THE gods were good to Poe-—whereat the dunces gnashed their teeth and held their peace. He was not yet in his prime when the gods took him——whereon the dunces loosed their tongues and howled their malisons in chorus. “When a true genius appeareth in the world, you may know him by this infallible sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Swift knew.
In 1850 appeared Griswold's calumnious Memoir of Edgar Poe. I have before me an exhaustive review of the work, written for Fraser by A.K.H.B., from which it is evident that the poison took immediate effect. The reviewer winds up with the words— “He (Poe) had no sympathy, no honour, no truth. And we carry with us from the contemplation of the entire subject the sad recollection of a powerful intellect, a most vivid imagination, an utterly evil heart, and a career of guilt, misery, and despair.” This may be taken as fairly representing, until comparatively recent times, the general attitude of people on this side the Atlantic towards the subject of Griswold's precious Memoir. In the light of ascertained facts, the reviewer's verdict might-—and that without greatly violating one's sense of the fitness of things-—be pronounced on the reverend memoirist himself.
Griswold it was, who, denying Poe's possession of the literary faculty, attributed his early success as a Baltimore prize-winner, (to the fact of his legible handwriting! That gentleman also was responsible for the story of the poet's expulsion from the University of Virginia (controverted by the University authorities themselves); for the infamous allegations on the subject of the rupture between Poe and Mrs. Whitman (the subsequent defender of his memory in Edgar Poe and his Critics), and for a whole series of similar fictions which for too long have been current. If George Gilfillan opined that Poe hastened the death of his fair young wife in order that he might produce a commemorative poem that should yield him lasting fame, it was Griswold who formulated the final slander of debauch and death in Baltimore.
Needless to say, Poe has not escaped the shafts of that class of cavillers to whose shrivelled souls the unpardonable sin is the sin of coincidence. Their charges have been categorically dealt with by Mr. Ingram and other authorities, in whose keeping the literary reputation of our subject is secure. “Why not?”—was Tennyson's rejoinder on being told that, in an unknown, untranslated Chinese poem, there were two whole lines of his, almost word for word ("The Peak is high, and the stars are high, And the thought of a man is higher.” From The Voice and the Peak)--" are not human eyes all over the world looking at the same objects, and must there not consequently be coincidences of thought and impressions and expressions?” By an irony of Fortune it not infrequently happens that a writer's less happy work brings him widest fame. In some cases, readily called to mind, the popularity of a particular piece of work has completely overshadowed other and more excellent work from the same pen. So true is this, that on occasion we find prominence given to work essentially mediocre in its character. These remarks do not apply, of course, in the case of Defoe, but the fact remains that, in the popular mind, “Defoe" spells “Robinson Crusoe.” To the man in the street, Bret Harte is the author of the Heathen Chinee, and Holmes of the One Hoss Shay, and to a very large body of readers Poe is simply and solely the author of The Raven, and The Bells. Elocutionists, like the late Canon Fleming, have done their best to draw a thrill or two from the meaningless iterations of these poems, while, relatively, for all one hears of the almost perfect Israfel, The Haunted Palace, and Annabel Lee, the poet might have left them unwritten. On the other hand, M. Emile Lauvrière wrote a book of 720 closely-printed pages to prove Poe mad, and to clinch the matter he translated The Bells, as a sample of what the "metallic peals of a New York bell” could draw from the poet's “poor buzzing head.” The French pathologist, it would seem, proceeded to reason from some such illicit syllogism as this: "Swift” let us say, “was a poet; Swift was insane; ergo—anyone who is not insane cannot be a poet.” One thing is clear--M. Lauvrière is a brave man.
The truth is that Poe's metrical work, generally speaking, gives no adequate idea of his exquisite genius. As a poet, he succumbed too often and too easily to the wizardry of mere rhythm. One may perhaps legitimately speculate on what it might lay within the power of a poet to achieve, whose spirit should be an amalgam of the spirits of Poe and Whitman. In their methods and chief characteristics the two are antithetic. One built a poem, the other flung it together. One exemplified the laws of metrical composition, the other defied them. The pen of one was as Saladin's blade, of the other as the battle-axe of Coeur de Lion. Poe's manner of sustaining his rhythms by an arbitrary eking out of words and phrases (happily parodied by Bret Harte in The Willows), reminds one of the way in which Procrustes, that robber whom Theseus slew, treated his victims – fastening them to a bed and stretching them until they fitted it. Of Whitman it might have been said, as Porson said of Fox, that he leaped into the middle of a sentence and trusted to God Almighty to get him out.
