Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe; drawing by David Levine

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.”

Repeated plot structures: Dwight Macdonald rightly esteems Poe for “the persistence and ingenuity with which he transformed hack writing into his own personal expression.” Much of Poe’s fiction is partial burlesque, parody, or imitation of fashionable styles or authors, and there is no question that he seasonably exploited popular excitement about such diverse matters as Mesmerism, polar exploration, landscape gardening, the gold fever, and the Mormon thesis concerning the Lost Tribes. There are grounds for Yvor Winters’s view of Poe as a “victim of contemporaneity.” Beneath the takeoffs and topicalities, however, Poe’s fiction is a continual rehearsal and variation of certain plots which convey some part of his vision of things—that vision being a Neo-Platonic one f the soul’s conflicts, trials, and cosmic destiny.

ONE STORY PATTERN, about which I have written a good deal elsewhere, is that of the wavering and confused journey which concludes in a vertiginous plunge. What is symbolized by that pattern is the dreaming soul’s escape from this temporal and material prison into “the spirit’s outer world.” The pattern is obvious in such tales as “MS. Found in a Bottle,” less obvious in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and comparatively unobtrusive in “King Pest” or “Landor’s Cottage,” but it is unmistakably to be found in a large number of ostensibly dissimilar works. Another recurrent plot in Poe is a triangle situation in which a woman’s love or honor is the ground of contention between two men, one of them lofty-minded and the other base or brutish. The woman, in such cases, symbolizes Psyche, or redemptive Beauty, while—as the forestalled seduction at the close of “William Wilson” makes plain—the rivals stand for the spiritual and corrupt principles of a single nature. We encounter this plot under all sorts of generic guises. The “Duc de l’Omelette,” in what pretends to be a satire on Disraeli, symbolically rescues a “queen” from the power of the Devil. The visionary hero of “The Assignation” escapes with the Marchesa Aphrodite, by double suicide, to the “land of real dreams”; she is thus freed from bondage to the old and “Satyr-like” Mentoni. The detective Dupin, in “The Purloined Letter,” releases a royal lady from the power of his “unprincipled” double, the Minister D—. The court fool “Hop-Frog,” avenging his master’s coarse insult to Trippetta, attires the king as an orangutan—thus manifesting the king’s true nature—and destroys him by fire; Hop-Frog and Tripetta then escape “to their own country.”

AND SO ON. Let me get back now to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Poe invented the detective story, but our sense of what he might be up to in a “tale of ratiocination” should not be limited by what the form has become in other hands. Those other hands have narrowed the form; so far as I know, G.K. Chesterton is Poe’s only continuator in the writing of detective fiction having an allegorical stratum. In any case, straightforward whodunit writers like Agatha Christie do not define Poe, any more than chemistry defines alchemy.

Marshall McLuhan lately made this observation on television: “Edgar Allan Poe discovered that if you take the story line off the detective story, the audience has to participate and make the story as it goes.” The meaning of that sentence is probably to be found somewhere in McLuhan’s writings, but as it stands I find it cryptic. How can a story which has been imagined backwards be “made as it goes” by the reader? Surely the detective story consists, as Poe said, in the unraveling of a web which the author has woven, and surely the reader must consent to follow the right thread toward the one solution. But perhaps McLuhan means this: that so long as the “story” of the crime (the solution, that is) is withheld, and there is uninterpreted evidence before us, we participate, by reasoning and guessing, in the “story” of the detective’s progress toward the truth.

That would be right enough, but I wish that McLuhan meant something else as well. Maybe he does. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” has pleased millions of readers as a description—to quote one of Poe’s letters—of “the exercise of ingenuity in detecting a murderer.” Yet anyone who reads it in a chair, rather than a hammock, is likely to feel teased into “participating,” into trying to account for a sense that he is reading more than a tale of detection. In the first place, Dupin is far more than a hero of “ingenuity”—a term which, within the story, is treated with scorn. Though sometimes depicted as a reasoner, he is the embodiment of an idea, strongly urged in Eureka and elsewhere, that poetic intuition is a supra-logical faculty, infallible in nature, which includes and obviates analytical genius. As Kepler guessed his laws, the dreamer Dupin guesses his solutions, making especial use of a mind-reading power so sure that it can divine the thought sequences of persons he has never met. Dupin’s divinations are instantaneous, as some say the Creation was instantaneous, and his recital to the narrator of his “chain of reasoning” is, like Genesis, a sequential shadowing-forth of something otherwise inexpressible.

