Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3405
The poetry of Edgar Allan Poe cannot be understood adequately apart from his concepts of the role of the poet and of poetry in human life. Probably few poets have followed their own theories more completely than Poe did, and his great popularity with all sorts of readers is due in large part to his consistency in producing certain universally appealing effects. A Poe setting, atmosphere, or situation is instantly recognizable. Specific poems of his have so passed into the common literary heritage that readers with only the slightest acquaintance with his work can quote lines and phrases from such poems as “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven.” However, the very ease with which bits of Poe can be absorbed tends to obscure the fact that all his poetry is based on carefully thought-out principles of artistic creativity. Poe contended that the poet must be concerned above all with the effects to be produced on the reader. Further, only certain effects are proper to poetry. Poetry must take beauty as its sole province, leaving logic and truth to prose. The poet must do everything in his power to create an intense impression of beauty, marshaling verse form, imagery, rhythm, rhyme, and subject matter in this effort. By “beauty,” Poe meant something quite specific: the pleasurable excitement of the soul as it reaches for a perfection beyond this earth. This yearning for an unattainable, supernal beauty means that the subject matter of poetry will almost inevitably be melancholy. Logic and reason as ordinarily understood cannot be the poet’s concern, because ultimate beauty can be grasped, if at all, only aesthetically, not rationally. The universe itself is essentially a work of art, not a logical construct to be analyzed.
The task of poetry, then, is to induce a state of mind in the reader corresponding to the exaltation felt by the soul as it explores the limits of perception in search of ideal beauty. Further, since the intense excitement thus produced cannot be sustained over long periods, a poem by definition must be rather brief: One of Poe’s best-known principles is that a long poem is a contradiction in terms. As the poet seeks appropriate images for ideal beauty, he should avoid the concrete, ordinary objects of everyday life, since these are corporeal, not spiritual, and therefore impede the mind’s progress toward perfection. The realms of dream, fantasy, the subconscious, and glimpses of life after death are what the poet will find most congenial. These realms cannot be represented directly in language, since they cannot be grasped directly by human beings. Nevertheless, poetry can approach them more nearly than can other kinds of writing because it depends on powers of suggestion, of intuitive imagining, of rhythmical effects that bring the soul some sense of what ideal beauty must be. The poet becomes a careful calculator of effects. Nothing must be allowed into the poem that violates the unity of impression that the poet desires to create in the reader. Brevity will aid here, also, since a very long poem would, according to Poe, dilute and finally destroy the unity of impression for which the poet strives.
In his poetry, Poe returns again and again to a few basic themes, and to explore the subtle variations he weaves on his themes is one of the principal pleasures of reading his verse. Poe’s first important treatment of the poet’s relation to the world is found in his “Sonnet—To Science,” published when he was twenty. It is an important question for Poe because, according to his theory, the poet will find much in the world that is a barrier to the attainment of ideal beauty. This poem begins by seeming to hail science, but its purpose is actually the reverse, as quickly becomes apparent. Like time itself, the speaker says, science alters everything without regard for human feeling. It peers into every corner of human lives, preying especially on the poet’s heart. In a series of effective rhetorical questions, the speaker demands to know how the poet can love science when it deprives the imagination of inspiration, destroys the power of myth, and prevents him from soaring into worlds of ideal beauty. For Poe, “science” was synonymous with “logic” and “truth”—all representing an approach to reality by means of consecutive reasoning, attention to material objects, and mathematical calculation. The poet should shun such ways of thinking, for the very nature of his activity emphasizes the indefinite, the ideal, the symbolic. Even by protesting, as he does in this poem, the dominance of science in the world, Poe seems to wish not to alter the situation so much as to declare that the poetic and scientific ways of viewing reality are irreconcilable.
