THE PERSONALITY OF POE
JOHN PRENTISS POE, LL.D.
When I was invited to take part in this most interesting celebration in honor of Edgar Allan Poe, my father's cousin and the husband of my mother s sister, the thought instantly occurred to me that it might be more becoming in me to be a silent spectator than an active participant and I hesitated for a space to accept the gracious invitation.
A little reflection, however, made it clear that the severest good taste would not only not be offended by my joining publicly in these memorial exercises, but, that, on the contrary, all who like me bear his name and share his blood should most willingly do all in our power to show our grateful appreciation of this distinguished tribute to our kinsman.
It is quite impossible for the members of his family to observe without the deepest sensibility his steadily increasing fame and the generous recognition the world over of his marvelous genius.
Especially are we gratified that here in Baltimore this movement in commemoration of his illustrious place as a star of the first magnitude in the firmament of letters was begun.
He did not happen to be born in Baltimore.
His eyes first saw the light in Boston and his gifted mother, for whom he never failed to cherish the deepest filial admiration and devotion, impressed upon him the duty of remembering that there she had found her best and most sympathetic friends.
But he is identified with Baltimore in his lineage.
Part of his early life was passed here. His remains lie in the venerable graveyard where the bones of several generations of his kindred repose, and here, more than thirty years ago, before impartial history had fully rescued his reputation as a man from the venomous calumnies which for years it had so unjustly suffered, the first Memorial ever erected in America to a poet was reared in his honor.
Here, therefore, it is peculiarly fitting that the Centennial of his birth should be celebrated with all the emphasis that just appreciation of his extraordinary genius and literary achievements, and sympathy for his sorrows can inspire.
During the long interval since on the anniversary of
The lonesome October of his most immemorial year,
his earthly remains were laid to rest by the side of his ancestors in Westminster churchyard, every material incident of his life has been brought to light, either by the hand of sympathetic admiration, or of malevolent criticism.
The world has been truly told of all his movements from his earliest boyhood down to the melancholy hour when the pleasing prospect of extrication and release at last from the corroding trials and troubles of his strenuous struggle for bread and fame was suddenly extinguished under circumstances of the deepest pathos.
One by one the malignant slanders which pursued him into the silence of his premature and, for a time, neglected grave, and blackened his memory for years have been met and refuted by indisputable proof laboriously collected and the world has at last been brought to the knowledge of the gracious courtesy and the real excellence and dignity which almost invariably marked his demeanor.
The one infirmity to which all his errors were due has never been denied. Side by side with Burns and Byron he stands in the pitiful sorrow and shame of this terrible misfortune.
But, except when his peculiarly sensitive organization yielded to the destructive influence which robbed him for a time of his intellect and self-control, all trustworthy accounts represent him as a man of exquisite refinement and grace, no less conspicuous for the elegance of his manners than for his almost supramortal eloquence and marvelous intellectual endowments.
The testimony of those who worked with him, who day by day witnessed the constant manifestations of his sweet and uncomplaining patience, his gentle yet proud resignation to the overwhelming disappointments which seemed to crowd around his path and at times well nigh drove him to despair tells the story of the development in him of the edifying virtues which not infrequently find their richest bloom amidst the bitterness of the hope deferred that maketh the heart sick.
Mrs. Osgood who certainly had the amplest opportunity during the most eventful and trying years of his life of observing his conduct and behavior declares, that "though she had heard of aberrations on his part from the straight and narrow path she had never seen him otherwise than gentle, generous, well-bred and fastidiously refined."
And to this she adds, that "to a sensitive and delicately-nurtured woman there was a peculiar and irresistible charm with which he invariably approached all women who won his respect."
Indeed the proof of his habitual reverence for woman than which no more conclusive evidence of the nobility of manhood can be found, comes as the fitting climax of his lofty conception of the true poetic principle, which he delineates with such amazing beauty and power and whose mastery over him he so proudly avows.
He owns it in all noble thoughts; in all unworldly motives; in all holy impulses; in all chivalrous, generous and self-sacrificing deeds.
