Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe; drawing by David Levine


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.

Poe was a man who, whether or not he was bound to die young, was bound to yield to the idea of the dying poet, both in its terrific and its sentimental aspects, and if the reasons were medical, they were also cultural. The alternative to the evil genius which is usually preferred in recollections of him is no less of a romantic stereotype: this is the man of sensibility, the victim shut in his Fordham idyll with his cousin Virginia and her mother Maria Clemm—with a dying child bride and a second or surrogate mother. Both the orphan and the outlaw are highly traditional patterns of behavior. Both are “strange” in the period sense, and both estrangements were true of Poe. But if he was the sum of the contraries projected by the scandalous legend and by its correctors, the record of his life contains more than two parts, contains more than a suffering delinquent, though it rarely loses touch with romantic convention.

While the very idea of a true Poe is itself a matter of romantic convention, we do appear to come especially close to him in the scenes with these two women: in the letter to Mrs. Clemm, for instance, where Virginia darns his trousers on their travels, and he talks of their cat. “I wish you could have seen the eggs—and the great dishes of meat.” This condemned man “ate the first hearty breakfast I have ever eaten since I left our little home.” But perhaps, against these scenes, should be set, not so much the sulphurous self, the murderous reviewer, the plagiarist who hates plagiarists, the detective who commits his own crimes, as the Poe portrait which has been detected in Melville’s The Confidence-Man: “Nothing could exceed his look of picturesque Italian ruin and dethronement.” This is not exactly the portrait of a home-loving simpleton or singleton.

Melville notes of this woebegone rhapsodist, who might be thought to stand to romance in the same relation as Don Quixote: “In his tattered, single-breasted frock-coat, buttoned meagrely up to his chin, the shatter-brain made him a bow, which, for courtesy, would not have misbecome a viscount.” But he is also taken, by an “invidious” observer, for “a cunning vagabond, who picks up a vagabond living by adroitly playing the madman.” It is enough to remind one of Poe’s words about the success of two of his most adroit productions: “The bird beat the bug, though, all hollow.” Melville’s shatter-brain portrait may allude to the history of nineteenth-century duality, and it also carries a likeness, not only to William McGonagall, but to Harold Skimpole, the gregarious solitaire and cunning sensitive in Bleak House.

Does Poe belong, then, to the history of romantic chicanery? Does he belong with the charlatans, the Skimpoles, who are portrayed in romantic fiction, and who had their historical counterparts (in Skimpole’s case, Leigh Hunt)? The problem here is that Poe’s conformity with period expectations was extensive and congenital, and it is to that conformity, rather than to the facts in the case, that contemporary witnesses often seem to be responding. The nerves that reportedly “throbbed with pain at the slightest contact” could be taken as a symptom of diabetes, but they are also romance.

So is the early insistence that he had no friends. Here was a real orphan, a changeling, bereaved of a heritage full of the patrician and picturesque South (both Scotland and the South having been won for romanticism by Walter Scott), and fostered out with a mere businessman. With such a birthright, a later life of throbbing pains and pleasures, passions and impressions, pit and pendulum, terror and retreat, would have been and was thought likely to follow, and did follow. The perception of him as deprived, and depraved, has been none the less intense for its conventionality. According to a sanctimonious account by Joseph Wood Krutch, he must have been impotent, and his works “have no place in the American literary tradition.” And this is not all. These works “bear no conceivable relation, either external or internal, to the life of any people.” You can’t be much more of an outcast than that.

Coincidences between his life and works, perfect fits and fitting ends, might almost suggest that he was what he imagined, and they sometimes appear to have survived his death. A Poe-like shadow has fallen on the activities of that large section of posterity which has been given over to the study and approval of his writings—with results very similar to those caused by the curse of the Pharoahs. A train leaves the track and shatters the gravestone that has been prepared for him. My namesake John Carl Miller, author of Building Poe Biography, and of a monograph on the exhumation of the bodies of Poe, Virginia, and her mother, has now exhumed the Englishman John Ingram, who undertook to clear Poe’s name and build his biography, saw himself as a Poe redivivus, and altered the facts of his life to heighten the resemblance. Then, while I was writing this article, a newspaper reported that a journalist named David Sinclair had been found dead in a four-foot-deep ditch on Putney Heath in London, and I learned that an orphan was saying he was murdered. I was relieved, but surprised, to discover that this was a different David Sinclair.


