Originally published in The Sewanee Review, Spring, 1968, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Spring, 1968), pp. 214-225
In 1948 T. S. Eliot, in a lecture “From Poe to Valery”, said in substance that Poe’s work, if it is to be judged fairly, must be seen as a whole, lest as the mere sum of its parts it seem inferior. There is much truth in this; but it puts an unusual strain upon the critic. I believe that I have read, over many years, everything that Poe wrote, but I have never been aware of it all at any one time; nor am I now, as I approach a discussion of the poems. Do the poems increase or diminish one’s sense of Poe’s greatness if considered apart from the prose, as if the prose did not exist? European critical practice would forbid such a separation, and would compel us to see the poems as one expression of a complex personality responding to the undeveloped society of the New World. This would have been Taine’s “method” and, later in the nineteenth century, the method of Georg Brandes. These critic-historians frequently produced elaborate commentaries and “explanations” of an author more interesting than the works of the author himself. That has not been an achievement of modern American criticism. We worry the single poem almost to death; we substitute what Poe himself called “analysis” for “passion”; yet the results have been on the whole rewarding, in that large numbers of persons who never read poetry before have learned how to read it and enjoy it. And we have developed more than any other age a criticism of criticism. But we have not done so well with the larger works like the novel, or even the nouvelle. We do not see the larger works, nor the collected works of an author as a whole.
I shall therefore try to “introduce” readers to the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe as I myself was introduced to it in boyhood, when I read almost anything out of curiosity; that is to say, Poe was in the house and I read him as I read the Rover Boys. But the difference, which appeared only much later, was that I retained Poe, whereas the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, and G. A. Henty soon became a blank; of this sort of author I remember only that Tom Swift had an electric rifle. There was, of course, Natty Bumppo; but he was not, any more than Tom, a book, but a character of the mythical order of George Washington, different but not literature. One does not know, at the age of fourteen, that there is such a thing as literature; but at or at about that age I remember finding somewhere on a top shelf in the dingy parlor three small volumes by Edgar Allan Poe. They may have been part of the infamous Griswold edition; at any rate they were not the complete works. One volume contained some of the more famous tales, as well as the stories of ratiocination, like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget”. These stories gave the adolescent mind the illusion of analytical thought. Some of the others, such as “The Premature Burial” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, raised questions that seemed at fourteen the deepest enquiries possible into the relation of body and soul: pseudo-philosophy for the unformed and ignorant mind. How a child’s reading of Poe’s prose tales affected his reading of the poems I shall try to explain, or at least to describe, in a moment.
One of the three volumes contained Eureka, the work in fact took up the entire book; and it was the first essay in cosmology that I read. It led just a little later to Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe, the crassest materialistic cosmogony produced in the nineteenth century, and then to Herbert Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy. But Eureka is the only piece of adolescent reading in popular astronomy to which I have returned in age; and I still take it seriously. I have wondered why the modern proponents of the Big Bang hypothesis of the creation have not condescended to acknowledge Poe as a forerunner. Big Bang presupposes an agent to set off the explosion of the primordial atom; and that is what Poe presupposed in his fundamental thesis for Eureka. “In the original unity of the first thing lies the secondary cause of all things, with the germ of their inevitable annihilation.” But the concluding phrase presupposes something else, which is characteristic of Poe in all phases of his work: “inevitable annihilation”. The cosmos will shrink back into spatial nothingness, taking man along with it; and hence man, having returned to the original nothing, which is God, will be God. The last twenty or so pages of Eureka have a lurid, rhetorical magnificence unmatched by anything else that Poe wrote. For Eureka is Poe’s elaborate, pseudo-systematic attempt to give his compulsive theme of annihilation scientific and philosophical sanctions.
The theme of annihilation is always attractive to young persons: from about twelve to sixteen, annihilation or simply romantic death at the end of sentimental love—an adolescent posture of disorder set against the imposed order of the family or of adult society into which the child resists entrance. This posture of disorder is never quite rejected in maturity, and it is the psychological and moral basis of what today is called Existentialism. One reason why Americans may be a little bored with French Existentialism is that we have always been Existentialists, or have been since the time of Poe, who discovered it in us. For Existentialism assumes—among other things—that man has no relation to a metaphysical reality, a kind of reality that he cannot know even if it existed; he is therefore trapped in a consciousness which cannot be conscious of anything outside itself. He must sink into the non-self. Poe sinks into the vortex, the maelstrom, suffocation of premature burial or of being walled up alive; or he sinks into the sea. We know Coleridge’s influence on Poe. How apt for Poe’s purposes was the “lifeless ocean” of Coleridge! And the death of a beautiful woman was, for Poe, the most “poetical” subject for poetry—or, as we should say today, the archetypal subject. One of his best lyrics begins, “Thou wast that all to me, Love,/For which my soul did pine . . .” His love is dead, of course, and he is left alone, ready for loss of breath, loss of consciousness, loss of identity—never more anything outside himself. I shall have something to say presently about the Raven’s “Nevermore”. I must end these preliminary observations with some attention to the word alone.
