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Letters to Dead Poets: To Edgar Allan Poe

by Andrew Lang

Sir,—Your English readers, better acquainted with your poems and romances than with your criticisms, have long wondered at the indefatigable hatred which pursues your memory.  You, who knew the men, will not marvel that certain microbes of letters, the survivors of your own generation, still harass your name with their malevolence, while old women twitter out their incredible and unheeded slanders in the literary papers of New York.  But their persistent animosity does not quite suffice to explain the dislike with which many American critics regard the greatest poet, perhaps the greatest literary genius, of their country.  With a commendable patriotism, they are not apt to rate native merit too low; and you, I think, are the only example of an American prophet almost without honour in his own country.

The recent publication of a cold, careful, and in many respects admirable study of your career (“Edgar Allan Poe,” by George Woodberry: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., Boston) reminds English readers who have forgotten it, and teaches those who never knew it, that you were, unfortunately, a Reviewer.  How unhappy were the necessities, how deplorable the vein, that compelled or seduced a man of your eminence into the dusty and stony ways of contemporary criticism!  About the writers of his own generation a leader of that generation should hold his peace.  He should neither praise nor blame nor defend his equals; he should not strike one blow at the buzzing ephemeræ of letters.  The breath of their life is in the columns of “Literary Gossip;” and they should be allowed to perish with the weekly advertisements on which they pasture.  Reviewing, of course, there must needs be; but great minds should only criticise the great who have passed beyond the reach of eulogy or fault-finding.

Unhappily, taste and circumstances combined to make you a censor; you vexed a continent, and you are still unforgiven.  What “irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong,” drove you (in Mr. Longfellow’s own words) to attack his pure and beneficent Muse we may never ascertain.  But Mr. Longfellow forgave you easily; for pardon comes easily to the great.  It was the smaller men, the Daweses, Griswolds, and the like, that knew not how to forget.  “The New Yorkers never forgave him,” says your latest biographer; and one scarcely marvels at the inveteracy of their malice.  It was not individual vanity alone, but the whole literary class that you assailed.  “As a literary people,” you wrote, “we are one vast perambulating humbug.”  After that declaration of war you died, and left your reputation to the vanities yet writhing beneath your scorn.  They are writhing and writing still.  He who knows them need not linger over the attacks and defences of your personal character; he will not waste time on calumnies, tale-bearing, private letters, and all the noisome dust which takes so long in settling above your tomb.

For us it is enough to know that you were compelled to live by your pen, and that in an age when the author of “To Helen” and “The Cask of Amontillado” was paid at the rate of a dollar a column.  When such poverty was the mate of such pride as yours, a misery more deep than that of Burns, an agony longer than Chatterton’s, were inevitable and assured.  No man was less fortunate than you in the moment of his birth—infelix opportunitate vitæ.  Had you lived a generation later, honour, wealth, applause, success in Europe and at home, would all have been yours.  Within thirty years so great a change has passed over the profession of letters in America; and it is impossible to estimate the rewards which would have fallen to Edgar Poe, had chance made him the contemporary of Mark Twain and of “Called Back.”  It may be that your criticisms helped to bring in the new era, and to lift letters out of the reach of quite unlettered scribblers.  Though not a scholar, at least you had a respect for scholarship.  You might still marvel over such words as “objectional” in the new biography of yourself, and might ask what is meant by such a sentence as “his connection with it had inured to his own benefit by the frequent puffs of himself,” and so forth.

Best known in your own day as a critic, it is as a poet and a writer of short tales that you must live.  But to discuss your few and elaborate poems is a waste of time, so completely does your own brief definition of poetry, “the rhythmic creation of the beautiful,” exhaust your theory, and so perfectly is the theory illustrated by the poems.  Natural bent, and reaction against the example of Mr. Longfellow, combined to make you too intolerant of what you call the “didactic” element in verse.  Even if morality be not seven-eighths of our life (the exact proportion as at present estimated), there was a place even on the Hellenic Parnassus for gnomic bards, and theirs in the nature of the case must always be the largest public.