Denis Marion and others have noted that Dupin’s logic, as reported in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” is not inevitable, either when he “reads” a long concatenation of the narrator’s thoughts, or when he reconstructs the “reasoning” which led to his solution of the crime. The ear-witnesses of the murder have heard two voices within Mme. L’Espanaye’s chambers, one exclaiming in French and the other in a tongue conjectured to be this or that, but in all cases unintelligible to the particular witness. Because an Italian, an Englishman, a Spaniard, a Hollander, and a Frenchman have all declared the second voice to be foreign to them, Dupin makes the “sole proper deduction” that the voice is that of a beast. This is to brush aside, as Marion says, several possibilities: that the speaker was Turkish or Bantu, that he had a speech defect, or that some or all of the witnesses were mistaken. Again, Dupin draws from the fact that the killer did not take Mme. L’Espanaye’s gold the conclusion that the crime was without motive; but theft is not the only possible motive for murder. The fact is that Dupin’s logic, proceeding with a charmed arbitrariness toward the solution which seems to justify it, has what Poe called an “air of method,” but is really intuition in disguise.

There is a decided duplicity, then, in Poe’s presentation of Dupin; he is in one aspect a master detective who, as A. H. Quinn was persuaded, “proceeds not by guessing but by analysis,” and in another aspect he is a seer who infallibly knows. This ambiguity of Dupin, together with various unlikelihoods in the narrative (why should two women be “arranging some papers” in an iron chest at three in the morning?) should make the reader receptive to suggestions that an allegorical “under current” flows beneath the detective tale.

Like Roderick Usher and the divided William Wilson, Dupin has two distinct speaking voices, one high and one low. The narrator makes much of this phenomenon, and toys with the thought that these voices express “a double Dupin.” The narrator thus introduces, early on, the crucial idea that one person may contain several natures. When we arrive, soon after, at a report of the crime in the Rue Morgue, a major emphasis is laid on the two voices—one low and one high—which have issued from the murder room, and which later will be found to belong to a sailor and his escaped orangutan. It is hard not to suspect some kind of connection between these contrasting voices and Dupin’s two registers, and Dupin himself (speaking in his vaticinal treble) shortly offers a hint as to how we are to solve the relationship. “Murder,” he says, “has been committed by some third party; and the voices of this third party were those heard in contention.” It appears that while Dupin may be regarded as “double” or multiple, other figures in the story—the sailor and the orangutan—may be combined and considered as a single “party.” The implication is that the mastermind Dupin, who can intuitively “fathom” all the other characters of the narrative, is to be seen as including them all—that the other “persons” of the tale are to be taken allegorically as elements of one person, whereof Dupin is the presiding faculty.

This impression strengthens when the police arrest a young clerk, Adolphe Le Bon, on suspicion of the murders. Dupin at once involves himself in the case, with the intention of exonerating Le Bon, who, he says, “once rendered me a service for which I am not ungrateful.” A similar surprising revelation of old acquaintance occurs in “The Purloined Letter,” where Dupin belatedly tells how the Minister D—“at Vienna once, did me an evil turn, which I told him, quite good-humoredly, that I should remember.” If the Minister D—is “evil,” it is evident from Le Bon’s name that he is good, and it is not hard to see in “Adolphe Le Bon” a variation on the name “Auguste Dupin.” Le Bon is, allegorically, a humbly virtuous aspect of Dupin’s character, which he must vindicate by making a proper assignment of the blame.