Another very important poem, “Romance,” provides a version of this position in more personal terms and makes its point through imagery more than through argument. In “Romance” (titled “Preface” in some collections), the contrast is not between poetry and science but between the ideal world of the imagination and the painful world of everyday reality. In the first of two richly suggestive stanzas, Poe shows us romance as a “painted paroquet.” The speaker sees only the reflection of this beautiful bird in the water of “some shadowy lake.” However, it had been a familiar sight to him because it had taught him his alphabet when he was a child in “the wild wood.” Through the bird’s being visible only by reflection, Poe may be saying that poetry cannot communicate truth directly, but only as truth is comprehended in the beautiful. The second stanza contrasts dramatically with the first. If the childhood years of immersion in Romance may be imaged as a colorful paroquet, the adult period of almost unceasing “tumult” and “unquiet” are figured as “eternal Condor years.” Now as an adult, the speaker has no time for the idle concerns of every day—he must always be watching for the return of the Condor. He concludes this contrast of images by saying that even when an hour of calm is allowed him and he returns briefly to the beauties of Romance, his conscience would reproach him did not his heart “tremble with the strings.” The poem “Romance” represents Poe’s version of a familiar Romantic myth: The years of childhood with their heightened imaginative vision are in many ways preferable to the adult’s dependence on fact and reason. For Poe specifically, these early years were more attractive because he identified them with a type of poetry that most nearly approached ideal beauty. “Romance” is almost unmatched in the Poe canon for the way the subtle variations in the rhyme scheme (aabbcdcdee and deedeffgfgf) and the regular iambic tetrameter rhythm unobtrusively reinforce the emotional impact of the poem.
Beauty, love, and loss
Poe may be better known for his poems of longing for a lost love than for those on any other subject. He works various modulations on the theme. The woman may personify the pure classical beauty of ancient Greece and Rome (“To Helen”), or she may represent some version of the popular nineteenth century theme of the sleeping beauty who may never awaken (“The Sleeper”). The speaker in the poem may be a surviving husband or lover (“Annabel Lee”), or he may himself be dead or recovering from a brush with death (“For Annie”). The poem may be totally taken up with longing for the lost love (“To One in Paradise”), or her loss may provide an excuse to treat another subject (such as the relationship of body and soul, in “Ulalume”). Finally, the poem may be an intensely personal monologue, like several already named, or it may take the form of a dialogue or brief drama where two speakers debate how the dead should be mourned (“Lenore”).
Whatever the mode of treatment, Poe’s poetry (as well as his stories) makes clear that the death of a beautiful woman was for him the supremely interesting subject, since, if ideal beauty is ultimately unattainable, it follows that the most appropriate tone of a poem is melancholy, and certainly there can be no subject more melancholy than the loss of beauty through death.
The autobiographical element in this mixture must be noticed, whatever cautions have to be added in interpreting its appearance in an art form. Poe lost his mother as a young child and was not close to his stepmother. At fifteen, an older woman whom he loved as a combination of mother and romantic lover died (she was the mother of a friend), and his age undoubtedly made the loss all the more traumatic for him. He watched his wife die a horrible death from tuberculosis, and during the last two years of his life, he was declaring his love to several women almost simultaneously. One of these women had been widowed by a man whom she had married years before instead of Poe.
It will not do, of course, to assume that the sole or even chief explanation of these poems’ meaning is the frequency with which Poe himself experienced such loss. The importance of any theme in a writer’s work is not how it reflects the events of his life but what meaning it has for him in the work itself. In Poe’s case, the meaning centers on the ways in which the loss can be made to embody the effects of yearning for supernal beauty: thus the frequency in these particular poems of memories, dreams, prophetic visions of the future, and of other expressions of the need to transcend earthly concerns and achieve illumination (however partial) in an imagined land of perfect beauty and truth. Very often the lost woman inhabits a kind of twilight zone, and the speaker in the poem, acting as mourner, guards her memory here on Earth while re-creating the effects of the realm of spiritualized beauty that the beloved now presumably inhabits.
The poem that most fully reveals Poe’s typical treatment of this theme is “Ulalume,” written near the end of his life. He wrote “Ulalume” to be recited aloud (as he did “Annabel Lee” and “The Bells”), which undoubtedly explains the somewhat obvious repetition of certain words, especially rhyme words, and the great emphasis on regularity of rhythm found in the poem.
