to become either extravagantly eulogistic or unduly captious, and the weight of authority lay, for some years, with the unduly captious. For obvious reasons, American literature was synonymous to a majority of readers with New England literature, and it would have been little short of a miracle if the admirers and exponents of the latter literature had greatly relished or indeed thoroughly understood the works of a man who had not himself too well comprehended the merits of the literature they loved and represented. Poe's fame, therefore, became too much of a sectional or a partisanly individual matter and too little of a national matter, when all the while, thanks in part to his lack of local, that is of untranslatable flavor, in part to the extraordinarily sympathetic comprehension of Baudelaire, in part to literary conditions obtaining in France, it was becoming an international matter.
Shall we pause here to indulge in words of blame or regret? I think not. Poe s attitude toward New England and its writers was almost predetermined, and it has not seriously hurt either. Their attitude toward him has doubtless somewhat retarded the spread of his fame and his influence in America; but it has also stimulated the zeal of his admirers, and it has tested as with fire the gold of his genius. Without such testing would his countrymen be celebrating this centenary of his birth with so much enthusiasm, with so much really national not sectional spontaneity, with so much confidence in the permanent worth of the achievements of the man they commemorate? When I speak of the enthusiasm with which people are celebrating his centenary, I am not, of course, indulging in the delusion that this academic paper I am reading will pass with any of you as a Swinburnian outburst of dithyrambic eulogy. All I am trying to do is to emphasize the widespread and genuine interest this one hundredth anniversary of Poe's birth has aroused throughout the country, and to point out the fact that, as a student of literary history, I see in the phenomenon one of the best proofs that could be furnished of Poe's possession of a great and unique genius. If that genius were as decadent, as meretricious, as paltry, as some critics would have us think it, should we not be obliged to consider a larger number of our fellow-citizens gulled or demented than it would be at all comfortable to believe? If that genius had not added materially to the world s pleasure and profit, is it likely that in sixty years, more than half of which have just been shown to have been distinctly unpropitious to Poe's fame in America, his works would have been more carefully and fully annotated than those of any other American writer? There is enough interest and pathos and mystery in his biography to account for the study devoted to Poe the man; but I doubt extremely whether the popular and scholarly editions of his works would have increased as they have done within our own generation, to say nothing of such evidence of his fame as the multiplication of critical essays and monographs and the high prices paid for first editions of his books, if, despite his limitations, Poe had not been, besides a waif of fortune, the most unalloyed specimen of that in describable something called aesthetic genius yet produced in this new world Yes a great deal has been accomplished in sixty years. It has been made practically certain that Poe's fame is permanent and large luminous as a star, even if the star still shines out upon us from behind light clouds.
The fact that Poe, despite many limitations and draw backs, among which we must count the comparatively brief span of his creative activity he was writing not much more than twenty years should have gained a position among American authors which in the eyes of most Europeans and of many of his own countrymen is, to say the least, second to none, is probably the most important fact that can be emphasized upon this centennial occasion. It is a cause for congratulation in more senses than one. The triumph of genius over untoward conditions always makes a profound appeal to generous natures. Fame seems to do her most salutary work when she dresses the balance. And when, dressing the balance, she conquers prejudices, especially those prejudices that divide classes and sections, she does a profoundly moral work. Poe long since exchanged "these voices" for "peace."
He has outsoared the shadow of our night.
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not,
and torture not again.
What are our praise or blame to him? But what are they not to ourselves? He can dispense with editions and monographs, with monuments and portraits and celebrations. We cannot dispense with them because they are needed for the full expression of those sentiments of sympathy and gratitude, of generosity and justice without which we should be unworthy of our heritage of civiliza tion. Yes the fact that in two generations we as a people have made a not inconsiderable progress toward attaining an adequately sympathetic and just appreciation of the life and works of the poet we are honoring to night is a fact we can scarcely over-emphasize, a fact for which we can scarcely be too thankful.
