Poe occupies a peculiar place in American literature. He has been called our most interesting literary man. He stands alone for his intellectual brilliancy and his lamentable failure to use it wisely. No one can read his works intelligently without being impressed with his extraordinary ability. Whether poetry, criticism, or fiction, he shows extraordinary power in them all. But the moral element in life is the most important, and in this Poe was lacking. With him truth was not the first necessity. He allowed his judgment to be warped by friendship, and apparently sacrificed sincerity to the vulgar desire of gaining popular applause. Through intemperate habits, he was unable for any considerable length of time to maintain himself in a responsible or lucrative position. Fortune repeatedly opened to him an inviting door; but he constantly and ruthlessly abused her kindness.
Edgar Allan Poe descended from an honorable ancestry. His grandfather, David Poe, was a Revolutionary hero, over whose grave, as he kissed the sod, Lafayette pronounced the words, "Ici repose un coeur noble." His father, an impulsive and wayward youth, fell in love with an English actress, and forsook the bar for the stage. The couple were duly married, and acted with moderate success in the principal towns and cities of the country. It was during an engagement at Boston that the future poet was born, January 19, 1809. Two years later the wandering pair were again in Richmond, where within a few weeks of each other they died in poverty. They left three children, the second of whom, Edgar, was kindly received into the home of Mr. John Allan, a wealthy merchant of the city.
[Illustration: EDGAR ALLAN POE.]
The early training of Poe was misguided and unfortunate. The boy was remarkably pretty and precocious, and his foster-parents allowed no opportunity to pass without showing him off. After dinner in this elegant and hospitable home, he was frequently placed upon the table to drink to the health of the guests, and to deliver short declamations, for which he had inherited a decided talent. He was flattered and fondled and indulged in every way. Is it strange that under this training he acquired a taste for strong drink, and became opinionated and perverse?
In 1815 Mr. Allan went to England with his family to spend several years, and there placed the young Edgar at school in an ancient and historic town, which has since been swallowed up in the overflow of the great metropolis. The venerable appearance and associations of the town, as may be learned from the autobiographic tale of William Wilson, made a deep and lasting impression on the imaginative boy.
After five years spent in this English school, where he learned to read Latin and to speak French, he was brought back to America, and placed in a Richmond academy. Without much diligence in study, his brilliancy enabled him to take high rank in his classes. His skill in verse-making and in debate made him prominent in the school. He excelled in athletic exercises, but was not generally popular among his fellow-students. Conscious of his superior intellectual endowments, he was disposed to live apart and indulge in moody reverie. According to the testimony of one who knew him well at this time, he was "self-willed, capricious, inclined to be imperious, and though of generous impulses, not steadily kind, or even amiable."
In 1826, at the age of seventeen, Poe matriculated at the University of Virginia, and entered the schools of ancient and modern languages. Though he attended his classes with a fair degree of regularity, he was not slow in joining the fast set. Gambling seems to have become a passion with him, and he lost heavily. His reckless expenditures led Mr. Allan to visit Charlottesville for the purpose of inquiring into his habits. The result appears not to have been satisfactory; and though his adopted son won high honors in Latin and French, Mr. Allan refused to allow him to return to the university after the close of his first session, and placed him in his own counting-room.
It is not difficult to foresee the next step in the drama before us. Many a genius of far greater self-restraint and moral earnestness has found the routine of business almost intolerably irksome. With high notions of his own ability, and with a temper rebellious to all restraint, Poe soon broke away from his new duties, and started out to seek his fortune. He went to Boston; and, in eager search for fame and money, he resorted to the rather unpromising expedient of publishing, in 1827, a small volume of poems. Viewed in the light of his subsequent career, the volume gives here and there an intimation of the author's genius; but, as was to be expected, it attracted but little attention. He was soon reduced to financial straits, and in his pressing need he enlisted, under an assumed name, in the United States army. He served at Fort Moultrie, and afterward at Fortress Monroe. He rose to the rank of sergeant major; and, according to the testimony of his superiors, he was "exemplary in his deportment, prompt and faithful in the discharge of his duties."
