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In the city of Boston, January 19, 1809, a son was born to David and Elizabeth Poe. On March 1, 1809, in the little village of Zelazowa-Wola, twenty-eight miles from Warsaw, in Poland, a son was born to Nicholas and Justina Chopin. The American is known to the world as Edgar Allan Poe, the poet; the Pole as Frederic Francois Chopin, the composer. October 7, 1849, Edgar Poe died neglected in Washington Hospital at Baltimore, and October 17, 1849, Frederic Chopin expired in Paris surrounded by loving friends. Poe and Chopin never knew of each other's existence yet — a curious coincidence — two supremely melancholy artists of the beautiful lived and died almost synchronously.
It would be a strained parallel to compare Chopin and Poe at many points yet the chronological events referred to, are not the only comparisons that might be made without the fear or flavor of affectation. There are parallels in the soul-lives as well as in the earth-lives of these two men — Poe and Chopin seem ever youthful — that may be drawn without extravagance. True, the roots of Chopin's culture were more richly nurtured than Poe's, but the latter, like a spiritual air plant, derived his sustenance none know how. Of Poe's forbears we may hardly form any adequate conception; his learning was not profound, despite his copious quotations from almost forgotten and recondite authors; yet his lines to Helen were written in boyhood. The poet in his case was indeed born, not made. Chopin, we know, had careful training from the faithful Elsner; but who could have taught him to write his opus 2, the variations over which Schumann rhapsodized, or even that gem, his E flat nocturne — now, alas! somewhat stale from conservatory usage?
Both these men, full fledged in their gifts, sprang from the Jovian brain and, while they both improved in the technics of their art, their individualities were at the outset as sharply defined as were their limitations. Read Poe's To Helen, and tell me if he made more exquisite music in his later years. You remember 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.
I refrain from giving the third verse; but are not these lines remarkable in beauty of imagination and diction when one considers they were penned by a youngster scarcely out of his teens!
Now glance at Chopin's earlier effusions, his opus 1 a rondo in C minor; his opus 2 already referred to; his opus 3, the C major polonaise for 'cello and piano; his opus 5, the Rondeau a la Mazur in F; his opus 6, the first four mazourkas, perfect of their kind; opus 7, more mazourkas; opus 8, the G minor trio, the classicism of which you may dispute; nevertheless it contains lovely music. Then follow the nocturnes, the concerto in F minor, the latter begun when Chopin was only twenty, and so on through the list. Both men died at forty — the very prime of life, when the natural forces are acting freest, when the overwrought passions of youth had begun to mellow and yet there were several years before the close, a distinct period of decadence, almost deterioration. I am conscious of the critical claims of those who taste in both Poe's and Chopin's later music the exquisite quality of the over-ripe, the savor of morbidity.
Beautiful as it is, Chopin's polonaise-fantaisie opus 61, with its hectic flush — in its most musical, most melancholy cadences — gives us a premonition of death. Composed three years before he died, it has the taint of the tomb about it and, like the A minor mazourka, said by Klindworth to be Chopin's last composition, the sick brain is heard in the morbid insistence of the theme, of the weary "wherefore?" in every bar. Is not this iteration like Poe's in his last period? Read Ulalume with its haunting, harrowing harmonies:
Then my heart it grew ashen and sober,
As the leaves that were crisped and sere —
As the leaves that were withering and sere.
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
Wings until they trailed in the dust —
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
Plumes till they trailed in the dust —
Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.
This poem, in which sense swoons into sound, has all the richness of color, the dangerous glow of the man whose brain is peril ously near the point of unhingement.
Poe then, like Chopin, did not die too soon. Morbid, neurotic natures, they lived their lives with the intensity that Walter Pater declares is the only true life. "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame," he writes "to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. Failure is to form habits."
Certainly Chopin and Poe fulfilled in their short existences these conditions. They burned ever with the flame of genius and that flame devoured their brains as surely as paresis. Their lives, in the ordinary Philistine or Plutus-like sense, were failures; uncompromising failures. They were not citizens after the conjugal manner nor did they accumulate pelf. They certainly failed to form habits and, while the delicacy of the Pole prevented his indulging in the night-side Bohemianism of the American, he nevertheless contrived to outrage social and ethical canons. Poe, it is said, was a drunkard, though recent researches develop the fact that but one glass of brandy drove him into delirium. Possibly like Baudelaire, his disciple and translator, he indulged in some deadly drug or perhaps congenital derangement, such as masked epilepsy, or some cerebral disorder, colored his daily actions with the semblance of arrant dissipation and recklessness.
There are two Poes known to his various friends. A few knew the one, many the other; some knew both men. A winning, poetic personality, a charming man of the world, electric in speech and with an eye of genius — a creature with a beautiful brain, said many. Alas! the other; a sad-eyed wretch with a fixed sneer, a bitter, uncurbed tongue that lashed alike friend and foe, a sot, a libertine, a gambler—God! what has not Edgar Allan Poe been called! We all know that Griswold distorted the picture, but some later critics have declared that Poe, despite his angelic treatment of his cousin-wife Maria Clemm, was not a man of irreproachable habits.
