Edgar Allan Poe Poetry: American Poets Analysis
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...
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