Who has not felt the weird fascination of Poe's strangely beautiful poem "The Raven"? Perhaps on some stormy evening you have read it until the "silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain" has "thrilled you, filled you, with fantastic terrors never felt before." That poem is the almost perfect mirror of the life of the man who wrote it—the most brilliant poetic genius in the whole range of American literature, the most unfortunate and unhappy.
Poe had a singular fate. When Longfellow and Bryant and Lowell and Holmes were winning their way to fame quietly and steadily, Poe was writing wonderful poems and wonderful stories, and more than that, he was inventing new principles and new artistic methods, on which other great writers in time to come should build their finest work; yet he barely escaped starvation, and the critics made it appear that, compared with such men as Longfellow and Bryant, he was more notorious than really great. Lowell in his "Fable for Critics" said:
"There comes Poe,… three fifths of him genius, and two fifths sheer fudge."
But now, fifty years after his death, we see how great a man Poe was. Poe invented the modern art of short story writing. His tales were translated into French by a famous writer named Charles Baudelaire. Other French writers saw how fine they were and modeled their work upon them. They learned the art of short story writing from Poe. Then these French stories were translated into English, and English and American writers have imitated them and adopted similar methods of writing.
Conan Doyle's detective stories would probably never have been written had not Poe first composed "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"; and the stories of horror and fear so common to-day are possible because Poe wrote "William Wilson," "The Black Cat," and other stories of the same kind.
Have you ever learned to scan poetry? If you have, you know that the rules which tell you that a foot is composed of one long syllable and one short one, two short syllables and one long one, or whatever else it may be, are frequently disregarded. You know, too, that some lines are cut off short at the end, and others are made a little too long. Why is this permitted? In his "Rationale of Verse," Poe explained all these things, and showed how the learned of past ages had made mistakes. In a subsequent chapter we shall see just what the relation between music and poetry is, and what Poe taught about the art of making poetry.
For years people thought that Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition," in which he tells in what a cold-blooded way he wrote "The Raven," was a joke; but in later times we have learned to understand what he meant and to know that he was very sensible in his methods of working.
When Poe was young he was not a very remarkable poet; but, as years went on and he learned more and more the art of writing, he rewrote and rewrote his verses until at last in conscious art he was almost, if not quite, the master poet of America.