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The Centenary of Edgar Allan Poe

by Edmund William Gosse

In the announcements of the approaching celebration of the centenary of Edgar Allan Poe in this country, the fact of his having been a poet was concealed. Perhaps his admirers hoped that it might be overlooked, as without importance, or condoned as the result of bad habits. At all events, the statement that the revels on that occasion would be conducted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was quite enough to prove that it was the prose writer of "The Black Cat" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," and not the verso writer of "Ulalume" and "Annabel Lee" who would be the centre of attention. On that side of Poe's genius, therefore, although it is illustrated by such masterpieces of sullen beauty as "The Fall of the House of Usher" and such triumphs of fantastic ingenuity as "The Gold Bug," I feel it needless to dwell here, the more as I think the importance of these tales very slight by the side of that of the best poems. Edgar Poe was, in my opinion, one of the most significant poetic artists of a century rich in poetic artists, and I hold it to be for this reason, and not because he wrote thrilling "detective" stories, that he deserves persistent commemoration.

The dominance of Poe as an important poetic factor of the nineteenth century has not been easily or universally admitted, and it is only natural to examine both the phenomena and the causes of the objections so persistently brought against it. In the first instance, if the fame of[Pg 104] Browning and Tennyson advanced slowly, it advanced firmly, and it was encouraged from the beginning by the experts, by the cultivated minority. Poe, on the other hand, was challenged, and his credentials were grudgingly inspected, by those who represented the finest culture of his own country, and the carpings of New England criticism are not quite silent yet. When he died, in 1849, the tribunal of American letters sat at Cambridge, in the neighbourhood of Boston, and it was ill-prepared to believe that anything poetical could deserve salvation if it proceeded from a place outside the magic circle. Edgar Poe, the son of Irish strolling players, called "The Virginia Comedians," settled in the South and was educated in England. By an odd coincidence, it now appears that he actually was a native, as it were by accident, of Boston itself. In the words of the Psalmist, "Lo! there was he born!" This Gentile poet, such was the then state of American literature, could not arrive on earth elsewhere than in the Jerusalem of Massachusetts. But that concession was not known to the high priests, the Lowells, the Holmeses, the Nortons, to whom Poe seemed a piratical intruder from Javan or Gadire.

Nothing is so discouraging to a young poet of originality as to find himself isolated. Everything new is regarded with suspicion and dislike by the general world of readers, and usually by the leaders of criticism as well. Yet the daring prophet feels supported if he has but his Aaron and his Hur. In the generation that immediately preceded Poe, Wordsworth and Coleridge had been derided, but they had enjoyed the emphatic approbation of one another and of Southey. Shelley had been a pariah of letters, yet he was cordially believed in by Byron and by Peacock. Even Keats could shrink from the mud-storms of the Scotch reviewers behind the confident zeal of Leigh Hunt and Reynolds. At a still later moment Rossetti and Morris[Pg 105] would shelter themselves securely, and even serenely, from the obloquy of criticism, within a slender peel-tower of the praise of friends. In all these cases there could be set against the stupidity of the world at large the comfortable cleverness of a few strong persons of taste, founded, as all good taste must be, upon principles. The poet could pride himself on his eclecticism, on his recognition within, as Keats said, "a little clan." But Poe's misfortune was to have no clan of his own, and to be rejected by precisely those persons who represented, and on the whole justly represented, good taste in America.

His behaviour in this predicament was what might have been expected from a man whose genius was more considerable than his judgment or his manners. He tried, at first, to conciliate the New England authorities, and he flattered not merely the greater planets but some of the very little stars. He danced, a plaintive Salome, before Christopher P. Cranch and Nathaniel P. Willis. When he found that his blandishments were of no avail, he turned savage, and tried to prove that he did not care, by being rude to Bryant and Longfellow. He called the whole solemn Sanhedrim a college of Frog-pondian professors. Thus, of course, he closed upon himself the doors of mercy, since the central aim and object of the excellent men who at that time ruled American literature was to prove that, in what this impertinent young man from Virginia called the Frog Pond, the United States possessed its Athens and its Weimar, its home of impeccable distinction. Indeed, but for the recognition of Europe, which began to flow in richly just as Poe ceased to be able to enjoy it, the prestige of this remarkable poet might have been successfully annihilated.

