Art Of Edgar Allen Poe

( Originally Published 1916 )


THE ordinary rules in classifying writers do not apply to Edgar Allan Poe. Of all American writers he has probably the widest international fame. Far more French than American in his genius, he was closer akin to Alfred de Musset or Guy de Maupassant than any English short-story writer. His was that precision in style and that dramatic force in plot which lends itself readily to translation into French. In an age when the writer was fond of asserting his presence, Poe preserved an attitude of aloofness that rivals that of Maupassant or Turgenieff. All his genius is devoted to producing certain dramatic effects and in this he succeeds by the use of words and pictures which fairly hypnotize the reader. It never occurs to one to criticize any of Poe's short stories or poems while reading it. In fact, once under the spell of this spiritual necromancer, the reader becomes a captive and is borne swiftly to the climax of tale or poem.

Poe had the greatest genius for literary form of any American writer. In his poems, as well as in his short stories, he labored so carefully to perfect his style, to secure the fitting word, that his fame was secure long before his death. In the final accounting of literary genius, say a hundred years after a writer's birth, form is the thing which assures permanent fame. Of course, high literary form presupposes thought or imagination behind it; but the best thought, cast in awkward or slovenly language, is not literature.

Poe is known as the writer of some of the most perfectly conceived and highly finished short stories in the language, as well as the author of a number of poems that are unique because of their melody and their haunting charm. In both departments of American literature he was a pioneer. He first developed what has come to be known as the detective story, working out all the details with a subtle originality that has never been surpassed. He also was the first to make real and convincing the mystery tale, drawn from science, which Jules Verne later carried to such high success. Poe had enormous patience' in gathering scientific data for such work, and his analytic mind took keen satisfaction in deductions which made clear and plain many bewildering mysteries. Poe also developed to the highest degree the cryptogram in such tales as The Gold Bug, setting a standard which no disciple has ever surpassed. And yet in all his work there is an absence of the man behind the artist, or, if he reveals himself at all, his personality is not pleasant.

It is the literary artist, not the man, who interests the reader in all Poe's work, whether in prose or in verse. As a poet he had natural command of melodious language, which has been surpassed in our day only by Swinburne, while his conceptions were so strange and unreal that they stamp themselves ineffaceably on the reader's mind. Poe's poetical genius delighted in pictures of woe; it moved with the greatest freedom when depicting blighted love and ruined lives. It was Byronic in its view of life, but it bore no trace of the hard cynicism of Don juan. Even The Raven, which is Poe's masterpiece, does not impress one as cynical. The Bells is a superb performance in the melody of words, while many of the shorter poems, notably those scattered through his short stories, are simply studies in words, as purely sensuous in their appeal to the ear as the music of Strauss. No thought can be discovered in these poems; they are merely variations on life and its lost illusions, in which Poe uses words instead of musical notes. Supreme melody atones for lack of thought or any real emotion. As far as genuine human feeling is concerned, Browning's Pippa Passes has more of real life in it than all of Poe's poems.

In common with the careers of other men of literary genius, Poe's life was uneventful. He came of a family of actors, but when only two years of age he was left an orphan and was adopted by Mrs. John Allan of Richmond. The family soon afterward went to London, and Edgar was sent to a school at Stoke Newington, near London, which he described in his story, William Wilson. Poe appears to have been a highly imaginative boy, with a keen taste for literature, but with none of the usual boy's pleasure in rough sports. He read widely and gained his intimate knowledge of the Bible from regular attendance at church and other religious functions with his foster mother. Allan, however, had a materialistic bent, and from books in his library Poe's natural inclination in the same direction was probably strengthened. Allan, who was a prosperous merchant, never liked the boy, and when Poe reached the proper age he had the lad sent to the University of Virginia.

As a student Poe excelled in literary studies, but he gambled and drank, and Allan soon refused to pay his debts. Thereupon Poe arranged to work his way to England, where he hoped to make his living by his pen. He was disappointed, but visited Paris and then returned to this country. In these years he constantly practiced writing verse, and in 1827 he issued a first volume of poems through a Boston publisher, entitled Tamerlane, but it excited no comment. He enlisted in the army and served two years, but his foster mother, learning of his occupation, induced her husband to secure his discharge. Allan was making arrangements to have Poe enter West Point when his wife died. With her ended all Poe's hopes of any assistance from Allan. Poe was devoted to literary work while preparing to enter the academy and issued another book of youthful verse, ill Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems.

By temperament and habit Poe was unsuited to the military life and he spent only one year at West Point. When he came out he devoted himself to newspaper work, writing many of his best tales and poems for the newspaper or magazine with which he happened to be associated. His life from this time until his sudden death in Baltimore was marked by many vicissitudes. Although he worked hard he received such poor pay for his services that he was always in debt. Had he lived in these days he would have commanded a princely revenue from rival magazines, which would have bid against one another for his tales and poems. As it was, he was unable to provide ordinary comforts for the girl wife whom he loved devotedly. His one weakness was a tendency to drink.

One glass of wine or hard cider was sufficient to start him on a debauch that frequently cost him regular employment. It was during one of these drinking periods that he was seized by unscrupulous politicians in Baltimore and taken from one precinct to another to vote for their ticket. Exposure and bad liquor broke down Poe's enfeebled frame and his system could not rally from the shock. Poe's fame was clouded for years by exaggerated stories of his drinking habits. The truth is that he did an enormous amount of the best literary work, and that, considering his imagination and his lack of success, he indulged in drink less than most men of his temperament.

In considering the best things among Poe's many prose tales it is difficult to fix on those stories which are best worth reading, so much depends upon the taste of the reader. The finest thing in the domain of sheer horror is The Fall of the House of Usher, perhaps the most finished and consistent of all Poe's prose work. It is a study in premature burial, and in all fiction there is nothing more thrilling than the sounds of the hollow reverberation of the doors of the tomb of the Lady Madeline, while the narrator is reading the old chronicle of the champion Ethelred, and of the final appearance of the enshrouded figure at the door of the brother's chamber. Next to this I would place The Cask of Amontillado, a case of a jealous husband's revenge, which is wrought out to its terrible end without a flaw.

Among mysteries of crime the first place must be given to The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a tale that is perfect until the interest is abruptly ended by the discovery that the murderer is not a human being. The best tale dealing with a cryptogram is The Gold Bug, the most popular of all Poe's work, while stories which were the forerunners of all the Jules Verne type of romances are A Descent Into the Maelstrom and The MS. Found in a Bottle. Both these are tales of horror dealing with the great maelstrom that was once popularly supposed to be located at the poles, through which the waters of the ocean rushed.

Criticism is powerless before Poe's best poems, as it is before the melodies of the great composers. The evident effort of the poet was to appeal so thoroughly to the ear that the mind would be satisfied with the sheer melody. This is the case with The Raven, The Bells, To One in Paradise, Annabel Lee and Ulalume. They are simply variations in melody, executed by one of the great masters of the music of words. Poe wrought at these and other poems all his life, changing a word here or a bit of punctuation there, and all his changes were in the line of greater melody. Language under his hand became plastic, and he worked miracles in rhythm and rhyme.

It is difficult to make any extract from Poe's poems without injuring the context, but one may get an idea of the melody of his verse from this stanza from AnnabelLee:

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

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