Valéry, in a letter to Gide, asserted that: “Poe is the only impeccable writer. He was never mistaken.” If this judgment startles an American reader, it is less remarkable than Baudelaire’s habit of making his morning prayers to God and to Edgar Poe. If we add the devotion of Mallarmé to what he called his master Poe’s “severe ideas,” then we have some sense of the scandal of what might be called “French Poe,” perhaps as much a Gallic mystification as “French Freud.” French Poe is less bizarre than French Freud, but more puzzling, because its literary authority ought to be overwhelming, and yet vanishes utterly when confronted by what Poe actually wrote. Here is the second stanza of the impeccable writer’s celebrated lyric, “For Annie”:
Sadly, I know I am shorn of my strength,
And no muscle I move As I lie at full length—
But no matter!—I feel I am better at length.
These dreadful lines are by no means unrepresentative of Poe’s verse. Aldous Huxley charitably supposed that Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry simply had no ear for English, and so just could not hear Poe’s palpable vulgarity. Nothing even in Poe’s verse is so wickedly funny as Huxley’s parody in which a grand Miltonic touchstone is transmuted into the mode of Poe’s “Ulalume.” First Milton, in Paradise Lost:
Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpine gather- ing flowers
Her self a fairer flower by gloomy Dis
Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world.
Next, Huxley’s Poe:
It was noon in the fair field of Enna, When Proserpina gathering flowers—Herself the most fragrant of flowers,
Was gathered away to Gehenna By the Prince of Plutonian powers;
Was borne down the windings of Brenner To the gloom of his amorous bowers—
Down the tortuous highway of Brenner To the God’s agapemonous bowers.1
What then did Baudelaire hear, what music of thought, when he read the actual Poe of “Ulalume”?
Here once, through an alley Titanic, Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul—Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic As the scoriac rivers that roll—As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek, In the ultimate climes of the Pole—
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek, In the realms of the Boreal Pole.
If this were Edward Lear, poet of “The Dong with the Luminous Nose” or “The Jumblies,” one might not question Baudelaire and the other apostles of French Poe. But the hard-driven Poe did not set out to write nonsense verse. His desire was to be the American Coleridge or Byron or Shelley, and his poetry, at its rare best, echoes those High Romantic forerunners with some grace and a certain plangent urgency. Yet even “The City in the Sea” is a touch too close to Byron’s “Darkness,” while “Israfel” weakly revises Shelley’s “To a Skylark.” Nineteenth-century American poetry is considerably better than it is generally acknowledged to be. There are no figures comparable to Whitman and Dickinson, but at least the following are clearly preferable to Poe, in chronological order: Bryant, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Jones Very, Thoreau, Melville, Timrod, and Tuckerman. Poe scrambles for twelfth place with Sidney Lanier. If this judgment seems harsh, or too arithmetical, it is prompted by the continued French overvaluation of Poe as lyrist. No reader who cares deeply for the best poetry written in English can care greatly for Poe’s verse. Huxley’s accusation of vulgarity and bad taste is just: “To the most sensitive and high-souled man in the world we should find it hard to forgive, shall we say, the wearing of a diamond ring on every finger. Poe does the equivalent of this in his poetry; we notice the solecism and shudder.”
Whatever his early ambitions, Poe wrote relatively little verse; there are scarcely a hundred pages of it in this remarkable new edition of his complete writings, in two substantial volumes. The bulk of his work is in tale-telling and criticism, with the exception of the problem-ridden Eureka: A Prose Poem, a hundred-page cosmology that I take to be Poe’s answer to Emerson’s transcendental manifesto, Nature. Certainly Eureka is more of a literary achievement than Poe’s verse, while the popularity and influence of the shorter tales has been and remains immense. Whether either Eureka or the famous stories can survive authentic criticism is not clear, but nothing could remove the stories from the canon anyway. They are a permanent element in Western literary culture, even though they are best read when we are very young. Poe’s criticism has a mixed reputation, but in fact has never been made fully available until the edition under review.