Nor was it only the synod of Boston wits who issued the edict that he should be ignored, but in England also many good judges of literature, especially those who belonged to the intellectual rather than the artistic class, could not[Pg 106] away with him. I recollect hearing Leslie Stephen say, now nearly thirty years ago, that to employ strong terms of praise for Poe was "simply preposterous." And one whom I admire so implicitly that I will not mention his name in a context which is not favourable to his judgment, wrote (in his haste) of Poe's "singularly valueless verses."

This opposition, modified, it is true, by the very different attitude adopted by Tennyson and most subsequent English poets, as well as by Baudelaire, Mallarmé and the whole younger school in France, was obstinately preserved, and has not wholly subsided. It would be a tactical mistake for those who wish to insist on Poe's supremacy in his own line to ignore the serious resistance which has been made to it. In the canonisation-trial of this whimsical saint, the Devil's advocates, it may be confessed, are many, and their objections are imposing. It is possible that local pique and a horror of certain crude surroundings may have had something to do with the original want of recognition in New England, but such sources of prejudice would be ephemeral. There remained, and has continued to remain, in the very essence of Poe's poetry, something which a great many sincere and penetrating lovers of verse cannot endure to admit as a dominant characteristic of the art.

To recognise the nature of this quality is to take the first step towards discovering the actual essence of Poe's genius. His detractors have said that his verses are "singularly valueless." It is therefore necessary to define what it is they mean by "value." If they mean an inculcation, in beautiful forms, of moral truth; if they mean a succession of ideas, clothed in exalted and yet definite language; if they are thinking of what stirs the heart in reading parts of Hamlet andComus, of what keeps the pulse vibrating after the "Ode to Duty" has been recited; then the verses of Poe are indeed without[Pg 107] value. A poet less gnomic than Poe, one from whom less, as they say in the suburbs, "can be learned," is scarcely to be found in the whole range of literature. His lack of curiosity about moral ideas is so complete that evil moves him no more than good. There have been writers of eccentric or perverse morality who have been so much irritated by the preaching of virtue that they have lent their genius to the recommendation of vice. This inversion of moral fervour is perhaps the source of most that is vaguely called "immoral" in imaginative literature. But Edgar Poe is as innocent of immorality as he is of morality. No more innocuous flowers than his are grown through the length and breadth of Parnassus. There is hardly a phrase in his collected writings which has a bearing upon any ethical question, and those who look for what Wordsworth called "chains of valuable thoughts" must go elsewhere.

In 1840 they might, in New England, go to Bryant, to Emerson, to Hawthorne; and it is more than excusable that those who were endeavouring to refine the very crude community in the midst of which they were anxiously holding up the agate lamp of Psyche, should see nothing to applaud in the vague and shadowy rhapsodies then being issued by a dissipated hack in Philadelphia. What the New England critics wanted, patriotically as well as personally, was as little like "Ulalume" as can possibly be conceived. They defined what poetry should be—there was about that time a mania for defining poetry—and what their definition was may be seen no less plainly in the American Fable for Critics than in the preface to the English Philip van Artevelde. It was to be picturesque, intellectual, pleasing; it was to deal, above all, with moral "truths"; it was to avoid vagueness and to give no uncertain sound; it was to regard "passion" with alarm, as the siren which was bound sooner or later to fling a bard upon the rocks. It is not necessary to treat[Pg 108] this conception of poetry with scorn, nor to reject principles of precise thought and clear, sober language, which had been illustrated by Wordsworth in the present and by Gray in the past. The ardent young critics of our own age, having thrown off all respect for the traditions of literature, speak and write as if to them, and them alone, had been divinely revealed the secrets of taste. They do not give themselves time to realise that in Apollo's house there are many mansions.