Among the poems attributed to Poe, the authorship of which cannot be proved, is a piece entitled “Alone”; yet what the scholars call “internal evidence” is so obvious that I do not hesitate to use it as a key to some of his compulsive symbols which are ultimately, as I have indicated, a single symbolic matrix: the vortex, the grave, the pit. Here I quote the significant lines:
From childhood’s hour I have not been As others were— . . .
… I could not awaken My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I lov’d I lov’d alone.
Then—in my childhood— in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still. . .
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.
The poem, first published in 1875, was found in an autograph album belonging to a lady in Baltimore; it was the opinion of the late Killis Campbell that the poem was written as early as 1829 or 1830, when Poe was not older than twenty-one. (I pause to observe that four-fifths of Poe’s poems, however many times he reprinted them, often in versions revised almost beyond recognition, were written by the time he was twenty-two.) Yet one might guess from the tone of the poem that it was written in retrospect, towards the end of a long life. At twenty-one his childhood was not in the remote past. What kind of demon was it that Poe saw in his childhood—or saw when he was writing the poem, which comes to the same thing? Elsewhere I have called Poe a forlorn demon gazing at himself in a glass; thus could William Wilson be described, and likewise most of Poe’s fictional heroes. I suggest that Poe’s poetry, which consists of only some sixty-odd authenticated poems, most of them very short, were all written by Poe as his own fictional projection; by Poe as the demon he tells us he saw take shape in a cloud.
There is nothing very shocking about this. A non-theological view of demonology would tell us that a demon is simply a person who cannot develop—a fierce determinism has arrested the rounded growth of his faculties; so that the evil he does other persons is not a positive malice but an insistence that they remain as emotionally and intellectually deprived as he himself must remain. Poe’s poems, from first to last, from “Tamerlane” to “Ulalume”, show almost no change, certainly no acquisition of range and depth that might justly be described as development. All of his poems might have been written in any one year of his life, at age fifteen or age forty (his age when he died); that most of them were written before 1831 was probably due to the later financial necessity of making a living out of literary journalism. (He was the first committed and perhaps still the greatest American literary journalist on the high French model: a critical tradition represented today by Edmund Wilson and Malcolm Cowley.) In the short introduction to Eureka he said that poetry with him had been a “passion”, leaving the implication that he had had no time to write much of it. One may reasonably doubt the validity of this explanation, though one may not doubt Poe’s sincerity in thinking it valid. He had enough time from 1831 to his death in 1849 to rewrite most of the poems, some of them many times. I think it is fair to infer from all the evidence that he had very little, or rather one thing, to say in poetry; in the evisions he was trying to say it better or was trying, by means of deletions and additions, to make old poems look like new poems— for what reason one may only guess: perhaps to sell the same but disguised poem several times, perhaps to keep his “image” as a poet before the public, or perhaps, as I have indicated, to improve the poems.
The one thing he had to say I have briefly indicated; but before I develop the theme in a scrutiny of some of the best poems I shall glance at his life. More than any other romantic poet, here or in England, either of the preceding generation of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Bryant, or of his own, he became the type, not the greatest but the most representative: that is to say, he became the type of the alienated poet, the outcast, the poete maudit—the poet accursed. I hope I am not pushing this matter too far if I see in “Alone” his early awareness of his plight. The demon-cloud had early uttered its malediction. N. Bryllion Fagin tells us about the “histrionic Mr. Poe”, and quite justly; yet the self-conscious dramatization of doom, fully developed towards the end of his life in “The Raven” and “Ulalume”, was not consciously assumed, as a pose; it came from the inside, out of his early life; and I can think of no other writer of the nineteenth century who was more entitled to a conviction of his doom (if anybody ever is) than Edgar Allan Poe. The doom, then, was sincere, if consciously exploited. Why was Poe entitled to it? He had the “education of a gentleman”, five years as a boy in England and a few months at the University of Virginia, financed by a foster-father who never legally adopted the boy and who rejected him when his protector died. The protector was the first Mrs. John Allan. The second Mrs. Allan did not like Poe, whose gambling debts at the University gave Allan an excuse for cutting him off. Professor Arthur Hobson Quinn makes it plain that another reason, perhaps the decisive one, was Poe’s knowledge of John Allan’s mistress and his illegitimate children, which brought on the final quarrel. Poe was not prepared for any of the three respectable vocations of the Old South: the law, the army, and the Church. A classically educated man in Virginia who had neither a vocation nor landed property could not have a place in the Southern social scheme. At twenty Poe was a gentleman without family, property, or vocation; so he enlisted in the army under the name of Edgar A. Perry; and from then on, though he soon reclaimed his name, he lived what was virtually an anonymous life, a professional writer in a country that did not recognize letters as a profession. If history had consciously set about creating the character and circumstances favorable to the appearance of the archetype of the romantic poet, it could not have done better than to select Poe for the role and Richmond as the place for his appearance.