“Music is the perfection of the soul or the idea of poetry,” so you wrote; “the vagueness of exaltation aroused by a sweet air (which should be indefinite and never too strongly suggestive) is precisely what we should aim at in poetry.”  You aimed at that mark, and struck it again and again, notably in “Helen, thy beauty is to me,” in “The Haunted Palace,” “The Valley of Unrest,” and “The City in the Sea.”  But by some Nemesis which might, perhaps, have been foreseen, you are, to the world, the poet of one poem—“The Raven:” a piece in which the music is highly artificial, and the “exaltation” (what there is of it) by no means particularly “vague.”  So a portion of the public know little of Shelley but the “Skylark,” and those two incongruous birds, the lark and the raven, bear each of them a poet’s name, vivu’ per ora virum.  Your theory of poetry, if accepted, would make you (after the author of “Kubla Khan”) the foremost of the poets of the world; at no long distance would come Mr. William Morris as he was when he wrote “Golden Wings,” “The Blue Closet,” and “The Sailing of the Sword;” and, close up, Mr. Lear, the author of “The Yongi Bongi Bo,” an the lay of the “Jumblies.”

On the other hand Homer would sink into the limbo to which you consigned Molière.  If we may judge a theory by its results, when compared with the deliberate verdict of the world, your æsthetic does not seem to hold water.  The “Odyssey” is not really inferior to “Ulalume,” as it ought to be if your doctrine of poetry were correct, nor “Le Festin de Pierre” to “Undine.”  Yet you deserve the praise of having been constant, in your poetic practice, to your poetic principles—principles commonly deserted by poets who, like Wordsworth, have published their æsthetic system.  Your pieces are few; and Dr. Johnson would have called you, like Fielding, “a barren rascal.”  But how can a writer’s verses be numerous if with him, as with you, “poetry is not a pursuit but a passion . . . which cannot at will be excited with an eye to the paltry compensations or the more paltry commendations of mankind!”  Of you it may be said, more truly than Shelley said it of himself, that “to ask you for anything human, is like asking at a gin-shop for a leg of mutton.”

Humanity must always be, to the majority of men, the true stuff of poetry; and only a minority will thank you for that rare music which (like the strains of the fiddler in the story) is touched on a single string, and on an instrument fashioned from the spoils of the grave.  You chose, or you were destined

To vary from the kindly race of men;

and the consequences, which wasted your life, pursue your reputation.

For your stories has been reserved a boundless popularity, and that highest success—the success of a perfectly sympathetic translation.  By this time, of course, you have made the acquaintance of your translator, M. Charles Baudelaire, who so strenuously shared your views about Mr. Emerson and the Transcendentalists, and who so energetically resisted all those ideas of “progress” which “came from Hell or Boston.”  On this point, however, the world continues to differ from you and M. Baudelaire, and perhaps there is only the choice between our optimism and universal suicide or universal opium-eating.  But to discuss your ultimate ideas is perhaps a profitless digression from the topic of your prose romances.

An English critic (probably a Northerner at heart) has described them as “Hawthorne and delirium tremens.”  I am not aware that extreme orderliness, masterly elaboration, and unchecked progress towards a predetermined effect are characteristics of the visions of delirium.  If they be, then there is a deal of truth in the criticism, and a good deal of delirium tremens in your style.  But your ingenuity, your completeness, your occasional luxuriance of fancy and wealth of jewel-like words, are not, perhaps, gifts which Mr. Hawthorne had at his command.  He was a great writer—the greatest writer in prose fiction whom America has produced.  But you and he have not much in common, except a certain mortuary turn of mind and a taste for gloomy allegories about the workings of conscience.

I forbear to anticipate your verdict about the latest essays of American fiction.  These by no means follow in the lines which you laid down about brevity and the steady working to one single effect.  Probably you would not be very tolerant (tolerance was not your leading virtue) of Mr. Roe, now your countrymen’s favourite novelist.  He is long, he is didactic, he is eminently uninspired.  In the works of one who is, what you were called yourself, a Bostonian, you would admire, at least, the acute observation, the subtlety, and the unfailing distinction.  But, destitute of humour as you unhappily but undeniably were, you would miss, I fear, the charm of “Daisy Miller.”  You would admit the unity of effect secured in “Washington Square,” though that effect is as remote as possible from the terror of “The House of Usher” or the vindictive triumph of “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Farewell, farewell, thou sombre and solitary spirit: a genius tethered to the hack-work of the press, a gentleman among canaille, a poet among poetasters, dowered with a scholar’s taste without a scholar’s training, embittered by his sensitive scorn, and all unsupported by his consolations.