Poe’s survival raises perpetually the issue whether literary merit and canonical status necessarily go together. I can think of no other American writer, down to this moment, at once so inescapable and so dubious. Mark Twain cataloged Fenimore Cooper’s literary offenses, but all that he exuberantly listed are minor compared to Poe’s. Allen Tate, proclaiming Poe “our cousin” in 1949, at the centenary of Poe’s death, remarked: “He has several styles, and it is not possible to damn them all at once.” Uncritical admirers of Poe should be asked to read his stories aloud (but only to themselves!). The association between the acting style of Vincent Price and the styles of Poe is alas not gratuitous, and indeed is an instance of deep crying out unto deep. Lest I be considered unfair by those devoted to Poe, I hasten to quote him at his strongest as a storyteller. Here is the opening paragraph of “William Wilson,” a tale admired by Dostoevsky and still central to the great Western topos of the double:
Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has already been too much an object for the scorn—for the horror—for the detestation of my race. To the uttermost regions of the globe have not indignant winds bruited its unparalleled infamy? Oh, outcast of all outcasts most abandoned!—to the earth art thou not forever dead? to its honors, to its flowers, to its golden aspirations?—and a cloud, dense, dismal, and limitless, does it not hang eternally between thy hopes and heaven?
This rhetoric, including the rhetorical questions, is British Gothic rather than German Gothic, Ossian or Monk Lewis rather than Tieck or E. T. A. Hoffmann. Its palpable squalors require no commentary. The critical question surely must be: how does “William Wilson” survive its bad writing? Poe’s awful diction, whether here or in “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “The Purloined Letter,” seems to demand the decent masking of a competent French translation. The tale somehow is stronger than its telling, which is to say that Poe’s actual text does not matter. What survives, despite Poe’s writing, are the psychological dynamics and mythic reverberations of his stories about William Wilson and Roderick Usher. Poe can only gain by a good translation, and scarcely loses if each reader fully retells the stories to another. C. S. Lewis, defending the fantasies of George Macdonald, formulated a curious principle that seems to me more applicable to Poe than to Macdonald:
The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling…. But this does not quite dispose of him even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. The critical problem with which we are confronted is whether this art—the art of mythmaking—is a species of the literary art. The objection to so classifying it is that the Myth does not essentially exist in words at all. We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version—whose words—are we thinking when we say this?2
Lewis replies that he is not thinking of anyone’s words, but of a particular pattern of events. Of course that means that Lewis is thinking of his own words. He goes so far as to remember
…when I first heard the story of Kafka’s Castle related in conversation and afterwards read the book for myself. The reading added nothing. I had already received the myth, which was all that mattered.
Clearly mistaken about Kafka, Lewis was certainly correct about Macdonald’s Lilith, and I think the insight is valid for Poe’s stories. Myths matter because we prefer them in our own words, and so Poe’s diction scarcely distracts us from our retelling, to ourselves, his bizarre myths. There is a dreadful universalism pervading Poe’s weird tales. The Freudian reductions of Marie Bonaparte were pioneering studies in converting Poe’s universalism into the psychoanalytical universalism, but Poe is himself so reductive that the Freudian translations are in his case merely redundant. Poe authentically frightens children, and the fright can be a kind of trauma. I remember reading Poe’s tales and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, each for the first time, when I was about ten. Dracula I shrugged off (at least until I confronted Bela Lugosi murmuring: “I never drink—wine!”), but Poe induced nasty and repetitious nightmares that linger even now. Myth may be only what the Polish aphorist Stanislaw Lec once called it, “gossip grown old,” but then Poe would have to be called a very vivid gossip, though not often a very eloquent one.
Critics, even good ones, admire Poe’s stories for some of the oddest of reasons. Poe, a true Southerner, abominated Emerson, plainly perceiving that Emerson (like Whitman, like Lincoln) was not a Christian, not a royalist, not a classicist. Self-reliance, the Emersonian answer to original sin, does not exist in the Poe cosmos, where you necessarily start out damned, doomed, and dismal. But I think Poe detested Emerson for some of the same reasons that Hawthorne and Melville more subtly resented him, reasons that persist in the most distinguished living American writer, Robert Penn Warren, and in many current academic literary critics in our country. If you dislike Emerson, you probably will like Poe. Emerson fathered pragmatism; Poe fathered precisely nothing, which is the way he would have wanted it.