The pure romantic poet, either through choice (Shelley) or through circumstance (Poe), or partly one, partly the other (Keats), must isolate himself, or be isolated, or simply find himself isolated for the deeply felt but not consciously known purposes of his genius. He must, in short, be alone.
A poet may have many subjects, but few poets since the time of Blake have had more than one theme; such poets must try again and again to give the theme, in successive poems, new and if possible fuller expression. One might see the relation of theme to subject as a relation of potency to actualization. The romantic poet is trying to write one poem all his life, out of an interior compulsion; each poem is an approximation of the Perfect Romantic Poem. I do not wish to be understood as saying that the Romantic Poet is the polar opposite of the Classical Poet, or that there are generic differences which point to distinct categories of poetry. A poet like Ben Jonson has many themes but only one style; Poe has one theme and many styles, or many approximations of one style, none of them perfect, and some very bad, as we shall presently see.
There are four poems by Poe that I believe everybody can join in admiring: “The City in the Sea”, “The Sleeper”, “To Helen” (the shorter and earlier poem of that title), and “The Raven”} one might include “Ulalume”, but less as distinguished poetry than as Poe’s last and most ambitious attempt to actualize in language his aloneness.
“To Helen” is somewhat more complex than the critics have found it to be, or found it necessary to point out. However, the similarity to Landor has been frequently remarked, but nobody knows whether the influence was direct. (Whether the poem was addressed to an older lady who was kind to Poe when he was a boy is irrelevant.) The direct address is to “Helen”, inevitably Helen of Troy whether or not Poe had her in mind; and the tact with which she is described is Homeric. She is not described at all; she is presented in a long simile of action, in which her beauty is conveyed to the reader through its effect on the speaker of the poem. There is nothing else in Poe’s work quite so well done as this. In the second stanza one might detect a small blemish (the poem is so nearly perfect that it invites close scrutiny): the phrase “thy Naiad airs” might be better if the noun were in the singular—“thy Naiad air” meaning that her demeanor or bearing is that of a Naiad; the plural has a slight connotation of the colloquial “putting on airs”. Helen brings the wanderer home to his native shore, which is the ancient world: the Landoresque perfection of the two last lines of the second stanza has not been surpassed. But the complexity of feeling, unusual in Poe, comes in the last stanza with the image of Helen as a statue in a niche, perhaps at the end of a hall, or on a landing of a stairway. She has all along been both the disturbing Helen and, as a marble, a Vestal Virgin holding her lamp: she is inaccessible. The restrained exclamation “Ah, Psyche” is one of the most brilliant effects in romantic poetry. “Ah” has the force of “alas”: alas, that Helen is now in a lost, if holy land, as inaccessible and pure as she herself is. But who is Psyche? She is usually identified with Helen, and she may be Helen, but at the same time she is the Psyche of Eros and Psyche; and Poe must have known the little myth in Apuleius: she could be an archetype of suprasensual love by means of which the classical, sensual Helen is sublimated. (In “Ulalume” Psyche appears again, as the sister of the poet.) Poe wrote the poem when he was not more than twenty-one; he pretended to Lowell that he had written it when he was fourteen; but whenever he wrote it he never before nor afterwards had such mastery of diction and rhythm. I need not point out that the theme of the poem is isolation of the poet after great loss.
Poe’s aesthetic theory has not been overrated, but it has been complicated by certain scholars who have tried to show that the theory implies systematic thought; he was, on the contrary, not a systematic critical thinker but a practical critic who on the whole was limited by the demands of book-reviewing, by which he made a great part of his living. The essay most popular in his time was “The Poetic Principle”, actually a lecture, what we know today as a “poetry reading with commentary”. Poe was the first itinerant American poet who thus became known to hundreds of people who never read a line of his writing. The “Letter to Mr. B.”, written when he was about twenty, is a simplified theft from Chapter XIV of Biographia Literaria. His review of Hawthorne states brilliantly the necessity for organic unity in fiction, a principle applicable also to poetry. His theory of prosody, which he developed in “The Rationale of Verse”, founders on a misconception of the caesura. In the long run his theory of poetry is quite simple: “the rhythmical creation of Beauty” is the end of poetry, which is most completely realized in that most poetical of subjects, the death of a beautiful woman, or more often, in his own verse, the beautiful woman’s corpse. He derived his psychology from his intellectual climate: Intellect-Feeling-Will. Since the aim of poetry is pleasure, not instruction, both intellect and will are eliminated, and emotion is the limited province of poetry. Poe was the first romantic expressionist in this country: the poet must not think in his poetry; he could be allowed to think only of the means by which the emotionally unthinking subject-matter reaches the reader as an effect. The intellect thus operates in technique but not in the poem itself.
