POE AND THE BIBLE By C Alphonso Smith, Ph.D., LL.D., L.H.D., Head of the Department of English, United States Naval Academy
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In spite of the vast amount of literature that has grown up at home and abroad about the name of Edgar Allan Poe, there has never been published a treatment of his attitude to religion and religious problems. The question is important, not only because Poe is more widely read in foreign lands than any other American writer, but because his stories and poems either leave us in the dark on the great question or hint an attitude of apathy or denial which does not represent Poe's own convictions. As in the case of Hawthorne, one must beware of confusing Poe with his own fictive characters.
There is abundant evidence that, from early childhood when Poe went regularly to church with Mrs. Allan in Richmond, to that last hour when he asked Mrs. Moran from his death bed whether she thought there was any hope for him hereafter, God and the Bible were fundamental and central in his thinking. It is equally evident that, though living in a sceptical age, an age in which science seemed to be weakening the foundations of long cherished beliefs, and being himself an adept in scientific hypothesis and speculative forecast, Poe remained untouched by current forms of unbelief. More than this, he was a positive force in the overthrow of scepticism and in the establishment or reestablishment of faith and hope.
It is hard to understand what Mr. Woodberry means when he records the fact that Mrs. Moran read to the dying poet the fourteenth chapter of St. John's Gospel and adds: "It is the only mention of religion in his entire life." If the mere reading of the Bible to Poe, not by him, be construed as a "mention of religion" in his life, what shall be said of his own familiarity with the Bible, of his keen interest in Biblical research, of his oft-expressed belief in the truth of the Bible or of his final and impassioned defense, in Eureka, of the sovereignty of the God of the Bible?
Poe's intimate knowledge of the Bible might be traced in the many allusions that he makes to Bible history and Bible imagery, but more than mere knowledge is seen in the conscious and vivid imitation of Bible style that he achieves in many of his greatest prose passages. No one could have written Shadow, a Parable, or Silence, a Fable, unless he had so communed with the Old Testament prophets as to catch both the form and the spirit of their utterance. In dignity and elevation of thought, in faultlessness of keeping, in utter simplicity of style and structure, Poe's workmanship in these two selections alone would place him not only among the masters of English prose but among the still smaller number of those whose mastery seems not so much a homage to ancient models as an illumination from the same central sun.
Poe's interest in the discoveries that were beginning to throw new light upon many perplexing problems in the Bible was not the interest of the antiquarian. There was little of the antiquarian in his nature. It was the interest of one who feels an instinctive fellowship with all forms of progressive thought. "I read all the time," says Edison, "on astronomy, chemistry, biology, physics, music, metaphysics, mechanics, and other branches—political economy, electricity, and, in fact, all things that are making for progress in the world." Poe might have said the same. It was the forward movement, the widening horizon, the latent possibilities of a subject that interested Poe, rather than the elemental nature of the subject itself. Landscape gardening, mesmerism, cryptography, metaphysical speculation, the nebular hypothesis, the new science or pseudoscience of aeronautics, the explorations then making in the Pacific Ocean and the South Seas, Maury's additions to marine lore, the latent results of the gold excitement in California, these appealed to Poe not so much in themselves as through the enfolded sense of something greater yet to be. They were open doors rather than reservoirs. They were frontier subjects and out of each of them he wrought literature.
If he did not make literature out of the results of Bible discovery in Oriental lands, he at least left on record his familiarity with the subject and his prompt recognition of the part that such discoveries were destined to play in the interpretation of the Old and the New Testament. Though he did not live to greet any of the discoveries of Sir Henry Rawlinson, "the father of Assyriology," Poe's review of Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia, Petraea, and the Holy Land, by John Lloyd Stephens, the New Jersey lawyer, shows the spirit in which he would have welcomed the work of the great English Orientalist:
"Viewed only as one of a class of writings whose direct tendency is to throw light upon the Book of Books, it has strong claims upon the attention of all who read. While the vast importance of critical and philological research in dissipating the obscurities and determining the exact sense of the Scriptures cannot be too readily conceded, it may be doubted whether the collateral illustration derivable from records of travel be not deserving at least equal consideration. Certainly the evidence thus afforded, exerting an enkindling influence upon the popular imagination, and so taking palpable hold upon the popular understanding, will not fail to become in time a most powerful because easily available instrument in the downfall of unbelief. Infidelity itself has often afforded unwilling and unwitting testimony to the truth. It is surprising to find with what unintentional precision both Gibbon and Volney (among others) have used, for the purpose of description, in their accounts of nations and countries, the identical phraseology employed by the inspired writers when foretelling the most improbable events. In this manner scepticism has been made the root of belief, and the providence of the Deity has been no less remarkable in the extent and nature of the means for bringing to light the evidence of his accomplished word, than in working the accomplishment itself."
