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Download The Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, 6 Volumes plus Extra Books here
IT is an easy matter to get into the workshop of Poe's mind in order to see the master work, for, through his critical works, he left the doors wide open. He knew 'the trick of the tool's true play,' and he made no secret of it.
He was a poet born, having the sense of poetic beauty as one is said to have an ear for music, and he was a poet made, having skill in the art of versification, as, in music, one is said to have technique; and he was an artist in literary prose: he was all this before he took upon himself the office of reviewer to sit in judgment on the work of others.
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It was in the fall of the year 1835 that Poe became the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, and turned his attention in serious earnest to dignify criticism as a line of literary activity. But before this he had published his first volume of verse in 1827, his second in 1829, his third in 1831, and had published, or had ready for publication, more than a dozen of his Tales. In truth what may be called his apprenticeship to Letters was over at this date.
It happened then that this literary man, turned critic, was much in the same attitude towards prose and poetry as the student, turned teacher, is towards learning. He is in the master's place now, and must be a 'Sir Oracle.' He must not only have a faith, but be ready with a reason for his faith.
He is henceforth a critic as well as a singer of songs and a teller of tales, and it would be difficult to say in which direction he did the greatest service, or won most repute, for our literature.
Coleridge was the school-master to Poe's genius. He was largely in debt to Coleridge, and, in particular, for his principles of criticism. Apropos to this suggestion Mr. E. C. Stedman writes thus: 'Usually his (Poe's) literary views were sound, derived from his own perception, and from sympathetic reading of Coleridge — than whom no better master.' His opinions as a critic are well-nigh universally applauded, but it is the expression of his opinions that is sometimes to be reprehended. He was notably not courteous in what he had to say of Longfellow's poetry. While he learned sound principles of criticism in reading Coleridge's 'Biographia Literaria,' it is a pity he did not, from reading, in the same book, Coleridge's examination of Wordsworth's poetry, learn how to be gracious.
The critical tests he applied to the workmanship of others are the principles through which he conceived that his own successes were wrought, so in this way he gives us the key to the interpretation and proper appreciation of his own literary efforts.
The first and most general distinction he made was that between poetry and prose. He mentions that a poem is distinguished from what he calls romance by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure. He is more specific: romance presents perceptible images with definite sensations, while poetry presents perceptible images with indefinite sensations. To make the sensations accompanying perceptible images indefinite, music is essential. 'Perceptible images,' which means the pictorial element plus the musical element, is for Poe, in the most general terms, poetry.
By romance he meant narrative prose, such as he knew how to write. It must present perceptible images that produce definite sensations. The first question as to any Tale that may be under consideration is not, Does it present perceptible images? but, Does it present perceptible images with characteristics that insure definite sensations? Poe was wise enough to know that not all perceptible images produce definite sensations.
It was this discriminating power of his mind that directed him to the element of strangeness as the requisite characteristic. He was early imbued with this thought, for in one of the poems of his first volume (1827) he speaks of the quickening spell of the unembodied essence of a thought as passing over us as the dew of the night-time over the summer grass, and adds that this mysterious power need not have association with rare or uncommon objects, but that it comes more effectively from things that lie each hour before us,
'— but then only bid
With a strange sound, as of a harp-string broken,
To awake us?'
There is no gainsaying Poe's judgment as to the value of the strange amid the common to interest, or, in other words, to produce definite sensations. This may be set down as the general (abstract) principle upon which he fashioned his Tales; it accounts for the grotesque in them.
On this point he frequently had occasion, as critic, to quote from Lord Bacon that 'There is no exquisite beauty which has not some strangeness in its proportion.'
The word 'beauty' indicates which way Poe's devotion lay. In an early poem he speaks of revelations given in beauty by our God to some who would otherwise fall from life and Heaven. He has given the best concise definition of poetry by saying it is 'the rhythmical creation of beauty.' Now couple with this that he declared poetry to be a passion with him, and we are almost obliged to conclude that the pursuit of beauty was with him a passion. He believed with Browning that if you get simple beauty and naught else, you get about the best thing God invents. This all means that he was dead set against didacticism in literature, whether in poetry or in prose. He speaks in the most intolerant way of 'the heresy of the didactic.' It was, then, the Beauty that is divorced from the merely useful — the Beauty of Fine Art — that he set his heart on.
How he created this beauty in the prose Tale he lets us see. It was done on art-principles, whereby workmanship counts for more than the material. Supposing that we have shied as far away as possible — as Poe did — from the didactic in theme and purpose, it is safe to say, if we find a piece of Art — Sculpture, Painting, Music, Literature — which exemplifies the principles of unity, harmony, and completeness, that it will please, no matter what the material considered as material. It was workmanship that gave the priceless value of the Venus of Milo to what was at first but a rough block of marble. It is the workmanship of Fine Arts that can make the stone which the common builders reject to become the head of the corner. A piece of work that embodies these fundamentals does please, and is therefore said to be beautiful. This lays open the secret of that beauty which Poe sought with passionate earnestness.
