The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays
Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays
Poe’s is the shakiest of all large American reputations, and yet, if I remember rightly a statement of Malcolm Cowley’s, there have been more studies of him than of any other native writer. There is, as Whitman said, an “indescribable magnetism” about Poe’s much romanticized life, and that would be part of the explanation. It is also true that Poe is an important point in any brief for Southern letters, that his supposed morbidity has attracted many diagnosticians of psychic and cultural sickness, and that some critics have been annoyed into writing about Poe by a desire to comprehend or explain away his high standing abroad. Finally, and on the whole recently, a number of people have attempted direct literary analysis of Poe, moved by a sense that there is more to him than obsession, mystification, and—as Yeats put it of “The Pit and the Pendulum”—“an appeal to the nerves by tawdry physical affrightments.”
In any event, the books keep coming. Floyd Stovall, a veteran critic and scholar of Poe, has recently edited a hand-somely made edition of the complete poems.1 Dwight Macdonald’s Poems of Edgar Allan Poe is a selection of thirty-four poems, augmented by a number of pieces (such as “Silence,” “Shadow,” and “Eleonora”) which may reasonably be considered prose poems; to this Macdonald appends certain of Poe’s critical essays and pensées.2 Eric W. Carlson’s The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe offers a fascinating variety of reactions to Poe—critical, epistolary, biographical, and poetic—extending from 1829 to the present. Some of the material included, such as Griswold’s nasty memoir, D. H. Lawrence’s essay on Poe’s “vampirism,” and Mallarmé’s great sonnet, will be familiar to many; less known are G. B. Shaw’s centenary rave of 1909, or Dostoevsky’s notice of 1861, in which he praises Poe’s “marvelous acumen and amazing realism” in the depiction of “inner states.” (It is interesting that this last piece, published in Dostoevsky’s magazine Wremia five years before Crime and Punishment, stood as introduction to three stories by Poe, two of which—“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat”—are accounts of murder, conscience, and confession.) Robert Regan’s Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays begins with one of the less inferential chapters of Joseph Wood Krutch’s Freudian study (1926) and contains eleven other essays, largely from the Fifties and Sixties. These are well-chosen and varied in attack. There is some overlapping between the Regan and Carlson volumes, but both are worth having.
NINETEENTH-CENTURY WRITING about Poe, as represented in Carlson’s collection, is on many grounds intriguing. But in relation to Poe’s substance it is vexingly general, as compared both with today’s more practice criticism and with Poe’s own practice in such analytic essays as his review of Drake and Halleck. Since Margaret Fuller is who she is, we are attentive when she credits Poe’s tales with “penetration into the causes of things,” and asserts that “where the effects are fantastic they are not unmeaningly so.” Since James is James, we harken respectfully to his dictum that “enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” But since Miss Fuller does not clarify the nature of Poe’s depth, and James is equally offhand about his shallowness, the reader cannot get a dialogue out of their difference. Two broad observations by James Russell Lowell, in a Graham’s Magazine article of 1845, reverberate through all the last century’s criticism of Poe. The first is that Poe combines “a faculty of vigorous yet minute analysis, and a wonderful fecundity of imagination” (resembling in this Poe’s hero Dupin, whose genius is both “creative and resolvent”). The second is that the tales present “impalpable shadows of mystery” and at the same time an authenticating “minuteness of detail.”
Those two ideas are true, and have deserved reiteration; the big repeated falsehood about Poe was, of course, that he and his works were “worthless and wicked.” Though Poe did have personal weaknesses, the notion of his wickedness derived mainly from the calumnies of Griswold, from Poe’s critical attacks on moralizing in poetry, from the supraemotional character of his poems, from the unsettling grisliness of certain of his tales, and from the insistence of Poe’s readers on confounding him with his mad and depraved narrators. The view that Poe was a monster, and deservedly an outcast (a view which Baudelaire turned inside out), was held with varying degrees of intensity by almost everyone, here and in England, until the biographical clarifications of the Twenties. Bryant refused to chip in for the Poe memorial in Baltimore, because he felt there ought to be “some decided element of goodness” in any person so publicly remembered. Whitman was the only well-known poet to attend the re-burial in 1875, and even he hedged the gesture by stating then and there that, while Poe had had genius, he himself preferred a poetry of “health” to one of delirium.” Elsewhere, Whitman said of Poe’s verses that they were “almost without the first sign of moral principle.” T. W. Higginson, in a characteristic essay of 1879, began by calling Poe a genius and then compulsively proceeded to blackball him as a bounder, a frequently “besotted” person of “low moral tone.” And Robert Louis Stevenson, in an 1899 article not collected by Carlson, had this to say: “He who could write ‘King Pest’ had ceased to be a human being. For his own sake, and out of an infinite compassion for so lost a spirit, one is glad to think of him as dead….”
