Two Glimpses of Poe By Henry W. Austin 1886
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The mystery of the person, to adopt Carlyle's apt phrase, has never been more strongly exemplified than in the case of Edgar Allan Poe, since with all the lights that have been turned on his eccentric life—lights redly malevolent or bluely benevolent—he remains as endless an enigma as ever.
This fact seems all the more strange when we reflect that more guesses have been made at the conundrum of this man's character than at that of any distinguished author since Byron. Article after article, in language after language, as his fame has slowly but surely extended, has been written to show that Poe's was a noble nature, deeply disguised by circumstance, or else that he was simply an unprincipled, heartless man of genius, which genius Poe himself once defined in the familiar Vergilian line as a "Monstrum, horrendum, informe, ingens cui lumen ademptum."
And those who have written about Poe's life or his works appear to have caught from these a certain intensity which has made them extremists, whatever view they have taken; so in the forty odd years that have elapsed since his death the golden mean of justice seems no nearer reached than in his curious, contradictory life.
And thus the writer feels that it would be simply adding to the already large mass of arrogance were he to offer a judgment, and that it would savor of vanity to hope that the golden mean could be attained by his pen in a case where so many, generally honest, and more able pens have failed.
All I aim to do, therefore, is to present some slight new contemporary evidence concerning Poe's life, and to make a few remarks and stray suggestions which may be of some slight value to that great, coming critic who shall be subtle enough to solve the Poe-problem.
It has been the good fortune of the writer to know rather intimately two very interesting men who were acquainted with Poe—namely, the late Epes Sargent, of school-book fame, and the Hon. William B. Burwell, of Virginia, still living and current in Louisiana politics. One day in Epes Sargent's library the conversation glanced from Tennyson to Poe, who, by the by, was about the first to hail the delicate dawn of Tennyson's beautiful, beneficent. genius and foremost to predict in glowing language that splendid, noonday blaze which is now fast losing itself in the last pathos of sunset. "Poe? Yes, I knew him well," said Mr. Sargent, carelessly. I remember how it thrilled me—for I was quite young then—to be in the presence of a man who had known Poe. I at once began plying my pleasant host with the usual questions. According to Mr. Sargent, Poe was a very handsome man, so straight and slender as to seem taller than he was. His eyes were very dark blue or violet. His hair, that was dark, too, and plumy as it floated over his forehead, which was his commanding feature. That was, indeed, beautiful—like ivory, pale and perfect His nose was straight and longish, with perhaps a slight aquiline tendency. "Not so much so as mine" (said Mr. Sargent, laughingly) "for he used to call me jocosely 'Little Nap.,' or ' Napoleon the Little,' on account of this feature, while I should say his was the typical American nose, as near as we can be said to have a national physiognomy. His mouth may have been handsome, but I don't remember to have seen it minus the mustache, and I always fancied the expression was bitter or sneering. He was generally dressed in black, and I once annoyed him by remarking that he looked like the beau ideal of a successful undertaker.
"But though his looks were attractive, undeniably, his chief charm was his voice, which was unusual in its conversational range, now low and round and sweet, now rising to keenness and thrillingly sweet like a woman's, and then again so sharp as to suggest an acid. I was never favored with the bursts of 'supramortal eloquence,' by which, his enemy, Griswold, admits, he sometimes astonished people. I think I saw him rather in his average, everyday moods, and he struck me as being fonder of thinking than of giving expression to thought. I have doubted whether, had he not been forced by poverty, he would have written much. Had he been rich, it seems to me, his exquisite sense of beauty in color and form would have satisfied itself in the creation of castles a la Beckford and in landscape gardening on the colossal scale hinted at in some of his stories—for instance, the 'Domain of Arnheim.' But, of course, such speculations are idle, for he was poor; he was more than poor; having been raised rich, as the Southerners say, he was cursed with poverty.
"I saw nothing of his private life, but I used to meet him in a little eating-house on Nassau street, New York. In talk he could be humorous, but was generally sarcastic or scientific. In fact, he was about the only man of letters I ever knew who seemed to love dry knowledge; and though he ridiculed the mathematicians as a class, he was more deeply versed, perhaps, in things of that kind than in general and poetic lore. I do not think he knew more Greek than the average Harvard student. In Latin, I believe he was profoundly skilled, even to a minute knowledge of the later Christian Latinists; while in French, Spanish, and Italian, I should fancy'he was tolerably proficient. His critical faculty overbalanced his creative, and, say what they may of his general savagery and occasional partiality in this line, all his important literary verdicts seem to have stood and become more firmly fixed by time.