It is sufficient for us to note here that the discomfort of Poe's position resided in the fact that he was not admitted into so much as the forecourt of the particular mansion inhabited by Bryant and Lowell. There is a phrase in one of his own rather vague and "valueless" essays (for Poe was a poor critic) which, as it were accidentally, describes his ideal in poetry, although it is not his own verse of which he is speaking. He described—in 1845, when his ripe genius had just brought forth "The Raven"—the poetic faculty as producing "a sense of dreamy, wild, indefinite, and he would perhaps say, indefinable delight." This shadowy but absorbing and mastering pleasure impregnated his own best writings to such a degree that it gives us the measure of his unlikeness to his contemporaries, and states the claim of his individuality. Without precisely knowing it or perceiving his revolution, in an age of intelligent, tame, lucid and cautiously-defined poetry, Edgar Poe expressed the emotions which surged within him in numbers that were, even to excess, "dreamy, wild, indefinite and indefinable."

His early verses are remarkably exempt from the influences which we might expect to find impressed on them. He imitated, as every man of genuine originality imitates while he learns his trade, but his models were not, as might have been anticipated, Coleridge and Shelley; they were Byron and Scott. In the poetry of Byron and[Pg 109] Scott, Poe found nothing to transfer to his own nature, and the early imitations, therefore, left no trace on him. Brief as is the volume of his poems, half of it might be discarded without much regret. Scattered among his Byron and Scott imitations, however, we find a few pieces which reveal to us that, while he was still almost a child, the true direction of his genius was occasionally revealed to him. The lyric "To Helen," which is said to have been composed in his fourteenth year, is steeped in the peculiar purity, richness and vagueness which were to characterise his mature poems:—

"On desperate seas long wont to roam,Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,Thy Naiad airs have brought me homeTo the glory that was Greece,And the grandeur that was Rome."

This was not published, however, until the author was two-and-twenty, and it may have been touched up. Here is a fragment of a suppressed poem, "Visit of the Dead," which Poe certainly printed in his eighteenth year:—

"The breeze, the breath of God, is still,And the mist upon the hill,Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,Is a symbol and a token;How it hangs upon the trees,A mystery of mysteries!"

This is not so perfect, but it is even more than "To Helen" symptomatic of Poe's peculiar relation to the poetic faculty as fostering a state of indefinite and indeed indefinable delight. And from these faint breathings how direct is the advance to such incomparable specimens of symbolic fancy as "The City in the Sea," "The Sleeper," and finally "Ulalume"!

The determination to celebrate, in a minor key, indefinite and melancholy symbols of fancy, is a snare than[Pg 110] which none more dangerous can be placed in the path of a feeble foot. But Poe was not feeble, and he was protected, and permanent value was secured for his poetry, by the possession of one or two signal gifts to which attention must now be paid. He cultivated the indefinite, but, happily for us, in language so definite and pure that when he succeeds it is with a cool fulness, an absence of all fretting and hissing sound, such as can rarely be paralleled in English literature. The finest things in Milton's 1645 volume, Wordsworth at his very best, Tennyson occasionally, Collins in some of his shorter odes, have reached that perfection of syllabic sweetness, that clear sound of a wave breaking on the twilight sands, which Poe contrives to render, without an effort, again and again:—

"By a route obscure and lonely,Haunted by ill angels only,Where an Eidolon,[6] nam'd Night,On a black throne reigns upright,I have reached these lands but newlyFrom an ultimate dim Thule,From a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime.Out of space, out of time."