If, however, we would be thoroughly just, we must take some account of what the men and women who do not join us in honoring Poe or are grudging in their praise have to say in their own behalf. Why is it that the author of one of the best books we have on our poet told someone that he had to take a trip to Italy in order to get the taste of Poe out of his mouth ? A Frenchman got satisfaction from praying to Poe, but although Poe is generally believed to have been born in Boston and although that city is the home of almost every sect known to man, I have yet to hear of the erection of a Poe shrine in the place of his nativity. What are we to think of this divergence? Shall we merely shrug our shoulders and ejaculate "De gustibus non est disputandum There is simply no arguing about tastes"? Probably this is the most prudent method of procedure, but it is much more certain that it is the laziest and perhaps the most cowardly, and I somehow do not like to take it.
Perhaps in considering the case against Poe it will be well to revert for a moment to the parallel between him and Byron with which we began. The standing of both poets has been considerably lowered with their respective countrymen, indeed with the entire Anglo-Saxon reading public, by features of their characters and careers which have not greatly counted with Continental readers. We may say, if we choose, that many Englishmen and Americans have judged Byron and Poe by Puritanical standards, or we may say that a sound instinct of moral self-preservation has led the British and the American public to with hold its allegiance, in whole or in part, from men and writers whose examples and whose works scarcely seemed to make for individual or collective righteousness and happiness. Let us comment on the phenomenon as we please, but let us not blink it. Byron and Poe have been and are constantly judged by moral standards, and they have suffered in consequence both as men and as writers. But they have been judged at the same time by literary standards, and here the parallel seems to break down. Criticism adverse to Byron tends to center in the charge that he had too little art; criticism adverse to Poe tends to center in the charge that he had too much art. The one poet is pronounced to be over-copious, coarse, and slip shod; the other to be costive, over-refined, decadent. The question at once arises are English and American readers sincere upholders of what we may call a golden-mean aesthetic standard, or are they rather to be classed in the main as partisan pleaders bent upon making their case as strong as they can? How is it that so many European readers manage to accept both the copious, inartistic Byron and the scrupulous, limited Poe? Is it that they have no standards, moral or aesthetic, or that they have other standards than ours, or that all these questions I am asking are beside the point?
Perhaps the last question touches the root of the matter. Shall we not, all of us, settle down as peaceable impressionists liking what we like and disliking what we dislike, and, in the language of the street, "letting it go at that?" A comfortable suggestion indeed. Acting upon it, we could all exclaim "Glory to Poe" and go home. But again that suspicion of laziness and cowardliness creeps over me. Can we afford "to let it go at that?" I think not.
Suppose for the moment we allow the unfriendly biographers of Poe to have it all their own way. Let us not dispute a single point. What have we left? In my judgment, the most interesting, the most pathetic, and in some ways the most instructive of all American biographies. What we Americans seem always to demand of a biography is that it should be exemplary and inspiring. This the biography of Poe certainly is not, except in so far as there is true inspiration to be gained from the contemplation of a life so steadily devoted, amid drawbacks and vicissitudes, to the unflinching pursuit of clearly recognized artistic ideals. But, granted that on the side of moral conduct Poe's life is sadly lacking in inspiration, are we such children that we cannot face the unpleasant, the uncanny side of life? Can we afford to confine our sympathies to orthodox and exemplary subjects and occasions? Have we so little motive power in ourselves that we must ever be seeking inspiration from without especially inspiration of the smug, successful, Tell-to-do variety? Let us have the exemplary and the inspiring by all means, but let us remember that man does not live by approbation and aspiration alone. On that sort of emotional diet he might soon become cowardly and selfish. Man lives by interest and curiosity, or he grows dull and commonplace; he lives by alert comprehension, or he soon falls a victim to the malevolent forces of life; and, if he does not often, in the words of Gray,
Ope the sacred source of sympathetic tears,
he speedily becomes an arid and unlovely creature.
I repeat that we all need to be brought in contact with the interesting, the pathetic, the warningly instructive, and that I know of no better way to secure this desirable contact than by studying with intelligent sympathy the life of Poe.