It is autumn of a particularly important year, the speaker’s “most immemorial” year. He wanders with his Soul through a semireal, semi-imaginary landscape characterized by gloominess, but also by images of titanic struggle. As he so often does, Poe here provides a vivid sense of spiritual extremity without identifying its cause. He is more interested, especially at the beginning, in emotional effect than in analysis, since his initial need is to transport the reader to another level of consciousness. Neither the speaker nor his Soul notes the time of year, however, because they are concentrating so intensely on their inward gloom. The strange landscape through which they travel affects them like the music of Auber or the magic colors in the paintings of Robert Weir. Poe knew that his contemporaries would recognize the artists to whom he referred; thus he could call in his aid his readers’ awareness of certain musical and painterly effects to complement the aural effects of the recited words.
As the night advances, two brilliant lights appear in the sky: One is Diana, the Moon, and the other is Venus. (In Poe’s poetry, the Moon is always “colder” and “more distant” than Venus, probably because the haziness of Venus in the sky could more easily symbolize the vague outlines of ideal beauty.) Here, Venus observes sympathetically that the speaker still mourns the loss of someone, so the goddess of love has risen in the sky to lead the mourner to a “Lethean peace of the skies.” The Soul mistrusts Venus, but the speaker urges them to go on, guided by “this tremulous light.” This seems to be a variation on Poe’s favorite idea that the realm of ideal beauty will somehow be a better guide, a surer inspiration for human beings, than will the transient beauties of this world. The speaker therefore pacifies his Soul with soothing words, and they proceed on “to the end of the vista” (a line emphasizing Poe’s concern that his readers see this landscape as one in a painting), where they find a tomb. On the door is written the name of his lost love: Ulalume. The speaker now remembers that it was on this very night of the previous fall that he journeyed here—not with his Soul but with the body of his beloved. “What demon has tempted me” to come here again? he wonders. He can offer only a tentative answer: that the spirits guarding this place have some greater secret than this to hide. They have therefore created this “spectre of a planet” (Venus) to mislead earthly beings.
If this secret is the nature of the Soul’s existence in the realm of ideal beauty, as seems likely, then “Ulalume” offers one of Poe’s last comments on the difficulty of reaching that realm. Thus the poem ends not with an answer but with a question. The ultimate human tragedy would be to have to give up hope of ever finding ideal beauty. Even the Soul as companion on the quest is not sufficient guarantee of finding it, for the Soul fears confronting the truth. Poe’s poems on the loss of a beautiful woman are important, then, not only for their articulation of the theme of ideal beauty but also for the theme of the imaginary landscape that embodies and controls the means of the search.
Poe always maintained that objects do not lend themselves readily to the metamorphosis that the artist wishes to impose on them. Therefore he should not represent the objects themselves in his work, but the ideas and feelings they inspire. Poe further believed that words can evoke mental states without referring directly to phenomena. Thus an imaginary landscape is superior to an actual one because the artist can create a total, unified effect without being hindered by unmalleable objects. It is in the imaginary landscapes of Poe’s poetry that readers will recognize the closest connections to his fiction. Several poems featuring such landscapes, in fact, such as “The Haunted Palace” and “The Conqueror Worm,” were originally parts of short stories. These poems tend to be of two kinds: those that look backward in time to a shadowy memory of primal innocence, and those that look forward to an apocalypse that will substitute for this sad earthly existence a higher, purer one.
“The City in the Sea”
One of Poe’s most successful poems on the latter theme is “The City in the Sea” because of its concise descriptive power and marriage of sound and meaning. At the opening of the poem, Death occupies a throne in a strange city lying somewhere “within the dim West.” Here the souls of the dead abide. The city resembles “nothing that is ours,” and it is surrounded by “melancholy waters.” The sun does not shine on this city: Its light comes from out of the sea. It is a lurid light, revealing buildings suspended in air, with Death surveying all from his “proud tower.” The sea around the city, like a “wilderness of glass,” is “hideously serene.” However, the city is not completely removed from time and motion, for the speaker detects faint movement, a redder glow to the water, a “breathing” of time. He foresees that when this motion increases sufficiently, the city will sink into the waters, and even Hell itself shall bow to it.