"We look upon the literalness of the understanding of the Bible predictions as an essential feature in prophecy—conceiving minuteness of detail to have been but a portion of the providential plan of the Deity for bringing more visibly to light, in after-ages, the evidence of the fulfilment of his word. No general meaning attached to a prediction, no general fulfilment of such prediction, could carry, to the reason of mankind, inferences so unquestionable, as its particular and minutely incidental accomplishment. General statements, except in rare instances, are susceptible of misinterpretation or misapplication: details admit no shadow of ambiguity. That, in many striking cases, the words of the prophets have been brought to pass in every particular of a series of minutiae, whose very meaning was unintelligible before the period of fulfilment, is a truth that few are so utterly stubborn as to deny. We mean to say that, in all instances, the most strictly literal interpretation will apply."
He inserts also in the same review his proffered emendation of Isaiah 34:10, quoting the original Hebrew in Hebrew letters. Poe was very proud of this achievement and repeats his newly acquired Oriental lore several times in later years, though one must sympathize with him in his repetitions because the typographical outfit was not again equal to the reproduction of the awesome and erudite Hebrew originals. Of course, he has been called a charlatan and worse for intimating a knowledge of Hebrew which he did not possess. But surely his pride in the matter is pardonable. It was a very small hoax. Dr. Charles Anthon, of New York, had given him in a letter (June 1, 1837) all the information that was needed, and Poe used it, making much of the Hebrew characters that Dr. Anthon had furnished. But Dr. Anthon's letter was in answer to one from Poe, asking whether the emendation was borne out by the Hebrew text. Poe nowhere claims familiarity with Hebrew or even originality in his proffered reading of the text.
Every reader of The Biblical Review knows, or knows of, the eight Bridgewater Treatises, each developing from a different angle "the power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in the creation." The last of these volumes appeared in 1834. Two years later Poe, who was deeply in sympathy with the design of the series, gave in the pages of The Southern Literary Messenger five reasons why these eight volumes would ultimately fail to carry out the high purpose of the testator, reasons that the sequent years have vindicated in every detail. But in 1844, in the pages of the Democratic Review, Poe returns to the subject of the Bridgewater Treatises and makes a distinction that is full of interest and suggestiveness, not only for the teleologist but for the literary craftsman as well. It will be remembered that each of the Bridgewater discussions dealt with the great concept of adaptation, the adaptation of form to function:
"All the Bridgewater Treatises have failed in noticing the great idiosyncrasy in the Divine system of adaptation:—that idiosyncrasy which stamps the adaptation as Divine, in distinction from that which is the work of merely human constructiveness. I speak of the complete mutuality of adaptation. For example:—In human constructions, a particular cause has a particular effect—a particular purpose brings about a particular object; but we see no reciprocity. The effect does not re-act upon the cause—the object does not change relations with the purpose. In Divine constructions, the object is either object Op purpose, as we choose to regard it, while the purpose is either purpose or object; so that we can never (abstractedly, without concretion—without reference to facts of the moment) decide which is which. For secondary example:—In polar climates, the human frame, to maintain its due caloric, requires, for combustion in the stomach, the most highly ammoniac food, such as train oil. Again:—In polar climates the sole food afforded man is the oil of abundant seals and whales. Now, whether is oil at hand because imperatively demanded?—or whether is it the only thing to be obtained? It is impossible to say. There is an absolute reciprocity of adaptation, for which we seek in vain among the works of man.
The Bridgewater tractists may have avoided this point, on account of its apparent tendency to overthrow the idea of cause in general—consequently of a First Cause—of God. But it is more probable that they have failed to perceive what no one preceding them, has, to my knowledge, perceived.
The pleasure which we derive from any exertion of human ingenuity is in the direct ratio of the approach to this species of reciprocity between cause and effect. In the construction of plot, for example, in fictitious literature, we should aim at so arranging the points, or incidents, that we cannot distinctly see, in respect to any one of them, whether that one depends from any one other, or upholds it. In this sense, of course, perfection of plot is unattainable in fact,—because Man is the constructor. The plots of God are perfect. The Universe is a Plot of God."