In 1829, when his heart was softened by the death of his wife, Mr. Allan became reconciled to his adopted but wayward son. Through his influence, young Poe secured a discharge from the army, and obtained an appointment as cadet at West Point. He entered the military academy July 1, 1830, and, as usual, established a reputation for brilliancy and folly. He was reserved, exclusive, discontented, and censorious. As described by a classmate, "He was an accomplished French scholar, and had a wonderful aptitude for mathematics, so that he had no difficulty in preparing his recitations in his class, and in obtaining the highest marks in these departments. He was a devourer of books; but his great fault was his neglect of and apparent contempt for military duties. His wayward and capricious temper made him at times utterly oblivious or indifferent to the ordinary routine of roll call, drills, and guard duties. These habits subjected him often to arrest and punishment, and effectually prevented his learning or discharging the duties of a soldier." The final result may be easily anticipated: at the end of six months, he was summoned before a court-martial, tried, and expelled.
Before leaving West Point, Poe arranged for the publication of a volume of poetry, which appeared in New York in 1831. This volume, to which the students of the academy subscribed liberally in advance, is noteworthy in several particulars. In a prefatory letter Poe lays down the poetic principle to which he endeavored to conform his productions. It throws much light on his poetry by exhibiting the ideal at which he aimed. "A poem, in my opinion," he says, "is opposed to a work of science by having for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with in definite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definiteness." Music embodied in a golden mist of thought and sentiment— this is Poe's poetic ideal.
As illustrative of his musical rhythm, the following lines from Al
Aaraaf may be given:—
My beautiful one!
Whose harshest idea
Will to melody run,
O! is it thy will
On the breezes to toss?
Or, capriciously still,
Like the lone Albatross,
Incumbent on night
(As she on the air)
To keep watch with delight
On the harmony there?"
Or take the last stanza of Israfel:—
"If I could dwell
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
From my lyre within the sky."
The two principal poems in the volume under consideration—Al Aaraaf and Tamerlane—are obvious imitations of Moore and Byron. The beginning of Al Aaraaf, for example, might easily be mistaken for an extract from Lalla Rookh, so similar are the rhythm and rhyme:—
"O! nothing earthly save the ray
(Thrown back from flowers) of Beauty's eye,
As in those gardens where the day
Springs from the gems of Circassy—
O! nothing earthly save the thrill
Of melody in woodland rill—
Or (music of the passion-hearted)
Joy's voice so peacefully departed
That, like the murmur in the shell,
Its echo dwelleth and will dwell—
Oh, nothing of the dross of ours—
Yet all the beauty—all the flowers
That list our Love, and deck our bowers—
Adorn yon world afar, afar—
The wandering star."
After his expulsion from West Point, Poe appears to have gone to Richmond; but the long-suffering of Mr. Allan, who had married again after the death of his first wife, was at length exhausted. He refused to extend any further recognition to one whom he had too much reason to regard as unappreciative and undeserving. Accordingly Poe was thrown upon his own resources for a livelihood. He settled in Baltimore, where he had a few acquaintances and friends, and entered upon that literary career which is without parallel in American literature for its achievements, its vicissitudes, and its sorrows. With no qualification for the struggle of life other than intellectual brilliancy, he bitterly atoned, through disappointment and suffering, for his defects of temper, lack of judgment, and habits of intemperance.
In 1833 the Baltimore Saturday Visitor offered a prize of one hundred dollars for the best prose story. This prize Poe won by his tale, A Ms. Found in a Bottle. This success may be regarded as the first step in his literary career. The ability displayed in this fantastic tale brought him to the notice of John P. Kennedy, Esq., who at once befriended him in his distress, and aided him in his literary projects. He gave Poe, whom he found in extreme poverty, free access to his home and, to use his own words, "brought him up from the very verge of despair."