"Do I think Poe was a drunkard? Well, no; not in the years I knew him—certainly not an habitual drinker. I only remember once seeing him in liquor, and on that occasion—it was in the little eating-house I mentioned—he staggered up and began upbraiding me in half-humorous, half-earnest fashion for not accepting a poem of his. I told him I should have been glad to, but couldn't afford to pay him a fair price, and he raised the siege by remarking with a hiccup and his nearest approach to a smile, 'It was a great mishtake, Sargent (hie), great mishtake! I would have 'mortalized you, sir—'mortalized you!'
"Do I think he was a good man or a bad man? I cannot say. Had he lived longer and felt the rising tide of general literary prosperity—who knows? He might have mellowed from a Bohemian to a respectable citizen. He was certainly no coarse libertine or sot, like Burns, and he had far more reverence for woman and respect for Christianity than Byron, though I think he lacked that large philanthropy which characterizes the greater part of Byron's writings and which inspired his political or public conduct"
Turning from this brief outline of Poe, as he appeared to Mr. Sargent "in the lonesome latter years," an outline not unpleasant, let us see how he was regarded by his mates in the University of Virginia. I must here premise that Judge Burwell is not only a statistician and commercial writer without rival in the South, but as an all-round talker is rarely surpassed, and therefore this brief report of his monologue must necessarily fail to do justice to the flow of his language and the felicity of his periods. "So you knew Poe, and have kept silence all these years, instead of rushing into print about him, as most of his contemporaries have done?" "Yes," replied the judge, smiling; "I have hitherto taken to heart the papal proverb and let the misguided mass 'rush in,' while I kept an angelic position of charitable silence outside. You see, I have had nothing good to say about Poe, and so, though frequently besieged by reporters to give my version of him, I have constantly refused. Why, in the interests of truth? you ask me. Well, though true as to that part of his life, my facts might not be so in regard to his life considered as a whole. Men change, and few men live to near forty without improving vastly. Poe died at thirty-nine, I believe, and I know but little of his latter years. All I know positively is that at college he had a most unsavory reputation. For drinking or profligacy? No; the times were loose, and Sheridan, wit, roue, duellist, etc., was the patron saint, the beau ideal, or ideal beau, on which the gilded youth of Jefferson's University modelled its conduct. But in that lax society Poe achieved no rank by deep potations or dazzling amours. To the current popular vices he seemed to have no leaning, except to this one. Intellectual though he was, the card-table proved to him as fatally fascinating as to the great English statesman, Fox, or our own beloved and well-moistened Clay. And the card-table was his ruin in more ways than one. He lost far more than he had any prospect of paying, and in striving to recoup his losses he got the reputation of cheating. He used to play whist quite often with a very dull boy for his partner, and it was a Scotch verdict among us that he had arranged a system of signs and signals with this partner. This cloud hung over him, and I remember sharing in the general contempt or suspicion entertained for his character, while at the same time I felt the allurement of his unusual mind and the fascination with which, even then, his most melodious tongue could ceaselessly uncoil. Now, as to this point of cheating at cards, you will find it used with intense power in Poe's story of 'William Wilson, the Self-Haunter,' into which he has deftly wrought the peacefulness of his early English schooldays as a foil for the tragedy of his Virginia college life.
"You see, his position at college was in many respects a hard one from the start, because it never was or could have been assured. The haughty scions of an opulent slavocracy naturally looked with contempt on the child of an impecunious Baltimore lawyer and an itinerant English actress. Then, his physical appearance was against him, and physical prowess was immensely valued in those days. He did achieve some fame, however, as an athlete. But if he had not commanded the world's attention by his genius, one would be tempted to refer to him as a bow-legged little runt of a fellow. You ask me more particularly as to his looks. Well, his figure was contemptible, but I suppose his face would be reckoned rather fine. His hair was very dark, really black, and his complexion light; his eyes were light; gray—I think, but possibly hazel. His nose and chin were delicately moulded, and his hands were handsome. Yes, I think we all expected that he would make his mark in the world, but hardly that he would do so much more than make his mark—I mean, write his name forever, as he has done, in the history and development of the world's literature."