But is it necessary to yield to the unfavorable biographers of Poe all the points they make? "Of course not," replies the partisan biographer, who immediately proceeds to yield as little as he can. This is an entirely human procedure, but it has obvious disadvantages, and perhaps it will be well to try to approach our problem from another point of view. How much do we really know about Poe's life ? At first thought it would appear that we know a good deal. We have several elaborate biographies, and since the appearance of Professor Woodberry's volume in 1885 it has been possible to say that modern methods of thorough and comparatively unpartisan investigation have been applied to the study of Poe's life. Whatever Professor Woodberry's defects of sympathy, I do not see how anyone can test his book minutely, as I have done, without making the frank acknowledgment that his labors mark an important epoch in Poe scholarship. 1 As for the interest that is taken in Poe's life, that is really immense, and it is increasing, as any one who keeps a Poe scrap-book will testify. No details seem too small to report, and, if possible, to argue over. But, despite the apparent wealth of material, are we in a position to say that we know enough about Poe to give an entirely adequate and authoritative account of his life? I cannot answer this question for others, but I can answer it for myself. About four years ago I was engaged in writing a biography of Poe which I had carried down to the year 1837. I stopped there, and I have not added a line to it since, because three facts were borne in upon
1 Since this paper was written, Professor Woodberry has expanded his early work into a portly biography of two volumes, which will prove indispensable to students. It throws some light on the dark places in Poe's life mentioned in the text, but in the main it does not necessitate any serious modification of the statements here made.
me. The first was that there were batches of letters and papers in existence which presumably threw important light upon Poe s life, but which for the time being I was not able to examine. The second was that I was not satisfied that a sufficiently thorough study had been made of the newspapers published during certain years in at least six cities. The third was that from the spring of 1831 to the autumn of 1833 Poe s life was practically a blank, and that, it was therefore impossible to say what facts were in lurking ready to affect my interpretation of the whole course of his after life. If the Poe who won the prize of $100 in October, 1833, for his story "The MS. Found in a Bottle " was morally and socially the same Poe who got himself dismissed from West Point in March, 1831 if the obscure years marked only a period of intellectual and artistic development such as might have been normally expected, and, if they concealed no experiences essentially different from those recorded between the years 1825 to 1831 and 1834 to 1849, then it seemed possible to construct a biography which would at least stand the tests of the readers and students who accepted my points of view. But suppose the Poe of 1833 was quite a different Poe in some respects from the Poe of 1831; then it was entirely possible that a biography constructed on the theory that he was essentially the same Poe might not stand even subsequent tests applied to it by its naturally partial author. Although the obscure period was a short one, it came at an important point, and it seemed better to stop and begin investigating. A series of accidents carried me back two centuries and over to England, and instead of investigating Poe I got entangled with an even more mysterious and remarkable person who lived at Stoke Newington a century before Poe went to school there to wit Daniel Defoe, the author of "Robinson Crusoe." But, however little right a deserter may have to preach investigation to Poe students, that must be the burden of my counsel. We must not suppose for one instant that we yet have sufficient material for passing a definite and adequate judgment upon Poe the man. An important batch of letters has just seen the light. There are, as I happen to know, other letters extant that possess distinct value, and there is the chance that facts of more or less importance may come to light from diaries and newspapers.
Let me illustrate somewhat concretely what I mean. Poe's life in the city of Richmond falls into four main periods his early childhood, his schooldays from August, 1820, to February, 1826; his editorial connection with the Southern Literary Messenger from the middle of 1835 to the beginning of 1837, 2 and his visit from July to the end of September, 1849, just before he went to Baltimore to die. A fair amount of light has been thrown upon his social status during three of these periods, but very little is known about it during the months when he was editor of the Messenger. Old schoolmates who were living in the city during those months pass over the period in their reminiscences written in after years. We may accept his own statement that his friends received him with open arms, or we may believe that poverty and hard
2 See on this point the letter from Poe to Mrs. Sarah J. Hale communicated by Mr. Killis Campbell to The Nation, July 1, 1909.
