Chapter 14: PoeThe saddest and the strangest figure in American literary history is that of Edgar Allan Poe. Few writers have lived a life so full of struggle and disappointment, and none have lived and died more completely out of sympathy with their times. His life has been made the subject of minute and prolonged investigation, yet there are still periods in his history that have not been satisfactorily cleared up. And the widest differences of opinion have existed as to his place and his achievements. But there are few today who will not readily concede to him a place among the foremost writers of America, whether in prose or in verse, and there are not wanting those who account him one of the two or three writers of indisputable genius that America has produced. Poe was born at Boston, 19 January, 1809, the son of actor parents of small means and of romantic proclivities. Before the end of his third year he was left an orphan, his mother dying in wretched poverty at Richmond, Virginia, 8 December, 1811, and his father a few weeks later, if we may believe the poet's own statement. He was promptly taken under the protection of a prosperous tobacco exporter of Richmond, John Allan, in whose family he lived, ostensibly as an adopted child, until 1827. In his sixth year he attended for a short time the school of William Ewing in Richmond. In the summer of 1815 he went with his foster-father to England, and for the next five years, with the exception of a few months spent in Scotland shortly after reaching England, he lived in London, attending first a boarding school kept by the Misses Dubourg in Sloane Street, and later the academy of the Rev. John Bransby in Stoke Newington. He impressed Bransby  as a ‘quick and clever boy,’ though embarrassed by ‘an extravagant amount of pocket-money’; and John Allan wrote of him in 1818 that he was ‘a fine boy’ and read ‘Latin pretty sharply.’ In 1816 Allan described him as ‘thin as a razor,’ but in 1819 he wrote that he was ‘growing wonderfully.’ On his return to Richmond in the summer of 1820, Poe entered an academy kept, first, by Joseph H. Clarke and, later, by William Burke, under whom he continued his work in the languages, earning the admiration of his fellows by his readiness at ‘capping verses’ from the Latin and by his skill in declamation. He also wrote verses of his own, and it is said that a sheaf of his juvenilia was collected in 1822 or 1823 in the hope that they might be published in volume form. But before the end of 1824 he had somehow broken with his foster-father, and the breach between the two was never to be entirely healed. ‘The boy possesses not a spark of affection for us,’ wrote John Allan in November, 1824, ‘not a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness towards him. . . . I fear his associates have led him to adopt a line of thinking and acting very contrary to what he possessed when in England.’ The immediate cause of the breach we do not know; but a parting of the ways between the two, who were radically dissimilar in tastes and ideals, was inevitable sooner or later. The year 1826 Poe spent as a student at the University of Virginia. Here he made a creditable record in his classes, winning honourable mention in Latin and French; and he at no time fell under the censure of his instructors. At the end of the year, however, because of his having accumulated gambling debts of some twenty-five hundred dollars, he was withdrawn from college; and with the beginning of the next year he was placed by his adoptive father in his counting-house in Richmond, in the hope that he might develop a taste for a business career. But he had small leaning that way; besides, he had been disappointed in a love-affair, having become engaged before going to college to Miss Sarah Elmira Royster, of Richmond, who, in consequence of a misunderstanding, had jilted him in his absence and had betrothed herself to another. Smarting under this disappointment and completely out of sympathy with the life marked out for him by his foster-father, Poe now determined to run away; and at some time in March, 1827, he left Richmond  for parts unknown. In May he appeared at Boston, and there, 26 May, he was mustered into the army of the United States. The next two years he served as a soldier in barracks, being stationed first at Boston, then at Charleston, South Carolina, and finally at Fortress Monroe. In the spring or summer of 1827 he brought out at Boston his first volume of poems, Tamerlane and other poems, a collection of ten fugitive pieces, all brief save one, and all plainly imitative either of Byron or of Moore. In February, 1829, Mrs. Allan died, and in April Poe was discharged from the army, a substitute having been provided, and efforts were made to obtain for him an appointment to West Point. Some time intervened, however, before an appointment could be procured, and it was not until July, 1830, that he was admitted to the Academy. In the preceding December he had published at Baltimore a second volume of poems, made up largely of his earlier pieces revised, but containing his long poem Al Aaraaf, the most