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Dreams of E.A. Poe

Biographers do not agree about whether this strange marriage, when Virginia was thirteen (he was twenty-seven), was an asset to Poe, providing a measure of stability and affection, for by all accounts she adored him, or whether it set back his literary and social acceptance by seeming to his contemporaries a bit repulsive. In any case, Poe told someone that the marriage was not consummated for two years; he also told many people that he thought of Virginia more as a sister than a wife, causing some commentators to wonder if the marriage was ever consummated. Many literary critics have devoted themselves to analyzing Poe’s sexuality in the light of his stories, where they have found menacing symbols of the Vagina dentata and other expressions of uneasiness toward women. There is little specific evidence about Poe’s sexuality, but as marriages do tend to get consummated, the famous example of Ruskin notwithstanding, the notion of a mariage blanc between Edgar and Virginia Clemm may be just romantic fancy. In any case contemporary accounts paint the Poes as a happy couple, though in harrowing poverty, often unable to afford warm clothing or medicine. It is comforting to think that this lost spirit, rejected by every parent—for death in Poe’s lexicon is rejection—had at least the devotion of a surrogate mother, the affectionate Mrs. Clemm, and of his young wife, for a time.

Poe was devastated by Virginia’s death, but even before her death he struck people as a man in trouble, talented but impossible, given to binge drinking and erratic behavior that caused him to lose every job his undoubted talent could procure for him (as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, and Graham’s Magazine, where he was supplanted by the sinister Reverend Griswold). Yet he was also respected and admired. When the argument arose over his character after his death, many people wrote to refute the things Griswold had said about him, and to testify to his genius, intelligence, and good manners, at least when he was sober. He lived two years after Virginia, rampaging, grieving, wildly courting widows, and one day was found unconscious and beaten, lying over some barrels in an alley in a stranger’s shabby clothes. Taken to a charity hospital and kindly tended by a young doctor who had no idea who he was, he lingered, regained consciousness briefly, died, and was sewn into a pauper’s shroud by the doctor’s wife on October 7, 1849, aged forty.

Freudian critics have always fallen with particular relish on the tales of Poe to infer things about Poe himself, his life and character. The most famous study of Poe the man was by Marie Bonaparte, the pupil of Freud, who found in him a perfect illustration of Freud’s theories. Knives, eyes, teeth, black cats, terrifying coffins, caskets, holes—indeed the post-Freudian reader of Poe cannot escape the designated significance of these familiar symbols any more than the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” can escape the staring eye of his victim. Everywhere are wistful expressions of impotency and uncontrolled expressions of primal fears, which are by no means as amusing or revealing to explicate as they once must have been. One cannot escape the sense that Poe’s manipulation of these symbols was an important part of his intention, however much they may also encode his own anxieties. He seems to have had a remarkable access to his own unconscious, and to have assumed that the patterns of his imagination would find a response in his reader—the “primitive” response James complained of, and the response that other Romantic writers were feeling out in very much the same vocabulary.

The erotic did not concern him; women were to remain fragile, frightening, liable to die. Poe’s fears of women have been seen to be illustrated by the cat, in “The Black Cat,” which the narrator in his rage mutilates before he kills his wife, or in the vengeful treatment afforded Madeleine Usher, buried alive, or in Berenice’s little teeth, extracted by the narrator from her living corpse (viz the vagina dentata). There are in fact few women in Poe’s stories, and they are mostly terrible in their power (to desert or disappoint), and must be destroyed as the narrator destroys his wife in “The Black Cat,” or as Roderick Usher destroys by his inaction his sister Madeleine.

But it is possible to think of Poe’s women, say the wife in “The Black Cat,” or Madeleine Usher, not as women but as Doubles, metaphoric projections of the protagonist. As many commentators have observed,2 the Double was a way of dramatizing a new nineteenth-century sense that the human personality contained undercurrents, unexpressed impulses, a dark or evil side. Attempts to express this appeared everywhere in the writing of this period (as since). Specifically, the Double is a second character who can also be read as an aspect of the main character, and whose actions express the “other,” usually “inner” impulses which the superego-ridden hero cannot act upon. Doubles are particularly numerous in Poe: Arthur Gordon Pym and his friend Augustus; William Wilson and Wilson; the narrator and Roderick Usher (or Usher and his sister), Metzengerstein and the demon horse, and so on. The Double usually is a projection of the narrator’s evil side, but often in Poe of his respectable side, with Poe presenting the “bad” side as the principal protagonist, as in the case of Pym, for it is the good Augustus who lived, literally, above board, and the narrator Pym who leads a buried life. The narrator, William Wilson, is the wicked half of the pair, while the projected character, Wilson, is good. And in Poe, these dark halves usually triumph over the better selves. Augustus literally rots away, leaving Pym free; the horse roars off with Metzengerstein; William Wilson kills his conscience.