Yvor Winters accused Poe of obscurantism, but that truthful indictment no more damages Poe than does the charge of tastelessness and tone-deafness. Emerson, for better and for worse, was and is the mind of America, but Poe was and is our hysteria, our uncanny unanimity in our repressions. I certainly do not intend to mean by this that Poe was deeper than Emerson in any way whatsoever. Emerson cheerfully and consciously threw out the past. Critics tend to share Poe’s easy historicism; perhaps without knowing it, they are gratified that every Poe story is, in too clear a sense, over even as it begins. We don’t have to wait for Madeline Usher and the house to fall in upon poor Roderick; they have fallen in upon him already, before the narrator comes upon the place.
Emerson exalted freedom, which he and Thoreau usefully called “wildness.” No one in Poe is or can be free or wild, and some academic admirers of Poe truly like everything and everyone to be in bondage to a universal past. To begin is to be free, godlike, and Emersonian–Adamic, or Jeffersonian. But for a writer to be free is bewildering and even maddening. What American writers and their exegetes half-unknowingly love in Poe is his more-than-Freudian oppressive and curiously original sense and sensation of overdetermination. Walter Pater once remarked that museums depressed him because they made him doubt that anyone ever had once been young. No one in a Poe story ever was young. As D.H. Lawrence angrily observed, everyone in Poe is a vampire, Poe himself in particular.
Among Poe’s tales, the near-exception to what I have been saying is the longest and most ambitious, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, just as the best of Poe’s poems is the long prose poem, Eureka. Pym is an account of a fantastic voyage through the South Seas, culminating in the Antarctic, a voyage marked by endless catastrophes, including a particularly grisly instance of cannibalism. Eureka sets forth a vision of the entire cosmos, in its origins, its workings, and its eventual apocalypse. Alas, even these works are somewhat overvalued, if only because Poe’s critics understandably become excessively eager to see him vindicated. Pym is readable, but Eureka is extravagantly repetitious. Auden was quite taken with Eureka, but could remember very little of it in conversation, and one can doubt that he read it through, at least in English. Poe’s most advanced critic is John T. Irwin, in his book American Hieroglyphics.3 Irwin rightly centers upon Pym. At the same time he defends Eureka as an “aesthetic cosmology” addressed to what in each of us Freud called the “bodily ego.”
Irwin is too shrewd to assert that Poe’s performance in Eureka fulfills Poe’s extraordinary intentions:
What the poem Eureka, at once pre-Socratic and post-Newtonian, asserts is the truth of the feeling, the bodily intuition, that the diverse objects which the mind discovers in contemplating external nature form a unity, that they are all parts of one body which, if not infinite, is so gigantic as to be beyond both the spatial and temporal limits of human perception. In Eureka, then, Poe presents us with the paradox of a “unified” macrocosmic body that is without a totalizing image—an alogical, intuitive belief whose “truth” rests upon Poe’s sense that cosmologies and myths of origin are forms of internal geography that, under the guise of mapping the physical universe, map the universe of desire.
Irwin might be writing of Blake, or of other visionaries who have sought to map total forms of desire. What Irwin catches, by implication, is Poe’s troubling anticipation of what is most difficult in Freud, the “frontier concepts” between mind and body, such as the bodily ego, the nonrepressive defense of introjection, and above all the drives or instincts. Poe, not just in Eureka and in Pym, but throughout his tales and even in some of his verse, is peculiarly close to the Freudian speculation about the bodily ego. Freud, in The Ego and the Id (1923), resorted to the uncanny language of E.T.A. Hoffmann (and of Poe) in describing this difficult notion:
The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface. If we wish to find an anatomical analogy for it we can best identify it with the “cortical homunculus” of the anatomists, which stands on its head in the cortex, sticks up its heels, faces backwards and, as we know, has its speech-area on the left-hand side.4
A footnote in the English translation of 1927, authorized by Freud but never added to the German editions, elucidates the first sentence of this description in a way analogous to the crucial metaphor of a giant white shadow that concludes The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, as will be seen:
I.e., the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body, besides, as we have seen above, representing the superficies of the mental apparatus.