It has not been pointed out by the biographers and critics that, although Poe attacked the genteel preaching of Longfellow and Lowell as the “heresy of the didactic”, he was himself paradoxically a didactic poet, a grim and powerful one at that. He is constantly telling us that we are all alone, that beauty is evanescent, that the only immortality may be a vampirish return from the grave, into which we must sink again through eternity. In “The Haunted Palace” we are taught that the intellect cannot know either nature or other persons. In “The Conqueror Worm” we are taught that life is a “drama” in which we think we are the protagonists; but the actual hero is death in the guise of a gigantic Worm. This is the human “plot”. If, as Poe says in Eureka, “the universe is a plot of God,” and man participates in the plot as a conscious actor, then the purposeless activity of man has as its goal the horror of death and bodily corruption.
It is no wonder, then, that Poe wrote so few poems. There are not many ways to deliver his message of spiritual solipsism and physical decay if the poet limits himself to romantic expressionism. The “rhythmical creation of Beauty” means very little, if anything, as a general aesthetic principle; it means in Poe’s poetry the expression of a Pure Emotion which creates in the reader a pure emotional effect, about which we must not think, and about which we must do nothing.
Of the poems which I have mentioned as being among his best, there is no need to discuss at length “The Sleeper”, which many critics consider a masterpiece. There is bad writing in it—“The lily lolls upon the wave”; “And this all solemn silentness”—yet it remains Poe’s best treatment of the beautiful female corpse. The “lady” will be taken to a vault where her ancestors lie, against which she had “thrown, In childhood, many an idle stone”. This is the only poem in which the dead lady has any life before her appearance on the bier or in the tomb. We can almost believe that she was at some remote time a human being} yet why at the end we are told that she was a “child of sin” I cannot discover.
If Poe wrote any “great” poems they are surely “The City in the Sea” and “The Raven”.
“The City in the Sea” was first published in 1831 as “The Doomed City”; revised and republished in 1836 as “The City of Sin”; “The City in the Sea” is the title in the 1845 edition of the poems. The recurrent symbolism of the vortex that one finds everywhere in the prose tales appears infrequently and incompletely in the poems; but here it receives its most powerful expression in verse. The nineteenth-century critics—Edmund Clarence Stedman, for example—thought the poem a masterpiece; Edwin Markham put it beside “Kubla Khan”. But there is nowhere in the poem evidence of Coleridge’s magisterial certainty and control. In the first five lines there is a doggerel movement— “Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best/Have gone to their eternal rest.” I have written elsewhere that “everything in Poe is dead”; in this poem everything is dead; for the poem might be entitled “The City of Death”. Here we go beyond the lovely dead woman to dead humanity; and all nature, as well, is dead. When this dead city slides into the sea we, presumably, go down with it into the vortex: into oblivion. This archetype of life after death is as old as recorded humanity. In Dante the sea to which we return is the will of God; in Poe it is a dire apocalyptic vision in which we suffer “inevitable annihilation”. Except for “To Helen” the poem contains the best lines Poe ever wrote:
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently—
• • •
Up many and many a marvellous shrine
Whose wreathed friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
Ernest Dowson thought the last line the best in English poetry, and T. S. Eliot seemed so charmed by the labio-dental “v’s that he let the “nightingale fill all the desert with inviolable voice”. Perhaps Baudelaire imitated
Down, down that town will settle hence
in the climactic line of Femmes Damnees:
Descendez, descendez, lamentables victimes.
In conclusion I can add very little to the criticism of “The Raven”, a poem so badly, even vulgarly written in many passages that one wonders how it can be a great poem, which I believe it to be. We have here the two necessary elements—the beautiful, dead, “lost Lenore” and the poete maudit who with perfect literary tact is confronted with, I dare to say, the demon of the youthful poem “Alone”. It is the same demon, this time come down from the clouds and taking the form of a bird that imitates human speech without knowing what the speech means:
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming.. .
This poem—a late poem, written in 1844—is the one poem by Poe which is not direct lyrical, or romantic, expressionism. It has dramatic form and progression: the poet conducts a dialogue with his demon; it is the only poem by Poe which leads the reader through an action. In classical terms, the plot is simple, not complex; it is a simple plot of Recognition in which the poet, examining all the implications of the bird’s “Nevermore”, recognizes his doom.
Henry James said that admiration of Poe represented a “primitive stage of reflection”. One agrees; but one must add that without primitive reflection, however one defines it, one cannot move on.