Before the Apollo astronauts reached the Moon, this shatterbrain did. Poe has a story, that is to say, which predicts the Moonstruck Norman Mailer’s narrative of the Apollo II mission. In A Fire on the Moon, Mailer called himself Aquarius at a time when there was fanciful talk of an age of Aquarius, and his account is powered, as Poe’s is, by ego, impulse, and imagination. It can be said that both writers, and that the Apollo crew, rode into the sky on the imagination of previous centuries, buoyed up by the old dream of flight. “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” published in 1835, was not, in fact, unparalleled. Hans was one of many, while also a one and only, and in the fullness of time he turned into Neil Armstrong.

The Apollo Moonshot, when it came, proved to be like a poem. “Upon the night’s starred face,” and on television, were “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance.” We watched a drama of flight and fall, a wonder in which birth and death converged. Diapered in their spacesuits, all brow and bum, the astronauts looked like babies. Inside the module, as we saw later, they bumbled and tumbled like babies in a bag. Walking in space, they were fetuses at the end of their tether. And yet they might never get back to Earth. The thing could have been planned by the romantic imagination: the return to a mother, then a further return to the world that lies outside the mother. It was not convincingly defended in terms of value for money, and seemed to hover somewhere between sport and serious action. The Moonshot was science and sense and politics, but it was also art and adventure. It could be read as an episode in the literature and culture of escape: in the language of the 1960s, as a magical mystery tour. It could be read as the repeat of a tale of mystery and imagination by Poe.

A year or two later, in The Adventurer of 1974, Paul Zweig was to write as if it had never happened, arguing that adventure has been degraded in the modern world, and is now only crime and light reading. He admires the risks associated with Odysseus, Casanova, Nietzsche’s Superman, and his own book is an adventure—a lively contribution to Gothic learning which must have startled the Gauss Seminar at Princeton, where chapters were delivered. One of his chapters is on Edgar Allan Poe, whose Arthur Gordon Pym drifts incestuously, “as the fathers fall,” toward “the mysteries of the far south”—toward a predestined meeting with a great white mother which hardly seems very different from the Moonshot.

Poe and Mailer float through space on the wings of a dove. Both perform mental leaps while rooted to the ground: the “Norman” of whom Mailer dualistically writes is a “Nijinsky of ambivalence.” Both summon, for their flights of fancy, the sense and science of their respective times, as others had done before them in the long history of imagined departures from the human condition which preceded the arrival of science fiction.

It may be said that Hans Pfaall stole to the Moon accompanied by Edgar Allan Poe, alias Peregrine Proteus. The Adventures of Peregrinus Proteus is a work by the German writer Wieland which deserves to be put with the parallels under discussion, and the rich notes to Thomas Mabbott’s Harvard edition of Poe’s texts point out a journalistic reference on his part to the English translation of 1796.2 Wieland writes about a man who wants to “soar above the ordinary pitch of human nature,” who wants, in the words of Thomson’s Seasons, a poem of the earlier eighteenth century which was well known to Wieland, to be one of those

   whom nature and whom wisdom charm
To steal themselves from the degenerate crowd,
And soar above this little scene of things.

Wieland was the translator of A Mid-summer Night’s Dream, in which the Moon shines bright, and in which several of the favorite words of nineteenth-century English Romanticism can be read, and this book of his alludes to flight, space, and the Moon, to Icarianism, and to the second self. Peregrine’s travels may appear to have some affinity with the picaresque tradition, and with Smollett’s Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, but it is better to think of them as belonging to the start of the romantic literature of duality, and to the category formed by those successive confessions of a fanatic in which an extravagant or ecstatic piety is rated a sham, as if by exposure to the enlightened standards of the eighteenth century, and yet admired. James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, once thought to be of mysterious provenance, may be awarded a parallel—if not a precedent known to Hogg—in the Wieland.