ambitious and the most promising of his earlier productions. At West Point he took high rank in his classes; but in October, 1830, John Allan had married a second time, and Poe, concluding that there was no longer any prospect of succeeding to a fortune, determined with the beginning of the new year to bring about his dismissal from the Academy. He adopted the very effective means of absenting himself from roll calls and from classes, was court-martialled in consequence, and 6 March, 1831, was formally expelled. In April a third volume of his poems appeared, containing some of the best work that he ever did, but in a state much inferior to that in which he ultimately left it. During the ensuing four years Poe seems to have made his home in Baltimore, though it is impossible to trace his history with complete certainty throughout this period. Much of his time, no doubt, was given to his prose tales, five of which appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, in 1832,1 and a sixth—for which he won a prize of a hundred dollars—in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter in October, 1833; and he also worked at intervals during these years on a play, Politian, which, though published in part, was never completed. That  he lived in poverty and in much obscurity is evident from the reminiscences of John Pendleton Kennedy, the novelist,2 who had been one of the judges in the Visiter's contest in 1833 and who now proved his most helpful friend. In the summer of 1835, Poe went to Richmond to assist in the editing of The Southern literary Messenger, and before the end of the year he had been promoted to be editor-in-chief of that magazine. He was now fairly launched on his career as man of letters. In the columns of the Messenger he republished, with slight revisions, the tales that had already appeared, and in addition a number of new tales and poems, together with a long line of book reviews, which promptly won for the Messenger a popularity such as no other Southern magazine has ever enjoyed. In May, 1836, relying on his suddenly acquired prosperity, he married. His wife was Virginia Clemm,3 a child of thirteen and the daughter of a paternal aunt, in whose home he had lived for a time in Baltimore. In the fall he was absent from his post for several weeks in consequence of illness brought on by excessive indulgence in drink; and though on his recovery he returned to his duties with his accustomed vigour, he was unable to satisfy his employer as to his stability of habit; and with the initial number of the Messenger for 1837 his resignation as editor was formally announced. From Richmond he went to New York, where he hoped to find employment with The New York review. In October, 1837, he was in Richmond again, posing as editor still of the Messenger, though we cannot be certain that he contributed anything to its columns at this time. At the end of the year he was again in New York; and in the following summer he moved to Philadelphia. In July he published at New York, in book form, the longest of his tales, The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. The next six years (1838-1844) he spent in Philadelphia. During the first year he was engaged largely in hack-writing, busying himself with a work on conchology (published in  1839) among other things, though he also composed at this time some of the best of his tales. In May, 1839, he became associate editor of Burton's gentleman's magazine, but a year later he quarrelled with Burton and lost his place. From April, 1841, to May, 1842, he edited Graham's magazine. And in 1843 he had for a while some tacit connection with a Philadelphia weekly, The Saturday Museum. In Burton's and in Graham's he published a number of the ablest of his book-reviews and some of the most striking of his tales. At the end of 1839 he brought out at Philadelphia a collection of his tales, in two volumes; and in 1843 a further edition of his tales was projected, of which, however, only one fascicle, containing but two of his stories, was published. In the same year he won a prize of a hundred dollars for his story The gold Bug. But at no time during these years was his income from his writings or from his editorial labours sufficient to enable him to live in comfort. During his later years in Philadelphia, moreover, his weakness for drink had grown on him, and he had as a result lost many of his friends; his wife, too, frail from childhood, had become an invalid in 1841 or in 1842; and so, early in 1844, the poet concluded to seek a new field. In April, 1844, he moved with his family to New York; and there, either in the city or at Fordham, a few miles out, he lived during the remaining five years allotted to him. The year 1844 was uneventful, but the year 1845 proved to be the pivotal year of his history. At the end of January appeared in the New York Evening Mirror, on which he had held a minor editorial position for several months, The Raven; and he became at once the most talked of man of letters in America. In the summer he published a new volume of his tales, and in the fall, a collected edition of his poems, The