Inescapable Poe

Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales

edited by Patrick F. Quinn
Library of America, 1408 pp., $27.50

Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews

edited by G.R. Thompson
Library of America, 1544 pp., $27.50


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.