Wieland’s book consists of a dialogue in Elysium between Peregrine—whose earthly life has been led among the Early Christians and the sages and mages of the time—and the skeptical (and historical) philosopher Lucian. The reader may be meant to wonder whether this soarer is a fool or fraud. His portrait shimmers with ambiguities, which the dialogue form helps to promote, and which are not unlike those afforded by another dialogue of the time, Rameau’s Nephew, where a double Diderot has been wondered about. People “could not agree whether the fool or the profligate, the impostor or the fanatic, had the ascendant” in Peregrine’s character. The same question arose with Poe.

Avid for mystic transports and “eudaemony,” Peregrine falls into bed with a pair of worldly women: the little deaths of sexuality are to subvert his intention to soar above human nature. Then he joins the Gnostics, whose heresies are subverting the Early Christian communities. He is persuaded to join by a deep Jew who is scheming for a world revolution, with precious few among the elect (this is an interesting book, in which the eighteenth is able to imagine the twentieth century), and who informs Peregrine, in the accents of a Gothic tempter, that he is both the instrument of “thy deliverance” and at the same time “no more than thyself.” When that escape fails, Peregrine becomes a Cynic, but this very uncertain Diogenes can only secure his “independence” of lust and common life by burning himself to death. In the sparks of that “voluntary exit,” his “confession” ends.

According to the Harvard edition, Poe’s reference to the Wieland may be based on a quotation from it used by Bulwer-Lytton as the epigraph for a chapter in a novel, but it could just as well be said that it relates closely to Wieland’s main preoccupations in the book. Lucian remarks that the Moon journeys in his own writings were performed only “in sport,” but Peregrine takes such whims, trips, and “presentiments” of the future seriously. Lucian says: “He that is born to be a man, neither should nor can be any thing nobler, greater, and better than a man.” And Peregrine replies:

But, good Lucian, for the very reason that he may not become less than a man, he should be always striving to be more. It is undeniable that there is something daemoniacal in our nature; we are suspended between heaven and earth; on the father’s side, so to speak, we are related to superior spiritual natures; on the side of our mother earth, we are related to the beasts of the field. If the spirit be not ever soaring upwards, the animal part will soon stagnate in the mire of the earth, and the man who does not strive to become a god, will find himself in the end transformed into a beast.

Like other escapers and revolutionaries, Peregrine is divorced from his earthly father, and he is suspected of murdering him. But his search for spiritual superiority is wrecked by his dealings with women, who fail to supply him, we might think, with a mother, and who will keep going to bed with him.

In making his comment on Wieland’s dialogue, Poe seems to be siding with Lucian—to be far from sharing Peregrine’s view of how it is that we become beasts, become outlaws or monsters: “in efforts to soar above our nature, we invariably fall below it.” But this example of his best behavior misrepresents his sympathy with the peregrines of this world. The self we are most conscious of on the page is one that loves to “soar,” as another of his space flights, the didactic prose-poem “Eureka,” puts it, in “regions of illimitable intuition,” while fearing, from time to time, that it may fall.

Poe’s Icarian warning on this occasion is implied in the name he had given Pfaall a few years before, though Hans does not fall, and only offers to return to Earth. Romanticism shows us a sky tenanted by the fugitive parts of equivocal human creatures, each of whom has shed his sober side. But it also knows, and expounds in the doctrine of duality, that each of these creatures is both up in the air and down to earth. Poe, with one foot in Baltimore, and Peregrine, in conversation with Lucian, to whose arguments he concedes a good deal, are specimens of the soaring and changeful self which is able to confess the risks it runs. From this point of view, Hans’s adventure can be seen to be different from the companion trip undertaken in “Eureka.” In the story, Poe both is and is not the crank who has cranked himself out of this world in a crazy machine of his own invention and imagination, whereas the Poe whom many have found in “Eureka” is single, and singular, every inch a crank: in his every whim throbs the Heart Divine.

Hans’s pflight and possible pfaall are several things at once: a hoax, a satirical joke, a boy’s own adventure, a scientific experiment, and an exercise of poetic fancy. The last might seem to be promised by the epigraph from “Tom o’Bedlam’s Song”:

With a heart of furious fancies, Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear, and a horse
   of air,
To the wilderness I wander.

