It is a pleasant task to estimate Irving or Bryant, but Poe offers a hard
nut for criticism to crack. The historian is baffled by an author who
secretes himself in the shadow, or perplexed by conflicting biographies, or
put on the defensive by the fact that any positive judgment or opinion of
Poe will almost certainly be challenged.
At the outset, therefore, we are to assume that Poe is one of the most
debatable figures in our literature. His life may be summed up as a pitiful
struggle for a little fame and a little bread. When he died few missed him,
and his works were neglected. Following his recognition in Europe came a
revival of interest here, during which Poe was absurdly overpraised and the
American people berated for their neglect of a genius. Then arose a
literary controversy which showed chiefly that our critics were poles apart
in their points of view. Though the controversy has long endured, it has
settled nothing of importance; for one reader regards Poe as a literary
poseur, a writer of melodious nonsense in verse and of grotesque
horrors in prose; while another exalts him as a double master of poetry and
fiction, an artist without a peer in American letters.
Somewhere between these extremes hides the truth; but we shall not here
attempt to decide whether it is nearer one side or the other. We note
merely that Poe is a writer for such mature readers as can appreciate his
uncanny talent. What he wrote of abiding interest or value to young people
might be printed in a very small book.
Notwithstanding all that has been written
about Poe, we do not and cannot know him as we know most other
American authors, whose lives are as an open book. He was always a
secretive person, "a lover of mystery and retreats," and such
accounts of his life as he gave out are not trustworthy. He came
from a good Maryland family, but apparently from one of those
offshoots that are not true to type. His father left the study of
law to become a strolling actor, and presently married an English
actress. It was while the father and mother were playing their
parts in Boston that Edgar was born, in 1809.
Actors led a miserable life in those days, and the Poes were no
exception. They died comfortless in Richmond; their three children
were separated; and Edgar was adopted by John Allan, a wealthy
tobacco merchant. It was in the luxurious Allan home that the boy
began the drinking habits which were his bane ever afterwards.
Poe's School Days
The Allans were abroad on business from 1815 to 1820, and during
these years Edgar was at a private school in the suburbs of London.
It was the master of that school who described the boy as a clever
lad spoiled by too much pocket money. The prose tale "William
Wilson" has some reflection of these school years, and, so far as
known, it is the only work in which Poe introduced any of his
Soon after his return to Richmond the boy was sent to the
University of Virginia, where his brilliant record as a student was
marred by his tendency to dissipation. After the first year Mr.
Allan, finding that the boy had run up a big gambling debt, took
him from college and put him to work in the tobacco house.
Whereupon Edgar, always resentful of criticism, quarreled with his
foster father and drifted out into the world. He was then at
eighteen, a young man of fine bearing, having the taste and manners
of a gentleman, but he had no friend in the world, no heritage of
hard work, no means of earning a living.
Next we hear vaguely of Poe in Boston where he published a tiny
volume, Tamerlane and Other Poems, by a Bostonian (1827).
Failing to win either fame or money by his poetry he enlisted in
the army under an assumed name and served for about two years. Of
his army life we know nothing, nor do we hear of him again until
his foster father secured for him an appointment to the military
academy at West Point. There Poe made an excellent beginning, but
he soon neglected his work, was dismissed, and became an Ishmael
again. After trying in vain to secure a political office he went to
Baltimore, where he earned a bare living by writing for the
newspapers. The popular but mythical account of his life (for which
he himself is partly responsible) portrays him at this period in a
Byronic rôle, fighting with the Greeks for their liberty.
His literary career began in 1833 when his "Manuscript Found in a
Bottle" won for him a prize offered by a weekly newspaper. The same
"Manuscript" brought him to the attention of John Pendleton
Kennedy, who secured for him a position on the staff of the
Southern Literary Messenger. He then settled in Richmond,
and in his grasp was every thing that the heart of a young author
might desire. He had married his cousin, Virginia Clem, a beautiful
young girl whom he idolized; he had a comfortable home and an
assured position; Kennedy and other southern writers were his loyal
friends; the Messenger published his work and gave him a
reputation in the literary world of America. Fortune stood smiling
beside him, when he quarreled with his friends, left the Messenger
and began once more his struggle with poverty and despair.