This much I have heard; at the time Poe lived in Philadelphia, where he edited a magazine for Burton or Graham — I forget which — my father met him several times at the houses of Judge Conrad and John Sartain, the latter the steel engraver. Poe, my father has repeatedly told me, was a slender, nervous man, very reticent, very charming in manner, though, like Chopin, disposed to a certain melancholy hauteur; both men were probably poseurs. But after one glass of wine or spirits Poe became an uncontrollable demon; — his own demon of perversity; and poetry and blasphemy poured from his lips. John Sartain has told of a midnight tramp he took with Poe, in the midst of a howling storm, in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, to prevent him from attempting his life. This enigmatic man, like Chopin, lived a double life, but his surroundings were different and this particular fact must be accented.
America was not a pleasant place for an artist a half century ago. William Blake the poet-seer wrote: "The ages are all equal but genius is always above its age." Poe was certainly above his age — a trafficking time in the history of the country, when commerce ruled and little heed was given to the beautiful. N. P. Willis, Poe's best friend, counsellor and constant helper, wrote pale proper verse while Poe made a bare living by writing horrific tales wherein his marvellous powers of analysis and description found play and pay. But oh! the pity of it all! The waste of superior talent — of absolute genius. The divine spark that was crushed out, trampled in the mud and made to do duty as a common tallow dip! One is filled with horror at the thought of a kindred poetic nature also being cast in the prosaic atmosphere of this country; for if Chopin had not had success at Prince Valentine Radziwill's soiree in Paris in the year 1831 he would certainly have tried his luck in the New World, and do you not shudder at the idea of Chopin's living in the United States in 1831?
Fancy those two wraiths of genius, Poe and Chopin, in this city of New York! Chopin giving piano lessons to the daughters of wealthy aristocrats of the Battery, Poe encountering him at some conversazione — they had conversaziones then — and propounding to him Heine-like questions: "Are the roses at home still in their flame-hued pride?" "Do the trees still sing as beautifully in the moonlight?"
They would have understood one another at a glance. Poe was not a whit inferior in sensibility to Chopin. Balzac declared that if Chopin drummed on a bare table, his fingers made subtle-sounding music. Poe, like Balzac, would have felt the drummed tears in Chopin's play, while Chopin in turn could not have failed to divine the tremulous vibrations of Poe's exquisitely strung nature. What a meeting it would have been, but again, what inevitable misery for the Polish poet!
A different tale might be told if Poe had gone to Paris and enjoyed some meed of success! How the fine flower of his genius would have bloomed into fragrance if nourished in such congenial soil! We would probably not have had, to such a desperate extent the note of melancholia, so sweetly despairing or despairingly sweet, that we now enjoy in his writings — a note eminently Gothic and Christian. Goethe's "Nur wer die Sehnsucht Kennt" is as true of Poe as of Heine, of Baudelaire, of Chopin, of Schumann, of Shelley, of Leopardi, of Byron, of Keats, of Alfred de Musset, of Senancour, of Amiel — of all that choir of lacerated lives which wreak themselves in expression. One is well reminded here of Baudelaire who wrote of the ferocious absorption in the pursuit of beauty, by her votaries. Poe and Chopin all their lives were tortured by the desire of beauty, by the vision of perfection. Little recked they of that penalty which must be paid by men of genius, and has been paid from Tasso to Swift and from Poe and Baudelaire to Guy de Maupassant.
Frederic Chopin's culture was not necessarily of a finer stamp than Edgar Poe's, nor was his range wider. Both men were narrow in sympathies though intense to the point of poignancy and rich in mood-versatility. Both were born aristocrats; purple raiment became them well and both were sadly deficient in genuine humor — the Attic salt that conserves while mocking itself. Irony both possessed to a superlative degree and both believed in the rhythmical creation of lyrical beauty and in the charm of evanescence. Poe declared, in his dogmatic manner, that a long poem could not exist. He restricted the poetical art in form and length, and furthermore insisted that "Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites a sensitive soul to tears." The note of melancholy was to him the one note worthy the singing. And have we not a parallel in Chopin's music?
He is morbid, there is no gainsaying it and, like Poe, is at his best in smaller art forms. When either artist spreads his pinions for symphonic flights, we are reminded of Matthew Arnold's poetical description of Shelley "beating in the void his luminous wings in vain." Poe and Chopin mastered supremely, as Henry James would say, their intellectual instruments. They are lyrists and their attempts at the epical are usually distinguished failures.
Exquisite artificers in precious cameos, these two men are of a consanguinity because of their devotion to Our Ladies of Sorrow, the Mater Lachrymarum, the Mater Suspiriorum and the Mater Tenebrarum of Thomas De Quincey. If the Mater Malorum — Mother of Evil — presided over their lives, they never in their art became as Baudelaire, a sinister "Israfel of the sweet lute." Whatever their personal shortcomings, the disorders of their lives found no reflex beyond that of melancholy. The notes of revolt, of anger, of despair there are, but of impurity, no trace whatsoever. Poe's women — those ethereal creatures whose slim necks, willowy figures, radiant eyes and velvet footfalls, encircled in an atmosphere of purity — Poe's women, while not being the womanly woman beloved of William Wordsworth, are after all untainted by any morbidities.