A considerable part of Poe’s mythological power emanates from his own difficult sense that the ego is always a bodily ego. The characters of Poe’s tales live out nearly every conceivable fantasy of introjection and identification, seeking to assuage their melancholia by psychically devouring the lost objects of their affections. D.H. Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), moralized powerfully against Poe, condemning him for “the will-to-love and the will-to-consciousness, asserted against death itself. The pride of human conceit in KNOWLEDGE.” It is illuminating that Lawrence attacked Poe in much the same spirit as he attacked Freud, whom he interprets in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious as somehow urging us to violate the taboo against incest. The interpretation is as extravagant as Lawrence’s thesis that Poe urged vampirism upon us, but there remains something suggestive in Lawrence’s violence against both Freud and Poe. Each placed the elitist individual in jeopardy, Lawrence implied, by hinting at the primacy of fantasy not just in the sexual life proper, but in the bodily ego’s constitution of itself through fantasy-acts of incorporation and identification with other selves, real or imaginary.
The cosmology of Eureka and the narrative of Pym alike circle around fantasies of incorporation. Eureka’s subtitle is “An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe,” and what Poe calls its “general proposition” is heightened by italics: “In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation.” Freud, in his cosmology, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, posited that the inorganic had preceded the organic, and also that it was the tendency of all things to return to their original state. Consequently, the aim of all life was death. The death drive, which became crucial for Freud’s later dualisms, is nevertheless pure mythology, since Freud’s only evidence for it was the repetition compulsion, and it is an extravagant leap from repetition to death.
This reliance upon one’s own mythology may have prompted Freud’s audacity when, in the New Introductory Lectures, he admitted that the theory of the drives was, so to speak, his own mythology, drives being not only magnificent conceptions but particularly sublime in their indefiniteness. I wish I could assert that Eureka has some of the speculative force of Beyond the Pleasure Principle or even of Freud’s disciple Ferenczi’s startling Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality, but Eureka does badly enough when compared to Emerson’s Nature, which itself has only a few passages worthy of what Emerson wrote afterward. And yet Valéry in one sense was justified in his praise for Eureka. For certain intellectuals, Eureka performs a mythological function akin to what Poe’s tales continue to do for hosts of readers. Eureka is unevenly written, badly repetitious, and sometimes opaque in its abstractness, but like the tales it seems not to have been composed by a particular individual. The universalism of a common nightmare informs it. If the tales lose little, or even gain, when we retell them to others in our own words, Eureka gains by Valéry’s observations, or by the summaries of recent critics like John Irwin or Daniel Hoffman. Translation even into his own language always benefits Poe.
I haven’t the space, or the desire, to summarize Eureka, and no summary is likely to do anything besides deadening both my readers and myself. Certainly Poe never was more passionately sincere than in composing Eureka, of which he affirmed: “What I here propound is true.” But these are the closing sentences of Eureka:
Think that the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness—that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life—Life—Life within Life—the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine.
To this, Poe appends a “Note”:
The pain of the consideration that we shall lose our individual identity, ceases at once when we further reflect that the process, as above described, is, neither more nor less than that of the absorption, by each individual intelligence, of all other intelligences (that is, of the Universe) into its own. That God may be all in all, each must become God.
Allen Tate, not unsympathetic to his cousin, Mr. Poe, remarked of Poe’s extinction in Eureka that “there is a lurid sublimity in the spectacle of his taking God along with him into a grave which is not smaller than the universe.” If we read closely, Poe’s trope is “absorption,” and we are where we always are in Poe, amid ultimate fantasies of introjection, in which the bodily ego and the cosmos become indistinguishable. That makes Poe the most cannibalistic of authors, and seems less a function of his “angelic” theological imagination than of his mechanisms of defense.
Again, I suspect this judgment hardly weakens Poe, since his strength is no more cognitive than it is stylistic. Poe’s mythology, like the mythology of psychoanalysis that we cannot bear to acknowledge as primarily a mythology, is peculiarly appropriate to any modernism, whether you want to call it early, high, or postmodernism. The definitive judgment belongs to T. W. Adorno, certainly the most authentic theoretician of modernism, in his last book, Aesthetic Theory.5 Writing on “reconciliation and mimetic adaptation to death,” Adorno blends the insights of Jewish negative theology and psychoanalysis:
Whether negativity is the barrier or the truth of art is not for art to decide. Art works are negative per se because they are subject to the law of objectification; that is, they kill what they objectify, tearing it away from its context of immediacy and real life. They survive because they bring death. This is particularly true of modern art, where we notice a general mimetic abandonment to reification, which is the principle of death. Illusion in art is the attempt to escape from this principle. Baudelaire marks a watershed, in that art after him seeks to discard illusion without resigning itself to being a thing among things. The harbingers of modernism, Poe and Baudelaire, were the first technocrats of art.