A Life of Fragments
It would require a volume to describe the next few years, and we
must pass hurriedly over them. His pen was now his only hope, and
he used it diligently in an effort to win recognition and a living.
He tried his fortune in different cities; he joined the staffs of
various periodicals; he projected magazines of his own. In every
project success was apparently within his reach when by some
weakness or misfortune he let his chance slip away. He was living
in Fordham (a suburb of New York, now called the Bronx) when he did
his best work; but there his wife died, in need of the common
comforts of life; and so destitute was the home that an appeal was
made in the newspapers for charity. One has but to remember Poe's
pride to understand how bitter was the cup from which he drank.
After his wife's death came two frenzied years in which not even
the memory of a great love kept him from unmanly wooing of other
women; but Poe was then unbalanced and not wholly responsible for
his action. At forty he became engaged to a widow in Richmond, who
could offer him at least a home. Generous friends raised a fund to
start him in life afresh; but a little later he was found
unconscious amid sordid surroundings in Baltimore. He died there,
in a hospital, before he was able to give any lucid account of his
last wanderings. It was a pitiful end; but one who studies Poe at
any part of his career has an impression of a perverse fate that
dogs the man and that insists on an ending in accord with the rest
of the story.
The Poetry of Poe
Most people read Poe's poetry for the melody that is in
it. To read it in any other way, to analyze or explain its message, is to
dissect a butterfly that changes in a moment from a delicate, living
creature to a pinch of dust, bright colored but meaningless. It is not for
analysis, therefore, but simply for making Poe more intelligible that we
record certain facts or principles concerning his verse.
Theory of Poetry
Perhaps the first thing to note is that Poe is not the poet of smiles and
tears, of joy and sorrow, as the great poets are, but the poet of a single
mood,--a dull, despairing mood without hope of comfort. Next, he had a
theory (a strange theory in view of his mood) that the only object of
poetry is to give pleasure, and that the pleasure of a poem depends largely
on melody, on sound rather than on sense. Finally, he believed that poetry
should deal with beauty alone, that poetic beauty is of a supernal or
unearthly kind, and that such beauty is forever associated with melancholy.
To Poe the most beautiful imaginable object was a beautiful woman; but
since her beauty must perish, the poet must assume a tragic or despairing
attitude in face of it. Hence his succession of shadowy Helens, and hence
his wail of grief that he has lost or must soon lose them.
All these poetic theories, or delusions, appear in Poe's most widely known
work, "The Raven," which has given pleasure to a multitude of readers. It
is a unique poem, and its popularity is due partly to the fact that nobody
can tell what it means. To analyze it is to discover that it is extremely
melodious; that it reflects a gloomy mood; that at the root of its sorrow
is the mysterious "lost Lenore"; and that, as in most of Poe's works, a
fantastic element is introduced, an "ungainly fowl" addressed with
grotesque dignity as "Sir, or Madame," to divert attention from the fact
that the poet's grief is not simple or human enough for tears:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted--nevermore!
Equally characteristic of the author are "To One in Paradise," "The
Sleeper" and "Annabel Lee,"--all melodious, all in hopeless mood, all
expressive of the same abnormal idea of poetry. Other and perhaps better
poems are "The Coliseum," "Israfel," and especially the second "To Helen,"
beginning, "Helen, thy beauty is to me."
Young readers may well be content with a few such lyrics, leaving the bulk
of Poe's poems to such as may find meaning in their vaporous images. As an
example, study these two stanzas from "Ulalume," a work which some may find
very poetic and others somewhat lunatic:
The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crispéd and sere--
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir--
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
Here once, through an alley Titanic
Of cypress, I roamed with my soul--
Of cypress, with Psyche, my soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll--
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek,
In the ultimate climes of the pole--
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek,
In the realms of the boreal pole.
