EDGAR ALLAN POE
By James Russell Lowell
THE situation of American literature is anomalous. It has no centre, or,if it have, it is like that of the sphere of Hermes. It is dividedinto many systems, each revolving round its several suns, and oftenpresenting to the rest only the faint glimmer of a milk-and-water way.Our capital city, unlike London or Paris, is not a great central heartfrom which life and vigor radiate to the extremities, but resembles morean isolated umbilicus stuck down as near as may be to the centre of theland, and seeming rather to tell a legend of former usefulness than toserve any present need. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, each has itsliterature almost more distinct than those of the different dialectsof Germany; and the Young Queen of the West has also one of her own,of which some articulate rumor barely has reached us dwellers by theAtlantic.
Perhaps there is no task more difficult than the just criticism ofcontemporary literature. It is even more grateful to give praise whereit is needed than where it is deserved, and friendship so often seducesthe iron stylus of justice into a vague flourish, that she writes whatseems rather like an epitaph than a criticism. Yet if praise be givenas an alms, we could not drop so poisonous a one into any man’s hat. Thecritic’s ink may suffer equally from too large an infusion of nutgallsor of sugar. But it is easier to be generous than to be just, and wemight readily put faith in that fabulous direction to the hiding placeof truth, did we judge from the amount of water which we usually findmixed with it.
Remarkable experiences are usually confined to the inner life ofimaginative men, but Mr. Poe’s biography displays a vicissitude andpeculiarity of interest such as is rarely met with. The offspring of aromantic marriage, and left an orphan at an early age, he was adoptedby Mr. Allan, a wealthy Virginian, whose barren marriage-bed seemed thewarranty of a large estate to the young poet.
Having received a classical education in England, he returned home andentered the University of Virginia, where, after an extravagant course,followed by reformation at the last extremity, he was graduated withthe highest honors of his class. Then came a boyish attempt to join thefortunes of the insurgent Greeks, which ended at St. Petersburg, wherehe got into difficulties through want of a passport, from which hewas rescued by the American consul and sent home. He now entered themilitary academy at West Point, from which he obtained a dismissalon hearing of the birth of a son to his adopted father, by a secondmarriage, an event which cut off his expectations as an heir. The deathof Mr. Allan, in whose will his name was not mentioned, soon afterrelieved him of all doubt in this regard, and he committed himself atonce to authorship for a support. Previously to this, however, he hadpublished (in 1827) a small volume of poems, which soon ran throughthree editions, and excited high expectations of its author’s futuredistinction in the minds of many competent judges.
That no certain augury can be drawn from a poet’s earliest lispingsthere are instances enough to prove. Shakespeare’s first poems, thoughbrimful of vigor and youth and picturesqueness, give but a very faintpromise of the directness, condensation and overflowing moral of hismaturer works. Perhaps, however, Shakespeare is hardly a case inpoint, his “Venus and Adonis” having been published, we believe, in histwenty-sixth year. Milton’s Latin verses show tenderness, a fine eye fornature, and a delicate appreciation of classic models, but give no hintof the author of a new style in poetry. Pope’s youthful pieces haveall the sing-song, wholly unrelieved by the glittering malignityand eloquent irreligion of his later productions. Collins’ callownamby-pamby died and gave no sign of the vigorous and original geniuswhich he afterward displayed. We have never thought that the world lostmore in the “marvellous boy,” Chatterton, than a very ingenious imitatorof obscure and antiquated dulness. Where he becomes original (as it iscalled), the interest of ingenuity ceases and he becomes stupid. KirkeWhite’s promises were indorsed by the respectable name of Mr. Southey,but surely with no authority from Apollo. They have the merit of atraditional piety, which to our mind, if uttered at all, had been lessobjectionable in the retired closet of a diary, and in the sober raimentof prose. They do not clutch hold of the memory with the drowningpertinacity of Watts; neither have they the interest of his occasionalsimple, lucky beauty. Burns having fortunately been rescued by hishumble station from the contaminating society of the “Best models,” wrote well and naturally from the first. Had he been unfortunate enoughto have had an educated taste, we should have had a series of poems fromwhich, as from his letters, we could sift here and there a kernel fromthe mass of chaff. Coleridge’s youthful efforts give no promise whateverof that poetical genius which produced at once the wildest, tenderest,most original and most purely imaginative poems of modern times. Byron’s“Hours of Idleness” would never find a reader except from an intrepidand indefatigable curiosity. In Wordsworth’s first preludings thereis but a dim foreboding of the creator of an era. From Southey’s earlypoems, a safer augury might have been drawn. They show the patientinvestigator, the close student of history, and the unwearied explorerof the beauties of predecessors, but they give no assurances of a manwho should add aught to stock of household words, or to the rarerand more sacred delights of the fireside or the arbor. The earliestspecimens of Shelley’s poetic mind already, also, give tokens of thatethereal sublimation in which the spirit seems to soar above the regionsof words, but leaves its body, the verse, to be entombed, without hopeof resurrection, in a mass of them. Cowley is generally instanced as awonder of precocity. But his early insipidities show only a capacityfor rhyming and for the metrical arrangement of certain conventionalcombinations of words, a capacity wholly dependent on a delicatephysical organization, and an unhappy memory. An early poem is onlyremarkable when it displays an effort of _reason, _and the rudest versesin which we can trace some conception of the ends of poetry, are worthall the miracles of smooth juvenile versification. A school-boy, onewould say, might acquire the regular see-saw of Pope merely by anassociation with the motion of the play-ground tilt.