After a year or more of hack work in Baltimore, Poe, through the influence of his kindly patron, obtained employment on the Southern Literary Messenger, and removed to Richmond in 1835. Here he made a brilliant start; life seemed to open before him full of promise. In a short time he was promoted to the editorship of the Messenger, and by his tales, poems, and especially his reviews, he made that periodical very popular. In a twelve-month he increased its subscription list from seven hundred to nearly five thousand, and made the magazine a rival of theKnickerbocker and the New Englander. He was loudly praised by the Southern press, and was generally regarded as one of the foremost writers of the day.
In the Messenger Poe began his work as a critic. It is hardly necessary to say that his criticism was of the slashing kind. He became little short of a terror. With a great deal of critical acumen and a fine artistic sense, he made relentless war on pretentious mediocrity, and rendered good service to American letters by enforcing higher literary standards. He was lavish in his charges of plagiarism; and he made use of cheap, second-hand learning in order to ridicule the pretended scholarship of others. He often affected an irritating and contemptuous superiority. But with all his humbug and superciliousness, his critical estimates, in the main, have been sustained.
The bright prospects before Poe were in a few months ruthlessly blighted. Perhaps he relied too much on his genius and reputation. It is easy for men of ability to overrate their importance. Regarding himself, perhaps, as indispensable to the Messenger, he may have relaxed in vigilant self-restraint. It has been claimed that he resigned the editorship in order to accept a more lucrative offer in New York; but the sad truth seems to be that he was dismissed on account of his irregular habits.
After eighteen months in Richmond, during which he had established a brilliant literary reputation, Poe was again turned adrift. He went to New York, where his story, The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, was published by the Harpers in 1838. It is a tale of the sea, written with the simplicity of style and circumstantiality of detail that give such charm to the works of Defoe. In spite of the fact that Cooper and Marryat had created a taste for sea-tales, this story never became popular. It is superabundant in horrors—a vein that had a fatal fascination for the morbid genius of Poe.
The same year in which this story appeared, Poe removed to Philadelphia, where he soon found work on the Gentleman's Magazine, recently established by the comedian Burton. He soon rose to the position of editor-in-chief, and his talents proved of great value to the magazine. His tales and critiques rapidly increased its circulation. But the actor, whose love of justice does him great credit, could not approve of his editor's sensational criticism. In a letter written when their cordial relations were interrupted for a time, Burton speaks very plainly and positively: "I cannot permit the magazine to be made a vehicle for that sort of severity which you think is so 'successful with the mob. I am truly much less anxious about making a monthly 'sensation' than I am upon the point of fairness…. You say the people love havoc. I think they love justice." Poe did not profit by his experience at Richmond, and after a few months he was dismissed for neglect of duty.
He was out of employment but a short time. In November, 1840, Graham's Magazine was established, and Poe appointed editor. At no other period of his life did his genius appear to better advantage. Thrilling stories and trenchant criticisms followed one another in rapid succession. His articles on autography and cryptology attracted widespread attention. In the former he attempted to illustrate character by the handwriting; and in the latter he maintained that human ingenuity cannot invent a cipher that human ingenuity cannot resolve. In the course of a few months the circulation of the magazine (if its own statements may be trusted) increased from eight thousand to forty thousand—a remarkable circulation for that time.
His criticism was based on the rather violent assumption "that, as a literary people, we are one vast perambulating humbug." In most cases, he asserted, literary prominence was achieved "by the sole means of a blustering arrogance, or of a busy wriggling conceit, or of the most bare-faced plagiarism, or even through the simple immensity of its assumptions." These fraudulent reputations he undertook, "with the help of a hearty good will" (which no one will doubt) "to tumble down." He admitted that there were a few who rose above absolute "idiocy." "Mr. Bryant is not all a fool. Mr. Willis is not quite an ass. Mr. Longfellow will steal but, perhaps, he cannot help it (for we have heard of such things), and then it must not be denied that nil tetigit quod non ornavit." But, in spite of such reckless and extravagant assertion, there was still too much acumen and force in his reviews for them to be treated with indifference or contempt.