Poe's belief in the Bible, his aversion to scepticism, and his assurance of the immortality of the soul find frequent assertion in his less known works. He commends the inaugural address of the President of HampdenSidney College because it shows "a vein of that truest of all philosophy, the philosophy of the Christian." He believed that the lines,
Trifles, like straws, upon the surface flow,
He who would search for pearls must dive below,
embodied a false philosophy: "Witness the principles of our divine faith—that moral mechanism by which the simplicity of a child may overbalance the wisdom of a man." In reviewing Zanoni he says: "All that is truly noble in Bulwer's imaginary doctrines of the Rosicrucians is stolen from the pure precepts of our holy religion." Knowledge of nature, says Poe, adds to our knowledge of God, and Macaulay's assertion that theology is not a progressive science is declared to be false and misleading:
"Were the indications we derive from science, of the nature and designs of Deity, and thence, by inference, of man's destiny, —were these indications proof direct, it is then very true that no advance in science could strengthen them; for, as the essayist justly observes, 'nothing can be added to the force of the argument which the mind finds in every beast, bird, and flower;' but, since these indications are rigidly analogical, every step in human knowledge, every astronomical discovery, in especial, throws additional light upon the august subject, by extending the range of analogy. That we know no more, to-day, of the nature of Deity, of its purposes, and thus of man himself, than we did even a dozen years ago, is a proposition disgracefully absurd. 'If Natural Philosophy,' says a greater than Macaulay, 'should continue to be improved in its various branches, the bounds of moral philosophy would be enlarged also.' These words of the prophetic Newton are felt to be true, and will be fulfilled."
It was the scepticism of Lord Bolingbroke which, according to Poe, rendered nearly half of the Viscount's work comparatively worthless:
"The philosophical essays, occupying two of the volumes on our table, are comparatively valueless, and inferior, both in style and matter, to the political tracts. They are deeply imbued with the sceptical opinions of the author, and we should have willingly seen them omitted in this edition, if it were possible to get a complete one, with nearly one half of the author's works left out. Little, therefore, as we value the philosophical works of Bolingbroke, we commend the publishers for not expunging them as too many others have done."
Writing in 1844, Poe says:
"Twenty years ago credulity was the characteristic trait of the mob, incredulity the distinctive feaure of the philosophic; now the case is conversed. The wise are wisely adverse from disbelief. To be sceptical is no longer evidence either of information or of wit."
"No man doubts the immortality of the soul," declares Poe, "yet of all truths this truth of immortality is the most difficult to prove by any mere series of syllogisms." And later: "However well a man may reason on the great topics of God and immortality, he will be forced to admit tacitly in the end that God and immortality are things to be felt rather than demonstrated." There was a time, however, when Poe believed that man's immortality could be proved:
"Indeed, to our own mind, the only irrefutable argument in support of the soul's immortality—or, rather, the only conclusive proof of man's alternate dissolution and rejuvenescence ad infinitum — is to be found in analogies deduced from the modern established theory of the nebular cosmogony. This cosmogony demonstrates that all existing bodies in the universe are formed of a nebular matter, a rare ethereal medium, pervading space; shows the mode and laws of formation, and proves that all things are in a perpetual state of progress; that nothing in nature is perfected."
Not a proof but an indication of immortality, "a forethought of the loveliness to come," "a prescient ecstasy of the beauty beyond the grave," Poe found in poetry:
"He who shall merely sing with whatever rapture, in however harmonious strains, or with however vivid a truth of imitation, of the sights and sounds which greet him in common with all mankind—he, we say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a longing unsatisfied, which he has been impotent to fulfil. There is still a thirst unquenchable, which to allay he has shown us no crystal springs. This burning thirst belongs to the immortal essence of man's nature. It is equally a consequence and an indication of his perennial life. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is not the mere appreciation of the beauty before us. It is a wild effort to reach the beauty above. It is a forethought of the loveliness to come. It is a passion to be satiated by no sublunary sights, or sounds, or sentiments, and the soul thus athirst strives to allay its fever in futile efforts at creation. Inspired with a prescient ecstasy of the beauty beyond the grave, it struggles by multiform novelty of combination among the things and thoughts of Time, to anticipate some portion of that loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain solely to Eternity. And the result of such effort, on the part of souls fittingly constitued, is alone what mankind have agreed to denominate Poetry."