work and the hostility of an influential family and other causes led to a comparative social obscuration. We do not know clearly how his habits affected his relations with his former friends and his new employer, the proprietor of the Messenger; the circumstances of his marriage with his child-cousin Virginia are distinctly mysterious; there is a possibility that the dark Baltimore period may have extended its shadow over this Richmond period. Even with regard to a matter which it would seem should have been thoroughly investigated long ago, viz: his editorial management of the Messenger as that is revealed in the pages of the magazine itself, it may be fairly held that the facts have not yet been thoroughly sifted and given to the world. I think I do not exaggerate when I say both that there is need of additional and close study of the material we have already amassed, and that there is a chance that some stray entry in a diary or a reference in a letter may throw light on this or that dark period in the narrative and thus help us to a clearer conception of Poe s character. I know at least that in my own study of that character I have been checking myself at almost every step with the query: Is there a sufficient basis for this inference?
There is another point about another Richmond period that may bear mentioning. Poe is usually depicted for us as a romantically melancholy and lonely boy. We are told about his haunting the grave of Mrs. Stanard by night. We picture him as a sensitive orphan child, proud, misunderstood, yearning for sympathy. How far this exceptional boyhood helps distinguished psychological pathologists to give us a scientific diagnosis of the disease or diseases under which Poe labored, I am not competent to say. Perhaps I ought not to take up my biography again until I have acquired an M.D. degree, for to judge from the way some gentlemen are writing and talking, "great wits" are not merely "to madness near allied," but they are diseased from head to toe and from the cradle to the grave. I am not prepared to deny that if Poe really haunted Mrs. Stanard s grave for nights, he was suffering from some sort of morbid affection; but I am inclined to wonder whether a poetical story which seems to be supported only by Poe s own testimony given about twenty-five years after the supposed event ought to be taken seriously and whether we have any real warrant for representing Poe down to the time he entered the University of Virginia as a very abnormal boy. It is at least curious that after a pretty careful piecing together of all the information I was able to gather with regard to Poe s school days in Richmond I should have been left with the impression that, if we did not read into the period notions derived from our study of his antecedents and of his life from his seventeenth year to his death, we should have scarcely a verifiable fact to cause us to suspect that he was not a normal boy. I may even add that the in formation accessible with regard to his sports and the light thrown upon Richmond life by the newspapers of the time left me surprised at the points of resemblance that could be discovered between boy life in Richmond in 1824 and that of 1874, which I myself could well remember. Here again I do not wish to seem unduly insistent upon my own points of view. I merely wish once more to ask the question whether we really know the essential facts of Poe s life and comprehend the evolution of his character as well as we think we do, and to urge upon all in possession of documents or family traditions likely in any way to aid us to put their information at the disposal of students. It is not fair to pass moral judgments upon the mature man about whose frailties so much is known, until we are better acquainted with the voluntary and involuntary elements that made up the formative period of his life.
But I am nearing the end of my allotted time and all I have done is to assert that, on the whole, we have accomplished a good deal for Poe s fame in the past sixty years and that there is still much to do before we shall have the right to feel that we understand thoroughly the man and his life. To most people, however, it is the man s works that count, some holding that they represent the high-water-mark of American literary achievement, others maintaining that they are possessed of but slight intellectual and moral value and of only a very limited aesthetic value. What of these much discussed works in prose and verse? Shall we ever reach anything approaching a consensus of expert and popular opinion with regard to them? Has the Poe critic as much encouragement to pursue his studies as the Poe biographer has?