In about eighteen months Poe's connection with Graham was dissolved. The reason has not been made perfectly clear; but from what we already know, it is safe to charge it to Poe's infirmity of temper or of habit. His protracted sojourn in Philadelphia was now drawing to a close. It had been the most richly productive, as well as the happiest, period of his life. For a time, sustained by appreciation and hope, he in a measure overcame his intemperate habits. Griswold, his much-abused biographer, has given us an interesting description of him and his home at this time: "His manner, except during his fits of intoxication, was very quiet and gentlemanly; he was usually dressed with simplicity and elegance; and when once he sent for me to visit him, during a period of illness caused by protracted and anxious watching at the side of his sick wife, I was impressed by the singular neatness and the air of refinement in his home. It was in a small house, in one of the pleasant and silent neighborhoods far from the center of the town; and, though slightly and cheaply furnished, everything in it was so tasteful and so fitly disposed that it seemed altogether suitable for a man of genius."
It was during his residence in Philadelphia that Poe wrote his choicest stories. Among the masterpieces of this period are to be mentioned The Fall of the House of Usher, Ligeia, which he regarded as his best tale The Descent into the Maelstrom, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Mystery of Marie Roget. The general character of his tales may be inferred from their titles. Poe delighted in the weird, fantastic, dismal, horrible. There is no warmth of human sympathy, no moral consciousness, no lessons of practical wisdom. His tales are the product of a morbid but powerful imagination. His style is in perfect keeping with his peculiar gifts. He had a highly developed artistic sense. By his air of perfect candor, his minuteness of detail, and his power of graphic description, he gains complete mastery over the soul, and leads us almost to believe the impossible. Within the limited range of his imagination (for he was by no means the universal genius he fancied himself to be) he is unsurpassed, perhaps, by any other American writer.
Poe's career had now reached its climax, and after a time began its rapid descent. In 1844 he moved to New York, where for a year or two his life did not differ materially from what it had been in Philadelphia. He continued to write his fantastic tales, for which he was poorly paid, and to do editorial work, by which he eked out a scanty livelihood. He was employed by N. P. Willis for a few months on the Evening Mirror as sub-editor and critic, and was regularly "at his desk from nine in the morning till the paper went to press."
It was in this paper, January 29, 1845, that his greatest poem, The Raven, was published with a flattering commendation by Willis. It laid hold of the popular fancy; and, copied throughout the length and breadth of the land, it met a reception never before accorded to an American poem. Abroad its success was scarcely less remarkable and decisive. "This vivid writing," wrote Mrs. Browning, "this power which is felt, has produced a sensation here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it, and some by the music. I hear of persons who are haunted by the 'Nevermore'; and an acquaintance of mine, who has the misfortune of possessing a bust of Pallas, cannot bear to look at it in the twilight."
In 1845 Poe was associated with the management of the Broadway Journal, which in a few months passed entirely into his hands. He had long desired to control a periodical of his own, and in Philadelphia had tried to establish a magazine. But, however brilliant as an editor, he was not a man of administrative ability; and in three months he was forced to suspend publication for want of means. Shortly afterward he published in Godey's Lady's Book a series of critical papers entitled Literati of New York. The papers, usually brief, are gossipy, interesting, sensational, with an occasional lapse into contemptuous and exasperating severity.
In the same year he published a tolerably complete edition of his poems in the revised form in which they now appear in his works. The volume contained nearly all the poems upon which his poetic fame justly rests. Among those that may be regarded as embodying his highest poetic achievement are The Raven, Lenore, Ulalume, The Bells, Annabel Lee, The Haunted Palace, The Conqueror Worm, The City in the Sea, Eulalie, and Israfel. Rarely has so large a fame rested on so small a number of poems, and rested so securely. His range of themes, it will be noticed, is very narrow. As in his tales, he dwells in a weird, fantastic, or desolate region—usually under the shadow of death. He conjures up unearthly landscapes as a setting for his gloomy and morbid fancies. In The City in the Sea, for example:—
"There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie."