Throughout his criticisms such expressions as these are constantly recurring: 'Unity of effect,' 'unity of impression,' 'totality of effect,' 'totality of impression,' 'a certain unique or single effect,' 'harmonious combinations,' 'unity and completeness.' Here we have his test of 'high artistical beauty.'
Since Poe made no discrimination in particular among the basal qualities of Art, it serves our purpose to conceive them all as implied in 'unity of effect.' But do we appreciate what is meant by 'unity of effect'? Imagine you have before you a piece of statuary, an Apollo, let us say, by a master. Could you tell why it pleased you? Imagine that while your eyes are turned away from it, the right arm has grown to twice its fellow's size, would this alteration please you? Why not? Because the enlarged arm does not belong to this figure, it is not one with it; you conceive it to belong to another and larger form. A very much smaller change might be made than that in the size of an arm, let it be the lengthening of a forefinger by just one inch. This would spoil the statue, perfect in every other particular. The unity of effect is destroyed by the smallest defect, provided it be conspicuous.
Poe had a lesson on this from Coleridge's 'Biographia Literaria' where it is set down, that in a true poem there is a reason assignable not only for every word, but for the position of every word. He applied this principle as a test, rigidly. For example, in his criticism of 'Barnaby Rudge,' he says that 'Come back — come back!' the exclamation of the woman when Varden attempts to arrest the murderer, is not accounted for in the winding up of the story. With Poe there must be a reason assignable for every expression, and the best of his Tales will bear so exacting a scrutiny.
A pertinent question might here arise, Where are these assignable reasons to be found? Within the work itself. Why should not the finger of the Apollo be lengthened one inch? Is the reason to be found in anything outside and apart from the statue itself? Poe himself has this in mind when he writes: 'But every work of Art should contain within itself all that is requisite for its own comprehension.'
How must a prose narrative be written to fulfill these demands? Poe answers this himself, and in a way that summarizes for us the points that we have been mentioning. 'A skillful literary artist has constructed a Tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents — he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing his preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the out-bringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.' So nice an adaptation of written words to secure a definite effect insures the very perfection of literary Style.
The above words are from what Poe had to say about Hawthorne's 'Tales.' He has something further to say about the prose Tale as a species of composition, and especially about the prejudice against 'Tales of effect.' 'They were,' he says, 'relished by every man of genius; although there were found many men of genius who condemned them without just ground. The true critic will but demand that the design intended be accomplished, to the fullest extent, by the means most advantageously applicable.' This is but maintaining that workmanship is to be put above material.
We can have no doubt now that Poe felt that in unity of effect resided the pleasurable charm of the Beautiful, and that in the pursuit of this the sure way is to choose first some unique effect and then to handle incidents as mere means to produce that effect. This is the simple why and how of Poe's art.
Poe not only told us in the plainest terms how he wrought, but he did more, he selected a piece of his work and took it apart before our eyes, to exemplify his method. That piece of work was not one of his Tales, but 'The Raven,' but it answered his purpose better perhaps than a Tale. The analysis is given in all its details in the essay entitled 'The Philosophy of Composition.'
In this after-analysis of 'The Raven' we need not take Poe too seriously, especially as to his details, but the essay is valuable as indicating how one is to go about choosing a definite effect, which must be novel and vivid, and must be allied with beauty to make it universally appreciable.
We have often heard in the affairs of life that 'where there is a will there is a way,' and we know that it means that a definitely conceived end, earnestly desired, finds the ways and means to its attainment. In strict truth a definitely formed purpose implies the dynamic power of desire that forges the way to the goal.
Poe means that a definitely conceived effect has in it the power to fashion its own proper concrete form. He is right, thought does condition its own expression, and especially is this true of the thought of the creative imagination.
When you consider now, that Poe was a Platonist — What poet is not? — and that he was in passionate pursuit of beauty, you have at once the source of his inspiration and his method — the only method — of artistic production. In what other way could you secure that 'reciprocity of adaptation' of which he makes so much in his study of the Universe of the Stars, in 'Eureka'? To let Poe explain himself we quote the paragraph following his conclusion that in the density of the globes is to be seen the measure in which their purposes are fulfilled:
'Not only is this Divine adaptation, however, mathematically accurate, but there is that about it which stamps it as Divine, in distinction from that which is merely the work of human constructiveness. I allude to the complete mutuality of adaptation. For example, in human constructions a particular cause has a particular effect; a particular intention brings to pass a particular object, but this is all; we see no reciprocity. The effect does not react upon the cause; the intention does not exchange relations with the object. In Divine constructions the object is either design or object as we choose to regard it — and we may take at any time a cause for an effect, or the converse — so that we can never absolutely decide which is which.'
