- The mournful and never ending remembrance of Edgar Allen Poe [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
Edgar Allan Poe
by Long, William J.

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.

Biographical Sketch

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 familiar experiences.

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.

His Wanderings

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.

First Success

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.

The Raven

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.

Poe's Fiction

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

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?"


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