Now, it should be noted that these two accounts of Poe, given by eye-witnesses not only responsible, but as nearly without bias as it is possible for men to be, are yet very contradictory in some particulars. To Mr. Sargent, Poe appeared tall and stately, with dark eyes. To Judge Burwell, he seemed a bow-legged runt, with light eyes. The reason of this discrepancy, however, is ready. Mr. Sargent was a very small man, and Poe, being much taller than he, seemed tall, or tallish. To the other, who was Poe's physical superior, the poet's figure seemed petty. And as to the conflict of testimony about the color of eyes and complexion, that is not much harder to explain, for is there any chameleon like the human eye? But, passing from externals, with all due respect to the opinion of boys in the University of Virginia, ought much weight to be attached to their unproven belief that Poe cheated at cards, especially as the fact remains that when he left that hot-bed of Southern civilization he was deeply in debt, which is more apt to be the fate of the pigeon than the hawk?
What, then, is the value of this testimony beyond the suggestion that it is only a foolish Phariseeism which concerns itself with the personal character of great men. Not that for a moment should the doctrine be advanced that character does not matter in a man of genius, or that any indulgence should be extended to the wicked vagaries or selfish shortcomings of William Shakespeare which we do not grant in equal measure to plain Bill Smith. Nay, the higher moral sense of the nineteenth century, as voiced by the pen of William Dean Howells, demands of the higher intellect a higher, a more orderly life.
But while we must not allow great attainments to atone for gross conduct, on the other hand we must be careful not to permit our feelings in regard to an artist's character to color our opinions about the quality of his work, as has been too often the fashion, and markedly so in the case of Poe.
He may have been a hard drinker, though the majority of testimony seems to have established that intoxication with him was rather a periodical disease than a continuous habit. But this has really nothing to do with the spiritual value of his "Cask of Amontillado." And he may have been a disagreeable, quarrelsome fellow, as some have said, though the fact that his mother-in-law loved him speaks volumes for his amiability. But this has no connection with his "Black Cat" or his "Tell-tale Heart" The true way to measure his writings is not by reference to his own life and character, but by their relations to the writings of others, and by trying to discover what influence his mind has had and still has, and whether it promises to be permanent
Now, whether we enjoy and admire Poe's mind or not, it must be admitted that he, alone of American writers, has exercised a formative influence over European as well as American literature. Not so much in poetry, perhaps, though there are some who trace Swinburne's melodic magic to Poe as the master mage in that species of verbal jugglery which can make sound effective and attractive with a minimum modicum of sense. Such poetry is Dead Sea fruit at best. But, certainly, Poe as a prose writer has had a wider and better influence; has, in fact, projected his personality over a vast and pleasantly productive surface of foreign thought Spain and Italy might be instanced, but as French writers are more popularly read in this country, take France for example. Since Baudelaire, that absurd poet who painted his hair green to attract attention, made his very fine translation of Poe's tales into French, the authors of that country have glided into the habit of treating Poe as Vergil did Homer, and Shakespeare did all before him—the habit of appropriating, without scruple or acknowledgment, his phrases, his methods, and even his plots. Jules Verne borrowed his scientific, ratiocinative style from Poe's detective stories and also his pivotal idea for "Around the World in Eighty Days" from Poe's obscure "Three Sundays in a Week." Edmond About's clever tale, "The Man with the Broken Ear," is simply Poe's satiric sketch, "Some Words with a Mummy," amplified a little and veneered a good deal with easy French sentiment. Dozens of such minor instances might be offered, but let suffice the great appropriation case of Victorien Sardou, leading Parisian dramatist. One of his plays was produced at Wallack's Theatre, in New York, a few years ago, under the title "A Scrap of Paper." Poe's brochure, "The Gold Bug," supplied the character of the naturalist, finely played by John Gilbert, who picks up in the play, as in the original, a scrap of important paper from the grass in order to wrap up a rare beetle. But Sardou, not content with this, for the hiding and finding of the paper employs Poe's story of "The Purloined Letter," and yet such is the ignorance of Poe's writings in a country speaking the English language and blessed with Browning Clubs and Concord Schools of unconquered Philosophy, that not one New York critic detected and exposed Sardou's obligations to that most occult and mysterious of Americans, poor Edgar Allan Poe.
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