Edgar Poe’s Writings.

From: Literary Sketches (1888)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Swan Sonnenschein Lowrey & Co. 1888 London

Edgar Poe’s Writings.

ALTHOUGH the interest excited by some of Edgar Poe’s poems, and by still more of his prose tales, may be taken as a sign that he has attained a certain kind of popularity, yet there are probably few writers who have been more strangely misjudged and misunderstood in English literary circles. Unfortunate in the circumstances of his life, he seems destined to be equally unlucky in his posthumous reputation, to which the homage of his less discriminating admirers has often been as injurious as the animadversions of hostile critics. It may sound paradoxical, yet it is none the less a fact, that he has been generally read and admired for what is least valuable in his writings, while he has been slighted or censured for what is most characteristic and original, The mere jingle of his alliterative verse, and the morbid sensationalism of his tales-these are the points which have exercised a strong fascination on some readers who have no true taste for poetry or fiction; while on the other hand his adverse critics have been too quick to set him down as a mere rhymester and poetaster, not perceiving that they themselves are at fault in their inability to appreciate those mysteries of the poetic art, the subtle undertones and half-lights, in which Poe was so great a master. The fact is, we have been accustomed to hear at once too much of Poe and too little; too much of some particular writings and special incidents of his life which have been perseveringly forced on our notice till they lose all real significance by being isolated from the rest; too little of the general tenor of his character and style. But now with the help of Mr. Woodberry’s excellent Life of Poe in the “American Men of Letters Series,” and Mr. Ingram’s English edition of his works, it is at least possible for every reader to arrive at a just estimate of Poe’s genius.

  It is no part of my purpose to dwell on the vexed story of Poe’s life, involved as it is in countless difficulties and contradictions. It is sufficient here to say that the stories so widely circulated by Poe’s “friend,” Griswold, and so readily believed both in America and England, about the enormity of his misdemeanours and his orgies of intemperance, appear, on the best authority, to be always greatly exaggerated, and in many cases absolute fabrications. His life was throughout a sad one, and towards its close it was tenfold darkened and saddened by the use of stimulants; yet he has at least the same excuse as that advanced by De Quincey, when seeking to palliate his own use of opium, that he erred through a desperate desire to find a temporary escape from the pangs of poverty and sickness.

  There are one or two events of Poe’s life which call for special notice as having strongly influenced his writings in a particular direction. Of these the first is the death of Mrs. Helen Stannard, the mother of a young scoolfellow, and the friend and adviser of Poe in his boyish sorrows. It has been pointed out that the extreme grief which he felt at the death of this lady, a grief which drove him to haunt her grave nightly for months, may furnish an explanation of much that is otherwise unaccountably gloomy and terrible in the character of his works, and especially of the too frequent descriptions of churchyard scenes and premature burials. One cannot but call to mind those words of Keats, so eminently applicable to Poe:

“Who hath not loiter’d-in a green churchyard,
And let his spirit, like a demon mole,
Work through the clayey soil and gravel hard,
To see skull, coffin’d bones, and funeral stole?”

  Poe had often loitered thus, and his mind was consequently tinged, even from boyhood, with a sombre and funereal cast. But still more important in their effects on his imagination were the lingering illness and death of his young wife, Virginia. The idea of the loss of a fair being, slowly dying of consumption in the bloom of youth and beauty, is one that strikes the keynote of many of his poems and tales, especially Annabel Lee and Eleonora; while the fact that some of the tales referring to this subject were written before the death of his wife shows that there was already in Poe’s mind an intuitive foreknowledge of the calamity that was destined to befall him; indeed, he expressly states in one of his letters1 that for six years, during the recurrences of his wife’s illness, he felt all the agonies of her death. We see both in his poetry and his prose how constantly he hovers round this subject, the great central sorrow of his life and writings.