Poe seems to mean that Death shall at last itself be conquered. In an earlier version of this poem, Poe shows Death as being forced to find other worlds whose inhabitants he can hope to control—perhaps representing Poe’s wish that people will somehow be able to break down the barriers that separate them from the eternal. A paraphrase cannot do justice to the compact energy and power of this poem. There are, in fact, less successful poems by Poe that make his argument on this point more explicit. In “Dreamland,” for instance, the speaker is able to pass through the strange landscape of postmortal existence, although he can behold it “but through darkened glasses.” It is a place where those who have suffered most in this life may find surcease.
“The Haunted Palace”
The other theme in the imaginary landscape poems is one of looking not forward to the apocalypse but backward to the primordial innocence first treated by Poe in a different way in “Romance.” This group of poems is very important in Poe’s total output for its working out of one of his key ideas: that the outline of the poet’s life may serve as a model to explain the meaning of all human earthly existence.
Poe’s most concise and successful poem on this theme is “The Haunted Palace.” There was once, in “the greenest of our valleys,” a beautiful palace, guarded by good angels. The valley was perpetually fair, under the dominion of “Thought.” At that time, travelers could see in the windows of this palace spirits “moving musically” to the laws of harmony. The ruler of this realm was surrounded by beings who carried out his will in “voices of surpassing beauty.” Evil, however, invaded the palace and the valley, destroying their perfection; their ideal beauty is now but a “dim-remembered story.” Travelers through this valley now see in the windows of the palace forms that move to discordant sounds, while, “like a ghastly rapid river,” a hideous throng continually rushes out.
“The Haunted Palace” is one of Poe’s most explicitly allegorical poems. The images on which the poem depends form a system of symbols that add up to something like the following: As an infant, the poet enjoyed psychic integrity, unified consciousness, and harmony with nature. Time, however, betrayed him; rational language and philosophy estranged him from his visionary self. As an adult, a captive of the everyday world, he longs continually for his former condition when he had unbroken communion with ideal beauty and universal truth. So different is his fallen state from his former one that he can only touch his visionary self through reverie and dream. The only escape from the now hideous palace and its discord is death, and the dying are only too eager to rush out of the palace as quickly as they can.
Ultimately, then, Poe’s poems on the imaginary landscape are part of the same fabric as those on the poet in the world and those on the loss of a beautiful woman. Ideal beauty can be conveniently represented as a beautiful woman whose death signifies loss of the original psychic integrity and innocence, as the beautiful bird whose reflection brings humans all they know of truth but is replaced by the terrifying condor, and as the palace haunted by pure mind and perfect harmony and the valley forever green, until it is invaded by discord and mere logic.
To read the poetry of Poe is to enter a world at times so bizarre that some have dismissed it as juvenile fantasy, absurd posturing, or sound without sense. Admirers of Poe are wisest if they acknowledge in his poetry a little of each of these elements. His accomplishments in lyric and descriptive poetry, however, are very impressive. His command of vivid images and subtle rhythms and sound effects (particularly alliteration and assonance) raises his subjects to a level of keen interest for a very wide range of readers. The very regularity of his lines and stanzas makes them easier to remember than those of many other poets. His psychological insight, especially into the abnormal subconscious, is unmatched, at least in nineteenth century poetry. Although his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” makes demonstrably untrue claims concerning his composition of “The Raven,” its importance (as the French were the first to recognize) is that it taught poets the importance of unity, coherence, structure, and economy; of knowing how something will affect a reader; of the dullness and insipidity of didactic verse. Poets as well as readers of poetry will always read Poe to benefit from these not inconsiderable accomplishments.
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