In allowing evil to be the stronger side of man’s nature, Poe is more like the earlier James Hogg (in the “Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner”), which he certainly may have read, than like the later Stevenson, who allows the good Dr. Jekyll to defeat the wicked Mr. Hyde. (In Wilde, still later, the dark side gets the upper hand over Dorian Gray.)

Double figures in the work of male writers are not usually female. Jung’s idea of the anima provides a suggestion. In this metaphor, the projected self is of the opposite sex and has a tutelary as well as an expressive function. Madeline Usher and other female characters could be thought of as dramatized anima—whose fragility is Poe’s constant source of dread. They are objects, like his Self, of his mingled love and hostility, and are of course his direct subject in “Philosophy of Composition.” In saying that the most affecting subject of poetry is the death of a beautiful woman, Poe was saying that the most affecting subject for poetic composition is really the death of the poet.

The record shows that he was an excellent editor, with an eye for talent, very good taste, and a rather mean hatchet as a reviewer. His regard for his own talent was enormous, and he was ambitious. He made a name in America but also abroad, most popularly with his poem “The Raven,” and with other stories and poems soon after. His critical interests, his sense of cultural milieu, were European, and he participated in the English literary world as well as he could from his remote American exile, corresponding with Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, reviewing for and contributing to Blackwood’s Magazine, and taking part in the critical debates of his day. His critical voice, in contrast to the voice of his narrators in the Gothic stories, is a sane, sound, and canny one: “Men do not like epics, whatever they may say to the contrary, and reading those of Milton in their natural order, are too much wearied with the first to derive any pleasure from the second.” Wordsworth was “to blame in wearing away his youth in contemplation with the end of poetizing in his manhood.”

It was Poe who first complained of the common critical habit of talking of Shakespeare’s characters as if they actually existed. (Even the grudging James admitted that Poe the critic “had the advantage of being a man of genius, and his intelligence was frequently great.”) Like James, Poe was a severe and exacting judge of literature, and had pet theories, notably against moralizing in poetry, theories we today find defensible and his contemporaries did not:

That [didacticism] will find stern defenders should never excite surprise, so long as the world is full to overflowing with cant and conventicles…. Now with as deep a reverence for “the true” as ever inspired the bosom of mortal man, we would limit, in many respects, its modes of inculcations.

He was himself a voice against bombast and inanity, and he was such a rational, often witty, and discerning critic that we cannot suppose him entirely without art and strategy when it came to writing his own tales, however bombastic they may sometimes seem.

People have always noticed that Poe had several voices, and several types of tale, notably the horror stories and ratiocinative detective stories, of which we have the quintessential “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” said to have fathered the detective story; W.H.Auden refined the distinction by saying that the two groups are those which concern “states of wilfull being,” in which both the detective and horror stories belong, where the protagonists embody some active principle of passion or thought; and the tales where the protagonists are purely passive, experiencing “I”s.

Poe almost3 always uses the first person, though his first-person writings have a variety of voices, funny or fearful, and the most successful is that of the dreamy, aghast narrator of the horror tales, speaking as the “I” or “eye” of a dream and reaching into the unconscious to illumine the true sources of human anxiety, and frame them in the irrational truncated dream sequences we think of as his most typical writing:

I saw, too, for a few moments of delirious horror, the soft and nearly imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment. And then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. At first they wore the aspect of charity and seemed white slender angels who would save me; but then, all at once, there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fire in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angel forms became meaningless spectres, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help.

(“The Pit and the Pendulum”)

There is also the brisk, straightforward, scientific tone of a reliable observer in which to recount the fantastic voyages, as in “A Descent into the Maelstrom” or “MS. Found in a Bottle”: “Our vessel was a beautiful ship of about four hundred tons, copper-fastened, and built at Bombay of Malabar teak.” He has the witty, sarcastic critical voice we have noted, and a jocular tone that readers have generally found less successful—the tone he uses in such tales as “The Man that was Used Up,” or “The Gold-Bug”—the same faux-naif tone affected by many American humorists then and later, and not unlike that used by Twain, in which the writer tells the reader with a straight face something the reader understands differently. The contrast of these tales with the more famous Gothic tales is such that their charm and sense of fun is often overlooked.