Poe ever professed in daily life, whatever he may have practised, the highest reverence for "das ewig Weibliche" and not less so Chopin, who was fastidious and a very stickler for the more minute proprieties of life. Am I far fetched in my simile when I compare the natures of Poe and Chopin! Take the latter's preludes for example, tiny poems, and parallel them to such verse of Poe's as the Haunted Palace, Eulalie, Annabel Lee, Eldorado, The Conquered Worm or that incomparable bit, Israfel:
In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
Whose heart-strings are a lute -
None sing so wildly well
As the Angel Israfel.
Poe's haunting melodies, his music for music's sake, often remind us of Chopin. The euphonious, the well sounding, the wohlklang, was carried almost beyond the pitch of endurance, by both artists. They had however some quality of self-restraint as well as the vices of their virtues; we may no longer mention The Raven or The Bells with equanimity, nor can we endure listening to the E flat nocturne or the D flat valse. In the latter case repetition has dulled the ears for enjoyment; in the former case the obvious artificiality of both poems, despite their many happy conceits, jars on the spiritual ear. The bulk of Chopin's work is about comparable to Poe's. Neither man was a copious producer and both carried the idea of perfection to insanity's border. Both have left scores of imitators but in Poe's case a veritable school has been founded; in Chopin's the imitations have been feeble and sterile.
Following Poe we have unquestionably Algernon Charles Swinburne, who is doubly a reflection of Poe, for he absorbed Poe's alliterative system, and from Charles Baudelaire his mysticism, plus Baudelaire's malificence, to which compound he added the familiar Swinburnian eroticism. Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning felt Poe's influence, if but briefly, while in France and Belgium he has produced a brood of followers beginning with the rank crudities of Gaboriau, in his detective stories, modelled after The Murder in the Rue Morgue; the Belgian Maeterlinck, who juggles with Poe's motives of fear and death, Baudelaire, a French Poe with an abnormal flavor of Parisian depravity super-added and latterly that curious group, the decadents, headed by Verlaine, and Stephen Mallarme. Poe has made his influence felt in England too, notably upon James Thomson, the poet of The City of Dreadful Night and in Ireland, in the sadly sympathetic figure of James Clarence Mangan. Of Chopin's indirect influence on the musical world I would not care to dilate fearing you would accuse me of exaggeration. Liszt would not have been a composer — at least for the piano, if he had not nested in Chopin's brain. As I said before, I certainly believe that Wagner profited greatly by Chopin's discoveries in chromatic harmonies, discoveries without which modern music would yet be in diatonic swaddling clothes.
On one point Poe and Chopin were as dissimilar as the poles; the point of nationality. Poe wrote in the English tongue but beyond that he was no more American than he was English. His milieu was unsympathetic, and he refused to be assimilated by it. His verse and his prose depict character and situations that belong to no man's land — to that region East of the moon and West of the sun. In his Eldorado he poetically locates the country wherein his soul dramas occur. Thus he sings:
"Over the mountains
Of the moon
Down the valley of the shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,"
The shade replied,
"If you seek for Eldorado."
His creations are mostly bodiless and his verse suggests the most subtile imagery. Shadow of shadows, his prose possesses the same spectral quality. Have you read those two perfect pastels — Silence and Shadow? If not, you know not the genius of Edgar Allan Poe. Chopin is more human than Poe, inasmuch as he is patriotic. His polonaises are, as Schumann said, "cannons buried in flowers." He is Chopin and he is also Poland though Poland is by no means Chopin. In his polonaises, in his mazourkas, the indefinable Polish Zal lurks, a drowsy perfume. Chopin struck many human chords; some of his melodies belong to that Poe-like region wherein beauty incarnate reigns and is worshipped for itself. This then is the great dissimilarity between the artist in tone and the artist in words. Poe had no country; Chopin had Poland. If Chopin's heart had been exposed "Poland" might have been found blazoned upon it.
But, if Poe lacked political passion he had the passion for the beautiful. Both men resembled one another strangely, in their intensity of expression. Both had the power of expressing the weird, the terrific, and Chopin in his scherzi, thunders from heights that Poe failed to scale. The ethical motif was, curiously enough, absent in both and both despised the "heresy of instruction." Art for art's sake, beauty for beauty's sake alone, was their shibboleth.
Will the music of Chopin ever age? Louis Ehlert thinks that music ages rapidly like the beauty of Southern women, and Baudelaire says, "Nothing here below is certain, no building on strong hearts, both love and beauty go." An English critic, Mr. Vernon Blackburn, puts the case plainly: "I do not merely and baldly mean," he writes, "that an artistic production, like man, like the flowers, like the sun, grows older as the years go; I mean that those years do actually steal from it an absolute quality which it once possessed."
Much of the early Chopin has become faded, but the greater Chopin, like Bach and Beethoven, will last as long as the voice of the piano is heard throughout the land.
Frederic Chopin is as Robert Schumann declared, "the proudest poetic spirit of his time."
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