Mr. Poe’s early productions show that he could see through the verse tothe spirit beneath, and that he already had a feeling that all the lifeand grace of the one must depend on and be modulated by the will of theother. We call them the most remarkable boyish poems that we haveever read. We know of none that can compare with them for maturity ofpurpose, and a nice understanding of the effects of language and metre.Such pieces are only valuable when they display what we can only expressby the contradictory phrase of _innate experience. _We copy one of theshorter poems, written when the author was only fourteen. There is alittle dimness in the filling up, but the grace and symmetry of theoutline are such as few poets ever attain. There is a smack of ambrosiaabout it.
Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nicean barks of yore, That gently, o’er a perfumed sea, The weary, way-worn wanderer bore To his own native shore.
On desperate seas long wont to roam, Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face, Thy Naiad airs have brought me home To the glory that was Greece And the grandeur that was Rome.
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche How statue-like I see thee stand! The agate lamp within thy hand, Ah! Psyche, from the regions which Are Holy Land!
It is the tendency of the young poet that impresses us. Here is no“withering scorn,” no heart “blighted” ere it has safely got into itsteens, none of the drawing-room sansculottism which Byron had broughtinto vogue. All is limpid and serene, with a pleasant dash of the GreekHelicon in it. The melody of the whole, too, is remarkable. It is not ofthat kind which can be demonstrated arithmetically upon the tips ofthe fingers. It is of that finer sort which the inner ear alone_can _estimate. It seems simple, like a Greek column, because of itsperfection. In a poem named “Ligeia,” under which title he intendedto personify the music of nature, our boy-poet gives us the followingexquisite picture:
Ligeia! Ligeia! My beautiful one, Whose harshest idea Will to melody run, Say, 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?
John Neal, himself a man of genius, and whose lyre has been too longcapriciously silent, appreciated the high merit of these and similarpassages, and drew a proud horoscope for their author.
Mr. Poe had that indescribable something which men have agreed to call_genius_. No man could ever tell us precisely what it is, and yet thereis none who is not inevitably aware of its presence and its power. Lettalent writhe and contort itself as it may, it has no such magnetism.Larger of bone and sinew it may be, but the wings are wanting. Talentsticks fast to earth, and its most perfect works have still one foot ofclay. Genius claims kindred with the very workings of Nature herself, sothat a sunset shall seem like a quotation from Dante, and if Shakespearebe read in the very presence of the sea itself, his verses shall butseem nobler for the sublime criticism of ocean. Talent may make friendsfor itself, but only genius can give to its creations the divine powerof winning love and veneration. Enthusiasm cannot cling to what itselfis unenthusiastic, nor will he ever have disciples who has not himselfimpulsive zeal enough to be a disciple. Great wits are allied to madnessonly inasmuch as they are possessed and carried away by their demon,while talent keeps him, as Paracelsus did, securely prisoned in thepommel of his sword. To the eye of genius, the veil of the spiritualworld is ever rent asunder that it may perceive the ministers of goodand evil who throng continually around it. No man of mere talent everflung his inkstand at the devil.
When we say that Mr. Poe had genius, we do not mean to say that he hasproduced evidence of the highest. But to say that he possesses it atall is to say that he needs only zeal, industry, and a reverence for thetrust reposed in him, to achieve the proudest triumphs and the greenestlaurels. If we may believe the Longinuses and Aristotles of ournewspapers, we have quite too many geniuses of the loftiest order torender a place among them at all desirable, whether for its hardnessof attainment or its seclusion. The highest peak of our Parnassus is,according to these gentlemen, by far the most thickly settled portionof the country, a circumstance which must make it an uncomfortableresidence for individuals of a poetical temperament, if love ofsolitude be, as immemorial tradition asserts, a necessary part of theiridiosyncrasy.