But if Poe is a Southern literary messenger to the Moon, he comes to us in the guise of a Dutch uncle. The story starts with a comic and sarcastic description of a bourgeois Rotterdam plunged into confusion by the arrival of a spacecraft in the shape of a fool’s-cap. In it is an earless Moon man, who resembles one of the devilish little old gentlemen who occur in the context of Gothic terror and humor. He delivers Hans Pfaall’s confession, and soars off. So much for Rotterdam’s close encounter with another world.

Hans’s confession introduces us to circumstances very like those endured by Poe and his two females: he is poor as a rat and chased by duns, with the trade of bellows-mending ruined by “the effects of liberty, and long speeches, and radicalism.” Fires can be fanned by newspapers as well as bellows, he says, and we reflect that an old sort of literature, or long-windedness, has been ousted by another. Meanwhile treatises on astronomy and aerodynamics have applied a “stimulus to imagination,” with the result that the Tom o’Bedlam Dutch uncle is soon behaving like the practical Benjamin Franklin and Neil Armstrong. He quits the scene of his miseries in a vehicle both ramshackle and precisely calibrated, burning to death three duns with the explosion of cannonpowder that blasts him off.

The vehicle is a wickerwork basket which carries ample supplies of ballast and is towed by a balloon filled with special gas of a density “37.4 times less than that of hydrogen.” But the real gas is the long wind of literature, which can lift you from your troubles. The trip has plenty of fuss and contrivance, and yet it is also true that Hans flies through the air with the greatest of ease. He both frets and soars. It is right for a man who is defaulting on his debts to steal, as Hans does, to a safe place. The spectacle of Poe in the sky can seem at moments to amount to the homely sight of a clever, starving book-reviewer in a threadbare frockcoat, busying himself with pigeons, knots, and quantities of gum-elastic, dangling from the basket and pulling himself back on board—there was not a moment to be lost!—with one last superhuman effort. Among the pigeons is a cat which litters en route and lends to space a broad hint of the domestic happiness available, even to Poe, on Earth. And yet the trip foretells the future by being quite like the lay experience of the Apollo mission. At the end of it, “the moon—the moon itself in all its glory—lay beneath me, and at my feet.”

Hans finishes by speaking of his desire to return to his home and by soliciting a pardon for the deaths of his three creditors. But then the last paragraphs of the tale cast doubt on the exploit: there are those in Rotterdam who make fun of the city fathers, and Hans is called, as Poe was called, a “drunken villain,” whose absence from the city on some disgraceful trip and spree has not gone unnoticed. This could mean that Poe lacked the courage of his excursion, but it could also express a Lucian-like skepticism about excursions. There is a passage where Hans presents reasons for getting away, and it has a lot to say about the protean and peregrine Poes who figure in each of these two stories, uniting them in an attitude of qualified retreat:

In this state of mind, wishing to live, yet wearied with life, the treatise at the stall of the bookseller, backed by the opportune discovery of my cousin of Nantz, opened a resource to my imagination. I then finally made up my mind. I determined to depart, yet live—to leave the world, yet continue to exist—in short, to drop enigmas, I resolved, let what would ensue, to force a passage, if I could, to the moon.

“Depart, yet live”: the words might be thought to describe an impossibility, which is being measured in terms of the distance between the Earth and the Moon. This would have seemed a wildly long way, though the journey in question was one which Poe’s story was romantic enough to predict, and which the astronauts performed. But if the words could therefore be taken to indicate a skepticism about escapes, about trips of whatever kind, they could also refer to a principle on which people act, on which romantic people act when they attempt their (often fatal) mock-suicides, and on which Poe is acting when he dreams to a woman friend of a cottage “not too far secluded from the world.”

So it may be that two different persons can be heard in “depart, yet live”: someone restlessly hopeful, and someone very like the author of a story in which a man tries to escape from himself, and of various accounts of captivity. This is an author who can’t have been unaware that the living never get away, and that liberty constrains and cheats, and who would have done well with the story, had he been able to write it, of what became of his mother-in-law after his death. In order to stay solvent, Maria Clemm sold copies of Griswold’s edition of Poe, in which the poet was made out to be a drunken villain: her escape was at the expense of what survived of her dead Eddie’s good name.