He feels it in the beauty of woman; in the grace of her step; in the luster of her eye; in the melody of her voice; in her soft laughter; in her sigh; in the harmony of the rustling of her robes.
He deeply feels it in her winning endearments; in her burning enthusiasms; in her gracious charities; in her meek and devotional endurances; but above all, ah! far above all, he kneels to it; he worships it; in the faith; in the purity; in the strength; in the altogether divine majesty of her love.
Listening to these glowing words, who shall couple his name with depravity or dishonor?
The weakness, which undoubtedly did imperil his life, diminish to the world s great and irreparable loss the products of his genius and furnish to his enemies some color for their calumnies, he deeply deplored and strenuously struggled to overcome.
"I have absolutely no pleasure," he writes, one year before his death, "in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been in the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories."
"No one," says Ingram, in his candid and discriminating analysis of Poe's character and career, "who really knew the man, either personally or through his works, but will believe this disclosure, revealed in one of his intensely glowing letters to Mrs. Whitman."
The sad confession is now quite universally accepted as the truth, and the harsh and pitiless condemnation of his occasional excesses, distorted and exaggerated as these were by malice and envy immediately after his death, has been softened and subdued by a more just and charitable judgment.
This is the final judgment and it will stand without danger of reversal.
It recognizes the supremacy of his surpassing genius, but disdains to disparage or tarnish it by gloating over the frailties of temperament, steadily fought against, seldom victorious, conquering only in hours of extreme anguish and sorrow and always lamented with an intensity of grief known only to the exquisitely sensitive souls of those who, like him, feel the stain of such weakness more keenly than a wound.
I speak of this distressing fact because reference to it could only be avoided by confining myself strictly to a consideration of his commanding position in the literary world.
Sincerely believing as I do his own solemn asservation that his "soul was incapable of dishonor and that, with the exception of occasional follies and excesses, to which he was driven by intolerable sorrow, he could call to mind no act of his life done in his conscious moments which could justly bring to his cheek the blush of shame," I am not willing to ignore or belittle this sad side of his career, and upon this memorable occasion content myself with allusions exclusively to the mighty achievements of his superbly gifted intellect.
While there may be room for controversy as to the frequency and extent of the dominion which stimulants had acquired over him, and as to the errors which he committed whilst under their maddening influence, assuredly he was wholly free from the vices which stain the soul.
There was in him no dissimulation nor deceit, nor concealment of his frailties.
Conscious of his own splendid powers, no ignoble envy of the success of others degraded his haughty spirit.
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
he endured with proud reticence the extreme pangs of poverty and destitution.
He saw his idolized wife wasted by illness and disease passing through the dark valley of the shadow of death, suffering from the want of comforts which he was powerless to supply, and
When her high-born kinsmen came
And bore her away from him,
his reason for a time tottered and fell, but no pressure of grief, or sorrow or privation ever betrayed or drove him into the crooked paths of dishonesty or fraud.
There may be some who think that after all the facts of his private life are of no consequence and that in the enjoyment of the rich fruits of his great genius, it matters little what kind of man he was, whether good or bad, honorable or depraved in the ordinary relationships of life and society.
I do not agree with this view.
Deep and ardent as may be our love of the beautiful; keen as may be our enjoyment of the consummate work of those who portray or depict it in its highest developments, whether with pen or brush or chisel, our pleasure in the contemplation and study of its most artistic manifestations cannot fail to be intensified and exalted by the consoling knowledge that the towering genius whose soul speaks to us from the past in the entrancing melody and commanding power of glowing words, or in the subduing fascination of breathing canvas, or in the potent spell of majestic marble, was animated not alone by a dominating sense of the beautiful, but was imbued also with a reverential love of the good and true.
From the authentic extrinsic evidence of his life and the resistless intrinsic evidence of his imperishable works, of such a lofty nature, was, I verily believe, the soul of Edgar Allan Poe.
And surely we can appreciate the better his exquisite poetry and read with increased admiration and delight his marvelous prose creations if, while our minds and souls are aglow with their beauty and power, we can truly picture their author as the unfortunate victim.
Whom unmerciful disaster
followed fast and followed faster
but all the while pure in heart and undefiled
by the deadly pollution of immorality and vice.