It is not until 1907 that we come upon a sustained and concrete examination of Poe’s work, Brander Matthews’s “Poe and the Detective Story.” Matthews distinguishes between the Gothic tale of mystery, in which the reader is tantalized by a secret withheld until the close, and the Poe tale of detection, the interest of which lies “in the successive steps whereby [an] analytic observer is enabled to solve a problem that might well be dismissed as beyond human elucidation.” Matthews is good also on the anonymous narrator of Poe’s detective stories, who mediates between us and the staggering genius of Dupin or Legrand, assuring us of its human possibility and, as Greek chorus or cheerleader, inciting us to astonishment. One thing which Matthews does not see, although he comes near to seeing it, is that “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example, is not merely a detective story. As I shall try in a moment to show, there is also a story beneath the story which we are challenged to detect.
ALLEN TATE says in his fine essay, “The Angelic Imagination,” that “readers of Poe…are peculiarly liable to the vanity of discovery.” That is true, but it is also true, as Stephen Mooney notes, that Poe “believed in a technique that would require the reader to discover for himself where the meaning lies.” Again and again in his criticism, Poe says that truly imaginative literature always situates its deepest meaning in an “under current,” and that this submerged significance must not be too readily sounded. If we take that contention seriously, and apply it anywhere to the fiction of its author, we will run into various signs of ulterior motives. Let me mention a few of these signs.
Explicit symbolism: We must go to Poe’s letters for his admission that the “Haunted Palace” represents “a mind haunted by phantoms,” but scattered through his published work are equations quite as plain. “Berenice“‘s narrator speaks of “the raven-winged hours,” “the gray ruins of memory,” “the disordered chamber of my brain.” The dead speaker of “For Annie” rejoices that “the fever called ‘Living’/Is conquered at last.” These are not hit-and-run conjunctions: dark and voracious birds are continually associated with time in Poe; palaces and chambers everywhere imply minds or states of mind; and the idea that earthly life itself is a feverish sickness, if applied to “The Masque of the Red Death,” clears the way for such a persuasive interpretation of that tale as Joseph Roppolo achieves in Regan’s collection. An attentive reader can, in short, compile a small dictionary of symbolic constants which will give some access to Poe’s “under current.”
Hints and nudges: The names “Montresor” and “Fortunato,” in “The Cask of Amontillado,” are nine-letter names both of which connote wealth and good fortune. In “King Pest,” a character named Hugh Tarpaulin encounters and bests Tim Hurlygurly, whose initials are the reverse of his own. In “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” a man named Bedloe or Bedlo dreams of the death of a man named Oldeb, and dies in his turn. Name-play of that sort, together with Poe’s insistence on close kinship, old acquaintance, opposites and doubles, hints at an allegorical dimension in which his characters are not distinct individuals but components of one personality. There are hints of other kinds: In “Ligeia,” to cite but one, Poe remorselessly tells us that the eyes of the narrator are “riveted” or “fastened” on Rowena during her bodily change; such insistence is intended to provoke a recognition (as Roy Basler was the first to note) that the narrator’s imagination is the cause of Rowena’s metamorphosis.
Allusions: As Harry Levin has observed, the final sentence of “The Masque of the Red Death” recalls the mock-Miltonic close of Pope’s Dunciad (“And universal darkness buries All”) and so gives the story an appropriate cosmic extension: a tale of the fallen soul’s bondage to time and flesh concludes in an implicit vision of the world’s end. The first phrase of “The Pit and the Pendulum” (“I was sick—sick unto death”) echoes Hezekiah’s thanks to Jehovah, in Isaiah 38, for his preservation from “the pit of corruption,” thus firmly indicating an allegory of near-damnation and divine mercy. There are also crossreferent allusions, of the same quiet and important kind, within the body of Poe’s writings. The “Sonnet—To Science” (1827) begins as follows:
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art! Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart, Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
The poem proceeds to list, among the victims of Science, Diana, the Hamadryad, the Naiad, the Elfin, and (in an early version of the last line) “The summer dream beneath the shrubbery.” Turning from that sonnet to “Berenice” (1835), we find the heroine apostrophized as “O sylph amid the shrubberies of Arnheim! O naiad among its fountains!” and are told by the narrator Egaeus in his next sentence that “even while I gazed upon her, the spirit of change swept over her.” This should make it plain that Egaeus’s “disease” is a hypertrophy of the intellect whereby the sense of beauty is destroyed, and should enable us to understand Egaeus’s “abstraction” of Berenice’s teeth (which he regards as “des idées“) without recourse to clinical palaver about the vagina dentata. As late as 1843, in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe was still darkly clarifying matters by reference to the “Sonnet—To Science”: The mad narrator’s victim in that story is an “old man” whose heart beats like a timepiece, and who has “the eye of a vulture.”