This is melodious, to be sure, but otherwise it is mere word juggling, a
stringing together of names and rimes with a total effect of lugubrious
nonsense. It is not to be denied that some critics find pleasure in
"Ulalume"; but uncritical readers need not doubt their taste or
intelligence if they prefer counting-out rimes, "The Jabberwock," or other
nonsense verses that are more frankly and joyously nonsensical.
Should it be asked why Poe's tales are nearly all of the
bloodcurdling variety, the answer is that they are a triple reflection of
himself, of the fantastic romanticism of his age, and of the taste of
readers who were then abnormally fond of ghastly effects in fiction. Let us
understand these elements clearly; for otherwise Poe's horrible stories
will give us nothing beyond the mere impression of horror.
The Man and his Times
To begin with the personal element, Poe was naturally inclined to
morbidness. He had a childish fear of darkness and hobgoblins; he worked
largely "on his nerves"; he had an abnormal interest in graves, ghouls and
the terrors which preternatural subjects inspire in superstitious minds. As
a writer he had to earn his bread; and the fiction most in demand at that
time was of the "gothic" or Mysteries of Udolpho kind, with its
diabolical villain, its pallid heroine in a haunted room, its medley of
mystery and horror. [Footnote: As Richardson suggests, the popular novels
of Poe's day are nearly all alike in that they remind us of the fat boy in
Pickwick, who "just wanted to make your flesh creep." Jane Austen
(and later, Scott and Cooper) had written against this morbid tendency, but
still the "gothic" novel had its thousands of shuddering readers on both
sides of the Atlantic.] At the beginning of the century Charles Brockden
Brown had made a success of the "American gothic" (a story of horror
modified to suit American readers), and Poe carried on the work of Brown
with precisely the same end in view, namely, to please his audience. He
used the motive of horror partly because of his own taste and training, no
doubt, but more largely because he shrewdly "followed the market" in
fiction. Then as now there were many readers who enjoyed, as Stevenson
says, being "frightened out of their boots," and to such readers he
appealed. His individuality and, perhaps, his chief excellence as a
story-writer lay in his use of strictly logical methods, in his ability to
make the most impossible yarn seem real by his reasonable way of telling
it. Moreover, he was a discoverer, an innovator, a maker of new types,
since he was the first to introduce in his stories the blend of calm,
logical science and wild fancy of a terrifying order; so he served as an
inspiration as well as a point of departure for Jules Verne and other
writers of the same pseudo-scientific school.
Groups of Stories
Poe's numerous tales may be grouped in three or four classes. Standing by
itself is "William Wilson," a story of double personality (one good and one
evil genius in the same person), to which Stevenson was indebted in his
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Next are the tales of
pseudo-science and adventure, such as "Hans Pfaall" and the "Descent into
the Maelstrom," which represent a type of popular fiction developed by
Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and many others, all of whom were more or less
influenced by Poe. A third group may be called the ingenious-mystery
stories. One of the most typical of these is "The Gold Bug," a tale of
cipher-writing and buried treasure, which contains the germ, at least, of
Stevenson's Treasure Island. To the same group belong "The Murders
in the Rue Morgue" and other stories dealing with the wondrous acumen of a
certain Dupin, who is the father of "Old Sleuth," "Sherlock Holmes" and
other amateur detectives who do such marvelous things in fiction,--to
atone, no doubt, for their extraordinary dullness in real life.
Still another group consists of phantom stories,--ghastly yarns that serve
no purpose but to make the reader's spine creep. The mildest of these
horrors is "The Fall of the House of Usher," which some critics place at
the head of Poe's fiction. It is a "story of atmosphere"; that is, a story
in which the scene, the air, the vague "feeling" of a place arouse an
expectation of some startling or unusual incident. Many have read this
story and found pleasure therein; but others ask frankly, "Why bother to
write or to read such palpable nonsense?" With all Poe's efforts to make it
real, Usher's house is not a home or even a building in which dwells a man;
it is a vacuum inhabited by a chimera. Of necessity, therefore, it tumbles
into melodramatic nothingness the moment the author takes leave of it.