Raven and other poems. Early in the year he became assistant editor of The Broadway journal; in July he became sole editor, and in October editor and proprietor of this paper; and thus was enabled to realize an ambition that he had cherished for more than a decade, to edit a paper of his own. But owing to financial embarrassments arising from various causes, he was compelled to give up this paper at the end of the year. During the first half of 1846 he was ill, so he himself claimed, for several months. In the middle of the year (May to October) he  published, in Godey's Lady's Book, his Literati, a series of biographical—critical papers dealing with the chief living writers of Gotham; and the year was further made memorable by the controversy with Thomas Dunn English engendered by the publication of the Literati, and by a scandal growing out of his friendship with the poetess, Mrs. F. S. Osgood. Early in 1847 the poet's wife died, and throughout the year, as indeed during the preceding year, the family suffered keenly from the pinch of poverty. The year 1848 saw the culmination of two unhappy love-affairs—first, with Mrs. Shew, who had nursed the poet through a spell of illness following the death of his wife, and then with Mrs. Whitman, the Rhode Island poetess; and this year also witnessed the publication of his Eureka, a philosophical disquisition on the origin and composition of the universe. The year 1849 opened auspiciously for the poet; during the first half he wrote at least one new tale, and several new poems, including the lines For Annie, Eldorado, a revised and much enlarged version of The bells, and the last of his poems, Annabel Lee. In the summer of 1849 he went to Richmond, where he renewed his addresses to the sweetheart of his boyhood, Miss Royster, now the widow Mrs. Shelton and wealthy, and they became engaged for a second time. Late in September Poe left Richmond for the North, intending to bring his mother-in-law, who remained loyal to him throughout the years, to the South for the marriage; but at Baltimore he was induced to break a temperance pledge that he had made in the summer, and as a result he fell into excesses from the effects of which he died 7 October, 1849. He lies buried in the churchyard of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Baltimore. Such are the leading facts that have been established concerning Poe's life. But despite the labours of his biographers —and no American writer has had more and abler biographers —there are still certain periods of his life for which our knowledge is exceedingly meagre and unsatisfactory. We have, for instance, no specific knowledge as to how or where he spent the two months intervening between his departure from Richmond in March, 1827, and his mustering into the army at the end of May. We are likewise ignorant both as to his whereabouts and as to his activities during the year immediately preceding his winning of the Visiter's prize in October, 1833; and  the entire period from 1831 to 1835 is obscure. He sinks out of sight again for six months in the middle of 1837. And a hiatus of several months also occurs in his history during the first half of the year 1846. For this obscurity Poe is himself mainly responsible. He took pleasure in mystifying his public about himself; and in a few instances he deliberately misstated the facts.4 As to Poe's character and personality the most divergent views have been expressed. According to Griswold, whom he chose as his literary executor, Poe was a ‘naturally unamiable character,’ arrogant, ‘irascible, envious,’ without ‘moral susceptibility’ or sense of gratitude, and exhibiting ‘scarcely any virtue in either his life or his writings.’ According to the Richmond editor, John M. Daniel, who saw him frequently during the summer of 1849, he was sour of nature, capricious, selfish, a misanthrope, possessing ‘little moral sense.’ In the view of Lowell's friend, C. F. Briggs, with whom he was associated for several months in 1845 as co-editor of the Broadway journal, he was ‘badly made up,’ a ‘characterless character,’ and ‘utterly deficient of high motive.’ And Horace Greeley was disturbed lest Mrs. Whitman should marry him, giving it as his opinion that such a union would be a ‘terrible conjunction.’ To N. P. Willis, on the other hand, who perhaps knew him better than any other outside of his immediate family during his last half-dozen years, there appeared, during several months of close association with him in 1844-1845, ‘but one presentment of the man,—a quiet, patient, industrious, and most gentlemanly person, commanding the utmost respect and good feeling by his unvarying deportment and ability’; and in subsequent years he saw, so he declares, nothing of the arrogance, vanity, and depravity of heart ‘that were commonly attributed to him.’ And George R. Graham, editor of the magazine that bore his name, testifies that, when he knew him best (in the first half of the forties), ‘he had the docility and kind-heartedness of a child,’ and that ‘no man was more quickly touched by a kindness, none more prompt to make return for an injury,’ and, further, that he was ‘the soul  of honour in all his transactions.’ Kennedy notes that he was ‘irregular, eccentric, and querulous,’ but adds—as if in set rejoinder to Griswold's charge that he was incapable of gratitude for service done—that ‘he always remembered my kindness with gratitude.’ As time has passed and we have come to know more about Poe's life, it has become more and more evident that the view of his character held by Griswold and those who sided with him was unduly harsh,5 though it remains clear, nevertheless, that Poe was not without regrettable traits and serious weaknesses. It is plain, first of all, that he was abnormally proud and sensitive and impulsive; it is equally plain that he was thoroughly undignified and ungenerous in his attacks on certain of his contemporaries who had aroused his envy or incurred his dislike. We have already noted that he was not invariably accurate of statement, especially in matters pertaining peculiarly to himself; we know, too, that he was an incessant borrower, and that he neglected in some instances to make good his borrowings at the appointed time,—though there is no conclusive evidence of dishonesty of intent on his part. And all the world knows that he sometimes drank to excess. But it is also clear—contrary to the popular assumption—that Poe was not a confirmed inebriate: the volume and the quality of his writings sufficiently demonstrate this; and it is not to be denied that he made repeated and manful efforts to shake off the tyranny of drink. Nor can we read his letters —in which we see the true Poe more plainly than elsewhere—without being convinced that he also possessed amiable traits and noble impulses. In any estimate of his character, moreover, it is but just to take into account—as, indeed, most of his recent biographers have done—the influences exerted on his character by heredity and by his early environment6; and it should also be borne in mind that he suffered during most of his later career from serious physical infirmities.7  It was as critic that Poe first attracted widespread attention. As editor of the Messenger and Burton's and Graham's his chief function was that of book-reviewer; and much of the work that he did for other periodicals was of the nature of book-reviews and gossip about books and authors. The bulk of his work in this field is journalistic in style and of ephemeral interest, much of it being the merest hack-writing; but there remains a small body of critical matter that possesses genuine worth and distinction, and that entitles Poe to an honourable place among the literary critics of America.8 Assuredly no other American critic of his day, save Lowell, may take rank above him. This residue of good work comprises a score of masterly book-reviews, including the memorable notices of Longfellow's Ballads, Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, and Dickens's Barnaby Rudge; some half-dozen essays in the theory of criticism, of which the earliest is his Letter to B—— and the most significant is his Poetic principle; and a series of obiter dicta, collected under the title Marginalia, which have justly been held to contain much of his best work as critic.9 His most distinctive gifts as critic were clearness of intellect and a faculty for analysis. Few Americans of his time had finer intellectual endowments. He also had the poet's ‘faculty of ideality,’ on which he laid great stress in his judgments of others. And he was the most independent and fearless of critics, disdaining not to attack either high or low. He had not read very widely; but he knew his Milton well, and probably his Shakespeare and his Pope, and he was familiar  with the chief Romantic poets of the age immediately preceding his own; while as editor and magazinist he kept in close touch with contemporary literature. On the other hand, he was prone to exaggerate technical blemishes and to underestimate ethical and philosophical significance. And his taste was not always impeccable. By his contemporaries he was thought of as inexcusably harsh in his criticisms: by one of them he is dubbed the ‘tomahawk man,’ by another the ‘broad-axe man’; and Lowell remarks, in his sketch of him, that he seemed ‘sometimes to mistake his phial of prussicacid for his inkstand.’ What is more to his discredit, he stooped now and then to log-rolling both on his own account and on behalf of his friends, and his unfavourable judgments appear to have been actuated in some instances by animus and jealousy. But most of his critical judgments have been sustained by time. And despite the arrogance charged against him by Griswold and others, it is to be set down to his credit that he ungrudgingly conceded to Longfellow and Lowell the primacy among the American poets of his time and that he generously proclaimed Hawthorne to be without a peer in his peculiar field. His chief hobbies as critic were originality—and, per contra, imitation and plagiarism—‘unity or totality of effect,’ consistency and ‘keeping,’ verisimilitude, ‘the heresy of the didactic,’ provinciality, metrical imperfections of whatever sort, and verbal inaccuracies and infelicities; some of which hobbies—as plagiarism—he rode over-hard. But his influence in an age when wholesale adulation was the rule, and when art counted for but little, was naturally wholesome. Among the best known of his critical dicta is his characterization of the short story in his notice of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842). Probably no other passage in American literary criticism has been quoted so often as the following extract from this review:
A skilful 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 this preconceived  effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing 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. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel.10Scarcely less famous are some of his deliverances on the meaning and the province and aims of poetry. Poetry he defined as the ‘rhythmical creation of beauty,’ holding with Coleridge, his chief master as critic, that its ‘immediate object’ is ‘pleasure, not truth’; and that ‘with the intellect or with the conscience it has only collateral relations.’ ‘Poetry and passion’ he held to be ‘discordant.’ And humour, also, he believed to be ‘antagonistical to that which is the soul of the muse proper.’ Sadness he declared to be the most poetic of moods; and ‘indefinitiveness’ one of the chief essentials of lyric excellence. A long poem he held, with Bryant, to be a ‘contradiction in terms.’ Poe's critical doctrines find their best exemplification in his own poems. He is, first of all, a poet of beauty, paying little heed to morality or to the life of his fellow-men. He is, in the second place, a master-craftsman, who has produced a dozen poems of a melody incomparable so far as the western world is concerned; and he has achieved an all but flawless construction of the whole in such poems as The Raven, The haunted Palace, and The Conqueror Worm; while in The bells he has performed a feat in onomatopoeia quite unapproached before or since in the English language. He is, moreover, one of the most original of poets. And the best of his verse exhibits a spontaneity and finish and perfection of phrase, as well as, at times, a vividness of imagery, that it is difficult to match elsewhere in American poetry. But his poems of extraordinary worth are exceedingly few —scarcely above a score at most—in which must be included the earlier lines To Helen, Israfel, The city in the sea, the Sleeper,  The Haunted Palace, Dream-Land, The Raven, Ulalume, For Annie, and Annabel Lee. And most of his earlier verses are manifestly imitative, Byron and Moore and Coleridge and Shelley being his chief models; while much of his earlier work, including all of the volume of 1827, and some of his latest— notably the verses addressed to Mrs. Osgood and Mrs. Shew and Mrs. Lewis—are either fragmentary and ‘incondite’ or mere ‘verses,’ or both. It has been justly said that ‘there is almost no poet between whose best and worst verse there is a wider disparity.’11 His range, too, is narrower than that of any other American poet of front rank. Consistently with one of his theories already adverted to, he wrote no long poem, save the juvenile Tamerlane and Al Aaraaf, both of them extremely crude performances (though Al Aaraaf contains excellent passages and played a large part in his development as poet), and an abortive play, Politian, which he never saw fit to publish in its entirety; so that he lives as poet solely by reason of his lyrics. And within the realm of the lyric he confined himself to the narrowest range of ideas. Nature he employed merely as ornament or as symbol or to fill in the background; and nowhere in his poems does he deal with the life about him, except in so far as he writes of friends and kindred. His most constant theme—if we exclude the poet himself, for few writers have so constantly reflected themselves in their work—is either the death of a beautiful woman and the grief occasioned thereby, or the realm of shades—the spirit-world —a subject to which he was strongly attracted, especially in his middle years. Hence, although most European critics have accorded him first place among American poets, most American critics have hesitated to accept their verdict. Much of the excellence of his best poems arises from the never-ending revisions to which he subjected them. The Raven, for example, exists in upwards of a dozen variant forms, and some of his earlier verses were so radically altered as to be scarcely recognizable in their final recast. His melody, especially in his later poems, grows in large measure out of his all but unexampled use of parallelism and of the refrain.12 Not a little of his charm, moreover, both in his earlier and in  his later work, results from his use of symbolism. It is idle to complain that his best verses—as Israfel or The haunted Palace —are superficial; and it is futile to contend that such poems as Annabel Lee or the sonnet To My mother are not sincere, or that his poems, one and all, lack spontaneity. But it is not to be denied that some of his best-known poems—as Lenore and The Raven—exhibit too much of artifice; that The