  Death being the power that chiefly influenced the early imagination of the young poet, it is not to be wondered that his style is often melancholy and morbid. There is much that is surpassingly beautiful in Poe’s work, but there is also much that is distressing and unwholesome. The atmosphere of his writings is sickly and artificial, more so than that of either Coleridge or De Quincey, to whom in several respects he is somewhat akin. He has a certain grim humour of his own, which lends a racy charm to many of the tales; but on the whole the sadness of tone is largely predominant, the luxuriant splendor of his word-painting serving only to bring out more strongly the great central gloom. He possesses much intensity and concentration of power, but little freedom or width of scope in the choice and treatment of his subjects; there is, accordingly, nothing to relieve the oppressive sense of disaster and despair which broods over most of his works. Yet, in spite of these inherent failings, it would be a great mistake to conclude hastily, as some English critics have done, that Poe’s writings can be set aside as wholly faulty and unimportant. Many readers are doubtless unable to sympathise with a writer whose choice of subjects is so limited and whose methods are so peculiar; yet to others it will appear that the narrowness of scope is compensated for by the minuteness and perfection of the workmanship. Nor can it be justly urged that the morbid tendency of Poe’s writings is in itself a sufficient plea for their condemnation; for if we were to admit that what is known as “a healthy tone” is not only desirable but absolutely essential to literary excellence, we should find ourselves compelled to reject also the masterpieces of Coleridge and De Quincey, whose writings show traces of the power of opium quite as clearly as do those of Poe.

  In his essays on The Poetic Principle and The Philosophy of Composition, Poe has stated his own opinion on the question of poetry; and it is interesting to read his account of the several stages in the conception and execution of his best known poem The Raven. The main principle he lays down is that a poem should be short, and that it should be so thought out and prearranged, before being actually written, as to produce on the mind of the reader a clear, sudden, and complete impression. The sole legitimate province of a poem he declares to be Beauty, and the tone of the highest manifestation of Beauty he finds to be Sadness; finally he selects the Refrain as the most suitable vehicle for the expression of his poetical ideas. On this narrow and arbitrary principle Poe worked in the composition not only of his Raven, but of nine-tenths of his other writings. It is not surprising that writing under such conditions he produced much that is of little value; but none the less it is futile to deny the excellence of his best work. We may say of Poe, as it has been said of Coleridge, that “all he did excellently might be bound up in twenty pages, but it should be bound in pure gold.” In this class must be placed such poems as Lenore, Annabel Lee, Ulalume, The Sleeper, The Raven, and To One in Paradise, which are all inspired by the leading idea already mentioned, the untimely death of a beautiful and beloved woman. Add to this list a few other poems, on more general subjects such as Dreamland, For Annie, To Helen, The Haunted Palace, The Conqueror Worm, and we can scarcely refuse to give Poe credit for high poetical genius. It is sometimes asserted that these poems are little better than “sense swooning· into nonsense.” That may be true, if we use the negative term in its literal and not opprobrious meaning; but then it is equally true of Kubla Khan, and much of Coleridge’s poetry, true also of some of Shelley’s writings and not a little of Swinburne’s. The measure of success in poetry is ultimately the impression created on the mind of the reader, and this impression may be made by what is mysterious and indefinite, as well as by what is logical and well defined. It is beside the point to insist that such poems as Annabel Lee and Ulalume are filmy and impalpable; their details are undoubtedly so, but the final and ultimate impression is not necessarily a feeble one, to those at any rate who have an ear for the subtle melodies of lyric poetry. In the case of Ulalume, for example, the poem which is most often selected for adverse criticism, the general meaning is surely not quite so obscure as the critics appear to find it. The subject is the same as that of which Wordsworth has treated in one of his finest sonnets, the sudden recollection of a heavy calamity, the anniversary of a death, which had been for the moment forgotten. The Psyche of Poe’s Ulalume is the same as the “faithful love” of Wordsworth’s sonnet, the trusty monitor who first recalls what the mind of the bereaved poet had otherwise overlooked.

“Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss?”

If this leading idea be kept in view, I do not think the readers of Ulalume need be reduced to regarding it as mere sound without sense, though it may be admitted that its details baffle critical explanation, and that the use of the Refrain is here carried to its extreme limits. Poe must indeed be considered the poet of the Refrain, for who has ever used it so persistently yet so successfully as he? Four of his chief poems, The Raven, The Bells, Annabel Lee, and Ulalume, owe their effect directly to this metrical arrangement; while in many others the ear of the reader is charmed from time to time by a rhythmical recurrence of sound, which seems to breathe an echo from some spiritual world. To those who are gifted with the power of appreciating it, this mystic tone is the most valuable quality possessed by Poe as a writer; though there have always been, and will always continue to be, critics who, for this very reason, take him to task for his lack of distinctness and coherence.