But it is in Eureka that Poe recorded his deepest convictions about God and the world to come. For seven years at least the main conception of this work had absorbed Poe as no other constructive thought had ever absorbed him before. He seemed consciously in the grip not of a marginal truth but of a central and star-pointing truth. "What I here propound," he writes in his brief preface, "is true:—therefore it cannot die:—or if by any means it be now trodden down so that it die, it will 'rise again to the Life Everlasting.'" Virginia's death with its long but foreseen approach had thrown him starkly back upon the problem of life here and its expansion or extinction hereafter. The companionship that he needed in these tense hours of composition was now furnished by Mrs. Clemm. "When he was composing Eureka," she wrote, "we used to walk up and down the garden, his arm around me, mine around him, until I was so tired I could not walk. He would stop every few minutes and explain his ideas to me, and ask if I understood him."
Eureka is more than a demonstration that Poe's intellect and imagination were functioning at their maximum during those lonesome latter years; it reveals that, above all the doubt and darkness and decay that seem to glimmer through his poems and stories, there shone at last the clear light of an abiding conviction that
God's in his heaven—
All's right with the world.
Two passages must suffice. The echo of the first seems heard in a line of Tennyson's In Memoriam,
One God, one law, one element.
"That Nature and the God of Nature are distinct, no thinking being can long doubt. By the former we imply merely the laws of the latter. But with the very idea of God, omnipotent, omniscient, we entertain, also, the idea of the infallibility of his laws. With Him there being neither Past nor Future—with Him all being Now—do we not insult him in supposing his laws so contrived as not to provide for every possible contingency?— or, rather, what idea can we have of any possible contingency, except that it is at once a result and a manifestation of his laws? He who, divesting himself of prejudice, shall have the rare courage to think absolutely for himself, cannot fail to arrive, in the end, at the condensation of lawn into Law—cannot fail of reaching the conclusion that each law of Nature is dependent at all points upon all other laws, and that all are but consequences of one primary exercise of the Divine Volition. Such is the principle of the Cosmogony which, with all necessary deference, I here venture to suggest and to maintain."
Just as Tennyson asked that Crossing the Bar be placed last in all editions of his poems, so Poe might well have asked that the close of Eureka, his swan song, be viewed as the terminus of all that he had thought or dreamed or hoped or suffered. If "Nevermore" seem at times the refrain of all of his singing, "Evermore" was the note on which he closed; if despair seem the companion of his more solitary moods, it was only that faith and hope might abide with him at the end; if death seem to loom too large and menacing in his visions, it was over and beyond its vanishing rim that he saw rise the beckoning and unclouded life:
"These creatures (animate and inanimate) are all, too, more or less conscious Intelligences; conscious, first, of a proper identity; conscious, secondly and by faint indeterminate glimpses, of an identity with the Divine Being of whom we speak—of an identity with God. Of the two classes of consciousness, fancy that the former will grow weaker, the latter stronger, during the long succession of ages which must elapse before these myriads of individual Intelligences become blended—when the bright stars become blended—into One. Think that the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness— that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life—Life—Life within Life —the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine."
Summing up, may we not say that Poe's work will enter upon a still wider stage of influence when it is regarded, not as allurement to doubt and despair, but as an outcry against them? Is it not unjust to call him the poet laureate of death and decay in the sense in which we call Shelley the poet laureate of love, Wordsworth of nature, Tennyson of trust, or Browning of resolute faith? Poe did not love death; he did not celebrate the charms of doubt or of darkness or of separation. He abhorred them. The desolate lover in The Raven does not acquiesce in "Nevermore." It flouts and belies every instinct and intuition of his heart. And in every poem and story of Poe's over which blackness seems to brood, there is the unmistakable note of spiritual protest; there is the evidence of a nature so attuned to love and light, to beauty and harmony, that denial of them or separation from them is a veritable death-in-life. Poe fathomed darkness but climbed to the light; he became the world's spokesman for those dwelling within the shadow, but his feet were already upon the upward slope. Out of it all he emerged victor, not victim.
When I remember that Poe resented the charge of pantheism as keenly as that of atheism, when I recall that he ended his career as thinker and prophet with the chant, "All is Life—Life—Life within Life—the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine" the sunlight seems to fall upon "the misty mid region of Weir," even "the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir;" and Edgar Allan Poe seems no longer our only autumnal genius, heralding an early winter, but the genius of winter itself, a late winter, with spring already at its heart.
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