Conqueror Worm and passages in still other poems approach too near to the melodramatic; and that, with many readers, his verses must suffer by reason of their sombreness of tone. Poe's tales, which exceed in number his fully authenticated poems, have been held by some of the most judicious of his critics to constitute his chief claim to our attention.13 There are those who will not subscribe to this view, but it is plain that he was the most important figure in the history of the short story during his half-century. Hawthorne alone may be thought of as vying with him for this distinction; but although the New Englander is infinitely Poe's superior in some respects—as in the creation of character and in wholesomeness and sanity—he must yield place to him in the creation of incident, in the construction of plot, and in the depicting of an intensely vivid situation. Whether or not we allow Poe the distinction of having invented the short story will depend on our interpretation of terms; but at least he invented the detective story, and more than any other he gave to the short story its vogue in America. Like his poems, his tales are notably unequal. Some of his earlier efforts—especially his satirical and humorous extravaganzas, as Lionizing and Bon-Bon—are properly to be characterized as rubbish; and he was capable in his later years of descending to such inferior work as The Sphinx, Mellonta Tauta, and X-ing a Paragrab. One feels, indeed, that Lowell's famous characterization of him:
Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge,applies with entire justice to him as a maker of short stories. The best of his narrative work is to be found in his analytical  tales, as The gold Bug or The descent into the Maelstrom, in certain stories in which he combines his analytical gift with the imaginative and inventive gift, as The Cask of Amontillado and William Wilson, or in certain studies of the pure imagination, as The fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the red death. In all of these he displays a skill of construction and of condensation surpassed by few if any other workers in his field. In some—as in The Masque of the red death, or in Eleonora, or in his landscape studies—he shows himself a master of English style; and in two of his briefer studies— Shadow and Silence—he approaches the eloquence and splendour of De Quincey. His main limitations as a writer of the short story are to be found in the feebleness and flimsiness of his poorer work; in his all but complete lack of healthy humour; in his incapacity to create or to depict character; in his morbidness of mood and grotesqueness of situation.14 He suffers also in comparison with other leading short-story writers of America and England in consequence of his disdain of the ethical in art (though neither his tales nor his poems are entirely lacking in ethical value); he suffers, again, in comparison with certain present-day masters of the short story in consequence of his lack of variety in theme and form; and he was never expert in the management of dialogue. By reason of his fondness for the terrible and for the outre;, he is to be classed with the Gothic romancers: he makes constant use of Gothic machinery, of apparitions, cataleptic attacks, premature burial, and life after death. In several of his stories—as also in his long poems, Tamerlane and Al Aaraaf —he follows in the steps of the Orientalists. On the other hand, in some of his tales of incident he achieves a realism and a minuteness of detail that betray unmistakably the influence of Defoe. And it is easy to demonstrate an indebtedness to divers  of his contemporaries, as James and Bulwer and Disraeli and Macaulay. It has been proved also that he knew the German romancer, E. T. A. Hoffmann, if not in the original, at least in translation, and that he caught his manner and appropriated his themes.15 For the rest, he drew for his materials largely on the magazines and newspapers of his day, finding in a famous newspaper sensation of the forties the suggestion of his Mystery of Marie Roget (as he had found in another sensation, of the twenties, the plot of his Politian), and taking advantage of certain contemporary fads in his myth-making about mesmerism, ballooning, premature burial, and the like; and he boldly pilfered from government reports, scientific treatises, and works of reference such material as he found serviceable in some of his tales of adventure. Hence his originality may be said to consist rather in combination and adaptation than in more obviously inventive exercises of the fancy. Poe's influence has been far-reaching. As poet, he has had many imitators both in his own country and abroad, but especially in France and England.16 As romancer he has probably wielded a larger influence than any English writer since Scott. And as critic it is doubtful whether any other of his countrymen has contributed so much toward keeping the balance right between art-for-art's-sake and didacticism. His fame abroad is admittedly larger than that of any other American writer, and his vogue has been steadily growing among his own people.