The sliest hint in the story comes at a point near the close, where Dupin shows the narrator the newspaper notice which, he hopes, will bring the owner of the orangutan to their quarters. The owner is invited to present himself at a certain address in the Faubourg St. Germain, “au troisième.” We have already been told that Dupin and the narrator live quite alone in a retired mansion, the shutters of which are closed against the daylight; now, with the aid of our first-year French, we discover that their quarters are on the fourth floor, and the discovery is electrifying. For Mme. L’Espanaye and her daughter also live as we have been told in English, on the fourth floor of a building otherwise untenanted, in a “very lonely” part of Paris, and see no company, and keep their shutters closed. Once the similarity of the tale’s two major households has been felt, we think of a third couple in another building—of the sailor who, “at his own residence in Paris,” has sought to keep his captured orangutan “carefully secluded.” The imaginative consequence of this is that—as when the scattered stars of the universe rush together in Eureka—the three secluded ménages of the story are telescoped into one, the three buildings becoming a single structure which signifies the reintegrated and harmonized consciousness of Dupin. Allegorically, the action of the story has been a soul’s fathoming and ordering of itself, its “apprehension” of that base or evil force within it (the orangutan) which would destroy the redemptive principle embodied in Mme. L’Espanaye and her daughter. A Scots clergyman once described Poe as “a combination, in almost equal proportions, of the fiend, the brute, and the genius”: Dupin, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” uses his genius to detect and restrain the brute in himself, thus exorcising the fiend.

“However true it is that the final task in literary criticism is the task of evaluation, it is certainly true also that the initial work that must be done is to determine as exactly as possible what is there.” So says Patrick Quinn in his good essay on “The French Response to Poe.” If the sort of thing I have been pointing at is really there, it should be easy to see what kinds of Poe criticism are going to be of the greatest present use to us. Marie Bonaparte’s Freudian study of the works, though absurd in all the expected ways, does them the honor of close study, and comes up with many constants of imagery and narrative pattern. Jean-Paul Weber, another psychological critic, subscribes to the dreary idea that all authors, as children, accidentally witness the love-making of their parents, misunderstand it as violence, and grow up to write obsessively of nothing else; nevertheless, his study of “The Theme of the Clock” in Poe is valuable in the same way that the Bonaparte study is valuable. Gaston Bachelard’s profound observations on Poe’s elemental imagery, Georges Poulet’s piece on Poe’s “dialectic of time,” Maurice Beebe’s application of Eureka to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Sidney Kaplan’s linguistic investigation into the last chapters of Pym—such highly attentive criticism, done in the faith that Poe’s least details as well as his general structures may repay examination, will in time let us know something of “what is there.”

THOSE WHO DISMISS Poe often do so on the basis of style; Eliot called Poe’s prose “slipshod,” Lawrence called it “meretricious.” But the fact is, as Allen Tate remarks, that Poe has many styles, including a “lucid and dispassionate” critical voice. The prose varies widely from work to work, and one gradual realization of current criticism has been that this variation may be deliberate and strategic. W. H. Auden once quoted a passage from “William Wilson” describing it as “terrible, vague, verbose” writing, but then went on to note “how well it reveals the William Wilson who narrates the story in his real colors, as the fantastic self who refuses contact with reality.” James Gargano’s recent essay, “The Question of Poe’s Narrators,” justly develops that idea, contending that the language of Poe’s fiction belongs not to Poe, but to his narrators, and that it often serves to damn them out of their own mouths. Gargano’s question is one which needs to be pursued and broadened, until the whole range of Poe’s voices has been assessed, not by some fixed standard of “good writing,” but as organic expressions of this or that faculty or état d’âme. And then there are other questions to be attacked. How far, for instance, is it useful to regard the figures in Poe’s fiction as people, and how far are they to be understood as states or principles of the psyche? Is Poe’s symbolism personal, traditional, or both? Was he a highly conscious writer, as I think, or was he not? Was he an obscurantist, whose “under currents” are too often at the bottom of the sea? If, as Regan thinks, Poe’s stories contain a “stratification of meanings,” and if the superficial narratives vary greatly in sufficiency, can we say that the stratum in which Poe rehearses his fundamental drama of the soul’s struggle is always the essential one? When these questions have been further worried by careful readers, we will be better able to say what reputation Poe deserves.

This Issue

July 13, 1967