He illustrates the point by calling attention to the fact that the human frame in polar climates requires for combustion an abundance of highly azotized food, as train-oil. 'Now, whether is oil at hand because imperatively demanded, or the only thing demanded because the only thing to be obtained? It is impossible to decide. There is an absolute reciprocity of adaptation.'
Absolute reciprocity of adaptation is the high ideal the literary artist must set before him. With regard to this he says:
'The pleasure which we derive from any display of human ingenuity is in the ratio of the approach to this species of reciprocity. In the construction of plot, for example, in fictitious literature, we should aim at so arranging the incidents that we shall not be able to determine, or any of them, whether it depends from any one other or upholds it. In this sense, of course, perfection of plot is really, or practically, unobtainable — but only because it is a finite intelligence that constructs. The plots of God are perfect. The Universe is the plot of God.'
The expressions 'reciprocity of adaptation,' 'mutuality of adaptation,' may be made a little clearer by recurring to the repeated query as to whether circumstances make the man or man the circumstances. Exclusively considered, neither is true and yet both are true, reciprocally. Circumstances cannot make the man unless the man be there in the germ to be made. The acorn must have the warmth and moisture of the soil in order to become the oak, but so sacredly is life guarded in the germ that the soil cannot add a doit to make the acorn grow into anything but the oak. The acorn is impotent of itself, that is, without the soil, to develop into the oak; and the soil is, likewise, impotent of itself, that is, without the germ, to develop the oak. Which then is the cause of that effect we name the oak? The one as much as the other, hence the mutuality of these two factors.
A glance at one of Poe's stories with an eye singled to this idea of the 'reciprocity of adaptation' will be worth while.
The story entitled 'Berenice' closes with this paragraph: —'He pointed to my garments; they were muddy and clotted with gore. I spoke not, and he took me gently by the hand: it was indented with the impress of human nails. He directed my attention to some object against the wall. I looked at it for some minutes: it was a spade. With a shriek I bounded to the table, and grasped the box that lay upon it. But I could not force it open; and, in my tremor, it slipped from my hands, and fell heavily, and burst into pieces; and from it, with a rattling sound, there rolled out some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white, and ivory-looking substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor.'
This is the effect to be accounted for by the interaction of the victim and his environment. The victim is the raconteur.
Who is the victim at his first introduction to us? He came of a race of visionaries. What were his circumstances? An ancestral home of which the frescoes, the tapestries, the armory, the gallery, the library, were the products of visionaries, and which did in turn make him a visionary.
One chamber, the library, was associated with his earliest recollections; there he was born, and there his mother died. His memories are so vivid that he makes no question of their pointing to a previous state of existence. This is how he puts it, —
'There is, however, a remembrance of aerial forms, of spiritual and meaning eyes, of sounds musical yet sad; a remembrance which will not be excluded; a memory like a shadow — vague, variable, indefinite, unsteady — and like a shadow, too, in the impossibility of my getting rid of it while the sunlight of my reason shall exist.'
His being born in that library chamber was but the awaking from a long night of seeming nonentity into the very regions of fairy-land, into a palace of the imagination. That was what the realm of books was to his boyhood and young manhood. Hear him tell of this stagnation of the springs of life, —
'The realities of the world affected me as visions, and as visions only, while the wild ideas of the land of dreams became, in turn, not the material of my every-day existence, but in very deed that existence utterly and solely in itself.'
But was not his own inherited susceptibility to visions as much the cause of this condition as the fairy-land of books?
There was another factor of his environment, namely, his cousin, Berenice. It was her delight to ramble on the hill-side as it was his to study in the cloister. When the blight fell upon her in the form of epilepsy, his visionariness became a specific monomania, a morbid irritability of the attentive powers of the mind.
Then note what brings on the full fury of his monomania, when he beholds 'the teeth' visibly and palpably before him, here, there, and everywhere. The end of the fury is to covet the teeth, and to feel that their possession alone could bring him peace and restore him to reason. And so the mutual workings of inner conditions and outward circumstances are made obvious as they course along to the catastrophe.
The chief interest, technically considered, in Poe's stories, resides in his preserving, with the true instinct of the artist, this equation between the inner and outer factors. A proper appreciation of any one of his tales should begin with the recognition, in a general way, of this reciprocity, or mutuality, of adaptation; thence to a study of details, in which will be seen how all the parts, near and remote, contribute their quota to unity of impression.
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