Like his use of the Double, Poe’s subjects were in a sense very main-stream in his day—and thinking of Poe as mainstream does not diminish his genius. He was a hard-working editor and professional writer whose works amount to seventeen volumes, and he was bound to bear in mind the literary interests of his audience, which craved frightening dungeons, crypts, and heroes in the throes of the passions of hate and guilt. We can think of the sea stories “Arthur Gordon Pym” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom” as orthodox examples of the travel tale popular at this period, with its conviction that wonderful things could happen in the southern oceans, or polar or arctic regions—Pym roams over icy reaches much as Frankenstein’s monster does. Poe has the passion for science that Dr. Frankenstein had, and the same sense that Nature can be explained. If there are themes of incest in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” incest too was one of the more fashionable crimes, and themes, of the day, almost a staple of the Gothic, and appears in Walpole and Monk Lewis as well as in the literary gossip surrounding Byron.

Poe’s preoccupation with death was itself perfectly orthodox in a period when death was an everyday family event, in a way that is difficult for us, for whom death is a resented intrusion, to remember. The nineteenth century would increasingly celebrate death with embalming, elaborate funerals, mourning jewelry, hearses, and ornate gravestones—elevating and sentimentalizing it in a way the more matter-of-fact eighteenth-century had not done, if only because certain diseases, such as tuberculosis, had worsened after the beginning of the industrial revolution and with urbanization. Even the fear of being buried alive, which recurs obsessively in Poe, was widespread, so that patented tomb alarms and escape devices were sold, by which someone unfortunately immolated might escape or make himself known—Poe has a certain amount of fun with this in “A Premature Burial,” and captures its horror in the struggles of Madeleine Usher or the fate of Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Reading Poe’s tales again has some surprises, one concerning his language, which in memory is florid and horrid, seeping with Gothic excess, but which in fact is spare, rather clinical, and primly Latinate: “Hereditary wealth afforded me an education of no common order, and a contemplative turn of mind enabled me to methodise the stores which early study very diligently garnered up.” He has little turn for figurative language—an odd defect for a poet, but by its restraint curiously suited to his lurid stories, its almost clinical detachment enhancing their reality. His interest is not really in language, and his vocabulary is abstract, full of words like “putrefy,” or “horror,” or “dread,” which are in themselves notably unevocative for the stifling rooms, the sensation of being burned alive or smothered, or to describe the intricate mechanism of the pendulum and the moving walls of the pit. A word like “decay,” as unpleasant as it is, cannot compare to the grisly filmic effects that would be available to him today.

Critics have almost inevitably proceeded by using Poe’s tales to reveal Poe the man, but have seldom tried to explain why his stories have endured and in what their greatness lies. The manifest content of Poe’s stories is the deep content, or vice versa: his tales are about fear and anxiety, the very emotions described by the narrator or embodied in superb metaphorical constructions like the pit and the pendulum. His subjects were death, the disappearance or decay of the body, and in the detective or quasi-scientific stories, the life of the mind that can defeat mortality.

To a neglected extent his stories are also about a special aspect of anxiety: hope. They often detail the moment during an unfolding tragedy or danger when the human mind gives in to hope, only to be the more bitterly disappointed. Over and over, a despairing hero is tempted, by a blush on the bosom of the supposedly dead loved one, or by a momentary respite in some torture, to hope—especially that the dead will come back to life, but also that the narrator is not after all guilty of causing death, or will obtain mercy and reprieve. It is a vein to be worked later and more successfully by Kafka, and it explains the quasi-mystical quality of Poe’s stories, and their similarity to, and use as, myths. Like the bard, or the spinner of myths, he employs universal images, and his interest is in his effect on the reader. His imagination is visual and three-dimensional, it invents and inhabits the space of a dungeon or casket, it dreams of curtains (“black velvet tapestries,” “sable draperies,” “dark hangings,” as Bachelard pointed out) and chambers. If Poe had lived today he would probably have been a film maker.

  1. 2

    See especially Karl Miller, Doubles: Studies in Literary History (Oxford University Press, 1989); Masao Miyoshi, The Dividend Self (New York University Press, 1969); and Elliot Gilbert, “The Detective as Metaphor in the Nineteenth Century” Journal of Popular Culture, Vol.1, No.3 (Winter 1967),pp.256–262.

  2. 3

    Except in “The Masque of the Red Death.”

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