All things considered, it seems to me that he has. Not only have the editions, the monographs, the essays multiplied greatly, but what is more important, Poe in the last twenty years, through small volumes of selections and through various sorts of anthologies, has made his way into the schools. We poor teachers of English are constantly belabored for the supposititious inefficiency of our methods of instruction; but I am vastly mistaken if, thanks partly to us, there is not a much larger amount of intelligent reading done in this country today by a proportionately larger number of people than was the case twenty years ago. Reading as one of the means to aristocratic culture, has probably shown no such advance; it may even have retrograded, though I am not sure of that, except in so far as our attitude toward the great, the indispensable culture of Greece and Rome leaves me dissatisfied; but reading as a means to democratic culture has made, I believe, an advance truly extra ordinary. Now these two sorts of reading seem bound to affect each other, and they are continually coming to gether in our schools and colleges. Provincial, sectional, crassly individualistic estimates of authors and books are held with decreasing tenacity in a country of increasing democratic culture. Schools, newspapers, lectures, and literary clubs of all sorts may seem to us, in our pessi mistic moods, to be merely appliances for the dissemination of bad taste and misinformation, and they do disseminate a depressing deal of both, but, at bottom and in the large, their influence is beneficial in creating and transmitting interest and in checking extravagant individual ism. These agencies, not only make for an increased reading and study of Poe and other leading American writers, but they also tend to normalize opinion about them, to render it less and less likely that bizarre judgments, whether favorable or unfavorable, will be passed upon them. This formation of an intelligent public opinion upon literary topics is necessarily a matter of generations, and, if it ever tends to check the legitimate, reasonable play of individual taste and judgment, it will be a bad thing for us as a people. I am optimistic enough, however, to believe that our democratic culture will improve our national taste and judgment and still leave free play for individual preferences, and I count upon this culture finally to give Poe a very high, if not the highest, place among our ante-bellum writers. I do not think that the common sense which will always characterize democratic culture it does not hurt any kind of culture by the way will tolerate the notion some acute critics have tried to spread that Poe s poems and tales are not real literature after all. Such a notion means nothing unless you can define real literature. If someone were to contend, for example, that no real literature had been produced since the Iliad and the Odyssey, it might be possible to comprehend him and even to sympathize with him. If someone else were to contend that any writing or writings that continued after the lapse of a generation to attract the attention of publishers, readers, and critics was real literature because it displayed vitality, it might be possible to comprehend and even to sympathize with him. But when gentlemen calmly draw their own lines between these two extremes and say that this or that book or writer is on the no-literature side of their privately drawn line, I am tempted to enquire with what instruments and by whose authority they perform their feats of critico-engineering. While waiting for their explanations, I will venture to draw my own line and to make the not very startling assertion that Poe s work does not lie on the wrong side of it.
Does this statement mean that at the close of this paper I am ranging myself with the partisans of Poe? If it does, I am quite content to take an humble place in their ranks. I doubt, however, whether it really is a partisan statement. One marked characteristic of democratic culture is its readiness to give heed to what has been done and thought in other countries and to adopt and assimilate whatever seems beneficial. Poe, on the whole, appears to have counted for the world outside America more than any other American author. This fact is likely in time to produce more and more impression upon the minds of Poe s countrymen. It is furthermore a pretty plain lesson of literary history that the writer who makes the double appeal of verse and prose, especially when much of his prose is imaginative, has more chances with posterity more chance of being really read than writers who make the single appeal of verse alone, or prose alone. And besides the appeal made by his verse and his prose Poe, we must never forget, wrote the Raven, which perhaps disputes with Gray s Elegy the honor or as some disdainful, hypercritical persons would hold, the dishonor of being the most popular poem in the language besides this appeal, Poe makes the appeal that is always made by the mysterious, ill-starred genius. Now this matter of the appeal or the appeals made by a writer is even more important than we are apt to think it at first blush. The reader and the student are already bewildered and oppressed by the number of really great and good books and writers that demand to be read. As the competition grows keener, the selective process will surely grow more drastic, and just as surely the authors of double and triple appeal are going to have a greater and greater advantage over their rivals. The compara tively small bulk of Poe s poetry and of his best tales may prevent our ranking him with certain writers of more copious genius, but this very costiveness of genius may stand him in good stead centuries hence when some of his chief competitors are really known only as Elizabethan poets like Daniel and Drayton are now known by a selection or two in the anthologies.