Robert Lowell has a magnificent image for the pathos of flight. But it is also an image for the importance of flight, and conveys that there is a searching for sweets which can cause changes and discoveries:

The warm day brings out wasps to share our luck,
suckers for sweets, pilots of evolution;
dozens drop in the beercans, clamber, buzz,
debating like us whether to stay and drown,
or, by losing legs and wings, take flight.


“William Wilson” was written around 1839, and “Hans Pfaall” was written four years earlier. The year before that, Poe’s stepfather, John Allan, had shaken his cane at him, and then when Allan died, he was ignored in the will. In 1835, there were drinking bouts, and, in the words of Thomas Mabbott (and of William Wordsworth), “fits of despondency.” The story was written in June, and a few weeks later Poe wrote to Mrs. Clemm, in an extremity of feeling, to protest at the plan that Virginia, barely thirteen, should go to live with a cousin. In September, he took out a marriage license.

Poe was a repertoire of Poes, and his life was a tissue of escapes and returns. From the last of his trips he landed back, dying, in a Baltimore gutter, caught by politicians possibly, in that age of liberty and long speeches, and drugged or made drunk in order that he might be used to cast votes. He took trips, and invented them: among his tall stories is a pretended or affected visit to Russia. Julian Symons’s words for this Peregrine Proteus are these: “When Poe was in trouble, his instinct was always to move away from it in the hope that things would be better elsewhere.” And again: “Poe’s nature was histrionic, and it would be idle to ask what reality lay beneath the masks he assumed.”

Poe’s nature can also be described with reference to the words of Keats. Of the occasion when Keats rose up to be with his nightingale, we might say that “negative capability” took off on one of its highs, and that negative capability was a state of which Poe’s changefulness was capable. This was a time when it could be held that poetry was the knowledge of highs and lows, ins and outs, and of the doubts and uncertainties referred to in Keats’s letters—when it could be held to belong to the nerves of the runaway and shatterbrain.

I have tried to relate his moving from place to place, and, inwardly, from person to person, to a dependence on a set of ideas and accords whose motors were running, whose meteors were flashing through the sky, a good century before Poe himself flourished and flashed and crashed. How all this can be related to the psychoanalytic interpretations of his work is a question I can’t treat, but I agree with Mr. Symons that these interpretations should not be discounted. While not in every respect surpassingly strange, Poe’s flights are very complex.

He was both pursued and pursuing, both shut out and shut in: an anguish of exclusion is heard in his letters, but he also longed to be released. His journeys embody the search for a mother, and an effort to regain the mother he had lost, and his “depart, yet live” may be matched with the tension in his writings between an impulse to guard against the horrors of premature burial and an impulse to be interred with the maternal remains. No one has given such point to the traditional joke about the romantic rhyme of “womb” and “tomb.” The romantic pun on “mummy” which the visionary and the logical Poe collaborate to produce in certain of the stories has made sense to a readership of vast dimensions. Those for whom this makes him disreputably popular should be assured that what he does with his fantastic prose can be very like what Beckett was to do.

“The Spectacles” is a story which laughs like Lucian at the refusal to see the world in its true colors, while romantically suggesting that if you refuse to see an optician you may accidentally marry your great-great-grandmother. The story is too roughly executed, or perhaps, with its absence of veneer, too disturbing, to please Mr. Mabbott, whose edition states which works are wonderful and which are not: of the “purely comic” tales, he writes, this is among “the least meritorious.” And yet it has much of the momentum of Poe’s characteristic perversity, in which, as it declares itself in his most famous pieces, we think we recognize a crying need and desperate frustration.

With their stress on the domestic Poe, the two new biographies demonstrate that, for all the secrets and mysteries in which he enfolded it, his case was in some respects ordinary enough. It isn’t surprising that someone whose life was so bitterly sad should have wanted “some words with a mummy” and pursued, into the morbid and the esoteric, the sweets of an impossible consolation. He was having a terrible time, so he took comfort in the terrors of his imagination, and in the several women who wanted to look after him, and he relished the little homes which he was always leaving. He was no danger to his dangerous society, with its killing blasts of sentiment and censure, its diabolic theory of “diabetes,” and his masks, trips, desolate sprees, suffocating idylls, lies and sadistic fantasies may well have been the best defense he could manage against illness, and against the calamities of his situation and temperament: a refuge from trouble which was itself a trouble.