He conformed his poetic efforts to his theory that a poem should be short. He maintained that the phrase "'a long poem' is simply a flat contradiction in terms." His strong artistic sense gave him a firm mastery over form. He constantly uses alliteration, assonance, repetition, and refrain. These artifices form an essential part of The Raven, Lenore, and The Bells. In his poems, as in his tales, Poe was less anxious to set forth an experience or a truth than to make an impression. His poetry aims at beauty in a purely artistic sense, unassociated with truth or morals. It is, for the most part, singularly vague, unsubstantial, and melodious. Some of his poems—and precisely those in which his genius finds its highest expression—defy complete analysis. Ulalume, for instance, remains obscure after the twentieth perusal—its meaning lost in a haze of mist and music. Yet these poems, when read in a sympathetic mood, never fail of their effect. They are genuine creations; and, as a fitting expression of certain mental states, they possess an indescribable charm, something like the spell of the finest instrumental music. There is no mistaking Poe's poetic genius. Though not the greatest, he is still the most original, of our poets, and has fairly earned the high esteem in which his gifts are held in America and Europe.
During his stay in New York, Poe was often present in the literary gatherings of the metropolis. He was sometimes accompanied by his sweet, affectionate, invalid wife, whom in her fourteenth year he had married in Richmond. According to Griswold, "His conversation was at times almost supramortal in its eloquence. His voice was modulated with astonishing skill; and his large and variably expressive eyes looked repose or shot fiery tumult into theirs who listened, while his own face glowed, or was changeless in pallor, as his imagination quickened his blood or drew it back frozen to his heart." His writings are unstained by a single immoral sentiment.
Toward the latter part of his sojourn in New York, the hand of poverty and want pressed upon him sorely. The failing health of his wife, to whom his tender devotion is beyond all praise, was a source of deep and constant anxiety. For a time he became an object of charity—a humiliation that was exceedingly galling to his delicately sensitive nature. To a sympathetic friend, who lent her kindly aid in this time of need, we owe a graphic but pathetic picture of Poe's home shortly before the death of his almost angelic wife: "There was no clothing on the bed, which was only straw, but a snow-white counterpane and sheets. The weather was cold, and the sick lady had the dreadful chills that accompany the hectic fever of consumption. She lay on the straw bed, wrapped in her husband's great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her bosom. The wonderful cat seemed conscious of her great usefulness. The coat and the cat were the sufferer's only means of warmth, except as her husband held her hands, and her mother her feet." She died January 30, 1847.
After this event Poe was never entirely himself again. The immediate effect of his bereavement was complete physical and mental prostration, from which he recovered only with difficulty. His subsequent literary work deserves scarcely more than mere mention. His Eureka, an ambitious treatise, the immortality of which he confidently predicted, was a disappointment and failure. He tried lecturing, but with only moderate success. His correspondence at this time reveals a broken, hysterical, hopeless man. In his weakness, loneliness, and sorrow, he resorted to stimulants with increasing frequency. Their terrible work was soon done. On his return from a visit to Richmond, he stopped in Baltimore, where he died from the effects of drinking, October 7, 1849.
Thus ended the tragedy of his life. It is as depressing as one of his own morbid, fantastic tales. His career leaves a painful sense of incompleteness and loss. With greater self-discipline, how much more he might have accomplished for himself and for others! Gifted, self-willed, proud, passionate, with meager moral sense, he forfeited success by his perversity and his vices. From his own character and experience he drew the unhealthy and pessimistic views to which he has given expression in the maddening poem, The Conqueror Worm. And if there were not happier and nobler lives, we might well say with him, as we stand by his grave:—
"Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
And the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy 'Man,'
And its hero the Conqueror Worm."
[Illustration: PAUL HAMILTON HAYNE.]