  Turning now to Poe’s prose tales, we find his own opinion on this form of composition very clearly stated in his essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne. He strongly urges that a tale, like a poem, should be brief, “requiring from half an hour to one or two hours in its perusal.” The author is thus able, and thus only, to create a concise and lasting effect; for “during the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control; there are no external or extrinsic influences resulting from weariness or interruption.” This brevity is the quality that Poe admired in Hawthorne’s Twice-told Tales, and on this principle most of his own prose-writing was based, though there is certainly an exception-and, in the opinion of most readers, rather an unfortunate one-in the case of his rather long and wearisome story, Arthur Gordon Pym. In prose, as in poetry, the most important element in the composition of Poe’s works was mystery. A large portion of his most remarkable tales are essentially mysterious, many of them tinged with the same love of death-scenes and funereal shadows which is so marked a characteristic of his poems. He must surely have been thinking of himself when he penned the following passage in The Murders in the Rue Morgue; at any rate, one could not desire a more accurate description of his genius. “It was a freak of fancy in my friend (for what else shall I call it?) to be enamoured of the Night for her own sake. At the first dawn of the morning we closed all the massive shutters of our old building, lighting a couple of tapers, which, strongly perfumed, threw out only the ghastliest and feeblest of rays. By the aid of these we then busied our souls in dreams, reading, writing, or conversing, until warned by the clock of the advent of the true darkness,” All who have read Ligeia, or The Fall of the House of Usher, or The Masque of the Red Death, will remember those weird effects of lurid word-painting, the pentagonal chambers; the vaulted and fretted ceilings, with their elaborate carving; the blackness of oaken floors; the armorial trophies hung on the lofty walls; the vast folds of the massive velvet tapestry; the long narrow-pointed windows, with trellised and tinted panes, through which fall mysterious gleams of encrimsoned light; the huge censer; the ottomans; the golden candelabra; the gigantic ebony clocks; and all the rest of the ghostly nocturnal paraphernalia with which Poe loved to bedeck his stories. In this unnatural and, it must be added, unwholesome atmosphere, amid this strange scenery and grotesque imagery, is laid the plot of many a wild and startling tale, among which no subjects are commoner than those of premature burial and sentience after death. Of all such stories the best is probably The Fall of the House of Usher, in which the absorbing interest is skilfully maintained from beginning to end, while each phase of the tragedy serves in its turn to lend additional weight to the final impression. With breathless attention and increasing awe, we follow the fortunes of the ill-fated house, as narrated by the friend who has been summoned to cheer his old schoolfellow, Roderick Usher, in his morbid and unhappy isolation. We feel from the first the foreboding of intolerable gloom; from the journey through the dreary tract, where the clouds hung low in the sky, to the arrival at the melancholy mansion, surrounded by its dark, peculiar atmosphere, and the meeting with Usher himself, a prey to constitutional malady and superstition. Very powerful, too, are the descriptions of Usher’s solitary studies, his strange improvised dirges, and mysterious pictures “bathed in a ghastly and inappropriate splendour;” and, above all, the references to the Lady Madeline. The manner in which the interest of the tale is made to centre on Usher’s ill-fated sister, without her actual introduction on the scene; the account of her burial in the vault, and the storm that afterwards shook the casements of the house—all this is marvelously contrived to suggest and enhance the final catastrophe, and may challenge comparison with the best work of the great masters of mystery and horror, from Webster to Hawthorne. Next to The Fall of the House of Usher should be placed William Wilson, a piece of allegorical autobiography which in conception and style bears a singular resemblance to some of Hawthorne’s writings. Its subject is the struggle between the Will and the Conscience, terminating in the death of the latter, and the consequent degradation of the former. The story is told in Poe’s most effective manner, and there is a strange charm and fascination in his account of the mysterious stranger: his alter ego, his second self, who, bearing the same name and resembling him in voice and feature, dogs his steps and thwarts his plans from childhood to manhood, until, in a fit of fury, he strikes his persecutor dead, only to find that he has destroyed all that was most dear to him in himself. Perhaps the best-known of all Poe’s tales is The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which, together with The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, was the outcome of his natural liking for the enigmatical and his extraordinary acuteness in unravelling the secrets of the human mind It is Poe’s misfortune, or perhaps we should say his punishment, that the morbidly sensational element of his stories should have proved to be their chief attraction for posterity; but even those readers who have little relish for anything that savours of the “Newgate Calendar,” must admire the wonderful analytic power by which the plot of these stories is step by step disclosed, and the literary genius which lends a charm to what would otherwise be merely hideous and repulsive. In this respect The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Mystery of Marie Rogêt are scarcely surpassed in English literature, except by De Quincey’s Postcript to his essay on Murder, which stands unique and inimitable among all histories of crime. Under the same heading of mysterious tales must be classed Ligeia,—which Poe himself, not without some reason, regarded as his masterpiece—Morella, The Masque of the Red Death, and several other stories, including those where the influence of Dickens is observable, as in The Pit and the Pendulum and the Tell-tale Heart, some of the passages of which might easily pass for the handiwork of the author of Barnaby Rudge and the Madman’s Story.