Baudelaire was more than a technocrat of art, as Adorno knew, but Poe would be only that except for his mythmaking gift. C. S. Lewis may have been right when he insisted that such a gift could exist even apart from other literary endowments. Blake and Freud are inescapable mythmakers who were also cognitively and stylistically powerful. Poe is a great fantasist whose thoughts were commonplace and whose metaphors were dead. Fantasy, mythologically considered, combines the spirits of Narcissus and Prometheus, which are ideologically antithetical to each other, but figuratively quite compatible. Poe is at once the Narcissus and the Prometheus of American literature. If that is right, then he has a mythical power that makes him inescapable, even though his tales contrast weakly with Hawthorne’s, his poems scarcely bear reading, and his speculative discourses fade away in juxtaposition to Emerson’s, his despised northern rival.
To define Poe’s mythopoeic inevitability more closely, I turn to his story, “Ligeia,” and to the end of Pym. Ligeia, a tall, dark, slender Transcendentalist, dies murmuring a protest against the feeble human will, which cannot keep us forever alive. Her distraught and nameless widower, the narrator, endeavors to comfort himself, first with opium, and then with a second bride, “the fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine.” Unfortunately, he has little use for this replacement, and so she sickens rapidly and dies. Recurrently, the corpse revivifies, only to die yet again and again. At last, the burial clothes are stripped away, and the narrator confronts the undead Ligeia, attired in the death draperies of her now-evaporated successor.
As a parable of the vampiric will, this works well enough. The learned Ligeia presumably has completed her training in the will during her absence, or perhaps merely owes death a substitute, the insufficiently transcendental Rowena. What is mythopoeically more impressive is the ambiguous question of the narrator’s will. Poe’s own life, like Walt Whitman’s, is an American mythology, and what all of us generally remember about it is that Poe married his first cousin, Virginia Clemm, before she turned fourteen. She died a little more than ten years later, having been a semi-invalid for most of that time. Poe himself died less than three years after her, when he was just forty.
“Ligeia,” regarded by Poe as his best tale, was written a bit more than a year into the marriage. The later Freud implicitly speculates that there are no accidents; we die because we will to die, our character being also our fate. In Poe’s myth also, character or some deep disposition is the daemon, and the daemon is our destiny. The year after Virginia died, Poe proposed marriage to the widowed poet Sarah Helen Whitman. Biographers tell us that the lady’s doubts were caused by rumors of Poe’s bad character, but perhaps Mrs. Whitman had read “Ligeia”! In any event, this marriage did not take place, nor did Poe survive to marry another widow, his childhood sweetheart Elmira Royster Shelton. Perhaps she too might have read “Ligeia” and forborne.
The narrator of “Ligeia” has a singularly bad memory, or else a very curious relationship to his own will, since he begins by telling us that he married Ligeia without ever having troubled to learn her family name. Her name itself is legend, or romance, and that was enough. As the story’s second paragraph hints, the lady was an opium dream, with the footfall of a shadow. The implication may be that there never was such a lady, or even that if you wish to incarnate your reveries, then you must immolate your consubstantial Rowena. What is a touch alarming, to the narrator, is the intensity of Ligeia’s passion for him, which was manifested however only by glances and voice so long as the ideal lady lived. Perhaps this baffled intensity is what kills Ligeia, through a kind of narcissistic dialectic, since she is dominated not by the will of her lust but by the lust of her will. She wills her infinite passion toward the necessarily inadequate narrator, and when (by implication) he fails her, she turns the passion of her will against dying and at last against death.
Her dreadful poem, “The Conqueror Worm,” prophesies her cyclic return from death: “Through a circle that ever returneth in / To the self-same spot.” But when she does return, the spot is hardly the same. Poor Rowena only becomes even slightly interesting to her narrator–husband when she sickens unto death, and her body is wholly usurped by the revived Ligeia. And yet the wretched narrator is a touch different, if only because his narcissism is finally out of balance with his first wife’s grisly Prometheanism.