No while I have no desire to pose as a prophet, I think I am neither rash nor partisan in pointing out the advantages with which Poe seems to me to be beginning his second century. As I have said elsewhere, he claims attention in four ways. First through his interesting, pathetic life. Secondly through his criticism and his miscellaneous prose, which is of great importance in the history of the development of our literature, is obviously the product of an exceptionally clear and acute mind, has been found valuable by students of the art of fiction, and is based upon aesthetic ideals and a definite artistic theory, sincere and intelligent though lacking in catholicity and in a sound, historical sense. Thirdly, through his fiction, which is probably unsurpassed in its peculiar kind. He is a master of the ratiocinative tale, including the detective story, which he may be said to have originated. In tales of compelling horror, of haunting mystery, of weirdly ethereal beauty, of tragic situation, of morbid analysis of conscience, he has had no clear superior, and in his attempts at the grotesque he has shown power and versatility, though in the opinion of some, little true humor. It is usual to say that his stories are remote from life; but it is certainly true that they deal with themes and situations which have interested men since the dawn of literature. It is also said that in his stories Poe displays invention rather than imagination, but I am inclined to believe that in literature as in life, like calls to like and that it is Poe s imagination that holds our imaginations spellbound. In the construction of his stories and occasionally in his verbal style he yields to no writer of his class in other words, he takes high rank as a conscious artist. His appeal is limited by the fact that the substance of his fiction lies apart, not precisely from life but from ordinary human experience; but interest in the abnormal is by no means an inhuman or an unhuman characteristic, and the reception given Poe's tales in France alone would seem, after all allowances have been made, to confute the assertion often risked that they are meretricious in conception and in execution. We can scarcely be too often reminded that Burke's warning against indicting whole peoples applies to literary matters just as well as it does to political. A people or a large body of persons may go crazy for a short time, but they do not stay crazy, and, if a book stands the test of years with any people, or considerable body of readers, the chances are that it is full of merit. I know of no more foolish conduct a critic can be guilty of than to endeavor to demonstrate that a man who has produced and continues to produce fairly striking emotional and intellecual effects is little more than a charlatan. It is at least obvious that such critics are not charlatans, for they belong to the class of dupes they are duped by their own overacuteness. And let us remember also that it is unsafe to pay much attention to analytical critics who would have us believe that the effects produced by a famous book or writer can be reproduced if one will only follow a formula. Such critics generally fail to recognize that they are dealing with something truly alive, and that the vital principle escapes their analysis. Bland souls, they present us with a formula for writing a Poe tale of mystery or horror, and conveniently forget to furnish us at the same time with a tale written according to their formula which at all equals one of his.
But, although we need not despair of Poe's growing in favor with the American public, there is abundant room to despair of any critic s changing his opinions at the point of someone else s pen, and so I hasten to my fourth and last head.
Poe makes his fourth claim to our attention in the slender volume of his verses. He was primarily a poet, and perhaps it is as a poet that he is chiefly valued by Englishmen and Americans. His genius on the side of melody and color matured surprisingly, not to say regret tably, early, and even when his search for artistic perfection and the embarrassments of his life are taken into due account, his comparative infertility is a matter for wonder and disappointment. But his limited range accounts in part for the flawlessness of his workmanship when his art is at its best and for the intensity of the impression he produces upon appreciative readers. It is no small achievement to have sung a few imperishable songs of bereaved love and illusive beauty. It is no small achieve ment to have produced individual and unexcelled strains of harmony which have since so rung in the ears of brother poets that echoes of them may be detected even in the work of such original and accomplished versemen as Rossetti and Swinburne. It is no small achievement to have pursued one s ideal until one s dying day, conscious the while that, great as one s impediments have been from without, one s chief obstacle has been one's own self.
Yes, this man was a poet, and, whether great or not, a unique poet. We may not go to him for insight into the human heart such as Shakespeare gives us; we may not go to him for sublime inspiration such as Milton can give us; we may not go to him for the humanity we find in Burns, the power we find in Byron, the idealism we find in Shelley, or the sweet wholesomeness we find in Longfellow, but we who care for him do go to him for his own note of longing and despair, for his own note of indescribable poetic magic, which, so far as I know, is to be found in no other of our poets the note he strikes, for example, in the stanza:
And all my days are trances,
And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy dark eye glances,
And where thy footstep gleams,
In what ethereal dances,
By what eternal streams.
The man who wrote these lines is with his own Israfel. He is worthy of
By which he sits and sings
The trembling, living lyre
Of those unusual strings.
Post a Comment