The present moment is one in which the reaction against plastic beauty in poetry has reached such a height that it is almost vain to appeal against it. There is scarcely a single English poet of consequence in the younger school who does not treat the strings of his lyre as though he were preluding with a slate-pencil upon a slate. That this is done purposely, and in accordance with mysterious harmonic laws entirely beyond the comprehension of ordinary ears, makes the matter worse. There is no heresiarch so dangerous as the priest of holy and self-abnegating life, and it is to a poet no less learned than Mr. Robert Bridges, that the twentieth century seems to owe the existing rage[Pg 111] for cacophony. He holds something of the same place in relation to Swinburne and Poe, that Donne did to Spenser three hundred years ago. In this condition of things it may seem useless to found any claim for Poe on the ground of the exquisite mellifluousness of his versification. We may hope, however, some day to regain the use of our ears, and to discover once more that music and metre are utterly distinct arts. When that re-discovery has been made, Poe will resume his position as one of the most uniformly melodious of all those who have used the English language.

Critics who have admitted the extraordinary perfection of his prosody have occasionally objected that in the most popular examples of it, "The Raven" and "The Bells," he obtains his effect by a trick. It might be objected, with equal force, that Victor Hugo in "Les Djinns" and even Tennyson in "The Lotus Eaters" made use of "tricks." On the other hand, if the charge be deserved, it seems odd that in the course of nearly seventy years no other juggler or conjurer has contrived to repeat the wonderful experiment. In each poem there are what must be judged definite errors against taste in detail—Poe's taste was never very sure—but the skill of the long voluptuous lamentation, broken at equal intervals by the croak of the raven, and that of the verbal translation, as if into four tones or languages, of the tintinabulation of the bells, is so extraordinary, so original, and so closely in keeping with the personal genius of the writer, that it is surely affectation to deny its value.

It is not, however, in "The Bells" or in "The Raven," marvellous as are these tours de force, that we see the essential greatness of Poe revealed. The best of his poems are those in which he deals less boisterously with the sentiment of mystery. During the latest months of his unhappy life, he composed three lyrics which, from a[Pg 112] technical point of view, must be regarded not only as the most interesting, which he wrote, but as those which have had the most permanent effect upon subsequent literature, not in England merely, but in France. These are "Ulalume," "Annabel Lee," "For Annie." One of Poe's greatest inventions was the liquidation of stanzaic form, by which he was able to mould it to the movements of emotion without losing its essential structure. Many poets had done this with the line; it was left for Poe to do it with the stanza. In the three latest lyrics this stanzaic legerdemain is practised with an enchanting lightness, an ecstasy of sinuous and elastic grace. Perhaps, had it been subjected to the poet's latest revision, "For Annie" would have been the most wonderful of all in the sensitive response of its metre to the delicate fluctuations of sentiment.

We may, then, briefly summarise that Poe's first claim to commemoration is that he was the pioneer in restoring to the art of poetry a faculty which it had almost lost in its attempt to compete with science and philosophy. It had become the aim of the poets to state facts; it was given to Poe to perceive that no less splendid a future lay before those who only hinted feelings. He was the earliest modern poet who substituted the symbol for the exact description of an object or an event. That "expression directe," about which the French have been debating for the last quarter of a century, and over which M. Adolphe Retté and M. Albert Mockel periodically dispute like Fathers of the Church, was perceived and was deliberately repudiated by Poe eighty years ago. He was deeply impregnated with the sense that the harmony of imagination is not destroyed, but developed, by drawing over a subject veil after veil of suggestion. His native temperament aided him in his research after the symbol. He was naturally a cultivator of terror, one who loved to[Pg 113] people the world with strange and indefinable powers. His dreams were innocent and agitating, occupied with supernatural terrors, weighed upon by the imminence of shadowy presentments. He trembled at he knew not what; in this he was related to the earliest poets of the world, and in his perpetual recurrence to symbol he recalls the action of their alarms.

The cardinal importance, then, of Poe as a poet is that he restored to poetry a primitive faculty of which civilisation seemed successfully to have deprived her. He rejected the doctrinal expression of positive things, and he insisted upon mystery and symbol. He endeavoured to clothe unfathomable thoughts and shadowy images in melody that was like the wind wandering over the strings of an æolian harp. In other words, he was the pioneer of a school which has spread its influence to the confines of the civilised world, and is now revolutionising literature. He was the discoverer and the founder of Symbolism.


Book: Shattered Sighs