Monday, November 14, 2016

1896 Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe

1896 Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe (Publishers Circular) St. Dunstan's House

See also Over 100 Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe to Download

Among the old authors who have now a new vogue Edgar Allan Poe occupies a conspicuous place. Poe's ‘Tales of Mystery' have had an immense sale on both sides of the Atlantic, and rival collected editions of his prose and poetry were merely matters of time. At present, when reprints are so much the order of the day, the inevitable has happened, and even his fugitive pieces are resuscitated. Not every writer whose memory has been honoured with ‘a definitive edition’ comes so well out of this ordeal of resuscitation, "Mr. Poe," wrote James Russell Lowell fifty years ago, ‘has two of the prime qualities of genius, a faculty of vigorous yet minute analysis, and a wonderful fecundity of imagination. These gifts are not common; in combination they are very rare indeed, so that whatever Poe wrote, either in verse or in prose, has a peculiar interest, if not to the general reader, at least to the student and critic.

The practice of reprinting every available scrap of a popular author's work is not one that can be unhesitatingly commended. Two not very large volumes, one of poetry, the other of prose, would probably hold all of Poe that is really worth preserving. Many of his tales could be spared, most of his essays, and nearly all his criticisms. As an essayist he ranks far below Lamb and Lamb's predecessors of the eighteenth century; and beside the criticisms of Carlyle, Macaulay, or Arnold, his are mere cobwebs. And not only are they thin and meagre, they have the fatal defects of spleen and prejudice. Poe's savage injustice to Longfellow and Lowell is notorious, while his remarks upon Dickens and other English writers are often deplorably incompetent. Mr. Stoddard, indeed, thinks he could never have been reckoned a critic ‘in any country where the principles of criticism had been studied and the practice of criticism cultivated.’ The two volumes of his criticisms now printed afford ample confirmation of the truth of these words. But if Poe was no critic he was something better-a poet of singular charm, and, at his best, a storyteller of almost unequalled fascination. His poetry is not the criticism of life which Matthew Arnold declared we should get from the singer. As Mr. Stoddard well says in his interesting introduction: ‘The poetry of Poe is characterised by certain qualities which are not easily separable, and are rather to be felt than described; they are remote, elusive, pertaining to another world than this, and another existence than our daily humdrum lives. He transports us to a visionary region inhabited by shadows, and haunted by a sense of danger. This is not the sort of poetry we get from, let us say, Shakespeare and Burns, yet it is safe to predict that such pieces as ‘The Bells,' ‘The Raven, and ‘To Helen’ will be read when lustier verse shall have been forgotten.

It is by his prose tales, however, that Poe is best known, and in them he touches his high-water mark, both in the imagination and the power of analysis of which Mr. Lowell spoke. During the last five and thirty years tales of mystery and horror have abounded, but Poe's effects are unique, and are likely to remain so. He was a great master of the eerie and the horrible, and an
unrivalled artist in the manipulation of detail. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ‘The Black Cat, and ‘The Gold Bug, are perhaps unmatched in their several ways; and their author has given suggestions to many successors. Mr. Stevenson, it is interesting to note, owed not a little to Poe, and, we fancy, Mr. A. Conan Doyle would also acknowledge a modest debt to the same quarter. Where Poe fails is in his lack of reality, his remoteness from life. His characters are mere puppets and he was totally void of humour. This defect, which marks all his work, explains many exaggerations and shortcomings that have sometimes puzzled his admirers. He could not conceive a Falstaff, and such a mixture of the dramatic and humorous as ‘The Jolly Beggars’ was equally beyond him. But if he had not the command of laughter and tears, he could make his reader's flesh creep, and in the realm of the gruesome and the grisly he will probably continue a reigning prince.

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