There are no final declarations of Ligeia’s passion as the story concludes. The triumph of her will is complete, but we know that the narrator’s will has not blended itself into Ligeia’s. His renewed obsession with her eyes testifies to a continued sense of her daemonic power over him, but his final words hint at what the story’s opening confirms: she will not be back for long—and remains “my lost love.”
The conclusion of Pym has been brilliantly analyzed by John Irwin, and so I want to glance only briefly at what is certainly Poe’s most effective ending:
And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.
Irwin demonstrates Poe’s reliance here upon the Romantic topos of the Alpine White Shadow, the magnified projection of the observer himself. The chasm Pym enters is the familiar Romantic Abyss, not a part of the natural world but belonging to eternity, before the creation. Reflected in that abyss, Pym beholds his own shrouded form, perfect in the whiteness of the natural surroundings. Presumably, this is the original bodily ego, the Gnostic self before the fall into creation. As at the close of Eureka, Poe brings Alpha and Omega together in an apocalyptic circle. I suggest we read Pym’s, which is to say Poe’s, white shadow as the American triumph of the will, as illusory as Ligeia’s usurpation of Rowena’s corpse.
Poe teaches us, through Pym and Ligeia, that as Americans we are at once Promethean subject and Narcissistic object of our own quest. Emerson, in Americanizing the European sense of the abyss, kept the self and the abyss separate as facts: “There may be two or three or four steps, according to the genius of each, but for every seeing soul there are two absorbing facts—I and the Abyss.” Poe, seeking to avoid Emersonianism, ends with only one fact, and it is more a wish than a fact: “I will to be the Abyss.” This metaphysical despair has appealed to the southern American literary tradition and to its northern followers. The appeal cannot be refuted, because it is myth, and Poe backed the myth with his life as well as his work. If the northern or Emersonian myth of our literary culture culminates in the beautiful image of Walt Whitman as wounddresser, moving as a mothering father through the Civil War Washington, DC hospitals, then the southern or countermyth achieves its perfect stasis at its start, with Poe’s snow-white shadow shrouding the chasm down which the boat of the soul is about to plunge. Poe’s genius was for negativity and opposition, and the affirmative force of Emersonian America gave him the impetus his daemonic will required.
It would be a relief to say that Poe’s achievement as a critic is not mythological, but this splendid, new, and almost complete edition of his essays, reviews, and marginalia testifies otherwise. It shows Poe indeed to have been Adorno’s “technocrat of art.” Auden defended Poe’s criticism by contrasting the subjects Baudelaire was granted—Delacroix, Constantin Guys, Wagner—with the books Poe was given to review, such as The Christian Florist, The History of Texas, and Poetical Remains of the Late Lucretia Maria Davidson. The answer to Auden is that Poe also wrote about Bryant, Byron, Coleridge, Dickens, Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Long-fellow, Shelley, and Tennyson, a ninefold providing scope enough for any authentic critical consciousness. Nothing that Poe had to say about these poets and story-tellers is in any way memorable or at all an aid to reading them. There are no critical insights, no original perceptions, no accurate or illuminating juxtapositions or historical placements. Here is Poe on Tennyson, from his Marginalia, which generally surpasses his other criticism:
Why do some persons fatigue themselves in attempts to unravel such phantasy-pieces as the “Lady of Shalott”?… If the author did not deliberately propose to himself a suggestive indefinitiveness of meaning, with the view of bringing about a definitiveness of vague and therefore spiritual effect—this, at least, arose from the silent analytical promptings of that poetic genius which, in its supreme development, embodies all orders of intellectual capacity.