Among the prose writers of America Poe's place is unique. I venture to think, however, that his pre-eminence, even here, is due less to the verbal felicity of his style than to other qualities. In Boyd's essay, to which allusion has been made, the writer remarks the "almost unparalleled” precision of Poe's language. Contrariwise, Pater said he could not read Poe in the original, but could enjoy him in Baudelaire's French translation. The reason is obvious. Pater had De Quincey's passion for the right word. Poe was a master of form, rather than a word-master—-a precision in language-—in the sense and degree in which Pater was—-and Baudelaire; and in the Frenchman's version of the Tales we have an instance of a work gaining in expression in the process of translation. The perfect form of Poe, wedded to the perfect style of Baudelaire, long since won for the Tales in France a place to which they hardly yet have been assigned on this side the Channel. Even in English-speaking countries however, Poe is steadily coming into his own, and Time is his sure ally. The Tales hold one by their boldly confident expression of their author's imaginings, their Robinson-Crusoe-like definitude of circumstance, and their narrative force. In his wildest extravagancies, Poe is credible and convincing. Mr. Arthur Ransome has very properly applied to him Gautier's description of Hoffmann's Tales as “the possible and the plausible of the fantastic.”
The imagination of Poe is a full sensory perception. He sees and hears and feels, and in supreme measure he has the power of making others see and hear and feel. This perception it is, at the back of every sentence he wrote, that forces the mind of the reader into an actively responsive attitude. It was not the eye of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner that held the Wedding-Guest--it was his glittering eye. He had voyaged far, beyond many horizons, and through
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
He had seen moving sights, had heard fearsome sounds, and had felt weird silences. It was the vision behind the eye that held the Wedding-Guest.
God save thee, Ancient Mariner
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!
Why look'st thou so?....
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea.
Poe's visual intensity invests even the most horrible of his Tales with an interest which cannot be denied by the least imaginative of his readers. The fascination of pieces such as the Black Cat, and the Tell-Tale Heart, is irresistible, though the question as to how much their peculiar fascination is due to a quality common to all their author's work, and how much to a morbid curiosity characteristic of the human mind, may be a problem of some nicety. Perhaps it is hardly fair to suggest it; and at anyrate the genius of Poe never was perverted in the attempting to make sin attractive, or in masking the terrors of remorse and retribution. From this point of view, indeed, a strong claim might be made for Poe as a moral force.
In his psychological tales, Poe stands forth as the revealer of the elementals. He lays bare the springs of impulse and motive and vivisects the soul. The mildest and most urbane of men is a potential savage. Under a conceivable, though happily rarely possible, combination of circumstances, the savage in us snaps his chains and rends us. Old Fleece, the black cook in Herman Melville's great sea novel, in his little homily addressed to the sharks while feeding them with whaleflesh, put the matter pithily enough. “You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is noting more dan de shark well goberned.” It has been said, in effect, that every child epitomizes in its own nature the history of remote ancestral barbarians, and it is more or less true that the circumstances of its immediate physical environment constitute the only real factor of restraint. To a certain extent these truths find tacit recognition, but men shrink, not unnaturally, from discussing them in set terms, while playing, moth-like, about a subject of its strong fascinations. Hawthorne fluttered prettily and perilously near the flame, but it was left to Poe to brave the final danger, and say what some would have said an they could, and others had they dared!
Is there, for instance, anywhere in the range of Literature, a presentment of the case at once so cold-blooded so ruthless and so true, as in the story of the Cask of Amontillado? Its calculated brutality appals one; nothing is suppressed, nothing evaded. The light is flashed for a moment into the darkest corner of the Revenge Fiend's habitation - the heart of a man - and one gazes into Tartarus. Dante has no sight more terrible to show, nor does he possess in greater degree the power of concentrating anguish and passion.
The Amontillado, The Red Death, Metzengerstein - the tale of fire and demoniac fury - could have been written, one somehow feels, by him alone through whose veins there ran the blood of the Powers of Munster.