  It is a relief to turn from works of this kind to the tender and pathetic Eleonora, the loveliest and most beautiful of all Poe’s prose writings, perfect both in the purity of its conception and the delicacy of its workmanship. Its subject is almost the same as that of Annabel Lee, of which it is, in fact, a prose counterpart, describing, though in a somewhat more allegorical form, the calmest and happiest portion of Poe’s life, until the loss of his child-wife, Virginia. It is a rhapsody of melodious sound, inspired by purest feeling, and makes us regret that Poe did not write more in the same style.

  The second class of Poe’s tales may be called the scientific, or, more correctly, the pseudo-scientific. The leading characteristic of these is the manner in which he handles some scientific data, making them the groundwork of his fabric, on which he so skilfully builds up a fiction that it is difficult to determine the exact point at which fact ends and fancy begins. Of these stories by far the best is The Descent into the Maelstrom, in every way one of his most effective tales, based on the scientific deduction that a cylindrical body, revolving in a whirlpool, must offer more resistance to the suction of the water than other bodies of equal hulk. On this basis he founds his story of a sailor’s safe descent into the great Norwegian whirlpool by means of clinging to a cylindrical water-cask; and preposterous as the idea seems, when thus baldly stated, such is the power of literary genius that in Poe’s story it seem scarcely improbable or grotesque. In the same category, though greatly inferior in power, must be placed The Adventure of Hans Pfaal, and the other ballooning stories; also those that deal with the subjects of alchemy, mesmerism, and cryptography. The Gold Bug for instance, is one of Poe’s best tales, and exhibits his extraordinary ingenuity in constructing and solving enigmatical ciphers, a mental quality doubtless closely akin to the power he possessed of unravelling criminal secrets. In The Gold-Bug as well as in his essay on cryptography, he asserts that “human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.” The stories that treat of mesmeric phenomena are the most terrible that Poe wrote, and I think that even his warmest admirers must admit that he was guilty of unpardonable bad taste in such tales as The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, and Mesmeric Revelation. Some Words with a Mummy is less objectionable, on account of the humorous spirit that pervades it, and relieves it of the sense of horror that makes the two other stories well-nigh intolerable.

  This mention of Poe’s humour brings us to the third class of his writing, the humorous. These, though inconsiderable in number, are so excellent in quality that it is odd they should be so little known among the many readers who, in their search for amusing literature, are fain to content themselves with far less salient wit. The Devil in the Belfry is a masterpiece of good-humoured satire on the ludicrous side of Dutch life. Nothing could be better than the description of the borough of Vondervotteimittis, with its tiny red-brick houses and prim inhabitants, who have little else to do but attend to their clocks and cabbages, until they, suffer an overwhelming calamity in the mysterious derangement of their belfry and striking of “dirteen o’clock.” Scarcely less admirable in their keen humour are The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether, How to Write a Blackwood Article, Never Bet the Devil your Head, and Hop-Frog, which, however, has also a strong admixture of the mysterious and horrible.