Mr. Poe has two of the prime qualities of genius, a faculty of vigorousyet minute analysis, and a wonderful fecundity of imagination. The firstof these faculties is as needful to the artist in words, as a knowledgeof anatomy is to the artist in colors or in stone. This enables him toconceive truly, to maintain a proper relation of parts, and to draw acorrect outline, while the second groups, fills up and colors. Bothof these Mr. Poe has displayed with singular distinctness in his proseworks, the last predominating in his earlier tales, and the first in hislater ones. In judging of the merit of an author, and assigning him hisniche among our household gods, we have a right to regard him fromour own point of view, and to measure him by our own standard. But,in estimating the amount of power displayed in his works, we must begoverned by his own design, and placing them by the side of his ownideal, find how much is wanting. We differ from Mr. Poe in his opinionsof the objects of art. He esteems that object to be the creation ofBeauty, and perhaps it is only in the definition of that word that wedisagree with him. But in what we shall say of his writings, we shalltake his own standard as our guide. The temple of the god of song isequally accessible from every side, and there is room enough in it forall who bring offerings, or seek in oracle.
In his tales, Mr. Poe has chosen to exhibit his power chiefly in thatdim region which stretches from the very utmost limits of the probableinto the weird confines of superstition and unreality. He combines ina very remarkable manner two faculties which are seldom found united; apower of influencing the mind of the reader by the impalpable shadowsof mystery, and a minuteness of detail which does not leave a pin ora button unnoticed. Both are, in truth, the natural results of thepredominating quality of his mind, to which we have before alluded,analysis. It is this which distinguishes the artist. His mind at oncereaches forward to the effect to be produced. Having resolved to bringabout certain emotions in the reader, he makes all subordinate partstend strictly to the common centre. Even his mystery is mathematicalto his own mind. To him X is a known quantity all along. In any picturethat he paints he understands the chemical properties of all hiscolors. However vague some of his figures may seem, however formlessthe shadows, to him the outline is as clear and distinct as that ofa geometrical diagram. For this reason Mr. Poe has no sympathy withMysticism. The Mystic dwells in the mystery, is enveloped with it; itcolors all his thoughts; it affects his optic nerve especially, and thecommonest things get a rainbow edging from it. Mr. Poe, on the otherhand, is a spectator _ab extra_. He analyzes, he dissects, he watches
“with an eye serene, The very pulse of the machine,”
for such it practically is to him, with wheels and cogs and piston-rods,all working to produce a certain end.
This analyzing tendency of his mind balances the poetical, and by givinghim the patience to be minute, enables him to throw a wonderful realityinto his most unreal fancies. A monomania he paints with great power. Heloves to dissect one of these cancers of the mind, and to trace all thesubtle ramifications of its roots. In raising images of horror, also,he has strange success, conveying to us sometimes by a dusky hintsome terrible _doubt _which is the secret of all horror. He leaves toimagination the task of finishing the picture, a task to which only sheis competent.
“For much imaginary work was there; Conceit deceitful, so compact, so kind, That for Achilles’ image stood his spear Grasped in an armed hand; himself behind Was left unseen, save to the eye of mind.”
Besides the merit of conception, Mr. Poe’s writings have also that ofform.
His style is highly finished, graceful and truly classical. It would behard to find a living author who had displayed such varied powers. As anexample of his style we would refer to one of his tales, “The Houseof Usher,” in the first volume of his “Tales of the Grotesque andArabesque.” It has a singular charm for us, and we think that no onecould read it without being strongly moved by its serene and sombrebeauty. Had its author written nothing else, it would alone have beenenough to stamp him as a man of genius, and the master of a classicstyle. In this tale occurs, perhaps, the most beautiful of his poems.
The great masters of imagination have seldom resorted to the vague andthe unreal as sources of effect. They have not used dread and horroralone, but only in combination with other qualities, as means ofsubjugating the fancies of their readers. The loftiest muse has ever ahousehold and fireside charm about her. Mr. Poe’s secret lies mainly inthe skill with which he has employed the strange fascination of mysteryand terror. In this his success is so great and striking as to deservethe name of art, not artifice. We cannot call his materials the noblestor purest, but we must concede to him the highest merit of construction.
As a critic, Mr. Poe was aesthetically deficient. Unerring in hisanalysis of dictions, metres and plots, he seemed wanting in the facultyof perceiving the profounder ethics of art. His criticisms are, however,distinguished for scientific precision and coherence of logic. Theyhave the exactness, and at the same time, the coldness of mathematicaldemonstrations. Yet they stand in strikingly refreshing contrast withthe vague generalisms and sharp personalities of the day. If deficientin warmth, they are also without the heat of partisanship. They areespecially valuable as illustrating the great truth, too generallyoverlooked, that analytic power is a subordinate quality of the critic.
On the whole, it may be considered certain that Mr. Poe has attained anindividual eminence in our literature which he will keep. He has givenproof of power and originality. He has done that which could only bedone once with success or safety, and the imitation or repetition ofwhich would produce weariness.