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 to present him as an angel who gave “un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu.” Mallarmé is evoking the romantic purity which flies to the Moon, and would not have permitted the suggestion that Poe used the language of a tribe which specialized in terror.
Poe got the idea for his two William Wilsons from the story of a Spanish split sketched in an article by Washington Irving: Irving’s story seems to have been based on an abandoned project of Byron’s, drawn from the literature of Spain and put to him by Shelley, and it passed on to Poe the comparatively unfamiliar feature of a good double. Wilson’s woes begin at an English boarding school, which has the deserted children of a ruling class quartered in the rambling irregularities of a Gothic mansion: to the same setting and system, a mainstay of the British Empire, the orphan Poe had been committed by his stepfather John Allan during a five-year visit to England. Wilson’s authority among the other boys is rebuked by the arrival of a whispering sarcastic embodiment of his own conscience.
His “singular namesake” inspires “dim visions of my earliest infancy—wild, confused, and thronging memories of a time when memory herself was yet unborn. I cannot better describe the sensation which oppressed me than by saying that I could with difficulty shake off the belief of my having been acquainted with the being who stood before me at some epoch very long ago—some point of the past even infinitely remote.” One night he relives that first acquaintance: “I arose from bed, and, lamp in hand, stole through a wilderness of narrow passages from my own bedroom to that of my rival.” This rival might appear to incorporate a resented father; and so might the subsequent behavior of the tale’s superego second self. Poe’s real father was not unlike the wicked William Wilson, and his stepfather was a businessman who cast him out: he seems at times to have wanted to be like them both, to have internalized both men.
That night Wilson quits the academy and engages in an escape which is a series of escapades, and which takes him to Eton, Oxford, Italy. His namesake dogs the debauchee, stops him cheating and intervenes in Rome to prevent his seduction of a fine lady with a husband old enough to be her own and her seducer’s father. Having attacked the intruder, he looks in a mirror and it is the intruder’s face that he sees: he has murdered himself. It is the bad self which has tried to escape, and which has eliminated the rival, the good angel. But it is as if the good angel has lived to tell the tale: “Have I not indeed been living in a dream? And am I not now dying a victim to the horror and the mystery of the wildest of all sublunary visions?”
The facts in the case of Mr. Poe, as these have been made known by a tribe of biographers, can be glimpsed, behind art’s incognitos, both in this story and in “Hans Pfaall”: largely, they are facts he wished to escape. After his return from England in 1820, he dropped out of the University of Virginia, and out of West Point, and fell out with his stepfather. Having suffered under Peter Pendulum—his name for the methodical business mentality—he rose again as a writer: star of the Southern Literary Messenger, author of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, in which “Hans Pfaall” and “William Wilson” appeared together. His poems soon gained a following. But he was always a falling star, his successes rewarded with the sack, and always, like his actor parents, a wanderer. He died, at the age of forty, in 1849. Two years earlier, after ten years of marriage—a long time, which no account of his short stays should overlook—his young wife had died of tuberculosis in their cottage at Fordham.
As for the notion or doctrine of duality, of the “bi-part soul,” as he referred to it, which is employed in “William Wilson,” we might ask how that relates to the biographical facts. It has nothing to do with any double life, in the colloquial sense. What does it have to do with the division which has been noticed in his work between madness and method, between “Visionary Poe” and “Logical Poe,” as Julian Symons puts it, between the Southern gentleman of old-fashioned sense and principle and the insensate life he has to confess, between the raving necrophile and the hoaxer, cryptographer and pure detective? He held that method was the madness of the businessman: but he, too, in his artist’s way, was both methodical and mad.
Poe can be called “an eccentric solitaire of the period”: and it is not without interest that these words, which allude to the human isolation of a hundred years before, can be revived for Poe. Like other singular fellows, he could behave as if he were plural. The doctrine of the bi-part soul involves an idea of variance or contrariety: a rivalry between soul parts, and between their associated styles and demeanors. Romantic variance can be identified in “the rule of contraries” by which, according to the Egyptological tale “Some Words with a Mummy,” the spirit of the age proceeded, and it can also be identified in the contention between the impulse to escape and the impulse to remain or return, with mummies playing some occult role in that contention. The part of Poe which wanted to soar off into the ether was expressed in metonymies which take that part for the whole: “My life has been whim—impulse—passion—a longing for solitude—a scorn of all things present, in an earnest desire for the future.”1 We are to think that whim, contrariness, “perversity,” set him teetering on verges, and meditating or imagining murder or suicide. But romance is variance, as well as velocity and vertigo, and the soaring self vies with a self that stays, knowing that flights may fail.
It is difficult to establish limits, and an area of immunity, in relation to the effect on him of the romantic stereotypes and affectations to which he was drawn. They can be said to have claimed him, and they can also be said to have involved a kind of duality, which appears to have been shaped by the general awareness of Milton’s Satan—outcast and outlaw, miserable and monstrous. This was certainly a part performed by Poe, who was given to shows of megalomaniac pride, while capable of deserting a church, in high emotion, when the preacher tactlessly referred to the “man of sorrows.” And to the history of this particular bi-part Poe can be said to correspond the development of a bi-part reputation.
His early enemies made out that the true Poe was the fugitive and delinquent fellow disclosed in the tales. Remarkable among these enemies was the Scottish clergyman George Gilfillan, who felt for the ill-starred Robert Burns and the castaway Cowper, but not for Poe. Gilfillan’s praises were sung by the encomiastic poet McGonagall, a self-styled suffering genius who has survived as a figure of fun, and who pictured his friend
Lecturing on the Garibaldi move- ment,
As loud as he could bawl.
Poe was unable to keep his pledge to be “temperate even to rigor,” and liberal sentimentalists preferred their orphans to be abstemious: the deprived were asked to abstain. In his Scottish study, shortly after Poe’s death, Gilfillan bawled that he was a strange compound: “a combination in almost equal proportions of the fiend, the brute, and the genius.”
Poe’s supporters made out that he was someone quite different: a victim, often sober, an important writer betrayed by his editor, Griswold—a literary entrepreneur like Gilfillan. David Sinclair’s biography defends Poe by arguing that he was not, as alleged, a wicked alcoholic or epileptic, but possibly an undiagnosed diabetic, bound to die young, unable to drink a drop without poisoning himself and without disaster. The same surmise has occurred to friends of Dylan Thomas, who were struck by his poor tolerance of alcohol, his blackouts and sweet tooth. The diagnosis does not seem to me to work in either case, but it does bring home to one how much the two cases had in common.
This statement forms the epigraph to The Edgar Allan Poe Scrapbook, edited by Peter Haining (Schocken Books, 1978), and compiled in the spirit of its dedication to the vampiric actor Vincent Price, "who has helped keep Poe alive."↩
This statement forms the epigraph to The Edgar Allan Poe Scrapbook, edited by Peter Haining (Schocken Books, 1978), and compiled in the spirit of its dedication to the vampiric actor Vincent Price, “who has helped keep Poe alive.”↩