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Edgar Allan Poe's Early Poetry

by Sherwin Cody

We have seen how persistently Poe clung to his poetry. Three times he published the little volume of his verses, revising, enlarging, and strengthening. In those days there was no market for poetic writing, and as Poe wrote in a strange, weird style, it is not remarkable that no one took any notice of the contents of his little volumes. It was his own opinion, however, that these early poems contained more real poetic imagination than his later successes, and it is perhaps as well that we should begin our study of Poe with some of the first fruits of his genius.

First let us read that most pathetic of autobiographical poems, "Alone." With strange sincerity and directness the poet tells us how his spirit grew and learned the burden of its melancholy, yet scintillating song:

  From childhood's hour I have not been
  As others were,—I have not seen
  As others saw,—I could not bring
  My passions from a common spring.
  From the same source I have not taken
  My sorrow; I could not awaken
  My heart to joy at the same tone;
  And all I loved, I loved alone.
  Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
  Of a most stormy life was drawn

  From every depth of good and ill
  The mystery which binds me still:
  From the torrent, or the fountain,
  From the red cliff of the mountain,
  From the sun that round me rolled
  In its autumn tint of gold,—
  From the lightning in the sky
  As it passed me flying by,—
  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.

As a poem written in early youth we should not expect this to be as perfect as "The Raven," for instance. Let us see if we can find some of its faults, as well as some of its beauties:

First, we notice that it ends rather abruptly, as if it were unfinished. In his essay on "The Poetic Principle" Poe pointed out that many a poem fails of its effect by being too short. It must not be so long that one is wearied out before it can be read through; at the same time it must be long enough to convey the whole of the idea. This poem of his own is an example of the fault he himself pointed out. It is too short to give us clear ideas of all he evidently had in his mind. We notice, also, that it is rhymed in couplets, that is, every two lines are rhymed together. Now the couplets in the last half of the poem seem to strike the ear with more satisfaction than those in the first part. For instance, we are pleased with the sound of these lines:

  From the torrent, or the fountain,
  From the red cliff of the mountain.

But in some of the lines the pauses of punctuation do not come at the right points to make smooth reading:

  From the same source I have not taken
  My sorrow; I could not awaken
  My heart to joy at the same tone;
  And all I loved, I loved alone.

The semicolon after "sorrow" should have come at the end of the line instead of in the middle. Poe had not yet learned the secret of the rhythmic flow which we find in such perfection in "The Bells," for instance.

But in the last part of the poem we find a beauty of image and comparison that thrills us, and something of that strange, weird suggestiveness which was characteristic of all of Poe's poetry, the thing he has in common with no other poet.

This weird suggestiveness is found in still greater vividness in another poem entitled "The Lake." In this, besides, we see how Poe had a sort of fascination for the horrible. Notice how he says:

  Yet that terror was not fright,
  But a tremulous delight.

Here is the complete poem. The young student of poetry may study it for himself, and discover, if he can, its shortcomings, as we have pointed out the faults in the poem "Alone."

  In spring of youth it was my lot
  To haunt of the wide world a spot
  The which I could not love the less,—
  So lovely was the loveliness
  Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
  And the tall pines that towered around.
  But when the night had thrown her pall
  Upon that spot as upon all,

  And the mystic wind went by
  Murmuring in melody,—
  Then,—ah, then I would awake
  To the terror of the lone lake.
  Yet that terror was not fright,
  But a tremulous delight,—
  A feeling not the jeweled mine
  Could teach or bribe me to define,—
  Nor Love—although the Love were thine.

  Death was in that poisonous wave,
  And its gulf a fitting grave
  For him who thence could solace bring
  To his lone imagining,—
  Whose solitary soul could make
  An Eden of that dim lake.

These poems are chiefly interesting as they give us some idea of the nature of the young poet's mind. Poe had what may be called a scientific mind, infused through and through with poetry. At times he was exact, keen-minded, and patient as the scientist; then again he wandered away into mere fanciful suggestion of things that "never were on land or sea." His scientific turn we see in his detective stories; his poetic nature we see struggling against this intellectual exactness in the following sonnet:

  Science! True daughter of Old Time thou art!
    Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
  Why preyest thou upon the poet's heart,
    Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
  How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
    Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
  To seek for treasure in the jeweled skies,
    Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
  Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
    And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
  To seek a shelter in some happier star?
    Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
  The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
    The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Book: Reflection on the Important Things