Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe Vol. II: Tales and Sketches, 1831-1842 Vol. III: Tales and Sketches, 1843-1849
Edgar Allan Poe
The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Work of Edgar Allan Poe
Building Poe Biography
Poe’s poems and stories belonged, he felt, to different orders of experience. The stories are his better part, and his own preference for the poems reflects the enthusiasm of the time for the ideal, the eternal, the ethereally pure. Not that stories had to be earthbound, or ephemeral. Among the best of Poe’s are two in which a wish to get out of the world is expressed, however equivocally. In “William Wilson,” a bad man meets his double and attempts an escape, only to find that he has “fled in vain,” while in “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” a fellow escapes from financial miseries by building a contraption in which—not in vain, though perhaps in fun—he flies to the Moon.
Each tale depends on an image that returns, time and again, in romantic literature: respectively, on the image of the double, and on that of the journey of escape. Double and flight are fates, fates that befall the outcast, and they are states, states of mind and motion: they belong both to an inner and an outer space—an outer space which reaches as far as Outer Space itself, and the stars. There is an old name for the unstable, for the mobile, volatile, labile, for those who change and move as Poe changed and moved. It is also a name for the adventurous, and it was devised in Germany—the Allemagne of the Gothic imagination. Poe was sure that his literary terrors were “not of Germany, but of the soul,” but he paid attention to foreign inventions, including this one. The name is Peregrine Proteus.
I would like to study these two tales, and to suggest that the images they use, and the tendencies in romantic literature to which the images direct us, and to which he was to respond throughout his career, may be seen as the one thing. That one thing has served to obscure, for some, the range and vigor of his professional activities, and to depict him as a failure whose purity and worth were only apparent to later generations. I accept that there are other things in Poe, which I shall not be writing about here, and that if he was an unfortunate, whose exits and dismissals were notorious, he was also a success—not only posthumously, and not least as an editor and reviewer.
Thomas Mann regarded “William Wilson” as the classical tale of its romantic kind. With an air of confidence, merit, and method, Poe’s narrator tells the story of a submission, his own submission, to madness and magic. The air of confidence is familiar enough in Gothic practice, and does nothing to prevent a copious use of the vocabulary of distraction, delirium, clandestinity, and misfortune, then at a high point of cultivation in Europe and America. “Outcast,” “strange,” “singular,” “irregular,” “unaccountable,” “wild,” “secret,” “stole,” “galvanic,” “victim,” “fled”: this is the stock language of international Gothicism. In his sonnet on Poe’s tomb, Mallarmé was …