  In addition to his poems and prose-tales, Poe left a considerable number of miscellaneous essays and criticisms. In his essays on The Philosophy of Composition, The Poetic Principle, and The Rationale of Verse, his views on poetry and the laws of metre are fully set forth. Of the numerous critiques on contemporary authors, chiefly American, the most noteworthy are those on Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and Mrs. Browning. Poe had a high admiration of Mrs. Browning’s genius, and in the essay in question awards her no stinted praise; yet there is also much temperate criticism of certain mannerisms and blemishes which so exact and methodical a writer as Poe could not fail to resent. We are not surprised to find from several passages in his works that he considered Tennyson the greatest of all poets; for Poe was himself essentially an artist, and artistic finish and perfection were the foremost qualities, according to his judgment, in poetic composition. The essay on Dickens is chiefly taken up with an analysis of Barnaby Rudge—a novel especially interesting to Poe, and closely akin to his own writings both in subject and style, as may be seen by the introduction of that “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird,” the raven, and other points of similarity. It is said that after the publication of the earlier chapters of Barnaby Rudge Poe wrote a “prospective notice” of the story, in which the events that were to come were foretold with extraordinary precision. Almost the last literary work on which Poe was occupied was Eureka, at once the most ambitious and the most inexplicable of his productions. In the pathetic dedication “to the few who love me and whom I love,” he expressly states that he wishes this “book of truths,” to be regarded as a poem rather than a scientific treatise; yet it may fairly be doubted if an attempt to “take a survey of the universe” offers a very suitable field for poetic enterprise.

  I have already remarked that Poe’s works present some points of similarity to Hawthorne’s. There are, in fact, several of Poe’s stories which one could almost believe to have been written by Hawthorne, while it would not be difficult to make selections from Twice-told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse, which might well pass as the writings of Poe. It can hardly be questioned that Hawthorne was the greater genius; for he is distinctly superior to Poe, both in the scope of his imaginative power and in delicacy of sentiment. This may perhaps be partly accounted for by the fact that while Hawthorne led a life of unbroken leisure and opportunity for quiet contemplation, Poe was seldom free from pressing embarrassments and domestic anxiety; the former wrote for the actual pleasure of writing and to gratify his literary taste, while the latter was chiefly concerned in staving off poverty and imminent want. It is not surprising therefore, that Poe should have been less scrupulous in his choice and treatment of subjects for his pen, and that he should more often have violated the laws of literary taste. In spite of his strong predilection for the mysterious, he did not possess the art of enshrouding his characters in that filmy and half-spiritual phantasy which lends so great a charm to Hawthorne’s romances; on the contrary, his stories, being more sensational than those of Hawthorne, tend rather to degenerate into the horrible and grotesque. The same difference is observable in their humorous writings; Poe’s humour being keen, pungent, and sharply defined, while Hawthorne’s is shy, delicate, and unobtrusive. Nevertheless, inferior though he is in these points, Poe is no unworthy rival of his gifted contemporary and fellow-countryman, with whom he may share the merit of having developed and perfected the short prose story in a way few English writers have done.

  To those who intelligently and sympathetically study any or all of Poe’s writings one thing must, I think, become abundantly evident: that they are reading the works of a man of real genius. Whatever his defects and peculiarities may be—and they are certainly numerous enough—it can hardly be denied that he possesses the rare faculty, which no accomplishments can teach and no diligence can acquire, of giving life and reality to the scenes and characters he depicts. It must be confessed it is a strange, uncanny, twilight world to which he introduces us; a region filled with an oppressive sense of death and decay:

“The air is damp, and hush’d, and close
As a sick man’s room when he taketh repose
An hour before death.”

  Yet though we are everywhere haunted, in the poems and prose stories alike, by this morbid and autumnal atmosphere, which chills the heart and fills it with a presage of wintry desolation, we cannot refuse our tribute of praise to the author of so vivid an impression. The spirit of Poe’s genius was narrow, concentrated, intense; his success is largely due to the power with which he harped on a few particular themes, and to the fantastic beauty of the weird imagery in which he clothed his ideas. His place in literature is, in fact, unique; both in the matter of his writings and in his methods of expression he stands alone. It would be affectation to claim for him a position in the foremost rank; but though he cannot be classed among the greatest, he cannot fairly be excluded from the company of the great. He has the merit of doing whatever he attempts to do with exquisite harmony and conciseness; and it is this perfection of workmanship, aided by the subtle and suggestive melody of his language, that constitutes his chief claim to immortality.

1 Woodberry’s “Life of Poe,” p. 170.

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