Flight is sometimes held to be modern, and it is sometimes held to be American. It is certainly odd to think of the fugitive Poe as un-American. He belonged to a time when American writers inhabited English literature, and to a tradition in which nationality was among the conditions poets were expected to escape. But this does not mean that he had nothing in common with his fellow-countrymen, though it does help to explain why Englishmen have been fascinated by him.

Both the new biographers are English, and so was John Ingram, who started in the 1870s to expose Griswold’s forgeries and distortions. Probably the least factitious of Ingram’s resemblances to Poe was his intolerance of rivals and suspicions of plagiarism, and his work was marred by a careless and unscrupulous handling of sources, and by a tendency to adulation. John Miller argues to this effect in a book (the first of four volumes) which prints the originals of material extracted by Ingram in correspondence with confiders, women for the most part, who had known his subject.

The world of Poe scholars is heavy with suspicion. Ingram and Miller are specialists, as Symons and Sinclair are not, while Mabbott, according to the Poe Newsletter, is “the only total Poe scholar” of recent years. And specialists, when they offend, are punished with special care. Ingram is “not without grammatical sin,” Miller remarks, in the course of his many mildly worded strictures. Nonspecialists, it’s true, are more likely to offend. Rosalie, Poe’s mentally backward sister, who used to sell picture postcards of him in the streets of Baltimore, has her requests for money interlarded with sic’s and square brackets in Miller’s book: but he himself does not always write grammatically. Poe’s acquaintance with grief and misfortune, incidentally, did not enable him to put up with his sister.

Sensibility, the feeling for misfortune, sobbed and shuddered in the homes Poe visited in his later years. The ladies among Ingram’s donors fell for him as a suffering poet who looked the part, but he stands occluded in their accounts, as if he weren’t quite, or all, there. He was their dream. This, at any rate, is what Annie Richmond—the chief target for the terminal affections, and affectations, and expedients of this peregrinus moriturus—felt him to be in the decades that followed. Her rival was the blue-stocking Helen Whitman, who told her London Dracula (I exaggerate) that Ingram meant “son of the Raven.” These donors were decent people, so far as one can tell. Mrs. Shew saw herself as “a childish undeveloped loving woman,” and she thought that Poe, whom she nursed, was “as gentle as a child, and as tender as the most tender mother.”

Others of the women were childish, but not Mrs. Clemm. Miller and Ingram suspect her, and it seems that after “my own darling Eddie’s” death (“now he will be appreciated—God, who he is now with, understands him”), she went in for a career of grieving and begging. She lived for a long time, and it was a time when begging could be considered a subdivision of the art of sensibility. Maria Clemm, and her name, and her hard eye for the soft touch, are hugely Dickensian: and Dickens was one of those who responded to her appeals.

Mr. Symons’s book “springs from a dissatisfaction with existing biographies of Poe,” and from the conviction that in order to do justice to its miseries, he should “separate” Poe’s life “as much as possible from the work.” The need for such determined surgery never becomes apparent. Perhaps he would not have minded Mr. Sinclair’s book, which is mostly life rather than work. But it is the slighter of these two brief lives, and no advertisement for surgery. Mr. Symons’s writing is clear and shapely, and the judgments he makes appear to me to be sound—if we omit the one which compelled him to save his literary criticism for a system of appendices.

The idea of a separation between the artist as he is known to biography and the mind that we meet in his art is present in Eliot’s exposition, in 1917, of his doctrine of impersonality: “the man who suffers” should as far as possible be “separate” from “the mind which creates.” It could well be that this doctrine owes something to the doctrine of duality, markedly in favor at the time, and to romanticism. Distressed by his two natures, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll conceives the project of a “separation of these elements,” and recalls it afterward with the air of a man who had determined to force a passage to the Moon. It might seem that, with all that he hoped for from a “classical” steadiness, Eliot was not free from a feeling for such projects. He was to tell the world, in the same essay, what Poe had never doubted: that poetry is “an escape from personality.”

Eliot’s essay encourages us to think that duality has to do with pain and with relief from pain, and that protean and peregrine, double and flight, are the one thing.

This Issue

June 28, 1979