And so, too, on the other hand, if it be indeed true that the life of this man of transcendent powers was disfigured by deplorable lapses from the path of honor and virtue, which justice requires us to censure and condemn, may we not in our own hours of weakness and failure of pitiable yieldings to temptation of gloom and despondency be stimulated to renewed and continuous struggle out of darkness into light by the knowledge that he, even in the immensity of his vastly superior gifts, was unable to stand where we fell?
And in the study of his shortcomings may we not find for ourselves hope and encouragement in our strivings after the kingdom of righteousness and peace.
We should not, then, as some have done, dissociate Edgar Allan Poe, the poet, from Edgar Allan Poe, the man, and whilst extolling the one with the highest encomiums turn from the other with aversion or reproach.
Rather should we study the poet and the man together and upon the gratifying results of this study rest his right to stand upon the pinnacle of glory where for all time the verdict of the civilized world has placed him.
Knowledge, we are told, is like the mystic ladder in the patriarch's dream. Its base rests upon the primeval earth, its crest is lost in the shadowy splendor of the empyrean, while the great authors, who for traditionary ages have held the chain of science and philosophy, of poetry and erudition, are the angels ascending and descending the sacred scale, maintaining, as it were, the communication between man and Heaven.
In this view we need not wonder at the instinctive longing of the human heart for a close and sympathetic intimacy with the supremely gifted amongst the children of men, whose transcendent masterpieces left behind them as enduring manifestations of their genius, are a never-failing source of strength and consolation, reminding us of humbler clay that the blessed Evangely of surpassing harmony and beauty which they ceaselessly proclaim may sooner or later reach even to the least of us and lift us up at last to our kinship with the sky.
By the immeasurable superiority of their commanding influence over that of any merely physical achievements they justify the admiration and homage they inspire, and create an irresistible desire to transmit their name and fame to future generations by visible memorials in their honor, speaking perpetually to the eye of their glory and renown.
By so much as dominion over the mind and souls of men surpasses all other dominion, by so much does the power of the supremely endowed author exceed in permanent ascendancy that of all other earthly power.
Amongst the conspicuous heroes of ancient days King David stands out in towering superiority, and yet preeminent as he was in State-craft and in battle, the fruits of his victories and conquests have perished, whilst the exalting influence of his immortal verse shall sway man kind until time shall be no more.
It softened men of iron mould,
It gave them virtues not their own,
No ear so dull, no soul so cold
That felt not, fired not at its tone,
Till David's lyre grew mightier than his throne.
I shall not venture upon any delineation of the great gifts of Edgar Allan Poe, nor attempt any critical analysis of his literary genius.
Such a task is beyond my feeble powers, and after what we have heard today would be both presumptuous and inexcusably superfluous.
Rather let me give you some estimates of controlling authority.
Alfred Tennyson pronounces Poe, "The literary glory of America," and declares that "no poet, certainly no modern poet, was so susceptible to the impressions of beauty as he."
Richard Henry Stoddard tells us that, "There is nothing in English literature with which the stories of Poe can be compared," and that "No modern poet except Tennyson is so subtly and strangely suggestive."
Mrs. Browning, fascinated and stirred by his power, exclaims, "This vivid writing! this power which is felt!"
James Russell Lowell s judgment (given in Poe's life time) is that "It would be hard to find a living author who has displayed such varied power. As a critic he has shown so superior an ability that we cannot but hope to collect his essays and give them a durable form.
We could refer to many of his poems to prove that he is the possessor of a pure and original vein.
His tales and essays have equally shown him a master in prose. He has that admirable something which men have agreed to call "genius."
From John Burroughs we learn that the keener appreciation in Europe of literature as a fine art is no doubt the main reason why Poe is looked upon over there as our most noteworthy poet. Poe certainly had a more consummate art than any other American singer."
According to Prof. W. Minot, " There are few English writers of this century whose fame is likely to be more enduring. The feelings to which he appeals are simple but universal and he appeals to them with a force that has never been surpassed."
In the opinion of the London Spectator, "Poe stands as much alone among prose writers as Salvator Rosa among painters."