I take this as being representative of Poe’s criticism, because it is uninterestingly just plain wrong about “The Lady of Shalott.” No other poem, even by the great word-painter Tennyson, is deliberately so definite in meaning and effect. Everything vague precisely is excluded in this perhaps most Pre-Raphaelite of all poems, where each detail contributes to an impression that might be called hard-edged phantasmagoria. If we take as the three possibilities of nineteenth-century practical criticism the sequence of Arnold, Pater, and Wilde, we find Poe useless in all three modes: Arnold’s seeing the object as in itself it really is, Pater’s seeing accurately one’s own impression of the object, and the divine Oscar’s sublime seeing of the object as in itself it really is not. If “The Lady of Shalott” is the object, then Poe does not see anything: the poem as in itself it is, one’s impression of the poem as that is, or best of all the Wildean sense of what is missing or excluded from the poem. Poe’s descriptive terms are “indefinitiveness” and “vague,” but Tennyson’s poem is just the reverse:
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume, She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried The Lady of Shalott.
No, Poe as practical critic is a true match for most of his contemporary subjects, such as S. Anna Lewis, author of The Child of the Sea and other Poems (1848). Of her lyric, “The Forsaken,” Poe wrote: “We have read this little poem more than twenty times and always with increasing admiration. It is inexpressibly beautiful” (Poe’s italics). I quote only the first of its six stanzas:
It hath been said—for all who die there is a tear;
Some pining, bleeding heart to sigh O’er every bier:—
But in that hour of pain and dread Who will draw near
Around my humble couch and shed One farewell tear?
Well, but there is Poe as theoretician, Valéry has told us. Acute self-consciousness in Poe was strongly misread by Valéry as the inauguration and development of severe and skeptical ideas. Presumably, this is the Poe of three famous essays: “The Philosophy of Composition,” “The Rationale of Verse,” and “The Poetic Principle.” Having just re-read these pieces, I find it impossible to understand a letter of Valéry to Mallarmé which prizes the theories of Poe as being “so profound and so insidiously learned.” Certainly we prize the theories of Valéry for just those qualities, and so I have come full circle to where I began, with the mystery of French Poe. Valéry may be said to have read Poe in the critical modes both of Pater and of Wilde. He saw his impression of Poe clearly, and he saw Poe’s essays as in themselves they really were not. Admirable, and so Valéry brought to culmination the critical myth that is French Poe.
Whose head is swinging from the swollen strap?
Whose body smokes along the bitten rails,
Bursts from a smoldering bundle far behind
In back forks of the chasms of the brain—
Puffs from a riven stump far out behind
In interborough fissures of the mind…?
Hart Crane’s vision of Poe, in “The Tunnel” section of The Bridge, tells us again why the mythopoeic Poe is inescapable for American literary mythology. Poe’s nightmare projections and introjections suggest the New York City subway as the new underground, where Coleridge’s “deep Romantic chasm” has been internalized into “the chasms of the brain.” Whatever his actual failures as poet and critic, whatever the gap between style and idea in his tales, Poe is central to the American canon, both for us and for the rest of the world. Hawthorne implicitly and Melville explicitly made far more powerful critiques of the Emersonian national hope, but they were by no means wholly negative in regard to Emerson and his pragmatic vision of American Self-Reliance.
Poe was savage in denouncing minor Transcendentalists like Bronson Alcott and William Ellery Channing, but his explicit rejection of Emerson confined itself to the untruthful observation that Emerson was indistinguishable from Thomas Carlyle. Poe should have survived to read Carlyle’s insane and amazing pamphlet on “The Nigger Question,” which he would have adored. Mythologically, Poe is necessary because all of his work is a hymn to negativity. Emerson was a great theoretician of literature as of life, a good practical critic (when he wanted to be, which was not often), a very good poet (sometimes), and always a major aphorist and essayist. Poe, on a line-by-line or sentence-by-sentence basis, is hardly a worthy opponent. But looking in the French way, as T.S. Eliot recommended, “we see a mass of unique shape and impressive size to which the eye constantly returns.”6 Eliot was probably right, in mythopoeic terms.
October 11, 1984
Aldous Huxley, “Vulgarity in Literature,” reprinted in The Reception of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by E.W. Carlson (University of Michigan Press, 1970), p. 163. ↩
C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald: An Anthology (Doubleday/Dolphin Books, 1962), pp. 18–19. ↩
John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics (Yale University Press, 1980). ↩
Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (Norton, 1960), p. 26. ↩
T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, translated by C. Lenhardt (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1948), p. 193. ↩
T.S. Eliot, “From Poe to Valéry,” in To Criticize the Critic (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), p. 27. ↩