What to Read
If it be asked, "What shall one read of Poe's fiction?" the answer must
depend largely upon individual taste. "The Gold Bug" is a good story,
having the adventurous interest of finding a pirate's hidden gold; at
least, that is how most readers regard it, though Poe meant us to be
interested not in the gold but in his ingenious cryptogram or secret
writing. The allegory of "William Wilson" is perhaps the most original of
Poe's works; and for a thriller "The House of Usher" may be recommended as
the least repulsive of the tales of horror. To the historian the chief
interest of all these tales lies in the influence which they have exerted
on a host of short-story writers at home and abroad.
An Estimate of Poe
Any summary of such a difficult subject is
unsatisfactory and subject to challenge. We shall try here simply to
outline Poe's aim and method, leaving the student to supply from his own
reading most of the details and all the exceptions.
Poe's chief purpose was not to tell a tale for its own sake or to portray a
human character; he aimed to produce an effect or impression in the
reader's mind, an impression of unearthly beauty in his poems and of
unearthly horror in his prose. Some writers (Hawthorne, for example) go
through life as in a dream; but if one were to judge Poe by his work, one
might think that he had suffered a long nightmare. Of this familiar
experience, his youth, his army training, his meeting with other men, his
impressions of nature or humanity, there is hardly a trace in his work; of
despair, terror and hallucinations there is a plethora.
His method was at once haphazard and carefully elaborated,--a paradox, it
seems, till we examine his work or read his records thereof. In his poetry
words appealed to him, as they appeal to some children, not so much for
their meaning as for their sound. Thus the word "nevermore," a gloomy,
terrible word, comes into his mind, and he proceeds to brood over it. The
shadow of a great loss is in the word, and loss meant to Poe the loss of
beauty in the form of a woman; therefore he invents "the lost Lenore" to
rime with his "nevermore." Some outward figure of despair is now needed,
something that will appeal to the imagination; and for that Poe selects the
sable bird that poets have used since Anglo-Saxon times as a symbol of
gloom or mystery. Then carefully, line by line, he hammers out "The Raven,"
a poem which from beginning to end is built around the word "nevermore"
with its suggestion of pitiless memories.
Or again, Poe is sitting at the bedside of his dead wife when another word
suddenly appeals to him. It is Shakespeare's
Duncan is in his grave;
After life's fitful fever he sleeps well.
And from that word is born "For Annie," with an ending to the first stanza
which is an epitome of the poem, and which Longfellow suggested as a
fitting epitaph for Poe's tomb:
And the fever called "Living"
Is conquered at last.
He reads Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and his "Manuscript
Found in a Bottle" is the elaborated result of his chance inspiration. He
sees Cooper make a success of a sea tale, and Irving of a journal of
exploration; and, though he knows naught of the sea or the prairie, he
produces his hair-raising Arthur Gordon Pym and his Journal of
Julius Rodman. Some sailor's yarn of a maelstrom in the North Sea comes
to his ears, and he fabricates a story of a man who went into the
whirlpool. He sees a newspaper account of a premature burial, and his
"House of Usher" and several other stories reflect the imagined horror of
such an experience. The same criticism applies to his miscellaneous
thrillers, in which with rare cunning he uses phantoms, curtains, shadows,
cats, the moldy odor of the grave,--and all to make a gruesome tale
inspired by some wild whim or nightmare.
In fine, no other American writer ever had so slight a human basis for his
work; no other ever labored more patiently or more carefully. The unending
controversy over Poe commonly reduces itself to this deadlock: one reader
asks, "What did he do that was worth a man's effort in the doing?" and
another answers, "What did he do that was not cleverly, skillfully done?"