A. Conan Doyle acknowledges him as " the inventor and pioneer whom he has humbly followed," and the readers of Gaborieau will find in his writings the strong incense of the deep worship which shows itself in imitation.
Discussing this Centennial celebration of his birth, the gifted editor of the Outlook declares him to be one of the three foremost figures in American literature.
Hamilton Wright Mabie gives it as "his deliberate judgment that distinctively and in a unique sense he is the artist in our literature. His work holds first place."
John Greenleaf Whittier tells us, "The extraordinary genius of Edgar Poe is now acknowledged the world over."
And from George E. Woodberry we learn that, "On the roll of our literature Poe s name is inscribed with the few foremost, and in the world at large his genius is established as valid among all men."
But why multiply the estimates of authorized exponents of literary supremacy, or reproduce the eulogiums of the recognized arbiters of literary preeminence?
The simple fact that in England and America his works in verse and prose are now by common consent amongst the highest and best of our classics, and that the literature of every tongue in Europe has been enriched by translations of his acknowledged master-pieces tells with conclusive force the story of his preeminence and fully accounts for the deep and permanent hold which his genius has taken upon the civilized world.
Cultivated and uncultivated alike feel and acknowledge its irresistible influence.
He enjoys the unique distinction to which very few writers can justly lay claim, of being supremely great in poetry and prose alike.
In this phenomenal particular he stands side by side with Milton, the ter-centennary of whose birth has recently been celebrated with such imposing ceremonies.
And there is, too, a sad similarity in the pecuniary rewards of their immortal work.
For his Paradise Lost Milton is said to have received the amazingly munificent price of five pounds, while for The Raven a reluctant purchaser was found willing to risk on it the extravagant sum of ten dollars.
Here, at home, it is a source of gratification that a just pride in what he so superbly and so successfully did for American literature has been aroused, bent on making his works more and more familiar to all classes of our people.
Apart from the striking power they display they are worthy of all this awakened interest as rare models of perfect purity of thought as well as of expression and style.
Indeed, one of his best claims to admiration is that nowhere in his writings can be found an impure line and this eloquent and significant fact should go far to convince those who may still have a lingering doubt as to his general rectitude that the harsh strictures upon his character, malevolently promulgated by Griswold are cruelly untrue. The stern exigencies of his situation compelled Poe to write for his daily bread, but his spirit chafed under this dire necessity so injurious to the perfect manifestation of his best and loftiest powers.
The leaden weights of earth stayed many a majestic flight of his genius into the aerial realms of purest phantasy, but perpetually tempted and tortured as he was, he maintained with unshaken loyalty his allegiance to his lofty conceptions of the truth and never bartered the independent judgments of his royal intellect for profit or applause.
He was intensely eager to acquire high distinction in what he called, "the widest and noblest field of human ambition."
To his friend, Mrs. Gove-Nichols, he said, "I love fame! Fame! Glory! They are life-giving breath and living blood. No man lives unless he is famous!"
A large measure of what he so keenly coveted came to him in his life-time, but without its substantial fruits, and since his death atonement has been made and will continue to be made without ceasing for the unfortunate neglect of his own day and generation.
As the clouds of his last days were gathering around him I can fancy I hear him murmuring:
My hopes of being remembered in my line
With my land's language; if too fond and far
These aspirations in their scope incline
If my fame should be as my fortunes are
Of hasty growth and blight; and dull oblivion bar
My name from out the temple where the dead
Are honored by the nations let it be
And light the laurels on a loftier head,
And be the Spartan s epitaph on me,
"Sparta hath many a worthier son than he."
The doors of our Metropolitan "Hall of Fame" are not yet wide enough to admit his sculptured image and there is no panel on its walls for the inscription of his name but he needs no such recognition of the supremacy of his genius, nor will "dull oblivion" bar him from the temple of literary glory where the whole world worships.
The stream of time which washes away the dissoluble fabrics of other poets flows on without harm to the adamant of Shakespeare, and so we believe that as the centuries come and go the name of Edgar Allan Poe will be uttered with steadily increasing admiration and praise by millions yet unborn as peer of the loftiest of
The bards sublime
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of time.